Diamond Jim (1935) starring Edward Arnold as Diamond Jim Brady
Where the movie “Diamond Jim” (1935) gets a little silly is in boiling down Brady the man as someone spurned once too often by women who then turns his attention to food as a substitute for sex and companionship. Edward Arnold is correctly larger than life in the lead here as Brady, however an ending seeking to tie up all loose ends goes a little further than it needed when a reflective but satisfied Brady basically walks off into the sunset to eat himself to death.
Based on the biography “Diamond Jim, The Life and Times of James Buchanan Brady” published a year earlier by Parker Morell this uneven though still enjoyable comedy was brought to the screen by Universal through a Preston Sturges script under the direction of Eddie Sutherland. Sutherland’s film is composed of many quick choppy scenes, necessary in some ways to tell the entire story of Diamond Jim Brady over 90 minutes, but feeling better suited to the 60-70 minute movies of just a few years earlier. “Diamond Jim” does manage to get a lot done in these 90 minutes, including establishing a likable main character, but does so at the expense of the film’s lesser characters who all came across as underdeveloped in one way or another.
Arnold’s leading lady here is Jean Arthur, who adds interest to “Diamond Jim” by playing a dual role, but somehow manages to be pretty horrid throughout. Besides “The Whole Town’s Talking” (1935) all of the roles we identify Arthur with today come after “Diamond Jim,” so I’m willing to chalk up her failure here as being due to her not really being Jean Arthur quite yet, though at the same time I got the feeling she just didn’t care.
Believe it or not the first manifestation of Arthur is as a Southern belle, and while this part is mercifully small it is actually the better of her two roles here. Her Emma is key to the story of Brady, as she’s the first girl he falls for and the first who breaks his heart by marrying another man. Brady, crushed by the news, tells her “I hope you’ll be very happy. I mean that from the bottom of my heart … I’ll never love anyone but you so long as I live,” and he means it.
This screen version of Diamond Jim, and by the way, in the course of researching this article I did put together a post on The Real Diamond Jim Brady over on the VintageMeld, has no other interest in women until he meets up with Arthur again, this time her familiar crackling voice restored, in the part of Jane Matthews, a “niece” to one of Brady’s business cronies. Brady falls head over heels for Janie upon first sight and spends the rest of his days pursuing her but winding up making almost the same speech to her as he had so many years before to the Southern version of Arthur.
Giving a far more natural performance here is Binnie Barnes as Brady’s pal, Nell Leonard aka theatrical attraction and major beauty of the Gilded Age Lillian Russell, who was in fact Diamond Jim’s lover in real life. Not here. Noting the date on the film (1935) makes one wonder how much more interesting “Diamond Jim” could have been if made just a little earlier, before the code, when it could have capitalized on a more realistic version of the Brady-Russell relationship.
Instead Brady and Russell come to quick agreement that there’s no interest by either party in romance with the other, they’re just pals, and Brady actually welcomes Russell’s new beau, stock broker Jerry Richardson, with hints of Lillian’s intentions and Arnold’s familiar booming laughter. Richardson is played by a wooden Cesar Romero. While Barnes’ Lillian Russell is positioned as a likeable and independent character, Arthur and Romero suffer the plight of not only being uninteresting but entangled with one another over a period of years behind the backs of the far more charming Russell and Brady.
Neither Arthur’s Janie nor Romero’s Richardson are actually portrayed as bad people—Janie obviously cares deeply for Diamond Jim as proven by her risking life and limb by trying to convince him to abandon a death-defying publicity scheme later in the picture, while Richardson as Brady’s stock broker never makes a nefarious move to break him, but instead warns him of the coming Panic of ’93 so Brady can get out if he so chooses.
If either Jean Arthur or Cesar Romero could have breathed the slightest bit of life into their characters it may have gone a long way in creating complicated adult relationships inside “Diamond Jim” which would have had a great impact in raising the overall quality of the film. I’m not directly familiar with Morell’s source material, but judging by the way “Diamond Jim” does seem to adhere to the correct timeline in Brady’s business life and knowing how it glosses over his relationship with Russell, I have to assume the blame for the flawed relationships inside the movie lie with Sturges and Sutherland.
