Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Big Shakedown

Train Wreck Cinema

By Ed Garea

The 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 minutes.

Warner 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 shame considering its cast and the story it was based on were both ruined by inept direction and bad screenwriting. 

Norma 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 home.

Our 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ex-bootlegger named Dutch Barnes (Cortez), who as of late is having a hard time in business ever since Prohibition was repealed.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? 

He 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. 

When 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. 

As 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.

With 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. 

Norma, 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.

Out 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.


The 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. 

It’s 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.

Davis 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 Dutch’s enforcer.

Sidney 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.

There’s 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.

The 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.

The 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.

This 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.

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