Big City Blues (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932)

I’ve been meaning to write about one or two more obscure pre-Codes that I’ve seen in the last few weeks, but haven’t got round to it and my memory of some of them is already starting to fade. So here is a short posting on one of these, Big City Blues, starring Joan Blondell and with an all-too brief, though memorably violent, appearance by an uncredited Humphrey Bogart. Sadly, this movie isn’t on DVD as yet, though it is yet another one that we can hope Warner Archive may release. This posting is mainly an excuse to post the pictures and posters I’ve gathered together of this film.

This film, a predictable tale of a young man from the country who finds New York life too much for him, is really a very slight offering, at only 65 minutes. However, having said that, anything featuring Bogart or Blondell surely has an interest, while director LeRoy also has a following, and went on to do a great job on the better-known Three on a Match and I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.  Big City Blues  is also worth looking out for its typically gritty Warner Brothers’ portrayal of New York City life in the Great Depression. I saw this around the same time as Alfred E Green’s Parachute Jumper, an early Bette Davis film made the following year, and the two have slightly blurred together in my mind. Between them, the two give a picture of rootless young people wandering round the big city in search of a living, a good time, or just a meal.

Humphrey Bogart and Lyle Talbot

Although the biggest name in this film today is bit-part actor Bogart, the  main star at the time was 23-year-old Eric Linden, who also starred with Blondell in Howard Hawks’ The Crowd Roars (a film which I love but hardly anyone else does).  He plays young Bud Reeves, a country boy who inherits just over a thousand dollars and decides to seek his fortune in New York. He tries to give his scene-stealing pet dog to the stationmaster in his Indiana home town (Warner regular Grant Mitchell), but he has a feeling he will be handing the animal back in a few days.

On arrival in New York, Bud books into a hotel where he meets up with his cousin,  Gibbony (Walter Catlett). He is an all-too obvious conman who claims to know all the important people in the city, and tries to overawe  Bud at the same time as relieving him of large chunks of his money. Despite the film’s short running time, it does seem quite slow at this point, as Catlett absolutely steals the show with long speeches about all his powerful friends, and hardly lets anyone else get a word in.  I also found it quite disturbing to watch Bud trustingly handing over piles of notes, and wondered if this was leading up to scenes of him penniless and hungry later on, but in fact the film never goes there.

Cousin Gibbony grandly treats Bud to a boozy all-night party in his hotel suite (paying with Bud’s own  money, of course) and introduces him to showgirl Vida (Blondell). This is very much a typical Blondell part, as she plays a tough, poor young woman who has to live on her wits but who still has an underlying warmth, and becomes protective to the vulnerable Bud. Linden failed to impress critics at the time because he makes Bud seem so gormless, with his mouth hanging open at times – but I think he is noticeably better in the more serious scenes than he is in some of the uneasy comic sequences. Anyway, the party goes badly wrong when two young men who have had too much to drink, played by Bogart and Lyle Talbot, fall out violently over a girl, also drunk – and the girl (Josephine Dunn) ends up dead. All the guests beat a hasty retreat and poor Bud finds himself prime suspect for murder, but Vida takes pity on him and tries to help him out of the jam.

Eric Linden and Joan Blondell with Walter Catlett - not sure who the other actress is

The most memorable things about this film for me are a weary Bogart snapping out his few lines, Blondell’s warm performance, and Clarence Muse, who is uncredited, singing Every Day Can be a Sunday in a nightclub scene. This is really one for Bogart or Blondell completists, but worth seeing, though I wish LeRoy had decided to make it a bit less predictable by sparing us the ending where Bud goes back home to the country. And yes, his pet dog is waiting to steal that scene too.

Eric Linden and Joan Blondell

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22 thoughts on “Big City Blues (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932)

  1. As you may know, we are enduring a depression for about 3/4s of the US population here . The top 1/5 are doing very well, and the top 1% obscenely rich. We have no movies recording this so this movie has a noble agenda. There is a problem: the glamour. There is this persistent injection of glamor which changes much that the metaphor reaches out to.

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  2. As you may know, we are enduring a depression for about 3/4s of the US population here . The top 1/5 are doing very well, and the top 1% obscenely rich. We have no movies recording this so this movie has a noble agenda.

    Just try to imagine any movie today, made for beyond the art-house crowd, trying to point something like that out. Don’t worry, I can’t either.

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  3. Thanks, Ellen and Vincent. Hope I haven’t misled you, this is really a very slight movie and doesn’t have a lot about the poverty – as you say, Ellen, the world of this movie is quite glamorous, with people all dressed up and moving from one party to another, but I think there is a feeling of desperation underlying it all.

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  4. It’s not inconceivable that Bud wouldn’t see much poverty, he has a good chunk of change with him (for 1932) and Gibbony wouldn’t be one to remind him of something that sordid for fear of losing his meal ticket.

    Judy, you’re right that this movie is very slight. It’s rather surprising that Mervyn LeRoy couldn’t milk a little more excitement out of it (the party and fight are the best bits, although I like Catlett’s blathering conman, too). I’ve been fortunate enough to have seen almost all the films Joan Blondell was in during this period. Most of her films made then were more memorable. The Famous Ferguson Case, Make Me A Star, and Central Park are three which have Joan spending a lot of time with young men of varying levels of naivete, all from 1932. I don’t think Linden’s hick from the sticks is more foolish than, say, Stuart Erwin’s in Make Me A Star (though Linden’s name in the film, Bud, is just too on the nose), but the problem with the film is how minimalist it is in plot, and it is awfully similar to a lot of films made earlier about the evils and temptations young men find when going to “the big city”.

