Despite the co-billing, Smart Money is an Edward G. Robinson movie. "I was playing pals that year and the year before," says James Cagney in John McCabe's biography of the legendary actor. "People don't pay to see sidekicks" (86-87).
Generally not, but less than two months on the heels of Cagney's smashing out in The Public Enemy his name brought a lot to this one! Still, Edward G. Robinson had a head start on Cagney with the January 1931 release of Little Caesar and so Smart Money was made as a Robinson film. With some bolstering of Cagney on the back end.
Robinson plays Nick Venizelos, a small town gambler better known as Nick the Barber. Cagney is his pal Jack, who also clips hair at Nick's Irontown barbershop.
When the barbershop locks up at night the boys head into the backroom to gamble. Nick's a regular winner, renowned for his luck by the Irontown locals. The boys have the idea of raising a stake and sending him off to the big city to clean up. Nick, already far from modest, eats up the idea and soon the boys buy in with ten grand to back him and assurances of bigger payoffs down the road.
Once he hits the "Big City" the first order of business for Nick is to get taken, and handily.
Nick's got a weakness for blondes that is soon exposed as he cuddles up to cigar counter girl Marie (Noel Francis), "a cute little trick," who steers Nick to Hickory Short's big-time card game.
Marie even gets Nick to leave a hundred bucks with her so that he'll have something left just in case his luck runs out. Though any thought of a shortage on luck is a preposterous idea to our Nick. Not only does Nick get taken, but Marie acts like she's never even met him when he comes to collect the hundred. Her boyfriend Sleepy Sam--previously seen by us impersonating Hickory Short--smirks in the background as she closes the door on Nick.
Pounding on the door Nick yells that "If that's the way you play the game in this town I'll play the same way. Only I'll play it in spades and that means you'll pay double." He calls Marie a "hustling little bag" and is on his way.
Joined by Jack (Cagney) and raising a stake through Mr. Amenoppopolus (Paul Porcasi), a patron at the big city barbershop he has taken a job at, Nick soon makes good on his word.
He catches up with Sleepy Sam (Ralf Harolde) and the other imposters and takes them at their own game. "Course you gamblers have heard of shaved cards. Well, Nick the Barber can shave them a little closer than you can," he tells them on his way out. When the men rise to get him Nick opens the door to reveal Jack and another underling, their guns pointed at Sam and the boys.
Nick soon deals Sleepy Sam one more blow when he uses tips from a manicurist (Polly Walters) to take Marie from Sam and make her his own. Then it's off to find the real Hickory Short and clean up big time. Soon Nick is running his own private gambling house, the Canary Cottage Club, with Jack working the floor and tommygunners up above to keep the peace.
It's at this point the District Attorney (Morgan Wallace) takes a special interest in Nick and tries to take him down. Nick's a smart boy though and nothing can easily be pinned on him. Failing to crush Nick through conventional means the D.A. calls in Sleepy Sam and finds out about Nick's weakness for blondes.
Sam, class act that he is, gives the D.A. another tip on his way out the door: "Send your wife around. He'll go for any old bag."
While the D.A.'s own stool pidgeon (Margaret Livingston) fails to get any more than a kick in the backside the emergence of a young suicidal blonde (Evalyn Knapp) who Nick takes an interest in poses a threat that Jack sees but Nick cannot.
Smart Money rolls to its end with fists flying thanks to the pandemonium caused by a nicely revealed double cross and the raid that comes of it. One of our characters is even killed, but don't you worry. No gas chamber for Nick.
Karloff isn't even billed for his small part as Sport Williams. Heck, Robinson's wife gets billed and she's only in this thing for the blink of an eye. Of the three iconic actors Karloff was the only one whose 1931 breakout wasn't yet in sight. Frankenstein hadn't even begun filming as of Smart Money's release.
Here's a 1931 timeline for our Smart Money trio, three of the biggest stars in film history:
- October 1930 - Production begins on Little Caesar
- January 1931 - Production begins on The Public Enemy
- January 3 - Release of Columbia's The Criminal Code which includes Karloff in supporting role. He kept busy in 1931, appearing in 18 films total according to Karloff biographer Scott Allen Nollen (38).
- January 25 - Little Caesar starring Robinson releases
- April 14 - Production begins on Five Star Final
- April 19 - Production complete on Smart Money (Film Daily)
- April 23 - The Public Enemy starring Cagney opens
- May 1 - The Millionaire opens. Cagney has supporting role in this George Arliss film that also includes Evalyn Knapp in the cast.
