Blonde Crazy is a fast-paced romantic crime comedy that feels a year or even two ahead of its time thanks to the adept, almost offhand, playing of the material by two of Hollywood’s best Broadway imports, James Cagney and Joan Blondell. This was already the fourth of an eventual seven outings for the pair who had been working together on stage in Penny Arcade when Warner Bros. signed them. They were both featured in Warner’s adaptation of Penny Arcade, retitled Sinners’ Holiday, which also marked Cagney’s movie debut. Blonde Crazy was the first time Cagney and Blondell were paired as romantic leads, and it was only Cagney’s second leading role. His first had made him a legend.
Cagney was cast in Blonde Crazy shortly after the April 1931 release of that earlier starring vehicle, The Public Enemy. In between he played support to Edward G. Robinson in Smart Money, though Cagney’s electric performance in The Public Enemy made him Robinson’s near equal in all of the advertising and promotion for Smart Money. Both of those films were from stories by the writing team of Kubec Glasmon and John Bright, who also wrote this one, Blonde Crazy, the first film to really cash in on Cagney’s rise from The Public Enemy.
Bert Harris is an interesting role for Cagney. He’s so cocky at the beginning of the film that Blonde Crazy threatens to be one of his less likable roles, but the relationship with Blondell’s character tempers him throughout, so that by the end Bert finally feels like flesh and blood.
Most of the contemporary reviews praised the film but agreed that the final act was a drag, even if it didn’t spoil the overall experience. The action of Blonde Crazy can be chopped up into four distinctive episodes tracing Cagney and Blondell’s relationship as they master various confidence games. The first three sections are manic, wild, and fun, while the final portion of the movie is more downbeat as it wraps up the romantic portion of the story before exiting with a somewhat open ending. This climax is also complicated by Ray Milland’s character, a romantic challenge to Cagney who develops into an awkwardly written villain.
The ending may lack the fun factor that preceded it, but it does allow Cagney’s Bert Harris to cement his place in the hearts of the audience by proving the sincerity of all of his best intentions.
Bert begins as a bellhop at “the leading hotel of a small Mid-Western city.” He spots Blondell’s Ann Roberts asking about work and likes what he sees, so he uses his charm to put over a few fibs to management and land a position for her. When Ann doesn’t respond with the proper gratitude it leads to the first of several sharp smacks across Bert’s face. He’s thrown by this first blow, but he begins to eat up the attention and affection behind them as the movie progresses.
You can see Blondell giving it her all to suppress laughter after most of these shots across Cagney's face. She's definitely having a blast working in this movie and it's a joy to watch.
Cagney's enterprising young bellhop has a bootlegging hustle on the side, but he keeps himself in training for bigger graft by compiling and studying a scrapbook of original crimes and cons reported by the papers. He convinces Ann to help him “trim the world,” noting, “The age of chivalry has passed. This, honey, is the age of chiselry.” Their first victim is a lecherous hotel guest (Guy Kibbee), who’s happy to buy his way out of trouble for five thousand dollars that is soon split between Bert and Ann.
That stake puts them on board the Chicago Limited as they head to “the leading hotel of a big city.” The lobby is bustling with prostitutes, gamblers, and gold diggers, leaving one local to remark to an out-of-towner, “Well dressed parade of parasites, aren’t they?”
Bert has his comeuppance during this portion of Blonde Crazy after a more experienced racketeer (Louis Calhern) and his attractive blonde sidekick (Noel Francis) scam him out of all of his and Ann’s money. Embarrassed by his fleecing, Bert chooses a mark and, working alone, manages to successfully run a scam on a jewelry store that nets him back all of the money he’d lost.
Despite a mutual attraction Ann rejects Bert’s advances throughout most of Blonde Crazy. She can’t imagine him settling down because he’s always obsessed by the next score. Ann is as surprised as anyone after she falls in love with a young man (Ray Milland) she meets on a train, and Bert takes the news surprisingly well. He discovers that he’s lost Ann after finally letting his guard down and coming clean to her about his drive towards money. “Money is just a means to an end with me,” he says, explaining that what he really wants is to go to Europe and mix with swell people and see swell places. Obnoxious Bert disappears for a few moments and he’s genuinely sweet with Ann as he leads into a proposal. Ann is so touched by this new side of Bert that she can’t even look him in the eye when she explains that she’s fallen in love with another man. Bert is magnanimous, wishing her all the luck in the world as their partnership is dissolved.
