By Ed Garea
The Widow From Chicago (WB, 1930) – Director: Edward Cline. Writer: Earl Baldwin (story & s/p). Cast: Alice White, Edward G. Robinson, Neil Hamilton, Frank McHugh, Lee Shumway, Brooks Benedict, & E.H. Calvert. B&W, 64 minutes.
One of the really neat things about TCM is getting to see an actor or a director’s first films, for we can see how far they’ve come – or fallen, as the case may be – since their debuts. And when it’s a superstar like Edward G. Robinson, our enjoyment is even more enhanced.
While The Widow From Chicago wasn’t Eddie G.’s first film, it was his first film for Warner Brothers. Robinson was an entrenched Broadway star, having walked the boards there for 15 years. While on Broadway, he took the time to test the waters in the silent films of the day, appearing in Arms and the Woman (1916) and The Bright Shawl (1923). Both his appearances were in small, supporting roles and did nothing to shake his conviction that Broadway was where his fortunes lay. In 1929, he starred in The Kibitzer, a play he wrote with Jo Swerling. It ran for 120 performances, closing in June of 1929. While in The Kibitzer, Robinson took the train to Astoria, Queens, appearing in Paramount’s The Hole in the Wall for director Robert Florey. Playing a gangster simply called “The Fox,” he was second-billed behind the star, Claudette Colbert. The film itself no great shakes, a drama in the Tod Browning-Lon Chaney vein and one of those early Paramount prehistoric talkies.
When the Wall Street Crash made its impact felt on Broadway, Robinson headed out to Hollywood to try his luck there. The collision of the Crash, the resulting drying-up of Broadway productions, and the onrush to sign actors that could speak for the new talking medium gave Robinson hope for work until such time as Broadway recovered.
His first film in Hollywood was for Universal, a quickly made crime drama titled Night Ride (prerelease title Out to Kill). Robinson was given third billing as gangster Tony Garotta. He is eventually outsmarted and brought to justice by reporter Joe Rooker (Joseph Schildkraut). Critics, though, noticed that Schildkraut outshone Robinson in the film, and a script that gave Robinson little to play except a cardboard cutout gangster didn’t help his cause, either.
Eddie G.’s next stop was MGM, where he was second-billed to star Vilma Banky in the romantic drama A Lady to Love (1930). A lousy film, it would be silent star Banky’s last. But she wasn’t really to blame; a bad script did her in. The common wisdom is that Banky was a lousy actress with a thick accent. She did have a thick accent, but she was a decent actor and actually acquitted herself well in this film. So it comes down to the accent. However, Garbo also had a thick accent, so why Garbo and not Banky? It was simply because Garbo had cache and a huge following in Europe while Banky didn’t. The European market accounted for a huge chuck of a studio’s profits, one reason why the moguls suffered Hitler as long as they did despite his anti-Semitism. As for Robinson, he was nothing to write home about, playing an Italian immigrant wine grower, but he did catch the eye of Resident Genius Irving Thalberg, who thought Robinson could really amount to something given the right vehicles.
Thalberg summoned Robinson to his office to negotiate a contract, but the meeting was a disaster for both concerned. Thalberg offered Robinson a long-term contract that would have made him a millionaire by the time it expired. However, there was a catch: Robinson would have to forego the stage for the life of the contract, and, for Robinson, who like many other stage-trained actors, looked down on the movies, that was the deal-breaker. He did two more quickies for Universal in 1930: Outside the Law, a remake by director Tod Browning of his 1920 film of the same title starring Lon Chaney, and East is West. Whereas in the former Eddie G. was again a gangster, in the latter things are a bit different – he plays a Chinese gangster. Both films died quickly at the box office and Robinson slunk back home to New York, hopeful that the slump on Broadway was turning around.