- July 11 - Smart Money opens
- September 26 Five Star Final starring Robinson opens. Karloff plays the creepy Isopod in supporting role.
- August 24 - Universal begins production on Frankenstein
- November 21 - Frankenstein premieres
- December 3 - Blonde Crazy starring Cagney (with Noel Francis) opens.
Karloff had a lot of work, but no so very long a wait in terms of calendar, before claiming his place in film history later that same year.
He is only in one scene in Smart Money and the most impressive thing about that scene is the fact that, Holy cow, that's Karloff! He's just another heavy here who, as usual, sounds more like Boris Karloff than he does any other more realistic screen hood. He seems to be the only British gangster to pop up in these early movies and so I don't know if it's his accent or just the fact that it's Karloff! that makes him tough for me to buy in these roles.
Film Daily reported on April 19 that production was complete on Smart Money. That is four days before The Public Enemy opened.
While Warner Brothers was expecting big things of The Public Enemy just how big would have had to have been a surprise. So even as Cagney left the lot after working on Smart Money he would have had to have been as clueless as Karloff as to what was about to happen to his own career. In just a few days time.
Robinson already was a star and Smart Money was conceived in order to play off his success in Little Caesar. What Robinson didn't realize until later was just how big he had had become.
While he claims he never saw it himself Robinson wrote of Smart Money that, "It was playing at the Winter Garden ... and while that theater had known major successes, never had there been anything like the lines of waiting patrons that stretched up and down Broadway. Mounted police were called out to control them" (Robinson 3).
Robinson writes that Warner Brothers insisted he head east for the Smart Money premiere. "After forty plays and a couple of movies I had always been able to walk into an A&P or Macy's or stroll the art galleries on Fifty-seventh Street with no one bothering me, no one looking at me, no one having the faintest notion who I was" (3)
The anonymity was over with the success of Little Caesar and Robinson was mobbed. "I'd never known anything like it; I was frightened, and, deep inside, a little excited" (4).
After an evening of celebrity hell, finding himself shifted and prodded back and forth from the Winter Garden to his hotel with all eyes on him, Robinson donned dark glasses and overcoat and returned to the Winter Garden that night to see his name spelled out, "in letters twelve feet tall stretching the entire block ... I didn't know whether or laugh or cry" (4).
Edward G. Robinson then knew he was a star.
The Women of Smart Money
At the time of Smart Money twenty-four year old Noel Francis was yet another talent from the East who had only semi-recently made the move to Hollywood. She had a handful of film credits to her name but at this time, but the Texas millionaire's daughter was better known back on Broadway.She had won a beauty contest back home in 1924 which led to her being dubbed the most beautiful girl of the Southwest by artist Charles Dana Gibson and in turn leading to her discovery by Florenz Ziegfeld. She debuted in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1925 and subsequently appeared in Ziegfeld hits Rio Rita in 1927 and 1929's Show Girl.
Off of Show Girl Francis was signed by Fox and appeared as a dance hall girl in Rough Romance (1930) starring George O'Brien. She also had a featured role singing and dancing in the New Movietone Follies of 1930 (1930). Previously she had only appeared on screen in a pair of East Coast shorts for Pathe. She did one more for Fox in John Ford's Up the River (1930), notable for early film appearances of Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart, before signing a term contract with RKO.
At the time of Smart Money Francis was taking work wherever it was offered, appearing in films for each RKO, Paramount, Universal and Warner Brothers throughout 1931-32. She would next return to Warner Brothers to give Smart Money co-star Cagney the run-around in Blonde Crazy. Later that year she had a scene in I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang that is her best remembered. In that classic she plays Linda, the prostitute Allen Jenkins leaves to take care of Paul Muni when he heads out.
Her Marie is the most interesting woman of Smart Money. Marie works the cigar store counter until luck happens her way when Nick the Barber stops by trying to impress. She gets a box of chocolates, a free meal, and a hundred bucks out of poor Nick all while setting him up to be taken by her boyfriend Sleepy Sam.
When Nick goes back to the cigar counter the next day inquiring as to Marie's whereabouts, the brunette on duty there (in real life Robinson's wife, Gladys Lloyd) says, "Oh you mean the girl who worked here?"
It is the Depression after all and Marie is a girl who follows the money. After the blowout described above Nick eventually lures her to him through his own fortune and once fully secure he lets her have her comeuppance.
It would make complete sense if this were the last time we were to see Marie, but she makes one more appearance at the very end of the movie. It features Nick and Marie's most honest moment together. Nick's forgiveness also redeems Marie to the viewer. Strange how they unnecessarily make us want to like her character as the film winds down.
