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Warner Home Video presents
Warner Gangsters Collection, Vol. 3 (1931-40)

"These little monkeys are tough."
- Patsy (James Cagney), taking office as The Mayor of Hell

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: April 08, 2008

Stars: James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson
Other Stars: Ann Sheridan, Dick Foran, Ann Sothern, Donald Crisp, Ralph Bellamy, Allen Jenkins, Mae Clarke, Margaret Lindsay, Leslie Fenton, Patricia Ellis, Alice White, Madge Evans, Arthur Byron
Director: Archie L. Mayo, Lloyd Bacon, Roy Del Ruth, Alfred E. Green

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 08h:14m:36s
Release Date: March 25, 2008
UPC: 085391188742
Genre: gangster


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
B+ BB-B- B

DVD Review

Warner Bros.' third installment in box sets of gangster films doesn't bring us any of the iconic movies in the genre, most of which, thankfully, have already been released on DVD. But we get six turns with three of the leading actors of the form: Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, and Humphrey Bogart mix and match in these pictures, none of which are flabbergastingly good, but given that the longest barely scrapes the ninety-minute mark and there's plenty of studio style crammed into every frame, there's plenty to savor here for gangland film fans.

Black Legion (1937)

"Frank, why'd you buy that gun?"
—Ruth (Erin O'Brien-Moore)

Curiously enough, the first picture in the collection isn't really a gangster picture at all, but a look at a particular strain of American nativism—no doubt it was meant as a cautionary tale about xenophobic isolationists cuddling up to the despicable new regime in Germany at the time, but it's got an extraordinary resonance for our own age, especially when politicians of a particular stripe start baying about the aliens in our midst. Humphrey Bogart, not yet a name-above-the-title star, plays Frank, an ordinary fella on the factory line—he's got a wife and a kid and is good at his job, and expects to move up the food chain when an opening for a foreman comes up. But he gets passed over by a go-getting younger guy, and it rankles him—he finds solace in a Father Coughlin-like radio preacher fulminating against the perils of those who aren't "real Americans," and soon falls in league with the nefarious fraternity of the film's title. It's particularly shocking to see a movie icon of Bogie's magnitude donning the garb of the Klan, and he gives what's really a terrific, unself-conscious performance, of a man who's a little bit of a hothead and is looking for someone to blame for his woes.

There's lots of good stuff with his buddy Ed, who boards next door, and is caught in a classic early Hays Code problem—should he propose to the sweet young virginal daughter of his landlord, or continue to keep company with the local tart of a widow from across town? From our vantage, too, it's a movie about the decline of the industrial economy over the past century—Frank can afford a nice home and a sweet car on his laborer's salary, and his wife waits on him hand and foot. Part of this is creepy and infantilizing, though—there's not even a whiff of her having any life outside the home, and she does things like taking a cigarette out of her husband's mouth, tapping the ash into a tray, and returning it to his lips.

The movie includes scenes of extraordinary brutality, especially upsetting because so much of the violence is off screen; the images are so rough that the film can't quite recover from them, and the back end of the picture becomes a potboiler of a courtroom drama. It's politically feisty stuff that unfortunately holds up well in our time.



Brother Orchid (1940)

"I'm gonna get what I was born to have: class."
—Little John Sarto (Edward G. Robinson)

Even by 1940, the dopiness of gangsters was being played for comedy, and this one is much more Analyze This than The Sopranos. It's also a structurally ungainly piece, with a weird take on organized crime—most of the action takes place in board rooms, making the cosa nostra seem awfully corporate. Anyway, Edward G. Robinson stars as Little John Sarto, a godfather who has had enough—he's giving up the big chair and going to Europe in search of that elusive commodity: class. Small wonder that he gets fleeced on the Continent, and then wants to return to the top of the pyramid—but his associates have other ideas, and chief among them is Humphrey Bogart as Jack Buck, who wants only to throw the old man out on his ear. (No word as to whether or not Bogie's character has yet begun pursuing his career as a Cardinals broadcaster.)

Robinson vows revenge, and the shaggy dog story takes all sorts of turns—what seems like it should be a climactic shootout comes much too early, and Little John survives, nursed back to health by—no joke—the monks at a monastery, who take him in as one of their own. (They raise flowers, and Sarto's monastic alias is the title of the picture.) So it's kind of a mob comedy, kind of a revenge story, and even kind of a romantic triangle—Sarto decides against taking Flo, his best girl, along on his European jaunt, and in his five-year absence she goes from mob floozy to nightclub entrepreneur. She's even got a rich new beau, a Texan who thinks the world of her and is willing to spend his sizable bankroll to prove it—Ralph Bellamy essentially gives the same performance he gave the same year in His Girl Friday, though here with a Texas twang.

It doesn't hold together very well, and the jokes are generally ham handed, but there are a couple of loopy images—such as Robinson trying vainly to milk a cow, or him in his monastic robes and snappy fedora, looking kind of like a mobbed-up Vincent van Gogh. Nyah!



