Transcendence in the Cheap, a take on Blonde Crazy (1931)

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You might have money, yeah, and a big fine car
It don’t matter what you look like, no, no it don’t matter who you are
Son, don’t you know you can’t win all the time
Sometime you’re gonna have to lose
Just as long as you live, you got to take as well as give
‘Cause everybody’s got to pay some dues, now, now
Everybody’s got to pay some dues

-Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, ‘Everybody’s Gotta Pay Some Dues’ (Tamla 54048), 1961

 

Roy Del Ruth’s 1931 pre-code classic Blonde Crazy is forever known as the film that unleashed the wonderful James Cagney/Joan Blondell combination onto the world, and that’d be enough to ensure its place in the annuals of cinematic lore (regardless of Warner Brothers negligent attitude toward home video availability). Roy Del Ruth is little more than a director of a camera needing to be set in front of either of the stars for maximum affect; Jonathan Rosenbaum was correct when he said the films stars where actually the films auteurs. But lets not go too far (Andrew Sarris does when he says Del Ruth “seemed more a trend follower than a trend setter”, but then of course he’ll be overly dismissive as he doesn’t even indicate the clearly masterful Blonde Crazy in italics, i.e. his key for works in a directors career of “special interest”) there are nice touches here and there; subtle camera zooms and readjustments, a nice action set piece car chase with destructive climax, and pleasant pace and ordering of information. Yeomen work I suppose, but here is a film the sum of its star quality, and Del Ruth is competent enough to foster this.


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We remain, throughout the films 79 minutes, seated in the throes of a just blossoming Cagney as the quick-witted and doubly quick-tempered Bert, and the growing-less-naïve-by-the-minute Anne (Blondell), a pair to match any in cinema’s many decades. Their performances cut to the exact core of a bygone idea of film, the unexpected discovery of art in a time when you showed up to see anything and everything to pass the time, a time before the distributors and critics divided and subdivided everything as ‘must see’, ‘hight art’, and ‘avoid’ or ‘popcorn fluff’. Here is a film, the story of a low-level con man (Bert) who finds a partner—in work, not love—in Anne and thinks a big score is set to happen only to see it explode in his face by a more experienced pro. In his scramble to get back Anne’s share, Bert works outside the duo and does something he’d never normally do, which sets in motion the wheels to which will eventually produce his decline. In the process his loss of Anne (to the supposedly clean Joe, played by another future heavyweight Ray Milland) is a metaphor for his recently lost moral criminal code, and as he reemerges we see a man without the zest for life (i.e. energy to produce the next fast con). When Anne herself reemerges to tell Bert that Joe isn’t the squeaky clean man his image and love of poetry would imply, Bert trades his past wholesale for one heroic selfless act: to provide an out for Joe (that’s really a means to provide Anne continued marital stability). Joe ends up double crossing Bert to fully cover up his gaff(e), and in the ensuing high speed chase Bert takes a gunshot wound to his back right shoulder which prompts a violent collision with a storefront when he loses control of his automobile. Amidst all this the characters approach every criminal act with sardonic youthful zeal, prompting many to categorize the film as either amoral or highly moral since the offender(s) see (offensive) justice at the films climax with punishments being doled out legislatively (Bert) or as endless contrition (Anne).

A reading like this would seem to me to be slightly shortsighted, as not only is it a wonderful pun when Cagney spouts that the Age of Chivalry is dead and in its place a new Age of Chiselry, it’s quite literal too. These are a pair of hoodlums in a world full of them and with nothing but them; they no better or worse than any other (and I suppose you could argue they, being particularly non-violent—save the few great cracking slapstick slaps—and adhering to a strict code of cheating only cheaters, are better than most of the lot in relation). It’s a world of con and leer, and it’s top down, the morality preached only one of a Crime Movie genre ethos. Necessary to unite our loves at the end when the petty justice is served (meaning Bert and Anne’s moral pangs prompt them closer in action and heart), and the pecking order of criminals reestablished. Cagney and Blondell dared to ascend in a way that the world operated and responded to, and in the end a banker, rather a stock market manipulator and several dirty cops, will smack him (and therefor them) back down to the gutter.

The films tearful moral close, where Cagney collectively pays the due both have indebted from years of corruption, is a poetic wonder to behold. He’s flayed out on a prison cot as his shoulder heals from the tommy gun wound he’s received in the aforementioned car chase when Blondell’s Anne tearfully recounts her guilt for positioning him in the scam and associating with such an untrustworthy man like Joe. The touching scene—Cagney is never this nakedly open with his emotions (in this or any of his films)—seems to me to have been on the mind of Samuel Fuller when he closes his Pickup On South Street in similar redemptive heartfelt passages for his criminal, and the connection is made all the more clear when Robert Bresson closes his Pickpocket (a film said to have been made in response to a love for the Fuller flick) in an even more closely referential way; his film pays homage to the Fuller for the duration before leapfrogging that source and going to Blonde Crazy for its close. Pickpocket‘s two lovers reach final transcendence as the male protagonist faces an extended larceny jail term with only a brief touch of hands available to the them (Bresson adds extra angst to the unrequited nature of it all by wonderfully further separating the pair by a network of interlocking iron bars, but then the touching of a hand is enough as hands have been fetishized the entire film as they are sole tool needed for a good pickpocket). Cagney’s version is just as fatalistic, but it’s also fantastic; he creates enough joy with one last “HON-nee!” to warm us all over. With an arm outstretched, seemingly forever, Cagney lets several fingers linger as if he’s forever entrenched elsewhere—perhaps a Sistine Chapel?—touching wonderment he’ll hopefully see elsewhere. The Michelangelo is a touch of life from God to man ushering in habitation on earth, and so is this. We’d imagine the tenderness sustaining him through the years pounding rock and when he is set to touchdown on earth again, his angel has promised to be waiting.

Can prison be a heaven, a holding cell the pearly gates? What exactly did Genet say again?

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