You almost hope she finds him again one day.
Back in Irontown, before Marie, we get our first taste of Nick's weakness for blondes. The boys in the barbershop tell him there's a girl waiting for him outside and Nick's ego overflows. He heads out expecting a good time and is met instead by a broken young girl (Mae Madison) who puts the bite on him for a hundred bucks.
Nick is, as always, magnanimous about the request. He pays out and heads off. The girl immediately heads to an alley where she pays off a shadowy figure, presumably her pimp. We soon learn that that fellow was Karloff's Sport Williams. Nick spots the scam and takes his wrath out entirely on Sport.
One blonde Nick doesn't fall for is the girl the District Attorney sends in to set him up (Margaret Livingston). He keeps her talking just long enough to catch her being too evasive and the result is a good kick in the rear on her way out the door.
Finally there's bad luck charm Evalyn Knapp as Irene. She is the waif pulled from the river who falls into Nick and Jack's hands.
Despite Jack's suspicions and accompanying protests Irene manages to stick around through a few very well timed fainting spells. Knapp is so utterly pathetic as Irene that I found myself siding with Nick and wishing Jack would just give it a rest.
Knapp had previously played Cagney's sister in his debut film, Sinner's Holiday and also appeared in The Millionaire.
Days before Smart Money opened Knapp took a major fall while hiking Hollywood Heights with her brother, Stanley. Reports varied stating she took anywhere from a 15 to 30 to even 50 foot tumble! In the immediate aftermath Knapp was diagnosed with a fractured spinal column and two broken ribs. Doctors worried she would be permanently paralyzed. Knapp was back on her feet in just a few months and working again.
She was selected a WAMPAS Baby Star of 1932. Warner Brothers and First National titles you may have seen her in that year include High Pressure starring William Powell, the Joe E. Brown comedy Fireman, Save My Child, and the Ann Dvorak drama The Strange Love of Molly Louvain.
Next she signed a contract with Columbia and made a few films both there and at Paramount appearing opposite The Crowd's fallen star James Murray a couple of times and in another with John Wayne back before that was much of a privilidge. She was the star of Universal's twelve part talkie version of Perils of Pauline in 1933 and then appeared in a Ken Maynard Western and a couple of non-Westerns with Tim McCoy the year that she was married, 1934.
The man she married, Dr. George A. Snyder, was a Hollywood doctor she had seen when trying to put on weight. Knapp was famed for her tiny waist and reportedly weighed just 108 pounds. She and Snyder wed in November 1934.
A Robbin Coons report from 1935 put Knapp at full strength and participating in activities such as hiking, tennis, swimming and fishing. The Snyders spent much of their relaxation time fishing on their yacht and every few years came the report of Evalyn's latest big catch. The petite Evalyn's personal best appears to be when she reeled in a 195-pound swordfish!
"But it is only recently," Knapp told Coons, "that I can walk into a producer's office without getting that solicitous, questioning look that says, 'I think you could do the part all right, but--but do you really think you're strong enough?" Still, this recent acceptance seems to coincide with the sharpest downward turn of Knapp's career.
She has bits in bigger films like Idiot's Delight and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (both 1939) and later a memorable part as a villainess in The Lone Wolf Takes a Chance for Columbia in 1941.
After that it's support in a Jean Parker-Wallace Ford movie for Monogram and a bit in Two Weeks to Live, a 1943 Lum and Abner entry that finished off her film career.
In Smart Money the soft spoken Knapp manages the sexiest scene in a movie populated by precocious women. When Nick first sets her Irene up in his apartment he takes special care to pass her the key to her bedroom. Unsure of Nick, Irene turns the lock into place. Later, after Nick's continued kindness, Irene sits at his feet for a talk. She tries to thank Nick by offering him back the key he had given her. She's giving herself to him.
Nick plays the gentleman though. "No, you don't owe me anything," he tells her and extends an offer for her to stay as long as she likes with hopes that maybe someday he can gain entry but not solely out of gratitude. Nick isn't all talk. He had an open invitation to take advantage of the girl but he is as kind as we have been led to believe all along.
Behind the Scenes
Like the big gangster films that preceded it Smart Money came out of Warner Brothers when Darryl F. Zanuck was head of production.
Zanuck biographer George F. Custen wrote that, "Zanuck felt that the only way he could work was as virtual one-man show, as the energetic impresario manipulating the large cast at his disposal. In addition to the sheer amount of work he was capable of juggling simultaneously--writer, talent scout, head of production--Zanuck's pace could be overwhelming" (4-5).
