Thanks to this set, Judge Clark Douglas has begun using the word "see" at the end of every sentence.
Our reviews of Humphrey Bogart: The Essential Collection (published November 15th, 2010) and TCM Greatest Gangster Films Collection: Prohibition Era (published September 22nd, 2010) are also available.
A Box of Bad Boys!
Does the thought of watching James Cagney movies make you happy? Is Edward G. Robinson your kind of movie star? Do you like it when Humphrey Bogart gets to be the nasty guy? Would you want to watch any gangster flick starring one or more of these three, no matter the quality level of the film itself? Do you own one or more of the Warner Brothers Noir or Gangster box sets? If you answered "yes," to those questions, listen up! Warner Gangsters Collection, Volume 3 is a set you may be interested in.
Facts of the Case
The first film of the collection is 1931's Smart Money, a tale of two gamblers. Nick (Edward G. Robinson, Key Largo) is a simple barber who enjoys rolling the dice and playing cards from time to time. When Nick is cheated by a syndicate in a card game, he vows revenge. With the help of a new pal named Jack (James Cagney, Yankee Doodle Dandy), the little man is going to stick to the man. Two legends together on the screen for the first and only time!
1933's The Mayor of Hell is a film that blends important social drama with a few chunks of gangster movies. James Cagney (again) plays Patsy Gargan, a powerful mobster with a lot of political influence. In order to win votes from Patsy's tightly controlled crowd, local politicians award Patsy a high-paying, no-responsibility position as Deputy Commissioner of a boy's reform school. Patsy only wanted the job for the pay, but he quickly finds himself appalled at the awful conditions in which these troubled young boys are asked to live. Soon, he finds himself at odds with the government and with his own gang as he becomes The Mayor of Hell.
A much different Cagney film from 1933 brings laughs and giggles. It's Lady Killer, which introduces us to the rude, sleazy, violent Dan Quigley, a theatre employee and aspiring crook. Quigley soon finds himself in with the wrong crowd and is abandoned by his new pals when he gets pinched. Things take a bright turn for Quigley when he is offered some small roles in Hollywood movies, and before long he finds himself becoming a popular movie star. It may not be so easy, though. Before long, Quigley's past is catching up with him, and his old pals are blackmailing him. How is a respectable crook-turned-actor going to get out of a fix like this?
Picture Snatcher, also made in 1933, gives us a violent and dangerous Cagney character who has just gotten out of prison. Determined to stay out of jail and reform his ways, Cagney puts his criminal skills to use as a tabloid photographer, snapping lewd pictures of everything from celebrity scandals to high-profile executions. His biggest trouble now is not a legal one, but a romantic one: He's in love with the daughter of the police captain. Of course, the captain isn't going to let anything happen between the two if he has anything to say about. Action, comedy, romance, and drama…you get the whole works in Picture Snatcher.
In 1937, Humphrey Bogart (The Big Sleep) received his first leading role in a major motion picture. After making a big impression with his turn as a rough gangster in The Petrified Forest, Bogart re-united with director Archie Mayo for a much different sort of film. Bogart plays Frank Taylor, an ordinary guy with an ordinary life. Frank works at a factory, and he's being considered for a promotion. When one of Frank's Jewish co-workers receives the promotion instead, Frank angrily joins a group of radicals called "The Black Legion" (essentially the KKK, but with even sillier outfits). Frank's bad decision leads him down a violent road of vandalism, assault, and even murder. Can anyone find a way to shut down the evil forces of The Black Legion?
Edward G. Robinson was generally known for his tough-guy persona, and that persona was skewered in the 1940 film Brother Orchid. Robinson plays a familiar character: a tough gangster who don't take no funny business from nobody. But when Robinson's right-hand man (Bogart, in one of his final supporting turns) stages a coup, Robinson is forced to go on the run. He finds shelter in a monastery, where the kindly Brother Superior (Donald Crisp, How Green Was My Valley) tries to teach him the virtues of being kind to others. He may be a tough killer with a extensive criminal record, but until further notice, Robinson is planting flowers and giving to the poor under the alias of Brother Orchid.