Bert tries to do all those things he dreamed of, but there’s no satisfaction in doing them alone. He can’t get Ann out of his mind, and so he’s easily coaxed into helping when Ann shows up a year later begging Bert to help her husband, who’s turned out to be an embezzler.
This final portion of Blonde Crazy becomes a bit confused, but Cagney’s character continues to strengthen until the very end. His Bert Harris has grown up a lot over these 79 minutes. He and Ann finally wind up on the same page, but there are many loose ends left hanging, most importantly their future freedom. Still, we’re left with little doubt that no matter who does how much time, the other will be waiting for them when it’s over.
Blonde Crazy was the first of five Cagney starring vehicles directed by Roy Del Ruth, a quick worker who cranked out several pre-Code gems for Warner Bros. The two worked together in what was the next effort for both of them, Taxi! (1932), then also on Winner Take All (1932) and Lady Killer (1933). During this time Del Ruth squeezed in several other fondly remembered Warner classics including titles like Blessed Event (1932), Employees’ Entrance, The Mind Reader, and The Little Giant (1933). The underrated contract director certainly made his contribution to the fast-paced, gritty distinctive house style of Warner Bros. of the early ‘30s. Del Ruth went on to develop a reputation for musicals and years later he directed Cagney in one when they reunited at Warner Bros. for The West Point Story (1950).
Blonde Crazy was first announced under the title Larceny Lane by Warner-First National in early May 1931. It remained listed under that title throughout much of production, but Larceny Lane only stuck in the finished film as a bit of dialogue used when describing the lobby inhabited by that “parade of parasites” at the big city hotel.
Del Ruth completed filming in late July but Warner’s kept pushing the release date back after that. This seems to be the fault of local censors, making Larceny Lane/Blonde Crazy a good example of how censorship was self-policed before Production Code enforcement. It was the New York Censor Board, not the Hays Office, who wouldn’t approve the Cagney-Blondell film, so Warner Bros. voluntarily yanked it back to the West coast for what Variety described as “some alteration.” The final product is so off-the-wall that I'm hard-pressed to guess what was modified beyond the title.
Less than a week later a November 14 release date was announced for the movie now titled Blonde Crazy. The movie went over big at its November 7 Hollywood premiere with Jack Warner sending out word to the trade papers that Blonde Crazy had made stars of Cagney and Blondell. Blonde Crazy trickled out to the rest of the country from there with it’s Broadway premiere coming at New York’s Strand Theatre on December 3. There was a good deal of ballyhoo surrounding Cagney’s personal appearance the following day at the Strand where he handed out free passes to the first fifty blondes who applied for them.
Blonde Crazy is a fun movie with all the elements that we typically love about pre-Code Warner Bros. and Cagney films. It’s fast, obnoxious, a little naughty, a little more sleazy, and enlivened by Cagney and Blondell creating characters who are more interesting than the actual story.
Blonde Crazy is one of four films on Warner Archive’s manufactured-on-demand DVD-R set Forbidden Hollywood, Volume 8. My thanks to Warner Archive for providing a review copy. The set also includes Dark Hazard (1934), which I’ve previously reviewed, as well as Strangers May Kiss (1931) and Hi, Nellie!
While it took awhile for Warner Archive (and myself!) to get to this title, it's long been a favorite of classic film fans and is the subject of reviews from many familiar classic film bloggers. For more on this title here's coverage from: The Hollywood Revue, Laura's Miscellaneous Musings, moviediva, Pre-Code.com, and Twenty Four Frames.
- “Cagney and Blondell Click.” Film Daily. 9 November 1931, 2.
- “Crew at the Strand Theatre in New York Doing Some Fine Work.” Motion Picture Herald. 13 February 1932, 54.
- “3 Gang Films Held Up By New York’s Censors.” Variety. 29 September 1931, 2.