Warner Bros. digs deep into the vaults for the six-disc set "Warner Brothers Pictures Gangsters Collection: Volume 3." With more recognizable titles already used up for previous Gangster and Film Noir boxes, the six films chosen here are lesser-known programmers, several of which require a stretch of the imagination to consider them "gangster flicks." Still, all six titles range from good to great, and Warner once again piles on the top notch bonus material, making this set a worthy franchise entry.
The six films here - "Smart Money," "Picture Snatcher," "The Mayor of Hell," "Lady Killer," "Black Legion," and "Brother Orchid" - showcase the studio's top genre stars: Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, and Humphrey Bogart. In the case of Robinson and Cagney, we see them at the peak of their fame (and the peak of the gangster film itself, before the Hayes Code lockdown on such themes watered down the genre); Bogart's two efforts are early releases from his transition from hard-boiled supporting actor to magnetic leading man.
The key selling point for this release is the continuation of the studio's "Warner Night at the Movies" brand of extras. If you're familiar with the studio's previous releases with this fabulous feature (which originated in the VHS era but really took off with DVD), you know to expect more fun here. Viewers can choose to jump straight to the movie itself or, better yet, recreate (kinda) a complete evening's entertainment. Each "Night at the Movies" runs around a half-hour and contains a trailer, a newsreel clip, a musical short, and a cartoon, all from the era of the feature presentation. (These extras are also available to view separately.)
Not only does the "Night at the Movies" program take viewers back to a magical lost age of cinema, but it helps rescue all those one- and two-reel titles that would otherwise sink into obscurity. These shorts might not be meticulously restored, but it's better than not seeing them at all. (It's mostly the trailers and newsreels looking the worst and the shorts looking the best.) All of the shorts, like the films themselves, are Vitaphone releases. These films' soundtrack were placed not on celluloid but on special records that would play in sync with the film. The complicated nature of such exhibition, combined with the rarity of such titles, makes their appearance on home video a genuine treat. Even without such appreciation for the hard work that went into bringing these titles out of the vaults, the "time capsule" experience alone makes these bonus materials a delight.
All six films also receive a commentary track from a noted film historian or two, and the films' original trailers are also included (presented separately from the "Night at the Movies" program). When one thinks of how another studio would've handled these titles (would Paramount or Universal even bother with chapter menus?), these extras seem even sweeter.
In addition to this collection, all six titles are also available separately. As such, each movie is given its own disc, packaged in single-width keepcases. (A cardboard box holds the set.)
To avoid repetition in the following reviews, I'll mention here that all films and their extras are presented in their original black-and-white 1.33:1 full screen format. (Two shorts are in color, as originally created.) Their soundtracks are in original mono, with optional English SDH and French subtitles for the main features. The bonus material is not subtitled.
"Smart Money" (1931)
Often hyped as the only film to feature both Robinson and Cagney, "Smart Money" is actually a full-on Robinson picture with Cagney merely filling a smallish supporting role. The film was released only months after both stars hit big with "Little Caesar" and "Public Enemy," respectively, and Warners was eager to use both names during promotion. (Oddly, little has been made - even now - of the sight of a pre-"Frankenstein" Boris Karloff, seen here as a dirty mug; veteran character actor Charles Lane also makes his film debut here.)
Robinson plays Nick "The Barber" Venizelos, a Greek immigrant who runs a small town barbershop out front and a gambling parlor 'round back. He's a tough guy with a kind heart - and a softness for dames, who always talk him out of his money. Nick's seemingly endless run of good luck convinces his pals to pony up ten grand for him to enter a big-time poker game; he ends up a victim of a nasty swindle, after which he plans his revenge on the rats who done him wrong.
Few actors had the energy and charisma to keep up with the rat-a-tat pacing of pre-Code gangster flicks that Robinson had. He turns every slick bit of hoodlum slang into poetry, and his screen persona, here a gentler version of his "Rico"-style toughie, takes full command of the entire picture. Cagney, another genre pro with the charm and energy built for these kinds of quickly paced, quickly produced features, often gets lost in the corners of the picture ("Smart Money" was shot simultaneously as "Public Enemy," and most of Cagney's time and energy were spent on there instead), which is a shame, as it would've been great to see these titans square off with more equal roles. As it stands, "Smart Money" makes for a quality novelty pairing of the two, but it's really Robinson's movie all the way.