Most of the films in this set are not really gangster films, but rather seem to fit in some kind of gangster film sub-genre. Two of the films here are social dramas that deal with important issues and only feature gangster elements as an added dash of color. Three others are goofy comedies that use the gangster genre as a springboard for all sorts of wacky hijinks, leaving only one film as a straight-up gangster movie. I think that almost everyone will agree that this third collection of gangster-themed films isn't quite as impressive as the first two collections from Warner Brothers, but that certainly doesn't mean that this one isn't worthwhile.
Let's start with the socially relevant films first. The Black Legion was a somewhat brave film for 1937, one that was actively protested as it was being made. The movie unflinchingly attacks the subversive and violent actions of the KKK and all similar groups, and very frankly outlines the manipulative ways in which the KKK would attempt to take advantage of frustrated workers during The Great Depression. "America is only for Americans…free, white, 100% Americans!" boom the Black Legion leaders.
Humphrey Bogart is compelling as a fairly normal man who slowly becomes a hateful and violent racist. It's difficult to like Bogart's character, even during a final scene that attempts to offer him some redemption, but Bogey plays the role quite effectively. The film generates a lot of genuinely creepy atmosphere during certain scenes that I imagine just barely slipped past the censors. It's about as violent and sinister as a 1937 Hollywood production was permitted to be, and it all leads to a rather unforgiving ending that still manages to resonate.
The Mayor of Hell is an even more effective film with redemptive social themes, but it probably has the least amount of gangster-related material of any film included in this collection. James Cagney plays a gangster, but he spends the vast majority of his time interacting with the boys in the reform school, listening to their concerns, encouraging them, and generally being a very nice guy. Also, Cagney really doesn't have a huge amount of screen time, considering he's playing the lead role. He's off-screen a good 50% of the time, and we spend half of the film's 90 minutes following the actions and interactions of the boys and the staff of the reform school.
The film is a fairly angry condemnation of the neglectful treatment many children received in reform schools at the time, and it builds to a rather sensational climax that makes the movie feel a 1933 variation on Do the Right Thing, as one final horrible event turns the boys into a violent mob. The powerful effect of these final-act scenes is undercut just a little bit by the "it's all okay" finale, but The Mayor of Hell is nonetheless a very effective motion picture. Others thought so too; the film was remade (less successfully) just a few years later as Crime School.
The only straight-up gangster film of the set is Easy Money. The film is little more than a simple B-movie, but it has historical importance: It is the only film in which Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney both appeared, so the temptation is to promote this as a battle of the titans…well, make that "friendship of the titans." It's disappointing in that respect. Cagney doesn't have a whole lot to do, and he is out-acted by Edward G. Robinson at every turn. It's probably better just to regard Smart Money as a Robinson vehicle, with Cagney's performance as a side note. It's a shame that the two actors never worked together again, particularly once each had time to sharpen his skills as actors (they were both still somewhat new to the scene in 1931).
The name of the game is comedy in three of the films, and the plot structure in each is remarkably similar. In Brother Orchid, a gangster changes his ways and becomes a monk. In Lady Killer, a gangster changes his ways and becomes an actor. In Picture Snatcher, a gangster changes his ways and becomes a tabloid photographer. Each of these films tries to milk laughs from the professions these rough former villains have chosen, and each manages to arouse at least a small handful of chuckles.
Of these three, I liked Brother Orchid the best, but that says everything about my own personal taste and very little about the films themselves. See, when it comes to gangster movies, everybody seems to consider James Cagney the top guy. He's certainly been very well-represented in these sets from Warner Brothers; his films dominate each collection, including this one. But I've always preferred Edward G. Robinson. Cagney might be louder, more energetic, less predictable, and more attention-grabbing, but I've always found Robinson to be more charming, sinister, and compelling. He also proves to be very good at some low-key comedy, really having a lot of fun playing a mobster attempting to be a monk.