But upon arriving back in New York he found Warner Brothers executive Hal Wallis waiting for him. Wallis had just missed him in Hollywood and wasted no time telling Robinson that he was a big fan, as were the Warners themselves, who loved Robinson in his turn as an Al Capone type in the 1927 play, The Racket. Warner Brothers wanted him and wanted him badly, for despite being the first studio to introduce sound, they were a bit late to the dance in signing up stage stars. Wallis offered a four-picture contract at a flat $35,000 per film. Robinson again asked about Broadway. “No Problem” was the answer. So Robinson, with his wife’s blessing, signed the contract and the couple headed back to California.
The Widow From Chicago is your typical crime film, a bit odd in that it was directed by Eddie Cline, who was much more at home with comedies. (He would later go on to direct two of W.C. Fields’ best: The Bank Dick, and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break.) Eddie G. again finds himself second-billed, this time to Alice White, a cutie Warners was giving the big push to build her up for bigger and better things to come.
Robinson is Dominic, a nightclub owner and bootleg baron. It seems the joint across the way won’t buy Dominic’s swill, so he sends for torpedo “Swifty” Dorgan (Neil Hamilton). Chased by the police, Swifty jumps out a train window into the river and is presumed dead. As word is kept quiet, it’s decided that detective Jimmy Goodwin will go undercover as the departed gangster to nail Dominic, but the gangster catches on to Jimmy’s real identity and has him gunned down right outside his apartment with sister Polly (White) watching from a window.
Polly decides to take matters into her own hands and shows up as Dominic’s nightclub as Swifty’s widow. Dominic gives her a job and she’s doing quite well, getting the goods on the gang, until – guess what? – Swifty suddenly shows up, a bit worse for wear. Now the fun starts. Swifty discovers his “wife” is none other than “Palpitating Polly,” the club’s dance hall hostess. But (of course) Swifty goes along with the gag – Polly is, after all, palpitating, and Swifty is not the only guy taken with her many charms. Dominic also has a thing for her. But Dominic is S-O-L, for Polly has already fallen for the handsome Swifty.
The climax comes when Dominic sends Swifty over to finish the original job of whacking the recalcitrant owners of the club who won’t buy Dominic’s swill. Polly goes along to protect her beau and during a fracas, shoots a detective to save him. Realizing she has to nail Dominic, she contrives with the cops to foil Dominic into believing that he’s ga-ga over him, and while he’s distracted, she props the phone receiver open with a matchstick so the police in an adjoining area can listen in to Dominic confessing to several murders. The cops crash in, Dominic tries to escape using Polly as a shield, and a shootout between Dominic and Swifty ensues, with Swifty coming out on top. (What is he doing there?)
What a plot: While Alice White as Polly may be palpitating, she can’t act to save her life. Hamilton is his usual bland self. Frank McHugh has a brief spot as comic relief, portending things to come. It’s Eddie G. who comes across as the real highlight, underplaying the role of Dominic while most other stage actors would overplay it. This makes Dominic even more menacing, further setting him apart from the silly antics of White.
Eddie Cline does a nice job of directing, helped by the sharp cinematography of Sal Polito. As it’s a Pre-Code, the wise cracks fly fast and furious. “I’d like to give her a piece of my mind!” “Don’t do it, you can’t spare it.” As for the necessary risqué, Alice isn’t even sighted in her undies even once. The only risqué part is what Swifty and Polly are alone and he tries to take advantage of his husbandly status, but to no avail.
The film opened to decent reviews and good business. It all went to Alice’s pretty little head and she became a major pain-in-the-ass for Warner Brothers. When the brass discovered Joan Blondell could do everything Alice did better, was infinitely cuter, and, unlike White, could act, Alice was demoted and eventually shown the door. She toured as a singer-dancer in vaudeville and returned to Hollywood in 1932, but a sex scandal where she left her wedding ceremony with another man derailed her comeback. Thereafter she only worked sporadically in films, her last being 1947’s Flamingo Road, starring Joan Crawford. After that she returned to Warner Brothers as a secretary, ironically, the position from which she began her ascendancy to fame.