What Robinson obviously understood is how to draw sympathy from the audience for his characters. Here, he strikes a balance between his darker, harder persona and his "sap" roles from such later films as "Scarlet Street." His Nick is one heck of a nice guy, a fact at odds with the things he does here. In one early scene, he gives a blonde a C-note to cover something unsaid but is implied to be an abortion or some other seedy doing. (This may be pre-Code Hollywood, but even that scandalous era had its limits on what it would reveal out loud.) We wonder: how did a mug as affable as Nick become a local gangster with ties to thugs and prostitutes?
The movie barely gives us time to consider such a thought. Like most programmers of the era, "Smart Money" was produced with whirlwind speed and plays out with a pacing to match. The plotting takes us from small town to big city to shakedown plot planned by the local D.A., with enough schemes and doublecrosses and Nick-falls-for-the-dame antics to fill several B pictures. Even when the script stumbles while trying to provide an appropriate downfall for Nick (thus showing that crime doesn't pay, not even for a nice guy) while not depressing audiences who came to love the guy, the film manages to be terrific fun and the most consistently entertaining picture in this collection.
Video & Audio
"Smart Money" looks remarkable for its age in this transfer, which reveals only slight grain and softness; scratches and other print blemishes are kept to a surprising minimum, while the grays really pop. The soundtrack reveals some hiss but is otherwise fine.
The commentary track is from film historians Alain Silver and James Ursini. They deliver a lively, informative chat.
The "Night at the Movies" program features: the trailer for "Other Men's Women"; a newsreel clip on Al Capone; the musical short "George Jessel and His Russian Art Choir," which shows the bandleader fronting a men's chorus from Russia; the wickedly funny two-reeler "The Smart Set-Up"; and the early Harman-Ising era Looney Tunes cartoon "Big Man from the North."
The "Smart Money" trailer is also included.
"Picture Snatcher" (1933)
Jimmy Cagney had five movies released 1933, two of which premiered in back-to-back months. That's a strong output even by the standards of the Dream Factory's assembly line days. By the time "Picture Snatcher" rolled out in May, Cagney was a bona fide superstar, and it shows. Here, it's an overload of slickster charm, packaged in a fast-paced newspaper drama.
As historians Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta discuss in their commentary track on this title, Hollywood was looking for new ways to repackage the gangster formula. For "Picture Snatcher," the producers transplant Cagney out of the mob and into the newsman biz - a lateral move at best considering the era's notorious tabloid culture. (The anything-for-a-scoop mentality keeps this film sadly relevant today.) But Jimmy's no chump, and the picture still offers the same laughs and thrills as his heavier fare. The film's last-gasp deviancies before the Hayes lockdown ensure plenty of unseemly fun.
Better still: by removing its hero from the life of crime (if only technically), it allows for a finale that doesn't include prison time or a shoot-out comeuppance. There are still lessons to be learned here, and Cagney's character is still required to land in the pits before he can get a happy ending, but it's an arc that's far more honest than most of the releases of the era.
Cagney plays Danny Kean, a fast-talker and smooth-charmer fresh out of prison. Danny actually intends to go straight, no foolin'. He lands a job as a photographer at the Graphic News, one of New York's more questionable rags, and quickly connects with alcoholic editor Al McLean (Ralph Bellamy); the two become kindred spirits in their desperate attempts at recovery.
The film rockets through a series of fast-paced episodes - Danny gains fame for stealing a suicidal man's wedding photo, falls for a policeman's daughter, sneaks a camera into an execution, avoids come-ons from Al's sex-starved girlfriend, and winds up in a shoot-out with an old gangster pal, just to name a few story detours. All are directed with furious speed by studio work horse Lloyd Bacon, who turns the whole thing into a marvel of storytelling economy. Even with the rapid fire approach to the plotting (we've barely caught our breath after one key chase sequence before we're off on another angle), the film never loses touch with the big picture. Danny becomes a fully realized character on the road to redemption.
