Blonde Crazy (1931)

“The age of chivalry is past – this, honey, is the age of chiselry!”
That’s the line everyone quotes from Blonde Crazy, James Cagney and Joan Blondell’s madcap early comedy-drama about a bellhop and a hotel maid who become partners in crime. But, after watching the film for the second time,  it’s just struck me that, in the end, the movie goes against this claim by Cagney’s loveable rogue character, Bert.
 
 
Spoilers behind cut


Yes, everybody in sight is crooked – and, if you meet somebody soft-spoken and well-dressed, you can bet they want to smooth-talk you out of your cash. Even smarmy Joe (Ray Milland), who woos Blondell away from Cagney by getting something out of her eye (shades of Brief Encounter) and giving her a book of poetry, turns out to be a thief in pinstripes.
However, when the comedy turns to melodrama in the last 20 minutes, Bert himself risks his freedom and even his life to save the worthless Joe, just because he is married to the woman Bert himself loves, Ann. That’s chivalry, not chiselry …

 
Before the mood abruptly changes, most of the film, directed by Roy del Ruth,  is very funny. There are moments of inspired silliness, like the pre-code scene where Cagney barges in on Blondell in the bath – before stuffing money into her spare bra. There’s also a lot of wisecracking dialogue between them, making this one of their most enjoyable movies together – though I think Footlight Parade is even more fun. Both characters combine toughness, down-to-earth wit and vulnerability, and the chemistry between them is a delight. As a fan of 19th-century poetry in general and Robert Browning in particular, I enjoyed the scene where Cagney decides to read a few lines from one of his poems – though unfortunately, due to the fact that I was giggling too much at his affected voice in this scene,  I haven’t yet worked out which poem he is reading! If anyone knows, do tell.
“Honey, I’m Santa Claus, Robin Hood and the goose that laid the golden eggs all rolled into one,” Bert tells Ann at one point – and that’s really almost how their crimes feel, like Robin Hood defying the sheriff, except of course that, unlike Santa or Robin, they don’t give any of the money away.
This is very much a movie of the Great Depression, with the couple as the little man and woman up against the world – and forcing it to give them a living. The first con they play on a lecherous hotel guest is a perfect example of a crime where the audience is easily able to sympathise with the villains rather than worrying about their target. The victim is a dirty old man who let himself in for it by trying to grope Ann (Blondell), and also he is only hurt in the pocket-book, so who’s bothered about him?  It’s also fun watching how cleverly the con is worked, as with other tricks later in the film – especially the one where Ann manages to get her own back on a criminal who earlier double-crossed Bert. Just about all the victims of their cons could be said to deserve it, except for a jeweller and his customer, and, let’s face it, they are far too rich for anyone to worry about in the world of this film. 
 
The first time I saw the movie, I wasn’t keen on the way it suddenly changes tack, changing from frothy comedy to a darker crime drama, with a sequence where Cagney gets shot and wounded.   However, after re-watching, I’ve changed my mind to some extent. Even if it was the Hays office who dictated this ending, I think it works well by showing the danger beneath all the jokey antics – and what a life of crime is really likely to lead to, wherever your sympathy lies. It never gets too dark,  anyway. Even in the last scene, in a prison hospital after being shot, Cagney’s character is still joking, and still drawling “Hon…ey” to Blondell. 
Several of Cagney’s early films had their names changed to sound sexier – with Penny Arcade becoming Sinners’  Holiday and The Steel Highway being renamed Other Men’s Women, despite the fact that only one “other man’s woman” is involved. The same sort of retitling went on with Blonde Crazy, which was originally supposed to be called Larceny Lane – and even shown under that title to a few critics.  The original title is in some ways more appropriate, since Cagney’s character, Bert, is far more mad about organising con tricks and making money than he is about women. He’s also only really crazy about one blonde, even if he makes eyes at a few more. However, I think the frothy title does give more of a flavour of the silly, fun atmosphere for much of the film.
The picture on the imported video I bought is pretty shaky and fuzzy, so I do wish they would bring it out on DVD and sharpen up the print.
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13 thoughts on “Blonde Crazy (1931)

  1. Great review. I’ve only seen “Blonde Crazy” one time (I somehow lost the recording–boo hiss!), but I love whenever Cagney and Blondell are paired together. Their chemistry is fantastic! And I love, love, LOVE Cagney’s “Hoooooney’s!” Adorable.

