Big Shakedown(WB, 1934) – Director: John
Francis Dillon. Writers: Niven Busch & Rian James (s/p); Samuel
G. Engel & Niven Busch (Story “Cut Rate”). Cast: Charles
Farrell, Bette Davis, Ricardo Cortez, Glenda Farrell, Allen Jenkins,
Henry O’Neill, Dewey Robinson, John Wray, Philip Faversham, Robert
Emmett O’Connor, Renee Whitney, G. Pat Collins, Adrian Morris, Ben
Hendricks, Jr., Sidney Miller & George Cooper. B&W, 64
Bros. used to claim that their films “were ripped from the
headlines.” This one, however, must have been ripped from the funny
pages. It takes an interesting subject – the problem of product
counterfeiting – and reduces it almost to a bad comedy. A shameconsidering its cast and the story it was based on were both ruined by
inept direction and bad screenwriting.
Nelson (Davis) and Jimmy Morrell (Charles Farrell) are planning to marry just
as soon as their neighborhood pharmacy begins to make money. While
Jimmy fills prescriptions, Norma runs the counter, dispensing
everything from an ice cream cone for a Jewish kid (Miller) who keeps
an account of every expenditure in a little notebook (Stereotype,
anyone?) to a woman claiming she needs alcohol for her baby’s
condition, even though Norma knows that bottle will never make it
other major player is an ex-bootlegger named Dutch Barnes (Cortez),
who as of late is having a hard time in business ever since
Prohibition was repealed. He tries to force his cheap swill on a
local tavern, only to be told to hit the road. Upset at his latest
setback, Dutch and a couple of his boys drop in at Jimmy’s place
for a dose of headache powder. Unfortunately, Jimmy is all out of the
name brand they ordered, but tells Dutch he can make one up just like
it and for less. Jimmy’s concoction does the job, and as he and
Dutch get to talking, Jimmy tells him that he can duplicate almost
anything with only a few simple ingredients. He demonstrates this to
Dutch by making an exact duplicate of a best-selling name brand
toothpaste, Pearlydent, with simple ingredients in his back room.
This gives Dutch an idea. Why bother bootlegging when one can simply
counterfeit name brand goods, make them on the cheap and sell them as
the real thing at the name brand price?
tells Jimmy they can make the fake toothpaste and sell it as
the real thing to drugstores, picking up a nice piece of change along
the way. Jimmy’s not too crazy about the idea, but he needs money
to get married and figures there’s no harm in it. Dutch already has
a sales network in place: instead of pressuring retailers to sell his
rotgut, Dutch now uses his torpedoes to pressure merchants
into selling his fake toothpaste.
Dutch asks if anything else can be replicated, Jimmy cheerfully
volunteers a whole host of products that can be counterfeited. Dutch
starts with having Jimmy counterfeit popular brands of cosmetics. The
money pours in, and Dutch’s next request to Jimmy is for a
counterfeit version of a popular antiseptic named Odite. Jimmy has to
refuse because he lacks one of the main ingredients, but after Dutch
gives him a bonus and supplies the ingredient, not only is Jimmy busy
making the fake stuff, he’s also a newlywed, as the extra money has
enabled him to marry Norma.
time passes Jimmy gets in deeper and deeper. Dutch comes up with new
products to counterfeit and Jimmy just can’t say no. After Dutch’s
girlfriend Lil (Glenda Farrell) catches him two-timing her with another
bimbo, she goes to the makers of Odite and spills the proverbial
beans. The company decides to prosecute. Mr. Sheffner (O’Neill),
the chemist who invented the Odite formula, visits Jimmy and warns
him about the nefarious Dutch. Jimmy agrees to sever his ties to
Dutch, but the gangster, ever wily, tricks Jimmy into picking up an
“associate” from Detroit and dropping him off at Lil’s place.
