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Smart Money (1931)

by on 2012/03/10

“I’m going to be a real sucker – I’m looking for evens.”

* * * *

I grew up in a small town. Well, not a town exactly. In fact, where I grew up can’t even be classified legally as a hamlet because the grain elevator burned down and someone shot down the highway sign.

While I was considered pretty smart in my hood, I knew I didn’t have much competition (mostly cows).

When I decided to make a break for the big city, I prepared myself for a superior class of people. I read through the classics at my local library, learned about important art and music.

Imagine my disappointment when I realized that the folks in my first year English class at Carleton University weren’t exactly the erudite paragons I had readied myself for.

Starring Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney, Smart Money is a story about a small town gambler getting chewed up and spit out by the big city. Nick The Barber Venizelos (Robinson) is a small-time gambler from Irontown who can’t lose. Cards, ponies, dames. He’s winning.

Unfortunately, when he decides to roll the dice in the big city, he comes up snake eyes.

In the full realization of the character Nick the Barber, Robinson demonstrates his genius. Nick is arrogant, swaggering, vulnerable, blustering, strong, weak, competent, savvy and lost – sometimes all in a split second.

He’s obsessed with his nails, cigars (made for him by a guy in Havana) and blondes. He’s involved and involving. He’s incredible.

So is Cagney as Robinson’s Boy Friday/henchman, Jack. I was late to the James Cagney party. It is probably unseemly for me at this point to declare my undying love for the actor, but the guy is a charisma volcano.

If you want proof, check out the scene where Cagney describes – all without words – that there’s a beautiful lady at the door wanting to see Nick the Barber. Insanely compelling.

If you want to see a lot of Cagney, this is not your film. Cagney is a bit player in this film about rags to riches to jail. It is the Edward G. Robinson show, and Smart Money marks the only time these two greats were in a film together. But even in their brief screen time, they were a combined force of nature.

Mostly, the film is made up of Robinson and a host of beautiful blondes. Particularly lovely is Evalyn Knapp as the suicidal waif Irene Graham.

The gambling, the wealth, the cops on the take, this is all window dressing. The real show was Nick. And I could just sit there and watch him talk to his pet canary and do his nails. I did – and it was fascinating.

* * * *

81 minutes

Unrated

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