The third release from 20th Century Pictures, Blood Money, features George Bancroft as an underworld bail bondsman, who falls for a young society kleptomaniac, played by Frances Dee, who's infected with an “underworld mania” and yearns for a strong man to dominate her. It’s only so long before she meets one of Bancroft’s clients, a crook that also happens to be brother of Bancroft’s long-time flame, played by Judith Anderson. The Dee character winds up duping Bancroft and this leads to a major misunderstanding and falling out between the bondsman and his former underworld connections. Blood Money is wild, even for a pre-Code, largely because of the young society woman and Frances Dee’s contribution to that character.
Rowland Brown directed just four movies and that’s only if you’re willing to include The Devil Is a Sissy (1936), which wound up credited to W.S. “Woody” Van Dyke II. Sissy was one of a few films that Brown bolted from, others including RKO’s State’s Attorney (1932), which he wrote, and The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), which proves Brown wasn’t willing to curb temperament, even when abroad. He’s best known for his writing, relying on his own mysterious background to craft underworld stories that soon became films like The Doorway to Hell (1930) and the classic Angels with Dirty Faces (1939). He collaborated with the equally colorful Gene Fowler on What Price Hollywood? (1932), which it appears RKO also intended to have him direct, but I think you see how that goes with Brown. He worked for just about everyone and seemingly walked out on or was fired by just as many. As early as January 1934, New Movie Magazine said, “Brown has been a sort of stormy petrel of the studios and rarely finishes a picture that he begins.” Brown also wrote the four he managed to direct, four movies that make for just under five hours of fast-paced lively entertainment that I’ve watched over and over. A few years ahead of The Devil Is a Sissy—which again, he did not complete—came Quick Millions (1931) for Fox, starring Spencer Tracy; Hell’s Highway (1932) at RKO with Richard Dix; and this early effort from Darryl F. Zanuck’s 20th Century Pictures, Blood Money (1933).
Blood Money was just the third film released by Darryl F. Zanuck’s new 20th Century production company. Like the others, it was released to theaters through his partner at United Artists, Joseph Schenck. As I mentioned when talking about another 20th Century film, Born to Be Bad (1934), there’s a distinctive Warner Bros. feel to their earliest releases, an overall style that really marks them with Zanuck’s signature. Blood Money holds true to that form, and how could it not? A story of an underworld bail bondsman who winds up at odds with his dangerous former clients: it’d have been right up Robinson or Cagney’s alley had Zanuck remained at Warner Bros.
In fact, you get a Warner Bros. touch before even meeting George Bancroft’s bondsman, Bill Bailey. A host of character actors, who seem to have run away from Warners to do their old boss a favor, buzz about Bailey in a series of short vignettes that play after the opening credits.
We see Joe Sawyer slugging Noel Francis for tipping off the cops, then telling her to get Bailey on the phone to set his bail.
Next, Etienne Girardot, who actually has a larger part in this movie, wakes up Clarence Wilson, a judge, to get him to sign a bond from his bed. Girardot leaves and the Judge’s wife (Florence Roberts) speaks up, saying what a nerve Bailey has. “He’s got a lot of influence too,” the judge replies.
Finally, a phone call to a butcher shop is answered by Herman Bing, who tells his partner Dewey Robinson that Bailey has ordered 150 turkeys for Thanksgiving. The bondsman wants these on hand to grease the palms of cops, lawyers, and anyone who can help him.
If the top billed players feel weak to you—and they’re not—never fear, plenty of familiar faces pop up throughout Blood Money. There’s Theresa Harris of Baby Face (1933) as, what else, a maid, and Van Helsing himself, Edward Van Sloan, as a department store manager whose hemorrhoids are a great source of amusement to Bailey.
Bill also gets a laugh out of former silent star Kathlyn Williams, a bar patron he seats himself next to who’s dressed in a men’s suit and wearing a monocle for extra effect. She takes a deep whiff of the long cigar he offers her and calls him, “Sissy,” leaving Bailey to knee-slap his way up stairs to Ruby’s (Judith Anderson) office. A few moments later Chick Chandler’s Drury says he has a date with the woman with the monocle and explains that she’s just a real card who likes to clown around. Drury has quite a touch with the ladies, though he paid Lucille Ball and another young woman to sit next to him at the races to keep his wolfish reputation intact. Faces everywhere!
The key players include star Bancroft, his career finally back on the upswing after his most recent film, Lady and Gent (1932) at Paramount. Then there’s Broadway import Judith Anderson as Ruby. Blood Money is Anderson’s first feature-length Hollywood film, and her last for seven years when she returned and earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress in the role of Mrs. Danvers in Best Picture-winner Rebecca (1940). Then there’s Frances Dee, usually cast as the sweet ingenue, but not this time: she’s a kleptomaniac with a gangster obsession and dreams of being dominated by a man who’ll put her in her place.
