There’s plenty regarding our history that we can unravel from just a few hours of classic movies. Things that people of yesteryears considered normal, but which would leave the modern view somewhat dazzled. That’s Smart Money (1931) for you.
The first time I came across this film on IMDb, I wasn’t sure if some guy somewhere was playing games with me – I mean Robinson and Cagney in the same film? Well, it turns out there’s a simple explanation for this confusion – it’s Robinson’s gig. James Cagney was playing pals the same year the film came out, and it’s really because, in his words, people don’t pay to watch sidekicks.
Well, be that as it may, less than two months in the shadows of The Public Enemy and his Cagney brought good tidings to this film. Robinson had made headway on Cagney with the release of Little Caesar (1931), so Smart Money followed suit as another of Robinson’s films with a little bolstering on the part of Cagney.
Plot? Let’s get to that. So a barbershop closes for the night, the boys who run it retreat to the back for some gambling. There’s Nick, who wins regularly, and is well known for his lucky charm. Everyone in the backroom believes that they should come up with some cash and have him visit the city and try his luck cleaning up. Nick isn’t exactly modest and buys into the idea pretty first, so the boy manages to raise $10K to back him up with the assurance they will reap big in the days to come.
In the big city, Nick gets taken big time. You see, his weakness is the blond type, and he soon finds himself warming up to some counter Lady Marie, played by Noel Francis. She a beauty and witty to boot, and she managed to steer him to the Hickory Short (Ben Taggart) card game.
He wins the game, and from then on, he keeps rising and drawing lots of attention to himself. At this point, the DA, played by Morgan Wallace, has cause for concern because he is up for re-election, and from the way things are going, his chances seem to be declining by the day. He decides to handle Nick with help from Sleepy Sam.
They decide that his soft spot – blonds – is the best way to bring him down. They set up an undercover policewoman who charms her way past his defenses. Nick being a sucker for the blonds, it almost seems that he will fall for this trick, only to ask her out of his office with a polite tell the DA I will see him coming Tuesday.
However, his cards begin to tumble rather magnanimously. One evening as he is going about his business, the police stop him and ask for his help to transport a woman they had found in the river to the hospital. She ended up at his home. Jack becomes suspicious, thinking that she is working undercover when she not. Well, she does not become the mole yet, until the DA, through blackmail, manages to get her to help them get Nick arrested.
Jack becomes aware of the motive and warns him, but Nick thinks it’s all malice pushes him, he hits a metal bolt on his way down and dies just like that. It becomes manslaughter. Nick kills his only loyal friend, and we expect that to be a tragedy, right? Well, the thing is the film terminates on a happy note as Nick says he will be out in less than five years, and not the ten years he was handed.
On the cultural side, there are two important issues to note. When Nick blows on his fingers, he rubs them together, and then he wears that face that says, am cool like that. Is it a parody? The bigger issue here and one I have a problem with is the racism in the film. Well, fine, it’s 1931, and folks back then weren’t exactly the friendly type, but there are many movies from the same era with less or no racial slurs.
On a train heading somewhere, Nick rubs a dwarf’s head, those of uninterested black men, and he is even arrogant enough to tear a dollar into two pieces and hand both pieces to a haggard old porter of color.
Sleepy Sam has in his employ a colored servant going by Suntan, played by Spencer Bell, who also goes through abuse and does Nick’s won Snake Eyes, played by John Larkin, who later becomes his manservant. As the movie comes to a close, Snake Eyes is at the train station to see him off, but it is unclear whether he is there to gloat.