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Here's a chance to see two of the most enduring stars of American cinema at the very start of their careers in the kind of fast-paced, tough crime story for which they became famous. Edward G. Robinson was just coming off the success of his first major role as Rico in Little Caesar (1930) when Warner Brothers decided to team him with its other rising young actor, James Cagney, in what would be their only movie together - Smart Money (1931). Cagney was making his first mark at the studio with his performance in The Pubic Enemy (1931), which he filmed at the same time as Smart Money, running from one soundstage to another. But that breakthrough role hadn't been seen by the public yet, and although he does give an energetic performance in this one, it was Robinson's picture all the way.
The story for Smart Money (nominated for an Oscar) offered a refreshing change of pace in the popular underworld crime genre. By toning down the violence and beefing up the humor, Warners hit on a winning formula and gave its stars plenty of range to display their acting chops. Robinson is a small-town barber with a penchant for gambling, booze, and women. Aided by sidekick Cagney, he runs an illegal gambling den in the back room of his shop, where one day he easily beats a cheating gambler - bit-player Boris Karloff, who would soon get his big break with Frankenstein (1931). Amazed by Robinson's luck and skill, Cagney and friends raise $10,000 to stake him in a big-time syndicate poker game in the city. When he arrives in the city, he meets an attractive young woman who steers him to a game he doesn't realize is a set-up. He loses everything and swears to get even. He sends for Cagney; they get barber jobs in the city and plot their revenge scheme. Parlaying wins at horses and cards into big money, Robinson sets up his own big gambling den, beats the man who cheated him out of the $10,000, and steals the scheming girl from him. (This being pre-Code Hollywood, she ends up living with him.) But complications arise in the form of another woman, a beautiful blonde he saves from suicide. He falls hard for her and is soon planning marriage, but Cagney suspects she's an operative from the district attorney's office. Spotting her planting evidence to incriminate Robinson, he gets into a fight with her (an early instance of the on-screen brutality toward women he would bring to classic status with the grapefruit in Mae Clarke's face in The Public Enemy). Robinson walks in on the fracas and...well, we can't tell you the outcome except it's not what you'd expect.
Romanian-born Edward G. Robinson came from varied and acclaimed work on Broadway in parts ranging from Mexican hero Porfirio Diaz to the epileptic in The Brothers Karamazov to his first starring role - and the only gangster he ever played on stage - in the 1927 sensation The Racket. A small man with the look of a bulldog, he was an unlikely candidate for movie stardom. In its review of Smart Money, Time described him as "an actor with the face of a depraved cherub and a voice which makes everything he says seem violently profane." Nevertheless, he was hugely popular with audiences of the time. But even after rave notices and big box office for Little Caesar, Robinson himself wasn't convinced of his up-and-coming status until he was sent by the studio to the premiere of Smart Money at the Winter Garden Theater in New York. When he found himself hiding on the floor of a limo to avoid the crowds of overzealous fans, his stardom was confirmed.
In his theater years in the 1920s, Robinson met and married a young actress, Gladys Lloyd. She appears in a small part in Smart Money as a cigar-stand clerk. The two made four other movies together, including Little Caesar and his next picture after this, Five-Star Final (1931). She made only one movie without him, an uncredited bit in Clive of India (1935), before retiring. The couple was divorced in 1956.
Although his part was secondary to Robinson's, Cagney very quickly equaled his co-star's popularity. He got star billing for the first time in his next picture, Blonde Crazy (1931), as a con man in another of Warners' fast-talking, hard-edged crime pictures. Over the next decade, the studio led the field in this type of movie. Paramount had its sophisticated Eurocentric comedies, Fox its homespun Americana, MGM the high-gloss glamour of Crawford, Gable, and Garbo. But Warners became best known for its working-class urban tales, usually set in a seedy world of crooks, call girls, and corruption, turning out one movie after another with characters like the ones in Smart Money: Sport Williams, Back-to-Back Schultz, Snake Eyes, Sleepy Sam. And Cagney and Robinson, with their indelible images of inner-city ambition and pugnacity, were the kings of the genre.
Producer/Director: Alfred E. Green
Screenplay: Kubec Glasmon, John Bright, Lucien Hubbard, Joseph Jackson, based on the story "The Idol" by Jackson and Hubbard
Cinematography: Robert Kurrle
Editing: Jack Killifer
Art Direction: Robert M. Haas
Principal Cast: Edward G. Robinson (Nick the Barber), James Cagney (Jack), Evalyn Knapp (Irene), Noel Francis (Marie), Boris Karloff (Sport Williams), Ralf Harolde (Sleepy Sam).
. BW-82m. Closed captioning.
by Rob Nixon