As my knowledge of classic films has increased in recent years, there have been certain stars who have become favorites of mine. They are actors and actresses who I will watch in pretty much anything. Two of those names that have risen to the top for me are James Cagney and Joan Blondell. So putting them together in a pre-code era flick is without question a must-see for me. Today we seem them team up as a couple of grifters in 1931’s Blonde Crazy.
Cagney plays Bert, a young bellhop at a fancy hotel. He manages to make some extra cash selling booze (it’s still prohibition, remember) and running craps games. When a new chambermaid named Ann (Blondell) starts working at the hotel, Bert takes quite an interest in her. He’s not the only one, though. A married guest of the hotel, Rupert (Guy Kibbee) also starts to try and get cozy with Ann. This inspires Bert to launch a scam where Rupert and Ann are caught “parking” by a cop (really a friend of Bert’s) who is then convinced by Bert to keep things hush-hush…for a hefty fee, of course. The pair ends up netting five grand.
After this success, the pair head for another city to make more money. However, even though Bert is interested in taking their relationship to a different level, Ann wants to keep things professional. Before long, Bert meets up with another con-man, Dapper Dan Barker (Louis Calhern). The two begin to work together on a grift involving counterfeit twenty dollar bills, but like a sap Bert is the one who ends up getting taken for a ride. He gets the money he lost back by pulling a quick scam on a jewelry store, and then sets out to convince Ann to join him in getting revenge on Dapper Dan. Meanwhile, Ann ends up falling in love with a broker named Joe (Ray Milland). The two end up marrying, but a year later she ends up calling Bert to help them get out of a jam when Joe embezzles $30,000 from his firm.
First things first…there’s an awful lot of slapping in this film. Every couple of minutes somebody rears back and lays one across someone else’s cheek. Usually it’s Blondell smacking Cagney. Sometimes she’s being playful, sometimes she’s being nasty. Come to think of it, to call this film “playfully nasty” would be a fitting description. In the first scene the two stars have together, Cagney’s eyes zero in on Blondell’s posterior and stay there for what seems like an eternity. The chemistry between the two is fantastic and sexual tension oozes through the screen. Both of them take full advantage of a really clever script with many “wink wink” type of moments. Some of the lines will likely make you stop and say, “did they just say what I think the said?” Then, add to it all the pre-code touches, such as a scene where Cagney has a conversation with Blondell while she sits in a bathtub and seductively soaps up her legs again and again and again.
I admit that I’m a bit of a sucker for films about con-artists. This one features some grifts that while not terribly intricate are pretty slick. The scam that Cagney pulls involving a jewelry store and a recently engaged heiress is ingenious in its simplicity. I also really dug the scam Ann pulls on Dapper Dan in which numbers are changed on a license plate to give the results of a horse race.
Really the only problem I had with this film is the ending. This happens a bit too often in pre-code films; after a lot of nastiness through most of the film, everything gets wrapped up a bit too neatly at the end. In this case we have the plot involving Joe and the embezzled money. Bert decides to help because he still loves Ann, but he ends up double-crossed and behind bars. In the end, Ann discovers that she loves him back…and will wait for him to be released from prison. Talk about just sticking a big bow on this thing! It’s completely out of place.
Still, I enjoyed Blonde Crazy an awful lot. Both Cagney and Blondell are at the top of their games and they make a fantastic team. The movie just needed to end about 10 minutes earlier than it did to save us from a corny ending. Otherwise, it’s snarky bit of pre-code fun!