Warren William stars as Odds Owen, the biggest bookmaker in New York, but a businessman who sours on his clientele after a supposedly law-abiding attorney, T. Everett Markham (Clay Clement), dopes one of his own horses to try and collect big on a 20-to-1 long shot.
“Ever hear of an insurance outfit in London called Lloyds?” Odds soon asks his underlings, a group including his statistician, Numbers (William Gargan), Doc (Spencer Charters) and Brains (Vince Barnett).
Odds makes his point. "We quote odds, they quote premiums," says Doc. Numbers adds, “With us it’s gambling, with them it’s insurance.”
Odds is soon making book on freak insurance policies instead of sporting events. He insures the throat of the champion husband-caller (a painful Maude Eburne) and laughs at Hobart Cavanaugh’s character because the little “chipmunk” wants to take out a policy against his wife having twins.
But business becomes very personal when it comes to the main policy taken out in Don’t Bet on Blondes, one insuring a beautiful blonde actress against marriage.
Guy Kibbee’s portrayal of Colonel Jefferson Davis Youngblood, father of that blonde actress, Marilyn Young (Claire Dodd), is the best thing about Don’t Bet on Blondes.
Kibbee, looking like an overstuffed Col. Sanders, has been researching his history of the Civil War for thirty years now. Markham, our horse-doper from earlier, wants to marry the Colonel's daughter, but has a rival blocking his path. Knowing that Marilyn financially supports the Colonel’s writing endeavors, Markham decides to remove his competition, Boardman (Walter Byron), and settle the score with Odds Owen at the same time. Markham convinces the Colonel that Marilyn’s current beau is strongly pro-Northern and has ancestors who were abolitionists. If Marilyn were to marry such a Yankee and retire from the stage then the Colonel could very well find his funds cut off.
“Well, sir,” the Colonel is soon explaining to Odds. “I am writing a book. A book that will establish definitely, once and for all, that the South did not lose the Civil War.”
“I fear the general impression is somewhat to the contrary,” Odds says, looking the Colonel over carefully.
“Yankee lies, sir, yankee lies. Dating back to Sherman’s march to the sea, which my book will unquestionably prove was a retreat.”
Kibbee’s Colonel is a hoot. When Odds calls Numbers into his office for some stats relating to the Colonel’s proposed policy, Numbers is completely against the idea. Odds overrules Numbers’ better judgment and takes on the policy. The Colonel agrees to pay $100 per week over a three year period in exchange for a $50,000 insurance policy against his daughter marrying.
On his way out the door the Colonel pauses to say: “I think it is only fair to inform you that my daughter is practically engaged to marry ... I tell you this in order to avoid a repetition of the catastrophe that occurred when Grant took Richmond--If he did take Richmond, which he didn’t.”
The policies providing against twins and protecting the husband caller are forgotten for now in order to concentrate upon keeping Marilyn Young single. Don't Bet on Blondes shifts from introducing its run of insurance applicants in Odds' office to Marilyn's string of suitors on the social scene.
The Board of Directors meet and rule that no man should be allowed a fourth date with Marilyn Young. Marilyn’s original suitor is dealt with first. After it is reported that Boardman is a hypochondriac he is set up to witness a heart attack that the Doc explains was brought on by marriage. Boardman runs out of the bar after Doc diagnoses him with a "perfect myocardium" (heh heh), leaving Odds to receive Marilyn in his place.
With Boardman out of the way Marilyn quickly proceeds towards a fourth date with young playboy David Van Dusen, portrayed by Errol Flynn.
Don’t Bet on Blondes was Errol Flynn's second movie in Hollywood. The 25-year-old Tasmanian born actor had only been in the States for six months when Don’t Bet on Blondes went into production. Flynn had previously appeared in one Australian film, In the Wake of the Bounty (1933), before heading to England where he toured for a time with the Northampton Repertory Company. It was while in England that the Warner Brothers managing director at Teddington Studios, Irving Asher, cast Flynn to star in Murder at Monte Carlo (1935), which is now listed as a lost film. Warner Brothers then signed the green actor to a long-term Hollywood contract and he arrived from England in November 1934.From there Flynn’s rise was as meteoric as the legend proclaims. In February of 1935 he rather infamously played a corpse in The Case of the Curious Bride, a Perry Mason film with Don’t Bet on Blondes star Warren William playing Mason for the second time (plus Claire Dodd as Della Street). While Flynn was given a little more to do than play dead, he did not have any dialogue in the Mason film. That Hollywood debut also marked the beginning of Flynn’s tempestuous working relationship with director Michael Curtiz. The pair eventually worked together on twelve Warner Brothers’ feature films.