Also billed is Blossom Seeley, vaudeville star who Zanuck had previously used in Broadway Thru a Keyhole (1933). Seeley doesn’t interact with any of the characters beyond acknowledging them with a gestures from the stage, where she belts out “On San Francisco Bay” and then later brings Bailey down with her rendition of “My Melancholy Baby.”
Bancroft excels in playing crooks who’ve risen above their station and wind up with more money than class. Ladies Love Brutes (1930) is the best example of where to go next if you enjoyed this one, and vice versa. In Blood Money everyone around town loves Bancroft’s Bill Bailey, but as swell of a guy as he might be, we’re quickly shown the dark side to how he’s prospered. He’s happy to defend a boy on charges of criminal assault—as long as the defendant’s mother leaves the deed to her house with Bailey’s man (Girardot) in the outer office. Otherwise, we don’t see Bailey working very much, but when he and Ruby split, she calls him a “bloodsucker” and tells him off for taking money and possessions from desperate young women and mothers. “Get out before I break your neck,” Bailey says. The truth hurts.
The most interesting character in Blood Money is Elaine Talbart, the young woman played by Frances Dee, who Bailey meets when she arrives at his office offering a six thousand dollar ring as collateral on $1,500 bail. “Society stuff,” Bailey tells his assistant (Girardot) after using his trick phone line to eavesdrop on Elaine’s call home. Liking what he sees and knowing she has money, Bailey offers to discuss her case on the ride home. She agrees, lighting a cigarette and pocketing Bailey’s lighter, inscribed as gift from former Heavyweight champ Jack Dempsey. A few minutes later, while waiting for their burgers to be served at a drive-in diner, Elaine uses the stolen lighter right in front of him. Bailey swipes it back from her, but Elaine just smiles and says, “So what.”
Elaine has Bailey to her home for a Hawaiian-themed supper party that her father is putting on for business clients. She asks him if he’s had a lot of women in his life and this line of questioning leads her to happily confess, “I want a man who’s my master.” Bailey becomes uncomfortable with the conversation, concluding, “Elaine, you need a darn good spanking.” But Elaine’s off in her own world now: “What I need is someone to give me a thrashing. I’d follow him around like a dog on a leash.” There’s an unsettling expression of true hope that flashes across Dee’s face as she says the line. Bailey changes the subject.
Elaine eventually dumps Bailey for an even more exciting underworld figure, Ruby’s brother, Drury (Chick Chandler), also a client and pal of Bill’s. That’s when the double-crossing begins, though the incident that comes between Bailey, Ruby, and the mobs, is ignited by Elaine’s sudden attachment to Drury. Ruby, who sulks a bit too much over her loss of Bailey to the younger woman, decides that Bill has double-crossed her brother to avenge Drury’s taking Elaine away from him. Ruby’s resentment of Bill’s treatment has been growing throughout Blood Money, and it’s easy to see how a misunderstanding could lead to an extreme response.
“Aw, Ruby, I could never get stuck on any girl but you,” big lug Bailey says, shortly before he meets Elaine. The next time he comes to Ruby’s place, she’s short with him. She knows about Elaine, and he can’t understand how she always knows his business. “Because you always brag to your friends, and your friends are my friends,” she tells him. Ruby remains cool towards him, but does realize that Bailey is only trying to help when he arrives after Drury, her brother, has robbed a bank. She takes him to Drury’s apartment and Bailey convinces him to hand himself over to the police, post a bond, and walk free. Drury remarks that he’ll barely break even on this deal because most of the bonds he took are registered, meaning they can only be cashed by the people they’re registered too. Well, when Drury eventually asks Elaine to drop the good bonds off with Bailey so he can jump bail, Elaine instead hands off the worthless registered bonds. This move saddles Bailey with the entire fifty thousand dollar penalty due after Drury runs.
“He turned my brother in over a girl,” Ruby tells a room filled with gangsters, honestly believing that Drury had paid off Bailey with the good bonds and that Bill was taking revenge on Drury for stealing Elaine.
“What do you want me to do, Ruby, have him killed?” Charley (George Regas) asks, casual as can be.
“No, just break him,” Ruby replies.
Blood Money is populated by unpleasant characters, but the women are especially fascinating.