    I just hate Ray Milland’s character in this one. What a creep. I’m not a big fan of the sudden dramatic change near the end of the film and I hate how it ends with Cagney sitting in the the hospital prison, while you never get to see Milland get his just desserts. I would have liked to see him in prison, frankly. Reading your review though, I do agree with how it shows you what a life of crime leads to. But still!

    Warner’s always had odd titles for their films. There are quite a few of the pre-codes whose titles make me scratch my head, since they really don’t match the plot of the film.

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  2. Thanks, Rebecca.:) I hate Milland’s character, too – creep is right. It’s just struck me that, after the code came in, I don’t suppose he would have been allowed to get away with his crime.

    Warner really need to bring this one out on DVD. It seems to be a popular movie, so I hope sooner or later they will get to it…

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  3. I enjoyed this review too. It is lovely to have a place where one can write fully what’s in one’s mind and do it justice.

    Ray Milland often played creeps — I seem to recall.

    It’s almost uncanny how these censorers light on just what is subversive in something (showing they have insight and can think) and replace it with the warning lesson, that which trivializes and other distracting and erasing ploys. If they can see it so clearly, it makes one hope many other people in an audience could have. In a way this is a heartening thought.

    Ellen

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  4. Thanks for the encouragement, Ellen. I’m hoping I manage to keep this blog up and put some content into it – often I find that, if I’ve just watched one of these old films, I’m wandering about thinking about it for ages, so hopefully I will manage to work out a few more thoughts.:)

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  5. Hi Judy,

    This is a film that has been on my want list for a long time. I know it was released on VHS years ago, however it is hard to find. I am praying TCM will one day show it. I love both Cagney and Joan Blondell. I just added your blog to my links on my blog. Thanks for adding 24 Frames to yours. I will be checking back often.

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  6. Hi John, thanks for visiting and commenting – I’m full of admiration for 24 Frames. Thanks for adding my blog to your links.

    I got hold of ‘Blonde Crazy’ on an old VHS, but would also be very pleased to see it turning up on TCM, as then I could get a better copy!

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  7. Judy,

    Finally, got to see “Blonde Crazy.” Apparently, it was on TCM here in the States back in January. It is is strange that I missed it, because I usually comb over the TCM schedule all the time searching for gems to record. I recently got hold of an “unoffical release” (it has the TCM logo at the bottom of the screen) and watched it this past weekend. I loved it. Cagney and Blondell made a great team. The dialogue is very witty and the film is just a lot of fun. I am writing a review for my blog which will post some time early next year.

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  8. Hi John, glad you got to see it at last! It’s all too easy to miss a rare film in the TV schedules – I must admit I’m always failing to spot the gems, however well I think I’m checking. I definitely agree that Cagney and Blondell are a great team in this film – and will look forward to reading your review.

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  9. Love Cagney and Blond Crazy is one of my favorites. trying to collect all of his films, however not all are on DVD. If anyone knows of a Cagney/fan website, please share. Thanks
    Barbara

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  10. nice piece–and very nice blog!

    Blonde Crazy is one of my all-time favourites–and I actually love the way it veers crazily from mood to mood, ending up in a more upbeat preview of the self-sacrificing Cagney that we’d see in Roaring Twenties

    I found my way here through Only The Cinema… not much to do at work today, so I’m gonna raid your archives!

    Dave

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  11. Thanks, Dave! I wasn’t quite sure what to think of ‘Blonde Crazy’ the first time I saw it, but it has grown on me and I’m now quite keen on the wild veering around from mood to mood too.

    Hope you find something in the archives that you like…

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  12. Pingback: Blonde Crazy (1931) Review, with Cagney and Blondell | Pre-Code.Com

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