Curious Bride released in April and later that same month Flynn went to work on the title being discussed here, Don’t Bet on Blondes, also starring Warren William. Just a few days before Blondes hit theaters Film Daily announced that Errol Flynn had been chosen to play the male lead in Captain Blood. That film, one of the greatest action titles of all-time, Flynn’s second directed by Curtiz, opened Christmas Day, 1935, and so before the New Year even rolled in Errol Flynn had become a major movie star.
Don’t Bet on Blondes thus becomes an interesting curiosity in looking at the rapid development of Flynn at Warner Brothers. It slotted well in between his silent struggle and quiet repose in the Mason film and his boisterous swashbuckler who looms larger than life, as well as all other actors, in the blockbuster Captain Blood. Don’t Bet on Blondes afforded Flynn a few minutes of screen time as a charming dandy who is no more unlikable than his background dictates in his courting of Claire Dodd’s Marilyn Young.
Flynn doesn’t do much but walk and talk at the golf course in his first scene with Dodd’s Marilyn. His second scene immediately follows and while we won’t see him again in this movie, Flynn at least gets to star in what is the funniest bit in all of Don’t Bet on Blondes.
Odds has Brains put in a call to round up a half dozen of “the toughest mugs in New York.” While Flynn’s David tries to enjoy a romantic dinner with Marilyn these tough guys approach, one-by-one at first, with hard pats on the back, familiar tones and winks. Flynn is flustered, unable to understand what is happening, while Dodd gets more and more upset by David’s dark acquaintances. From a table out of view across the way William enjoys the show. With each mug who visits it becomes clearer that Flynn’s David is supposed to be involved with the mob, a point hammered home when the sixth man passes him a newspaper with a gun wrapped inside! Flynn is dumbfounded by the attention and Dodd’s Marilyn finally huffs, “I don’t like your friends. Good night.”
As she retrieves her coat Odds arrives just in time to slip it on over her shoulders. “Seems rather strange that we should meet again. Under almost the same circumstances,” she says, referring to the earlier incident after Boardman had bolted with heart concerns. “Merely coincidence,” Odds assures her.
From there Odds becomes his own best insurance against paying off the Colonel. He is unconvincing when he tells the boys his attentions are a matter of business, so Numbers, sensing real sparks, puts a tail on Odds to try to keep him from having to pay off on himself.
Markham works his way between the couple, but his character is so weak that it’s hard to take him as a serious threat. Don’t Bet on Blondes then wraps up as expected and the lead actors are charming enough to make us glad for them.
In my separate write-up at WarrenWilliam.com I mentioned how much more fun Don’t Bet on Blondes could have been had it felt more like a Damon Runyon story. Instead it feels like it was written by a pair, Isabel Dawn and Boyce DeGaw, who were aware of Runyon yet not so much with the actual Broadway slang or goings-on of the period. Though I will say the mugs who harassed Flynn gave off the vibe I was looking for, as did Vince Barnett.
Much of the negative criticism has been tagged onto director Robert Florey and he seems a proper target. Warren William biographer John Stangeland wrote that Florey was "regularly berated for turning out dailies that were 'flat and slow'" and that line producer Nathan Levinson even remarked to boss Hal Wallis that the director “does not know all he should know about talking motion picture production” (158).
An unsigned New York Times review states, “This sheer farce is handled in a straightforward, rather unimaginative manner,” and notes that while Florey’s work might be good on another type of movie, here it “deadens most of the fooling.” A lot of it does fall flat, though those specific moments mentioned above more than make up for the occasional cringe or even non-reaction.
While Guy Kibbee gives the standout performance, Warren William capably handles the lead and Claire Dodd almost overcomes being cast way against type—we don’t dislike her, but she’s not as likable as she’s meant to be. Vince Barnett is the best of the remaining support, dopey as usual in the part of Brains. William Gargan's cigar-chomping Numbers felt underused though played a bit too frantic in a few scenes he did have. Hobart Cavanaugh and Errol Flynn are both good at what they get to do and it’s always nice to see Mary Treen even if she is limited to being a receptionist. I'd have preferred someone like Arthur Vinton as Markham. Clay Clement lacked the magnetism to be much of a factor in the part.
Despite its flaws I like Don’t Bet on Blondes quite a bit. Even if I weren’t a huge fan of both Warren William and Claire Dodd the more limited servings of Guy Kibbee at the top of his game and the curiosity factor surrounding Errol Flynn just prior to his achieving major stardom would be enough of a draw to keep me entertained during repeated viewings.
Don’t Bet on Blondes is a Warner Brothers release available as one of three movies in Warner Archive’s Made to Order Warren William Collection. The other titles in the set are Times Square Playboy and The Woman from Monte Carlo. It is a poor overall representation of William’s talents which are shown off to greater advantage in their Forbidden Hollywood collections.
- ”Don’t Bet on Blondes.” The New York Times Film Reviews, Vol. 2 1932-1938 New York: Times Books, 1990. 1193.
- Stangeland, John. Warren William: Magnificent Scoundrel of Pre-Code Hollywood Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011.