Humphrey Bogart plays his role in Brother Orchid absolutely straight, which works out well. It's not a particularly meaty role, it's the sort of character-type thing Bogart did a lot in the years preceding this film, but he certainly plays it very well. Ann Sothern may get more laughs than anyone else in a very kooky role, having lots of fun as Robinson's gal pal. The ever-reliable Donald Crisp is convincing during a few very pious sequences at the monastery, and Ralph Bellamy is amusing in a small role. Brother Orchid is certainly lightweight, but fun and likable.
Warner has done a generally good job of restoring these films, but sadly Easy Money is in pretty poor condition. That's understandable, considering that it is the oldest of the set, but still disappointing. There's some very bad background hiss, and the picture has a lot of scratches and jerky moments. The other movies all look pretty solid, with only a minor amount of visual flaws and generally solid mono audio. The newest film, Brother Orchid, looks and sounds the best, just by a little bit.
I should also mention the extras included here, which are by turns substantial and trivial, so there's a little something for everyone. Each film in the collection is given the standard expert commentary from a nice selection of biographers, historians, and critics. Each is worth listening to for fans of the genre, as a whole lot of information about the circumstances surrounding the making of each film is presented. I'm frankly always glad to get this kind of commentary; film experts generally provide much more informative efforts than the filmmakers (with some notable exceptions on both sides, of course). Also, with each film you get a batch of shorts under the label of "Warner Night at the Movies," which generally offers a newsreel, a short film, a cartoon, and a trailer or two. This is a bit corny, but fun if you want to get into the mood of things before watching the feature.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
"Likeable" is a key word when discussing the Cagney comedies, because that is Cagney's key problem. He's terrific playing a mean and violent gangster, but I have a bit of trouble accepting him as a comic hero. In both Lady Killer and Picture Snatcher, Cagney plays a nothing short of a real jerk. He takes advantage of all his friends, he does whatever it takes to get what he wants, and he frequently abuses the women in his life. Few actors have smacked women around in the movies as much as Cagney, and here we see him slapping, kicking, punching, and beating all sorts of women. This behavior would be in line with some of the rough characters Cagney played in many movies, but it seems rather inappropriate for lighthearted fluff in which we are expected to cheer for him. Nonetheless, both movies have their small virtues, and Cagney handles the quick comic patter of the dialogue with skill.
Another issue to note is how poorly some of these films have aged. There are racial and ethnic stereotypes that appear in every one of these movies, some more glaring than others. Smart Money features an African-American character that is the butt of numerous jokes. He is portrayed as a stupid, doddering old man who doesn't seem to know anything about anything, and everybody gets a kick of out him. Additionally, The Mayor of Hell and The Black Legion both try to seem socially liberal by portraying Jews, Italians, and African-Americans as good guys being oppressed by evil white men, but the stereotypes are still here in full force. The Jewish folks all love money more than anything else, the African-Americans are shuffling servants who call everybody "boss," the Irish are hot-tempered, and the Italians "all love-a nothing-a better than-a spaghetti and-a meat-a-balls!" Certainly these elements only serve to demonstrate the mindset of American society during the 1930s, but that doesn't make them any less bothersome today.
Warner Gangsters Collection, Volume Three is certainly nowhere near as good as the essential first collection in this series, and not quite as good as the second collection. So, if you don't have any of these Gangster box sets, you definitely need to pick up the other two first. However, if you own both of the other Gangster boxes, and you're eager to see more of Cagney, Robinson, and Bogart in some less typical genre outings, this is a solid purchase. Insightful expert commentaries add valuable perspective and history on these releases, making this collection a solid purchase for film buffs. Those who are merely curious should proceed with caution.
Judge Clark Douglas: "Guilty as charged."
Man with Tommy Gun: "These boys are all guilty, see? Everybody says they're probably gonna get the chair, ya understand? But no, that ain't happening. We ain't gonna let those rats rot, we're gonna bust 'em out and there's nothing you can do about it, see? Now back off, pal!"
Judge Clark Douglas: "Did I say guilty? I meant not guilty, of course. Everyone is free to go."
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