More impressive here is Bellamy, who trades in his usual aw-shucks schtick for surprisingly complex fare. His Al is every bit as fascinating as Cagney's Danny. Perhaps even more so: while Cagney gets to play around with his usual jokester attitudes, Bellamy gets no such comic relief, yet the actor still manages to bring a lightness to the role that keeps the character from sinking under from all that dramatic weight. The two play off each other with great ease, allowing us to believe the loyalty these characters ultimately have between them.
You don't usually find such detailed characterization in such programmers, which makes "Picture Snatcher" something special. Like the best of these studio quickies, this one provides audiences with a little of everything, and the entertainment value is enormous.
Video & Audio
As with "Smart Money," "Picture Snatcher" has some grain and softness, but once again the overall presentation is very sharp and commendable. Hiss issues are far less noticeable this time around (perhaps because there's barely a chance for silence in this noisy, chatter-heavy pic).
As mentioned, the commentary here is from historians Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta. It's an enjoyable listen, as the two manage to lend a natural flow to their conversation.
The "Night at the Movies" program features: the trailer for "I Loved a Woman"; a newsreel clip on "Machine Gun" Kelly; the moderately charming two-reeler "Plane Crazy" (which combines aerial tricks with oversized dance routines); and the vintage Merrie Melodies cartoon "Wake Up the Gypsy in Me."
Note: "Gyspy" includes a disclaimer featuring the same "this cartoon features embarrassing, outdated stereotypes" notice that accompanies many of Warners' other vintage cartoon collections. Curiously, despite the disclaimer's wording about maintaining the original artistic vision of these potentially offensive works, there's also a notice at the end of the short stating that this is a dubbed version produced by Turner Networks. I'm not aware of what exactly was changed, although I assume some of the tasteless dialect-heavy racial (read: "mammy") voice work was replaced, as Turner has done in the past with other cartoons (most notably several "Tom & Jerry" shorts). The alterations are seamless (I wouldn't have even known about them had I not seen that notice), and most viewers won't mind the difference, but to those interested in cartoon preservation, it's still worth a grumble.
Trailers for "Picture Snatcher" and its 1942 remake "Escape from Crime" are also included.
"The Mayor of Hell" (1933)
Speaking of racial stereotypes, Cagney's next picture, the socially charged "The Mayor of Hell," deals up such outdated notions in spades. On display here are a mushmouthed black kid (played by Farina of the "Our Gang" films) and a teenage Jewish shopkeep, just to name a few, and such intrusions, while presenting a brutally honest depiction of the culture at the time, detracts plenty and takes the overall film down a notch. Other films in this collection also feature awkward racial presentations, but this one makes it the most obvious and distracting. To its credit, the film pushes to make several of its minority characters complex and intelligent, but still, an ugly stereotype is an ugly stereotype.
That disclaimer out of the way, "The Mayor of Hell" is an awkward yet ultimately enjoyable mix of gangster drama and social commentary. The topic: juvenile delinquency and reform schools that do little more than create breeding grounds for future criminals. There's an interlude in which Cagney's character gets mixed up in some gangster doings, but none of it really fits, and the movie works best when it's following the kids' story.
Indeed, although Cagney's star status grants him top billing, it's clear from the start that this is the boys' picture. (Heck, Jimmy doesn't even show up until some twenty-plus minutes into the thing.) This fact did not escape Warners, who borrowed large chunks of the plot to produce two loose remakes, 1938's "Crime School" and 1939's "Hell's Kitchen," both of which starred the Dead End Kids. (Side note, for those keeping score at home: "Crime School" featured Bogart in the Cagney role. In "Hell's Kitchen," the part went to Stanley Fields, although by this time the plot had been reworked to center instead on a lawyer character played by Ronald Reagan.)
"The Mayor of Hell" is arguably the darkest version of the tale. We open in the slums, where young Jimmy Smith (Frankie Darro) and his gang trash a candy store and brutally beat its owner. In court, the film makes its first obvious yet hard-hitting statement: poverty and neglect have driven these children to an early life of crime. One by one, these kids' parents address the judge. Some of them are drunkards, others violent thugs themselves. Others still are good parents, or at least they try to be, but their economic state leaves them unable to escape the ghettoes; it's also suggested that some of these better parents have turned a blind eye to their kids' behavior, which leaves them just as guilty as the more blatantly "bad" parents.