Writers on Smart Money included John Bright and Kubec Glasmon, who not only wrote The Public Enemy but had a hand in several Cagney titles of the near future including Blonde Crazy (1931), Taxi and The Crowd Roars (both 1932). This tandem met up in Chicago where they rubbed shoulders with mobsters including Al Capone. Other work by Bright and Glasmon during this period included dialogue on Union Depot and the original story for Three on a Match (both 1932).
Lucien Hubbard, who also had his hands on Three on a Match, crafting the screenplay from the Bright-Glasmon story, was another of the four writers who crafted Smart Money.
Finally, there was Joseph Jackson. After Smart Money he would work on several memorable projects including the William Powell titles High Pressure and One Way Passage (both 1932); Warren William vehicles Beauty and the Boss, The Mouthpiece and The Dark Horse (all 1932); and the Dorothy Mackaill classic Safe in Hell (1931). Such an output is all the more impressive when you consider that Jackson was dead within a year of Smart Money's release. The writer tragically drowned while on vacation at Laguna Beach in May 1932.
Tying it all together was director Alfred E. Green, a top earner for Warner Brothers during the period who still seems under appreciated. Green began as a silent actor and became a director as early as the mid-1910's. In the early 30's he directed films such as Union Depot, The Dark Horse, Robinson again in Silver Dollar (1932), the Stanwyck classic Baby Face (1933), the Somerset Maugham adapted The Narrow Corner (1933), and many others in a career that would last in the movies through 1954 and then on television until his death in 1960.
Green's pre-code era movies typically reflect the Depression which reared them. They are peopled by common folk using their wits to survive. Fast moving yet nothing seems to get left out. Smart Money is no exception.
Nick the Barber
Robinson trims the pyschopath off of Little Caesar's Enrico Bandello as Nick the Barber in Smart Money.
He is just as loud, just as full of himself, but he remains kind to those who've done him right, especially those who have been with him from the start. It's made clear that he keeps sending money home and I don't mean to a family, I mean to his old barber pals.
Cagney hitches to his side and remains every bit Nick's equal as he was from the start. Even Snake Eyes (John Larkin) is allowed along for the ride, albeit in a subservient role.
And then there is this:
If it only happened once, I'd probably leave it alone, but it happens three times in Smart Money. It was included innocently enough in 1931. Well, perhaps ignorantly would be a better word than innocently. It was even supposed to make Nick the Barber a more likable guy--it's condescending, but not mean-spirited.
Smart Money takes place in the underbelly of a very different time. It is a very ethnic world that includes little jokes and snipes not unlike most movies of the period. Especially those from the extremely blue collar catalog of Warner Brothers and First National where there generally is a mix of race and ethnicity.
But aside from having characters don blackface, Nick's rubs for luck are about as visual as the insensitivity of old movies get. While a seemingly casual line may fly by unnoticed it's hard not to spot Nick rubbing a black man's head in Smart Money. Three times.
So, some context. Put most plainly in 1920's Kentucky Superstitions by Daniel Lindsey and Lucy Blayney Thomas "Human Superstition" number 890 reads as follows: "You will have good luck, if you rub your hands through the hair of a negro."
That gets to the heart of why Nick the Barber is doing this at every possible opportunity. And remember, Nick the Barber is a gambler not only known for his luck, but even dependent on it. Snake Eyes even tells him early on that, "You sure is one lucky white man." It's the line that really gets Nick rolling.
I was unable to discover the origins of the practice though I'd imagine it goes way back.
During the era of Smart Money it certainly remained commonplace and even public thanks largely to the world of baseball. Baseball Hall of Famer Bill Terry seems to be the most famous practitioner but if you're not familiar with the old New York Giant of the 1920's and 30's then you've surely heard of Babe Ruth, the most celebrated name in baseball history.
Ford Frick, who spent his life mostly on the executive side of the game, first as National League president from the 1930's into the 50's and then as Commissioner of Baseball from 1951-1965, got his start as a sportswriter. Early on he was Babe Ruth's ghostwriter. In the June 1934 edition of Esquire he remembered:
"The Babe put down his bat and beckoned to the colored youngster, who promptly trotted forward, eager and grinning. While the fans stared down, for the most part utterly mystified, the King of Swat placed his hands on the negro's head, as if conferring a title or bestowing a benediction, and earnestly rubbed his fingers through the woolly black hair."