Lady Killer (1933)

"For heaven's sake, will someone please take these monkeys out of my house!"
—Lois (Margaret Lindsay)

The set moves back in time seven years, and from the sacred to the profane—on our next stop we leave the monastery behind for some time in that unparalleled den of iniquity, Hollywood. Cagney stars as Dan Quigley, a movie usher who gets fired for insubordination, running a craps game in the men's room, and a whole panoply of behavior that's less than angelic—when he gallantly tries to return a purse to a pretty girl, he finds himself played for a sucker in a crooked backroom poker game. This early talkie gallops along with the story speed of a silent picture, as Dan signs on with the fellows that fleeced him and turns their small con into a big-time swindle.

Their major-league heist goes bad, leaving them with a dead butler and a police tail—Dan and his best girl go on the lam, and little more than dumb luck brings them to Los Angeles. The principal joke of the picture is that the skills that served Dan well in organized crime help him move up the Hollywood food chain, as he goes from extra to bit player to matinee idol. It's like the whole enterprise is a jokey, gangland version of What Makes Sammy Run?, and if you tune out for even just a couple of moments, Dan's relentless pursuit of everything and the rapid-fire pace of the story will leave you in the lurch.

Cagney's wiseacre, jangly presence is the best thing about the movie—he practically dances from scene to scene, and has a small man's defensiveness about proving his toughness. The production also made it in just under the wire before the strict enforcement of the production code, so it's got a frankness about sex and coarse language (for the 1930s, anyway) that Hollywood wouldn't come close to for another 30 years.



Picture Snatcher (1933)

"I'm respectable!"
—Dan (James Cagney)

If you thought that Cagney's onscreen persona couldn't sink any lower than going to Hollywood, you're wrong, for here he's in an even more morally dubious line of work: he becomes a member of the paparazzi. Cagney plays Dan, a hardened criminal getting sprung from Sing Sing as the movie opens—he contemplates getting the band back together, but rather than starting in again on his life of crime, he decides it's time to go straight, and takes up a pal on a jailhouse offer. Dan becomes the new guy at the Graphic News, and makes his bones during a crisis—he's able to wheedle his way into the home of a crazed fireman who caught his wife in bed with another man, then killed both of the adulterers and tried to burn down the house. (Yes, our tax dollars at work.)

This may be the noiriest of the films in this set, all shadows and dutch angles and cinematographic menace, but the premise is still kind of preposterous. We're supposed to believe that Dan gets the same high from getting the big story that he once did from knocking over banks, and it just doesn't take—but there are a couple of great action sequences, such as when Dan returns to Sing Sing with his press badge, and smuggles in a camera to get a snapshot of a woman being sent to the chair.

Ralph Bellamy is back on the scene, as Cagney's hardbitten city editor, and when Cagney isn't putting the moves on the daughter of the cop who put him in the clink, he's vying with Bellamy for the attentions of a sultry young thing in the newsroom. As with Lady Killer, this one escaped the strictures of the production code by just a couple of months, so compared to what Hollywood would produce over the ensuing decades, it seems awfully saucy.



Smart Money (1931)

"I got holes in my socks from chasing girls away."
—Nick the Barber (Edward G, Robinson)

The earliest film in the set is more of a revenge tragedy than a conventional gangster picture, and technically it's close enough to silent pictures to use great swatches of their grammar. Robinson stars as Nick the Barber, a small-town card sharp who thinks he can play with the big boys—his buddies stake him to $10,000 to get a seat at the gamblers' table in the big city, but Nick soon discovers that he's been pretty much a big fish in a very small pond. He's played for a sucker by the bad guys, and even by the girl behind the cigar counter at his hotel—but he's got his pride, and he's got his pals, and he's going to get more than a little of his own back.

Robinson is surprisingly elastic and expressive in the role—he preens early on thinking that he's the big kahuna, then looks astonished and almost babyfaced when he gets fleeced, then his eyes close to slits as he vows his revenge. Cagney is in a supporting role as one of the boys from back home, and though he's a good soldier, you can almost feel him champing at the bit to be at the center of the action. It's full of Deco art design and splashy title cards and master shots of many men in hats, as if director Alfred E. Green (what, him worry?) is figuring out just what sort of potential he's got on his hands with these talking pictures, because, you know, the dang things might just stick around for a while.



The Mayor of Hell (1933)

"By your standards, I'm a wrong guy."
—Patsy (James Cagney)

Finally, we get a reform school Lord of the Flies with a dollop of Frankenstein tossed in for good measure, adding up to the appropriate coda for an election year, The Mayor of Hell. The center of the action are a group of street urchins who get busted for running a few too many scams, are forced to appear in juvie, and then get packed off to reform school. It's little more than a li'l prison, though, presided over by petty sadists like Thompson (the evil Dudley Digges), who smack the boys around for sport.

