BIG CITY BLUES, directed by Mervyn LeRoy, is for the most part a fun bundle of pre-Code goodness, though it's somewhat marred by a pair of annoying performances.
Eric Linden plays Bud, who receives a small inheritance and decides to travel from his Indiana home to a new life in New York City. In New York he's steadily bilked out of his funds by "Cousin Gibby" (Walter Catlett), but that's not the worst of it; at a party Gibby throws at Bud's hotel, there's a brawl and a young lady (Josephine Dunn) ends up dead. Everyone scrams, leaving Bud on the hook, so to speak, and he takes off running too.
Walter Catlett can surely be amusing in limited doses, but his role as Bud's con artist relation quickly becomes a one-note cliche, dominating the first half with increasingly predictable behavior. Yawn.
On to the good stuff! The movie had my interest from the opening photo credits, with bluesy music playing while a great cast of faces is introduced. You've got Grant Mitchell, particularly fine as an Indiana telegraph operator at the railroad station; tippling hotel detective Guy Kibbee; brawling party guests Humphrey Bogart (!) and Lyle Talbot; deadpan Ned Sparks as another partier; J. Carrol Naish as a bootlegger who delivers drinks to the party; Clarence Muse singing in a nightclub (a pleasant surprise); the voice of Dick Powell (!) on the radio advertising Yum Yum Popcorn (part of the diet of "expectant mothers"!); and yes, that's a young Dennis O'Keefe in white tie watching the dice being rolled (keep an eye on the left side of the screen). O'Keefe had already racked up over two dozen bit roles by the time he was an extra in this!
Best of all, you've got the 25-year-old Joan Blondell as a big-eyed showgirl who's a lot more savvy than young Bud, but she takes a liking to him and ends up trying to help him out of his jam. He's also aided by an older woman (Jobyna Howland) who takes an interest in him.
This is a snappy Depression pre-Code with lots of great dialogue and eyebrow-raising moments. A young woman's reaction to hearing her friend was murdered? "She still owed me $10!" Joan and her pal (Inez Courtney) will show up anywhere there's the promise of a meal (not to mention the chance to make off with free soap bars from a hotel lobby bathroom stashed in their purses). Evalyn Knapp sits out the party reading a book, which I later learned from other bloggers was quite a controversial title; it's just like a pre-Code to slip that into the scene!
The film's fast pace and the many fun people and moments offset the issues with Linden and Catlett, though I admit to leaning on my fast forward button for a brief moment at one point early on, as Catlett launched into bilking money out of Bud...again! The pace picks up considerably once the party is underway, and there's a nice twist in the disclosure of the real murderer.
For more on this movie, visit Cliff at Immortal Ephemera; I remembered his liking for the movie and sought out his post afterwards. Cliff also links to some other interesting posts on the film including Imogen Smith at The Chiseler and Judy at Movie Classics. Additionally, Danny just reviewed the movie at Pre-Code.com.
I previously reviewed one other film from this set, I SELL ANYTHING (1934); be on the lookout for additional set reviews in the future!
The initial sets sold directly from the WBShop site contain pressed discs. The picture (filmed by James Van Trees) and sound quality were very good for a film of this vintage, and the trailer is included on the disc.
Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD collection. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered from the WBShop.