The associate whacks Lil. Jimmy and Norma learn of the murder later
over the radio and Jimmy realizes there’s no escaping Dutch now –
he’s an accessory to murder.
their witness gone, the company has no other choice but to drop their
lawsuit. Shortly after, Dutch gets another inspiration. One of his
workers collapses and is brought around by a doctor who uses
digitalis, a drug that stimulates the heart muscle. Dutch’s next
order to Jimmy is to make a batch of fake digitalis. Jimmy refuses,
but when Dutch threatens to call Norma to the office and spill
everything to her, Jimmy backs down and gets to work.
pregnant, is due to deliver, but her heart condition prevents her
doctor from using regular anesthetic. Instead, the hospital will use
digitalis. Jimmy knows the digitalis sold to the hospital is fake and
rushes out to his shop for the real thing, but by the time he gets
back, Norma has lost the baby.
for revenge, Jimmy shows up at Dutch’s new plant to have it out
with him, but Sheffner, the chemist from Odite, gets there first and
shoots Dutch, who falls to his death in a vat of acid. Jimmy calls
the DA, confesses all, and is exonerated at a trial. He and Norma are
back at their cut-rate drug store as the film ends.
main problem with the movie lies in its writing, especially its
characterization. Jimmy, Our Hero, may be a pharmaceutical whiz-kid,
but in the words of Tom Servo, he’s “dumber than a bag of rocks.”
He also can’t keep his big mouth shut, especially when it comes to
showing off how much he knows. He makes it easy to Dutch to
manipulate him as they go down the Hollywood slippery slope from
misdemeanor to felony to felony murder.
obvious the movie was made on the cheap and the assembly line. It was
one of the last movies made before the Production Code went into full
enforcement, but if we’re looking to anything racy, we might as
well forget it. Aside from the references to bootlegging and the
frequent mention of narcotics and drugs, there isn’t much for a
Pre-Code fan to get excited about, save for the catfight between Lily
and her rival for Dutch’s affections. Glenda Farrell probably
considered herself lucky afterward that her minutes in this film were
limited. Even hardcore Farrell fans have a hard time connecting her
with this turkey.
and Cortez acquit themselves well, though Davis has little to do
except be a victim (she doesn’t even get mad at her husband for
being such an idiot) and Cortez could have simply mailed his
performance in, as he plays the stereotypical gangster without any
wiggle room whatsoever. Allen Jenkins also puts in an appearance as
Miller, who played the Jewish boy who kept such a careful record of
his expenditures, played juveniles in quite a few films during the
‘30s, including Boys Town (1938), Andy
Hardy Gets Spring Fever (1939) and Men of Boys
Town (1941). In the ‘40s, when roles at the big studios
dried up, he moved over to Monogram, including Hot Rhythm
(1944). Read our review of it here.
During the ‘50s, he went into television, and in the ‘60s added
such skills as writing and directing to his resume. His most famous
directorial stints were on The Mickey Mouse Club and Bachelor
Father. His feature films include The 30 Foot Bride of
Candy Rock (1959), Lou Costello’s only film without Bud
Abbott, and Get Yourself a College Girl (1964)
starring Mary Ann Mobley and Nancy Sinatra.
an interesting scene that takes place in the Odite company boardroom.
The announcement of the counterfeit Odite causes the company to file
for bankruptcy. Sheffner, who founded the company, asks the board of
directors to reconsider, as it is the common stock shareholders who
will suffer, while the board, composed of preferred stockholders,
will not suffer in the least. This little bit of social commentary is
too little and too late in a picture that could have made much of it.
scene where Dutch gets his is also badly handled and rushed, as if
the director is saying ‘let’s get this over with already.’ I
did like the fact that he fell into a vat of nitrohydrocholric acid.
Talk about ramping it up. No such acid exists. It also anticipates
the scene in House on Haunted Hill where Vincent
Price’s supposed skeleton rises from a vat of nitric acid to lead
unfaithful wife Carol Ohmart to her doom.
message from the movie is simply, “If you take part in
counterfeiting products, know that your crime is not
harmless.” Too bad they fumbled away the chance to really
drive it home with a solid script.
was the last film from director John Francis Dillon. He died on April
4, 1934, a little under two months after the film was released, at
the age of 49. He died from a heart attack.