Where I took my most enjoyment from “Diamond Jim” was in Brady’s business dealings, which begin when he spots an ad for a salesman in the paper and leaves his job as railroad baggage handler to pursue it. But young Brady is pretty poor, from working-class roots, and decides he needs a new suit of clothes before showing up to claim the position. A pawnbroker played by George Sidney outfits him and suggests that a diamond might be a fine final touch. Too poor yet for diamonds, Brady rents one from the pawnbroker, who then accompanies Brady to his interview with A.E. Moore Railroad Supplies.
After he smooth talks Moore (Robert McWade) into a position with the company, Brady takes to the rails to sell Moore’s hacksaws. It’s here he meets up with Sampson “Foxy” Fox, who’s trying to move his own steel undertrucks but having no luck with his own pitch (They’re fireproof, waterproof, oil proof, break proof …). Fox is played by Eric Blore, who’s his delightfully inane self here and finds himself quickly maneuvered by slick-talking Brady into a partnership.
The Brady-Fox Co. brings James Buchanan Brady his first taste of wealth and soon enough he’s decked himself out in jewels, telling the jewelry salesman in his plain-spoken way, “Where I comes from, them that has ‘em, wears ‘em.” It’s with diamonds over practically every part of his outfit that Diamond Jim has his coming out at Harry Hill’s (William Demarest) restaurant. All eyes are on him as he strolls in, is seated and proceeds to order just about everything on the menu from flabbergasted Demarest. When his Hill asks Brady if that’s all, Brady tacks a few more items onto the order before adding, “and put some candy on the table, I like to nibble.” This is actually the same scene where he meets Russell, still performing as Nellie Leonard, whom he presents with $100 worth of flowers after her performance.
Boisterous Brady builds his fortune until the Panic of 1893 takes grip. It’s here that Arnold is Brady the American, defiantly telling other major investors that they “ain’t never seen anything but ticker tapes” and scolding them saying “When things are going good you go around, slap each other on the back and tell each other how smart you are. The minute the market makes a little turn, you holler murder and you quit like a bunch of rats jumping off a sinking ship. The only trouble with this country is you fellas.” Brady orders Richardson to buy 100,000 shares of each of the prominent railroad companies stocks as soon as the market opens the next morning. When Richardson asks if Brady wants them outright, he tells him to buy it on margin, saying “I’ll take a gamble on this piece of land that we got any day, any day at all.”
And so the market breaks Brady and he’s back to work for Moore, but ever a man of ideas when a train he’s on is involved in a fiery crash it sparks the idea for his come-back: all-steel train cars. He’s soon back on the road to wealth even as his health begins to crumble. Diamond Jim becomes the most popular patient at Johns Hopkins, where the nurses adore him and his doctor tells it like it is. When told he can go home Diamond Jim fantasizes about all of the great eating he’s going to do, but his doctor replies, “Oh no, you’re not. You’re going to have some crackers and some milk.” Told his beloved shell fish and sides of beef would kill him, Brady remarks “You might as well be dead if you can’t go on living.”
Outside of his specific interactions with the Jean Arthur and Cesar Romero characters, and the squeaky clean relationship Brady enjoys on the movie screen with Lillian Russell, “Diamond Jim” sticks largely to the facts of Brady’s life. One of the key sources I used in the Brady article on the VintageMeld was the New York Times 1917 obituary of Brady and just about every fact mentioned there gains coverage here, right down to the $200,000 the heirless Brady bequeaths to Johns Hopkins.
“Diamond Jim” has its strengths amid all of the weaknesses. It’s up and down and quite uneven. Edward Arnold is fantastic as Brady, a role he brings to life so well that you get the feeling it’d be what he’d be known for today if it was a better-known film. Binnie Barnes stands out and if you usually like Eric Blore you’re going to like him here too.
But I can’t help to think “Diamond Jim” would have emerged as a much stronger movie had they cut it off about 12-13 minutes earlier, at the point when Brady’s released from Johns Hopkins, and then perhaps closed with a brief note of his passing in 1917. Instead every character is given an unsatisfying ending in one way or another, with Arnold saving his only really poor scene for the long-awaited break-up with Janie before running back to his other love and facing his final showdown with the dinner table.
Worth watching, but it could have been much more. I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but the story of Diamond Jim Brady may be a good choice for a quality remake or retelling today. It’s not coincidence that the version discussed here was released in the midst of the Great Depression.
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