Enter James Cagney. He's part of the big-city political machine, on site for a pro forma annual inspection, when his consciousness gets raised—he cannot abide the horrors being perpetrated against these boys, and knows that they're being turned into the sociopaths of the future. (The leggy reform school nurse doesn't do anything to hinder Cagney's adherence to the cause.) He takes the reins of the place and shows the boys some respect, even insisting that they govern the school themselves. It's really more of a social realism movie than a gangster picture, and it's particularly notable for its carefully chosen ethnic cross section of reprobates—the boys gone wrong are Jewish, Irish, African American, and pretty much every other ethnicity in the American melting pot, and each of their families get hauled into court with basically the same story: he's a good boy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Though his name is above the title, Cagney is actually AWOL for a lot of the picture—he doesn't show up until quite late, and then drops out for a while to attend to his own unseemly business back in town, while things go to hell in a handbasket back on campus. (The fevered pursuit of the evil Thompson plays out like the manhunt for Frankenstein's monster, rough justice with many torches and all.) But just the fact that the film floats vaguely socialist notions about self-government for teenagers from the wrong side of the tracks gives you a sense of just how elastic the boundaries of a gangster picture can be.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: Generally the transfers here are quite solid, especially considering the age of the prints—Black Legion and Lady Killer look the best, certainly, and Smart Money, the earliest film in the set, shows the most signs of its age, with fading and scratching. Picture Snatcher has some jumpy framing issues, and the production's reliance on many matte shots doesn't look so hot in the digital age.

Image Transfer Grade: B-

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglishno


Audio Transfer Review: The mono tracks on all are fair, though on Smart Money particularly, you can tell that the studio was working through its issues with sound recording.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-

 

Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 136 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French with remote access
5 Original Trailer(s)
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring Escape from Crime, Crime School, Hell's Kitchen
6 Feature/Episode commentaries by Patricia King Hanson and Anthony Slide; Alan L. Gansberg and Eric Lax; Drew Casper; Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta; Alain Silver and James Ursini; Greg Mank (see below for specifics)
Packaging: Box Set
Picture Disc
6 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Warner Nights at the Movies (see below)
Extras Review: Each of the six titles has a worthwhile commentary track, and an installment of Warner Night at the Movies, in which we see newsreels, shorts, cartoons and trailers, in an effort to re-creates the movie-going experience of the 1930s, as well as giving the studio an opportunity to empty out its vault of some vintage stuff that otherwise probably wouldn't find an appropriate home.

The Black Legion commentary track, by film scholars Patricia King Hanson and Anthony Slide, is crammed with every conceivable piece of trivia, about the cast members especially—not just where you've seen them before, but where they were born, and how and when they died. It's encyclopedic, and a little exhausting. The biographers have at it on the Brother Orchid commentary—Alan L. Gansberg (Robinson's) and Eric Lax (Bogart's) have a merry time together, and are excellent in discussing the film in the careers of each of the leading men, and on the relationship between the two actors. USC professor Drew Casper flies solo on Lady Killer, and his highly caffeinated track is a celebration of all things Cagney.

Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta do the honors for Picture Snatcher, and their track is full of energy and jokey imitations—they've got lots of good detail on the production (shot in fifteen days!), but perhaps inevitably, some of the Cagney biographical information is repeated from other tracks in the set. The venerable duo of Alain Silver and James Ursini take the reins for Smart Money, and ably discuss this only Cagney/Robinson pairing, and the film in light of an unenforced production code, showing a world in which crime does pay, and the homoeroticism between the leading men is frequently just under the surface. Greg Mank rounds out the commentaries with a strong track for The Mayor of Hell, where he's great on genre stuff, censorship issues (regionally especially), and the film's place in the evolution of Cagney's body of work.

The Black Legion Night at the Movies is a typical period grab bag, with Errol Flynn training on the set of The Perfect Specimen, newsreel footage of gangsters' weaponry getting consigned to the bottom of a river, Cab Calloway in a musical short called Hi de Ho!, with some great tunes but also some unfortunate racial stereotypes; a Technicolor short about Stonewall Jackson called Under Southern Skies, and a Looney Tunes adventure with a moving van and Porky and Gabby. Highlights of the Brother Orchid installment include newsreel footage of Hollywood royalty (Edward G. Robinson, William Powell) at the track, though sound is missing for some of it, and Porky Pig down on the farm as Slap Happy Pappy, featuring a cameo by a wiseacre rabbit painting Easter eggs, perhaps a harbinger of things to come. Notable in the Lady Killer installment is a short by Billy Bitzer, D.W. Griffith's cameraman of choice, and Kissing Time, an operetta brimming with pith helmets and flamenco dancers.

Best in show for the Picture Snatcher installment is newsreel footage of Machine Gun Kelly being taken into custody, and Smart Money continues the theme with Al Capone going to prison, along with clips of George Jessel on his European tour. And the highlight of the installment for The Mayor of Hell is probably a Merrie Melodies cartoon starring The Organ Grinder and, inevitably, his mischievous little monkey.

All the films but Smart Money have original trailers; The Picture Snatcher disc also includes a trailer for Escape from Crime, a 1942 remake with Richard Travis in for Cagney, and The Mayor of Hell brings trailers for two remakes: Crime School, with Humphrey Bogart, and Hell's Kitchen, with Ronald Reagan.

Extras Grade: B

 

Final Comments

Six reasonably swell gangster pictures from the rip-snorting 1930s—your favorite probably isn't in here, but the set is still jammed with peppy movies and plenty of information about them.

 


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