The boys are shipped off to a reform school, which is run with an iron fist by the near-sadistic Mr. Thompson (Dudley Digges). The school is part military academy, part prison camp, with Thompson as its warden. Enter "Patsy" Gargan (Cagney), a former gangster who's in with the county's political bigwigs. Patsy was granted a cushy job - big pay for zero work - that involves a quick visit to the school; he arrives just as Jimmy is clashing with Thompson, and suddenly his heart changes. Patsy demands (and gets) control of the school, and with wise nurse Dorothy Griffith (Madge Evans) to guide him, he institutes sweeping changes, dropping the prison attitude and granting the boys a system of self-government.
The themes of reform and crime are far from subtle, but few things in this picture are. Digges overplays (in a good way) his villainy to melodramatic extent. The boys' ups and downs are treated with equal over-the-topness; by the end of the picture, when Thompson has regained control of the school and the kids lead a revolt, it's a marvel of storytelling excess. (The boys form a torch-wielding mob! There's a fire in the barn!) And yet we roll with it, because despite the excesses, the story still finds a way to move us.
There's a subplot in which Patsy shoots a man in self-defense and winds up on the lam (more exaggerated melodrama), and none of it ever quite clicks. It's obviously dropped into the story as a means of playing up Cagney's gangster image. Still, his performance is quite strong (as are all of the performances here, especially Darro's), and once again we're given a little of everything in our night at the movies.
Video & Audio
"The Mayor of Hell" seems to have been cobbled together from various sources; most of the film looks very vibrant and clean, although some shots are slightly grainier, often right around scene transitions. (One wonders if this restores any of the edits that were made to the picture.) It's not at all distracting, though, and the "lesser" bits still look pretty darn good. The soundtrack is also quite sharp.
Historian Greg Mank tackles commentary duties this time. He's racing to squeeze in every last fascinating piece of trivia, which keeps things well-paced.
The "Night at the Movies" program features: the trailer for "The Kennel Murder Case"; a newsreel on G-men's anti-crime efforts; the one-reel short "The Audition," whose flimsy plot provides an excuse for a parade of musical acts; and the Merrie Melodies cartoon "The Organ Grinder." The cartoon contains the same disclaimer and dubbing notice as "Wake Up the Gypsy in Me."
Trailers for "The Mayor of Hell," "Crime School," and "Hell's Kitchen" round out the disc.
"Lady Killer" (1933)
Cagney rounded out the year with "Lady Killer," a scattershot project that juggles gangster thrills and Hollywood self-parody in a plot that's so random it teeters on schizophrenia. It's also tons of fun, even when nothing quite adds up - thanks almost entirely to Cagney's charming handling of the material.
The picture opens with Dan Quigley (Cagney) getting duly fired from his job as a movie palace usher. (But first, we get to see him harass a few customers with the sort of sinister glee usually performed by Bugs Bunny.) The whole usher opening has nothing to do with anything, however, and soon we're off to the first real chunk of plot: Dan gets scammed by con lady Myra Gale (Mae Clarke) and a gang of chumps run by her brother-in-law, Spade (Douglass Dumbrille). In an odd twist, Dan muscles his way into the gang and takes over, and within a month he's running the swingingest gambling hall in town.
The film settles down with this portion of the story for a while, as Dan reaches the big leagues with Myra as his moll and Spade's men as his muscle. Spade pushes Dan into a robbery racket, but the thugs take things too far and a victim is killed. Dan hightails it to Los Angeles, where Spade and Myra make off with his cash and leave him to dry.
Which sets up the next shift in the story: Dan, down on his luck, is discovered by a Hollywood scout, who hires him to do stunt work. In no time (and I do mean no time) Dan's a genuine movie star, enjoying the big life and happy to leave his life of crime behind him. But Spade just won't leave him alone, and after a lengthy series of movie spoofery, hot romance, and fancy parties, the film turns yet another corner, bringing back the gangster angle for an action-heavy finale.
Trying to keep up with "Lady Killer" is enough to wear anyone down; the patchwork movie feels like it was made up of unused ideas the producers had left over from eight or nine other movies. The key to this one is to just go with the flow. Attempting to make the pieces fit is a failing enterprise, and director Roy Del Ruth seems to have known it: he keeps everything plowing ahead at such a speedy clip that even when you're confused, thinking you've missed some vital plot connection, you're still entertained. His leading man is in full force, and the script's many episodes are all briskly written and work beautifully as standalone pieces. As a result, what should be this set's most frustrating entry winds up instead as a fully satisfying, if totally manic, joyride.
