Unquiet Americans: Blonde Crazy, by Aaron Pinkston
Of the films I’ve covered in this series so far, Blonde Crazy is the closest to a traditional genre film. The previous films were all along the comedy spectrum, from the more romantic Laughter to the incredibly silly The Ladies Man, but this if the first with true elements outside of pure comedy. Some of the most well-loved comedies of all time come with genre trappings, the best of them able to transcend their genres through humor. Blonde Crazy isn’t wholly a sendup of crime films of the early 1930s, but it is a very entertaining film with a lot of important ingredients — especially the mega-popular James Cagney, a fixture of more serious gangster films, in the starring role. This crime film backdrop gives a slightly different context on some of the major talking points that have already come through this series, including gender dynamics, of course.
Blonde Crazy’s star, James Cagney, had a long and varied career, but is mostly known for his roles as larger-than-life gangsters in films like White Heat and The Public Enemy. In these roles, Cagney expertly balanced a tough guy persona with qualities of an everyman, so despite being a criminal, he is indelibly likable. Bert Harris is a much simpler criminal as a low-level con man. This is both a familiar and strange role for Cagney: he can carry himself with the confidence necessary when scheming rich people out of their money, but during the film, he is conned more times than the other way around. Bert isn’t the bumbling type of criminal, he is mostly just inexperienced. When the film starts, we assume Bert isn’t much of a criminal at all. As the bell hop in the fancy hotel, the co-workers he has swindled aren’t exactly the type of marks that breed success. It isn’t until Anne Roberts comes into his life that he is able to stake out across the country for truly big scores.
Cagney is undoubtedly the star of Blonde Crazy, but Joan Blondell’s performance as Anne is much more interesting. When we first meet Anne, she seems like a vulnerable woman. She’s beautiful, single, and in need of a job that has already been given away. The male characters around her seem to sense the same, as every man she comes into contact with treats her like a sexual possession, wooing her with gifts and opportunities. Bert isn’t unique, as he schemes the hotel into thinking Anne is the young woman promised the job with the hopes that this deed not only gets him close to Anne, but biblically so.
As we learn more about Anne, she is sort of in the screwball comedy tradition of a strong woman who is just the match for the accomplished male protagonists. She isn’t wealthy or cultured like the various characters Katherine Hepburn was famous for playing, but she has feminine wiles that allow her to navigate this misogynistic environment. Until the film takes a turn in its disappointing conclusion, it is difficult to exactly place Anne’s motivations for becoming a player in Bert’s profession. This is partly because we simply don’t know anything about the character before she shows up at the hotel in the opening scene, but she also doesn’t directly express her thoughts. She doesn’t seem to care much for Bert’s company (despite his charismatic personality), nor the prospect of becoming filthy rich. In fact, the one life goal she does express is that she doesn’t want to end up in jail — why, then, she so quickly and effortlessly hits the road with Bert is strange. Still, Anne isn’t the flighty type of woman often characterized in screwball comedies.
Anne and Bert’s partnership throughout the film also sets it apart. Blonde Crazy is decidedly anti-romantic (at least until its final moments). Eventually, the couple make their inevitable proclamations of love, but sex is the major point of attraction in much of the film. Coming in the pre-code era, the film’s innuendos and character relations are pretty open — in one famous scene in the film, Bert and Anne share a conversation while she is bathing, with the threat of nudity as close as possible.
Because of the nature of their work together, Bert and Anne can’t portray themselves as lovers as it becomes necessary for Anne to seduce their marks into striking up bogus deals. Unlike most Hollywood films where a man and woman are on some journey together with the ultimate endpoint of love, there is little romantic tension between the couple. When the two are alone, they often call each other by pet names, but it feels more like them aping the standard romantic conventions. Even as the film ends with a romantic relationship possible, it is on a sour note with Bert in jail and Anne’s potentially sacrificing her own freedom to get him out. Hollywood is never one to hide romance between a film’s stars, so the lack of interest through much of Blonde Crazy is notable.
The criminal elements of the film make up for those who may be looking for a more traditional romance. For broad entertainment, the schemes derived throughout the film are fairly complex. The extended con sequences all involve con-men conning other conners, which becomes an increasingly interesting game. The sparkling script always keeps the relationships and motivations vague enough to never know who is playing who until the final reveal happens. Even when there is an idea that someone is being swindled, it isn’t always easy to know exactly how. Somewhat like great heist films, much of Blonde Crazy’s pleasure comes from the intricate mechanics of these con games and where each character stands within them.
At its heart, though, Blonde Crazy is best looked at as an early genre film that would ultimately stand against the more popular films to come. There are a number of similarities to later films, particularly screwball comedies like It Happened One Night and Cagney’s later work. Cagney’s ultimate persona and the typical gender dynamics between stars would be refined over the next few decades, making Blonde Crazy particularly curious in a historical context. The film seems to be openly working out the genre’s themes, giving it a rougher edge that wonderfully experienced.