Smart Money (1931)

Smart Money (1931) is a Pre-Code Proto-Noir comedy caper starring Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney, playing larger than life the all-American obsession with gambling.

This overbearing national pastime which had flourished via the stock tickers of the 1920s, resulting in the almighty and catastrophic crash of that same decade, is here presented in every popular form available, including horse racing, quiet gambling with dice in the back room and it appears the front room of the quiet small town barber Nick Venizelos, played by Edward G. Robinson.

Nick is a swell fellow and a charmer, and considered a champion gambler by all who know him. The back room seems like a swell place too, where the wisecracking cracks all night long and Nick and the others laugh it up no end, often at the uncomfortable expense of their African American 'boy' 'Snake Eyes' — played by an uncredited John Larkin.

Into this cute scene of Pre-Code Americana —  the small local municipality seems to be called Irontown — pops none other than Boris Karloff at the head of the movie, a most interesting addition to the local colour, with a lugubrious and rather brutal air, causing suspicion in the otherwise normally merry heart of Edward G. Robinson's character Nick.

Edward G. Robinson in Smart Money (1931)

Boris Karloff — playing a character called Sport Williams — also rolls uncredited into the action, but is always interesting to see.

Boris Karloff in Smart Money (1931)
Billy House and Edward G. Robinson in Smart Money (1931)

All of this aside, and with Nick fast on the act and no tinhorn, bigger games are calling. Nick is in fact so lucky in the games that he plays, that the plot rolls into action with the guys and gamblers in the old back room suggesting that he  that one suggests he go to the big city to take on famous gambler named Hickory Short. 

Small town farewell in Pre-Code Smart Money (1931)

Not lacking in self-confidence, Nick puts up half of the $10,000 stake himself, while the others raise the rest. He leaves the shop under the supervision of his assistant, Jack, played by James Cagney, and he takes the train into the city — taking with him a small bird in a cage.

The bird is perhaps emblematic of Nick himself — a quite beautiful and charming creatures trapped in rather nasty circumstances.

Nick arrives in the metropolis — simply called 'The Big City' —  where he acclimatises and works the chat up on the girl selling cigars and candy in the hotel. His magic works of course, and the humour rolls as Nick attempts to find the local game featuring the big player in the big city — the aforementioned Hickory Short.

Noel Francis in Smart Money (1931)

Straight on to the date with the cigar and candy girl Marie — played by Noel Francis — the two visit an interesting seafood restaurant where giant fish swim by — and Robinson works her good, managing to worm the information he needs out of her — the location of the big game.

Nick sits down at the game, but then loses all his money. Later, however, he sees a newspaper article reporting that the real Hickory Short has just been released from prison in Florida. The man he thought was Hickory is actually conman Sleepy Sam — played by Ralf Harolde — and Marie is his girlfriend and accomplice. 

Seafood restaurant  in Smart Money (1931)

When Nick visits the game again tries to get his money back, Sleepy Sam and the other fake poker players beat him up. After he gets out of the hospital, he vows to get revenge.

With the Pre-Code movies it's always good to tease out those elements which make up the Pre-Code mix — proof that it's Pre-Code as it were. 

Smart security in Smart Money (1931)

For a start there is some sexual license that might not move us today, but which would have been excised by the end of the decade and not able to be shown in the film noir stylings of the 1940s, no matter what the story.

Nick for a start has many women who catch his eye throughout. The first one of such in the picture needs $100 for something, and approaches him to make a tap. It's not stated what she needs that cash for, but there may be some pimping afoot, especially when one of the notes turns up again in the hands of one of the gamers in the backroom — Boris Karloff's character in fact.

Edward G. Robinson in Smart Money (1931)

A line such as this would not even have been possible after the Hayes Code had been formally enforced:

“I’ll win so much you can send back to the old country for your wife and your sweetheart!”

There are few films which better express the love for gambling that overtook and in fact nearly destroyed America in the 1920s, into the 1930s. Most obvious in Smart Money (1931) are the poker dice which seem to be everywhere — on the cigar counter and in stores and shops like Nick's, and kiosks all over.

James Cagney in Smart Money (1931)

The dice were in fact so ubiquitous and appear in many Pre-Code films, that the rules of their play are not even explained — the did not need to be. The game took five dice labelled with 10, Jack, Queens, King and Ace, with the regular poker combinations determining who wins.

It’s not the most fascinating game but its ubiquity that is impressive. At the cigar counter where Marie works in 'The Big City', Smart Money actually outlines the rules: it's a dollar to play, and if the customer wins, they get $2 off the merchandise. When Edward G. Robinson and Noel Francis play this, it appears to be best out of five.

Smart security in Smart Money (1931)

He starts at the bottom again, and his pal Jack (Cagney) comes to help him sort things out. With the help of some Greek backers, Nick’s soon gotten his revenge and is raking in the dough. He opens his own series of illegal gambling joints, and the D.A. can’t pin a thing on him.

Smart hold-up in Smart Money (1931)

Problem is that Nick’s still got that weakness: dames. Even though he’s gotten back at Marie, he still falls hard for a blackmailer who he rescues from suicide named Irene (Evelyn Knapp). The problem is that when you’re a clever criminal, it doesn’t pay to fall for a dumb one. The D.A. worms his way into getting her to implicate Nick (“The end justifies the means” he notes), and while Jack does everything he can to stop her, the game is already over.

It's quite easy to imagine Smart Money as film noir fable, if we were to situate it ten years into its future — or twenty. Removing the capersome antics, the story of a man who is cheated and then rises again to a significant position of criminal power, only to be undone once again, especially over a weakness for women — this would make a great classic film noir style tale — provided all the whimsy and fun of the 1931 original were excised in favour of some deep and pure psychological and criminal collapse.

Evalyn Knapp in Smart Money (1931)

As it stands, Smart Money might not be much without Cagney and Robinson who are excellent at everything they do, including the rapid fire dialogue. Robinson’s wiseguy attitude is perfect and Nick’s rise and fall are emblematic of a time really before the film noir era and representative of Depression-era myth making.

At times, Nick seems like a lucky guy, but at the same time he’s cheated by crooks and brought down by a D.A. who uses blackmail against him. 

For James Cagney, this is not a super-tough-guy role —  in fact it is just the opposite. Cagney's character Jack makes no plays towards any women and he calls himself ‘Mom’ and seems highly protective of Nick. 

James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson in Smart Money (1931)

Despite him appearing in most of the movie, Cagney still plays the second role to Robinson. While there is a fun sort of affection to the relationship, there’s not much nash to it, and Smart Money is not really a gangster picture. There are a couple of guys with machine guns here and there but the film is far too old to delve deep into the black, and does not deliver death and machismo — rather it's a fun portrait of gambler Nick — who remains happy even when being delivered to prison it seems.

Smart Money (1931) at Wikipedia

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