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    • Dead right about Gibbony – as he carries on trying to cut a grand figure with no visible means of support. I’d like to track down more of Blondell’s early work, so will bear these titles in mind, thanks – I like Erwin a lot in Hawks’ ‘Ceiling Zero’ with Cagney, so would also be interested to see more of him. As you say, this film is not one of LeRoy’s best, but I still found it worth a look. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this and the comparisons with other films, which give an interesting perspective.

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  5. Well Judy, it appears that at the very least this is another successful example of the Warners’ telling depiction of New York City life during the Depression era years, and a showcase for Blondell, and to a lesser degree, Bogart. The absence on DVD is lamentable (I rarely watch Turner, so I haven’t seen this) but I agree this is a very good prospect for Warner Archives. Ah, Judy, you’ve done quite a bit more than just post pictures and posters, and I again much appreciate the scholarship in bringing another rarity up for discussion.

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    • With the star names in the cast, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Warner goes for this one, though there are quite a few early Bogarts which still aren’t on DVD – something I find quite puzzling as you’d think there would be enough of his completists to guarantee sales.Thanks very much for the encouragement, Sam, and we are agreed on ‘I Am a Fugitive’.

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  7. Judy, the closest I’ve come to watching this movie is a few excerpts on YT. It looks like it’d be worth watching once. And count me as a fan of THE CROWD ROARS; my 14 y/o son also is a fan (though honestly, he’s more interested in the cars than anything else). Eric Linden’s star seemed to be rising in the early ’30s, and then phhththtth, it fizzled. Last year I was able to watch LIFE BEGINS, in which he was very effective playing against Loretta Young. I’ve seen him in a few other films, the most unusual of which is THE SILVER CORD. Laura Hope Crews plays a mother with an unhealthy fixation on her sons, one of whom is Linden; yeah, pre-Code for sure.

    Mervyn LeRoy was an interesting, versatile director. I think too often the studio directors get short shrift by today’s critics b/c simply b/c they worked in the studio system. But that doesn’t change the fact that many of these studio directors were creative and competent. LeRoy was at the helm of many excellent and worthy films: FIVE STAR FINAL, RANDOM HARVEST, GOLD DIGGERS OF ’33, TWO SECONDS, ANTHONY ADVERSE, CHAIN GANG, THE BAD SEED, and on it goes. BIG CITY BLUES may not be his best, but then no one’s resume’ is perfect. Thanks for another great, informative review!

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    • Thanks for the interesting background info on Eric Linden – I recently got hold of a huge book with details of all the Warner movies up to the 1970s, and saw that he was the lead in several in the early 1930s.’Life Begins’ and ‘The Silver Cord’ both sound interesting, and I’m a fan of Loretta Young’s early work so that is an added attraction for the first of these. Glad to hear someone else likes The Crowd Roars’, should have known you would as it is such a great role for Cagney. It was one of those I was tempted to see at the Hawks Festival at the BFI in London earlier this year, but the scheduling didn’t fall right for me to fit that in and I saw ‘Ball of Fire’ and ‘Come and Get It’ instead – I still haven’t seen any Cagney on the big screen, though I hope to get the opportunity! I agree with you that LeRoy’s list of films is impressive and that it is a shame the “studio directors” don’t get more credit. Thanks again, CagneyFan!

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  8. My first post may have gotten lost in cyberspace, or this may turn out to be a duplicate.
    Anyway, this is one film I have been searching for a long, long time. As you probably know, I am a big Blondell and Bogart fan so this film is a must see. Hopefully, it will pop up on DVD or on TCM. Your review only makes my appetite for this film that much more desirable. Thanks!

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    • John, I got both messages, thanks – and yes, I think you’ve mentioned Blondell and Bogart once or twice.:) Anyway, the good news is that your wait should be over in a couple of months – I’ve just checked at the TCM site and I see this movie is showing on TCM in the US on Wednesday, August 24 at 07:15 am (ET)! I saw it in a pretty ropy old copy, but I would guess TCM will have a better print. Look forward to hearing what you think of it when you finally get to see it!

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  9. Yes! CagneyFan is absolutely right about Life Begins, Linden is very effective in that film. I also enjoyed Glenda Farrell doing a bit of scene stealing in the maternity ward.

    I just realized that the “young man goes to the big city, finds it a harsh, cold place, and comes home chastened but wiser” plot was given a twist in another Warner film, the Joe E. Brown comedy The Tenderfoot. Like Linden, Brown also shows up in NYC with a bankroll but unlike Linden, he looks every inch the mark, just begging to be trimmed. He doesn’t, until he falls for a theatrical producer’s secretary. It’s sourced from a George S. Kaufman/Richard Carle (yes, that Richard Carle, the character actor) play.

    Oh, I like The Crowd Roars, it’s certainly miles ahead of the remake. I just think it’s not as good as Hawks’ other film of the time, Tiger Shark. And of course Hawks finally had Scarface released in 1932, which sort of overshadowed both Warner films.

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  10. You and CagneyFan between you just keep making my list of titles I want to see get longer and longer! I am now very intrigued by the sound of both ‘Life Begins’ and ‘The Tenderfoot’, and will hope to catch them both before too long. I also haven’t seen ‘Tiger Shark’ as yet, though it is a film which is definitely a must for me as I’m trying to see all of Hawks’ movies, or as many as possible. Thanks very much for your further thoughts.

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