Video & Audio
The grain is minimal, and the grays are sharp and vibrant - of the three entries from 1933 in this collection, this one looks the best. The soundtrack's top notch, too, sounding very clean.
The commentary track on this disc features Dr. Drew Caspar, yet another film historian. Caspar makes his comments intelligent and enlightening.
The "Night at the Movies" program features: the trailer for "Footlight Parade" (one of Cagney's other 1933 releases); a newsreel clip focusing on Alcatraz; the limp short "The Camera Speaks," which recycles old newsreel and silent film footage in a one-reeler version of a flashback episode; a delirious south-of-the-border musical two-reeler called "Kissing Time"; and the Merrie Melodies cartoon "The Shanty Where Santy Claus Lives." Once more, the cartoon contains the disclaimer and dubbing notice, but more mysterious is why a Christmas-themed short would appear here.
The "Lady Killer" trailer is also included.
"Black Legion" (1937)
The collection now moves away from Cagney and on to Bogie. Humphrey Bogart had been churning out supporting roles at Warners for a few years and finally gained notoriety in 1936's "The Petrified Forest." It was enough to promote him to leading roles, the first of which would be found in "Black Legion," a social drama chronicling the dangers of secret fascist organizations. It's not a gangster movie, making its appearance in this set questionable, but it's an interesting example of Hollywood message movies of the 30s - and a curious snapshot of a star on the rise, not yet defined by what would come to be known as his sheer Bogart-ness.
With his turn in "Black Legion," Bogart shuffles loose from the tough guy characters that led him to this point in his career. He plays Frank Taylor, a down-on-his-luck everyman working in a machine shop who's dismayed to find himself passed over for promotion. His disappointment turns to anger as co-workers and a hate-mongering radio personality introduce him to racism: "foreigners" cost him his promotion, and "foreigners" are ruining the "American" way of life.
It should be noted that we've now entered the Hayes Code era of Hollywood, and the self-censorship that came with it leaves much of the issues in "Black Legion" unspoken. As such, "foreigners" becomes a code word in this movie, replacing a laundry list of ethnic and religious groups; "Americans," meanwhile, is the script's code word for "whites." Such euphemisms, obvious though they may be, water down the film's impact, and several scenes pull their punches, only hinting at darker matters. There's too much that needs to be said that isn't.
Frank is ultimately lured into the Black Legion, a barely-concealed surrogate for the Klan. He hopes that the power of their fraternity will rub off on him, and here the film makes its sharpest, if subtlest, points. Frank finally gets that promotion he craved (thanks to the evils of the Legion), and his confidence is restored - but he shows it by going on a shopping spree, buying a new car, a vacuum cleaner for his wife, a new baseball bat for his son. He's equating material possessions for personal value. A new convertible? Now he's somebody! Similar notions surface when Frank poses with his new handgun, a symbol of authority and masculinity he's long craved.
The movie works best when it's underplaying things. Listen as Frank stumbles through his Black Legion oath, tripping over big words he obviously doesn't understand. The film suggests that such hate groups feed off the uneducated, and Bogie smartly plays into this theory without ever forcing the issue.
Things go a little too far off the rails in the overlong final act, which follows a court case designed to recap all the story's big themes, provide a cathartic downfall for its villains, and perhaps pad out the running time. But we're still riveted by the central character study and the powerful performance that brings it to life. Bogart would quickly return to playing tough guys and second fiddles; as an introduction to Bogie as leading man, his talents are on full display here.
Video & Audio
"Black Legion" gets a rich, sharp transfer that's nicely balanced; the nighttime shots truly stand out. The soundtrack is clean and clear, with minimal hiss.
Historians Anthony Slide and Patricia King Hanson are on hand for the commentary, and their conversation is breezy and amiable. A fun listen.
The "Night at the Movies" program features: the trailer for "The Perfect Specimen"; a newsreel clip featuring g-men disposing of confiscated weapons; the dynamite musical short "Hi De Ho" (you can never go wrong with Cab Calloway!); "Under Southern Stars," a color two-reeler celebrating the last days of Stonewall Jackson (what were they thinking, putting Cab's jazzy antics back-to-back with a "the South will rise again!" drama?!); and the Merrie Melodies cartoon "Porky and Gabby," starring Porky Pig and Gabby, an obnoxious goat with Popeye's voice. "Hi De Ho" comes with the same disclaimer granted the cartoons mentioned above.