Ruby is jealous and vindictive. Her jealousy is actually refreshing at first, as she’s very open in stating exactly how she feels about Bill and what he’s done to her. Just as it begins to feel like it’s too much, the idea that Bailey has turned on her brother allows the jealousy to turn to anger. Even so, she still talks about Bill fondly and even has to stop herself from praising his finer qualities while appealing to her mobster friends to ruin him. Zanuck made an intriguing casting choice, one that caused some peers to try and politely explain that Judith Anderson did not have a conventional movie face. She didn’t test well, he was warned, and Zanuck really proved his mettle when he was reported to answer, “tests don’t mean anything in the case of a star like Miss Anderson.” He wanted an actress (Variety). The decision pays off with a strong performance in what could have been a forgettable role, especially given the dynamic part Frances Dee was handed. Besides, George Bancroft is not exactly a “conventional” leading man when it comes to what we’re talking about here, which is looks and appearance.
Frances Dee is twisted as Elaine and I expect more sensitive viewers will be turned off by her as the sort of male fantasy that period writers were prone to populating their scripts with. But Elaine isn’t that easy. Her desires remain unfulfilled until—perhaps—the very end of the film. Elaine is not after sex, she’s after excitement, and given her wealthy upbringing she looks for it in places she’d only been able to read about when she was younger. Her character is a reversal of what we often see in pre-Code melodramas. Norma Shearer excluded, those movies are usually about women of lesser means sleeping their way to wealth or using sex to acquire wealth. Elaine is rich. Her background has shielded her from lower class elements, but she grew up reading about them and watching them, and now that she’s a young woman she wants to experience them. They promise excitement. Elaine is after all that has been forbidden, and what could be more forbidden than total submission to a brute? Her final choice in Blood Money is unique and what came of it could have made a hell of a sequel, but I’m surprised that Zanuck and local censors let her go as far as she does! Right and wrong, these times and those times aside, Elaine by this point established herself as the least sympathetic character of Blood Money, so I suspect the audience is supposed to be happy that she’s going to “get hers” at the end of the film.
Except for Born to Be Bad, Zanuck’s 20th Century films were supposedly all profitable. The trade magazines indicate that Blood Money was a flop, so I’d imagine it just made it out of the red, if it even did. Despite the boost Lady and Gent had previously given Bancroft, he was not considered box office as a leading man. After Blood Money he had only one more lead during this portion of his career, in Elmer and Elsie back at Paramount. Then he drifted off the screen for a couple of years before returning for the next phase of his career, and latest comeback, as a successful supporting actor. Some of his best remembered supporting roles include Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), and gangster classic Angels with Dirty Faces (1939), which was from a story by—Rowland Brown. So in a way, that same criticism that surrounded co-star Anderson in 1933 bit Bancroft just a little later, which is a shame, because I enjoy the common characters he usually portrayed during the pre-Code era. Boisterous and ignorant, characters like Bill Bailey of Blood Money light up the screen for me. Besides this one and titles I’ve already mentioned, Ladies Love Brutes and Lady and Gent, he’s also recommended in The Mighty (1929) and Scandal Sheet (1931) from this era.
Blood Money, like most of 20th Century’s releases prior to merging with Fox, has never had a home video release. Check the FindOldMovies search engine for grey-market copies.
This post was written for the Pre-Code Blogathon being hosted by Danny of Pre-Code.com and Karen of Shadows and Satin.
In what is far from a great surprise, Danny has also written about Blood Money in the past. In fact, his post goes into a lot more detail about the shocking ending with the Frances Dee character, so be sure to check it out if you want a bit more detail about that scene.
Dipping a little further back in time, Ivan at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear includes a lot of background information about the film and even digs a little deeper into director Rowland Brown in his post (By the way, awesome pre-Code top 10, Ivan!).
Moira Finnie gives us a lot about George Bancroft in another oldie, but goodie, post at TCM's Movie Morlocks site.
Earlier this week, I posted a biography of Warren William to WarrenWilliam.com for this same Blogathon.
Check out posts from each day of the Pre-Code Blogathon here: Day One | Day Two | Day Three | Day Four
- “Hollywood Day by Day.” New Movie Magazine. Jan 1934: 18.
- “Inside Stuff—Pictures.” Variety. 29 Aug 1933: 52.
- “‘Speed’ Gets a Break.” Hollywood Reporter 20 Jun 1933: 3.
Patricia Nolan-Hall (@CaftanWoman) says
Another fascinating movie that I have missed until now. Thanks.
Cliff Aliperti says
This one is a goodie @Caftan. I love the early 20th Century stuff, it’s almost like finding bonus WB pre-Codes. Frances Dee has a great part here and really makes the most of it.
Danny @ Pre-Code.Com says
It’s been a while since I’ve seen it and I think my old review deserves an update, but I think you knocked it out of the park, Cliff. Thanks for posting it!