As presented by Frick, from the then segregated world of professional baseball, the Babe was the one doing the favor. If you put yourself in this time and place and really believed this was a way to gain good luck, then it would be clear that Babe Ruth is the beneficiary in this transaction just as Nick the Barber gains from Snake Eyes.
As such, our final perspective comes from the July 27, 1967 edition of Jet Magazine:
"The irritating habit of that white, deep Southern state legislator who rubbed the head of that Negro state legislator every morning. Puzzled and annoyed, the Negro finally asked a fellow Negro legislator, "Why does he do that?" Chuckled his friend, "Don't you know, man? Why he runs your head for luck. White folks believe rubbing a Negro's head brings good luck." From that time on, the Negro legislator ducks every time the white lawmaker makes a pass."
So, be warned. Nick the Barber does this throughout Smart Money and you will notice it. If that makes you not want to watch the movie, I understand. But if you do watch and are wondering what the hell is going on there, hopefully the above provides some background and a little context.
While Smart Money pales in comparison to Robinson's Little Caesar it is an intermediate step for Cagney between The Doorway to Hell and, if you watch them out of order as I would suggest, The Public Enemy.
While Cagney is as he said himself, little more than Robinson's sidekick in Smart Money he is given one scene to really shine in which he mimes the arrival of Margaret Livingston. Beyond that he makes what he can of his lines and his best little touches come in playful smacks of Robinson's cheek, one of which Robinson responds to hilariously in cocking back with his fist to slug Cagney just as the scene fades.
No, if you're watching Smart Money for anything more than the curiosity factor of seeing Robinson and Cagney together for the only time then this movie is all Edward G. Robinson.
It's lighter than Little Caesar and far less violent. Instead of a charming psychopath Robinson's Nick is a charming braggart. His rapid fire delivery of lines, especially insults to dirty mugs, little bags and one notable "smack off" come off as threatening while at the same time, owing to the legend established by the career that follows, they'll also make you smile.
This is Edward G. Robinson excelling at what we think of Edward G. Robinson for.
If you know your Edward G. Robinson and have yet to come across Smart Money than this is almost like finding bonus footage to an astounding career.
If you're looking for more than threats and wisecracks then towards the end of Smart Money Robinson finally gets to go all out for you. Once Robinson is broken he goes wide-eyed and incoherent. He's like an animal and for just a second he's even presented to us in such a way that I half expected him to ask if this was the end of Rico.
Recommended for fans of Robinson, curious fans of Cagney, and anyone who knows what I mean when I say Smart Money is a better than average Warner Brothers pre-code offering. It's more streetwise than most of their output, which is saying quite a bit.
- Coons, Robbin. "It Takes More Than Broken Back To Keep Evalyn Out of Pictures." Port Arthur News 17 Oct 1935: 17.
- Frick, Ford. "Luck Goes to Bat." Esquire's Second Sports Reader. Ed. Arnold Gingrich. Esquire, 1945. 49.
- "It Takes More Than Broken Back to Keep Evalyn Out of Pictures." Port Arthur News 17 Oct 1935: 17. NewspaperArchive. Web. 13 Aug 2012.
- McCabe, John. Cagney. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1999.
- "Noel Francis Uses An Old Hat And Sun To Keep Her Hair Beautiful." Hagerstown Daily Mail 6 May 1925: 7. NewspaperArchive. Web. 13 Aug 2012.
- Nollen, Scott Allen. Boris Karloff: A Gentleman's Life. Revised ed. Baltimore: Marquee Press, Inc., 2005.
- "People Are." Jet Magazine. 27 Jul 1967: 42.
- Robinson, Edward G. with Leonard Spigelgass. All My Yesterdays. New York: Hawthorn Books Inc., 1973.
- "Screen Star Badly Hurt in Accident." Evening Independent 22 Jun 1931: 1. NewspaperArchive. Web. 13 Aug 2012.
- "South's Prettiest." The Buffalo Center Tribune 18 Sep 1924: 3. Newspaper Archive. Web. 13 Aug 2012.
- "Southwestern Beauty." Sheboygan Press Telegram 16 Jul 1924: 4. Newspaper Archive. Web. 13 Aug 2012.
- "Texas Girl Wins Beauty Contest And Is Offered Part in Follies." Galveston Daily News 3 Aug 1924: 1. NewspaperArchive. Web. 13 Aug 2012.
- Thomas, Daniel Lindsay and Lucy Blayney. Human Superstitions. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1920
- "Warners Complete Four." The Film Daily 19 Apr 1931: 4. Media History Digital Library Web. 13 Aug 2012.