The trailer for "Black Legion" rounds out the disc.
"Brother Orchid" (1940)
Just charming enough to keep it from becoming a dud, "Brother Orchid" is certainly the weakest entry in this collection. Released in 1940, years after the Hayes Code diluted the gangster genre, the movie finds Edward G. Robinson in between his status as a gangster icon of the 1930s and a film noir icon of the 40s. It's a playful little movie, eager to gently rib the conventions of the gangster film without ever turning completely to parody - the laughs here are light smiles, not big guffaws, and Robinson's deft handling of the material makes it worth the time.
Gangland bigwig "Little" Johnny Sarto (Robinson) has grown tired of racketeering and ventures off to Europe, leaving his business in the hands of the morally questionable Jack Buck (Bogart, back in one of those second fiddle roles). Jack's none too happy to see Johnny return years later, and soon he's set up to be rubbed out. A chase leads Johnny into the woods, where he's shot in the back and left for dead.
All of this fills the first half of the movie, but it's only exposition: the main plot kicks in when an injured Johnny, barely alive, makes his way to a monastery. The monks nurse him back to health, and Johnny is baffled as to why they ask for nothing in return. Indeed, the monks' very way of life - they grow flowers to sell, donating all proceeds to charity - amuses the mug, and he finds their quick forgiveness and promise of anonymity to be the perfect answer to his problems.
Laying low under the new name "Brother Orchid," Johnny gets a kick out of how easily he's able to swindle his trusting new brothers. Ah, but Jack Buck's swindling them, too, and Johnny won't have any of that. If you've seen any of the dozens of slickster-in-hiding movies that have followed in this picture's footsteps, you'll know the rest: Johnny uses his street smarts to win one for his new friends, and he just might have a change of heart along the way.
If "Lady Killer" was scattershot, "Brother Orchid" is scatterbrained. It wanders aimlessly for a good half hour before remembering where the plot was supposed to lead us, and spends its last half hour rambling with equal nonchalance. Like the monks Johnny discovers, this screenplay's in no hurry to go anywhere and do anything. Which frustrates at times, as the story doesn't seem to be following any path, and the gangster bits and the monastery bits seldom feel like they connect. (There's also a likeable yet wholly superfluous subplot involving Ralph Bellamy and Ann Southern, just to clutter up things even more.)
And yet there's a sweetness at play that sweeps us up in its charms. Robinson's Johnny - even before his moral transformation - is a gentle spirit, a genuine nice guy gangster. (We never believe that this guy dips too deeply into the well of crime.) His schemes are lighthearted, never cruel, and his constant smile (with that wide, wide, wide Robinson mouth) makes his reform a delight. Robinson rarely got the chance to play a role as light and joyful as this, and he's obviously relishing the opportunity. It's his delicate touch that keeps us watching, and grinning.
Video & Audio
Once again, "Brother Orchid" looks fabulous here, with dazzling grays, crisp, clean lines, and that minimal grain. The soundtrack also comes through very well, once again with only minimal hiss.
The commentary is provided by historians Alan L. Gansberg and Eric Lax, who deliver a informational discussion as frothy as the movie itself.
The "Night at the Movies" program features: the trailer for "It All Came True"; a newsreel clip showing Warners' top stars enjoying a day at the races (the first half of this clip is without audio, and the second half is without narration); the dazzling musical short "Henry Busse and His Orchestra," in which the band plays a solid selection of hits; the Merrie Melodies cartoon "Busy Bakers" (in color); and a second Merrie Melodies short, the Porky Pig cartoon "Slap Happy Pappy."
The "Brother Orchid" trailer is also included.
In a time when most studios are content cranking out library titles as no-frills discs with mediocre transfers, this box set is a delightful change of pace. These may be "lesser" titles from the Warners vault, but you wouldn't know it from the admirable transfers and overwhelming bonus material. "Gangsters Collection: Volume 3" is Highly Recommended to even the most casual fan of classic Hollywood.