Saturday, January 30, 2010

Big City Blues (Warners, 1932)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Big City Blues, a quirky 1932 Warners programmer that’s essentially the old story about the hayseed from rural America coming to the Big City — New York, in this case — and getting in over his head and beating a hasty retreat, head between his legs, to whence he came. The hayseed is Bud Reeves (Eric Linden) from Hoopersville, Indiana, and he can’t say he hasn’t been warned: when a relative dies and leaves him an inheritance of $1,100 he buys a train ticket to the Big Apple and the station agent who sells it to him (Grant Mitchell) recalls his own attempt as a young man to make it in New York and how he, too, turned tail and came home. He has one contact in New York: his cousin, Gibboney — called “Gibby” for short and played by Walter Catlett as a smooth-talking con-man who claims to know everyone from then-Mayor Jimmy Walker to actress Constance Bennett (though why Bud should have expected Constance Bennett to be hanging around New York when at the time she was a major movie star and thereby was living in Hollywood is a bit of a mystery) and who always is on the point of throwing a major party or taking Bud and friends to a nice restaurant when he opens a wallet, suddenly “discovers” that it’s empty, and of course Bud leaps in to assume the bill.

Bud’s sojourn in New York lasts just three days — that’s all the time it takes for New York and its sharpies to separate him from his bankroll — and leaves him involved in a wild party in his hotel room, a murder investigation when one of the guests at the party clubs another with a beer bottle and kills her, and finally a casino where the scene that seems to be obligatory in every movie involving gambling — the hero has a fabulous run of luck at the gaming table until he stakes it all on one last roll and loses everything — duly occurs. Big City Blues was based on a play called New York Town by Ward Morehouse, which was copyrighted January 5, 1932 — just eight months before the film was released — though there’s no history of it ever being performed on stage. Morehouse was actually given the rare (for the movie industry in 1932) privilege of being allowed to work on the screen adaptation of his play — he and Lillie Hayward are co-credited with the script — and the director is Mervyn LeRoy, still using some of the quirky camera angles he indulged in during the early 1930’s but gave up later.

What’s interesting about Big City Blues — aside from the performance of Walter Catlett, who dominates the film even though one wants to walk into the screen and try to shake some sense into Eric Linden (“Hey! Your cousin’s ripping you off!”) — though Linden at least looks naïve and dumb enough to fall for his cousin’s schemes — is the extent to which it seems like almost a compendium of Warners’ Greatest Hits. There’s an elaborate nightclub (in which Clarence Muse, who otherwise isn’t in the film at all, appears as a crooner — he’s only shown in long and medium shots and when he first bounded on I thought it was a white singer in blackface, but as the camera dollies in and as we hear his voice it’s readily apparent he’s genuinely African-American), a crime subplot, Guy Kibbee as a leering house detective and top-billed Joan Blondell as Vida Fleet, a chorus girl with a heart of gold with whom Bud falls hopelessly in love.

The other aspect of Big City Blues that makes it historically important is that it was Humphrey Bogart’s first film for Warner Bros., six years before he would sign a long-term contract with them to do The Petrified Forest and nine years before High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon would make him a star. He’s Shep Adkins, accountant for the producer of the show in which Vida and her friend Faun (Inez Courtney in the sort of part that usually went to Glenda Farrell) work, and he only shows up in two scenes: the big party in Bud’s room and the sequence in the police station later on in which Detective Quelkin (Thomas Jackson, again cast as a cop!). Bogart’s part is too small to earn him screen credit (he would get credit in his next film, Three on a Match, also for Warners and also featuring Lyle Talbot — who, when Bogie showed up to make The Petrified Forest and the people in Warners’ publicity department insisted, “He’s never worked here before,” pointed out to them that indeed he had; Talbot is in Big City Blues as well, as the person who actually committed the murder Bud is briefly suspected of). He doesn’t make much of an impression but he’s still easily recognizable.

There’s also a marvelous in-joke at the party, in which the one woman there who isn’t with a man is shown in a corner reading a book, and the camera gets close enough to show us the title — Radclyffe Hall’s underground classic about Lesbians, The Well of Loneliness (so a reasonably sophisticated filmgoer in 1932 would have known why this particular woman wasn’t with a man!) — and a marvelously ambiguous ending: Bud returns home to Hoopersville, collecting the dog he left behind for the station agent to take care of but swearing that as soon as he saves up enough money for a return ticket to New York he’s going to go back because he’s in love with Vida and wants to get back with her. Will he ever make it back to the Big Apple or will he live the rest of his life in Hoopersville, his New York sojourn becoming only a subject of distant memories as it is for the station agent now? He doesn’t know, and neither do we: a nicely open-ended finish for a film in an era in which the studios generally demanded that every plot strand be neatly tied up at the final fade.