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.
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.
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.