Monday 7 December 2009

Big City Blues (1932)

Director: Thornton Freeland
Stars: Joan Blondell, Eric Linden, Jobyna Howland, Ned Sparks, Guy Kibbee, Grant Mitchell, Walter Catlett, Inez Courtney and Thomas Jackson
TCM's star of the month for Dec 2009 is Humphrey Bogart, to celebrate what would have been his 110th birthday on 25 Dec, at least according to Warner Brothers.
Bud Reeves is heading to New York City in an awful hurry, though he misses the No 18 at Willow Junction and has to wait for the No 26. That gives him enough time to talk to the stationmaster though, who knows New York backwards partly because he's played by Grant Mitchell and partly because he's been there himself and worked what seems like every job in the book. He's happy to be back home though, in Hoopersville, IN, working as a station master and bets that Bud will be back too within the month, regardless of who he knows there and what letters of introduction he has.

Bud is played by Eric Linden, who has a voice like a cross between Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart, though the whole effect comes off more like Elisha Cook Jr. He's great as the fresh faced new fish in town and while he brings all his $1,100 inheritance with him he soon gets tapped hard by fast talking cousin 'Gibby' Gibboney, who has a perennially 'temporarily empty' wallet. He's played by Walter Catlett whose schtick is to be as fast taking, as wise cracking, as scene stealing as anyone could be, even in a film where everyone talks at double speed except Bud. He's like a more restrained Robert Woolsey or a more vertical Groucho Marx, and his routine ran through a long career that included films like Bringing Up Baby and Yankee Doodle Dandy.

He has plenty of people to steal scenes from here, given that actors like Humphrey Bogart, J Carrol Naish and Clarence Muse don't even get credits. The lead is Joan Blondell, who's a chorus girl called Vida Fleet, also from a small town but already sucked up by the big city, and she and Reeves strike up a friendship just in time to get caught up in a murder case. Gibboney sets up a party in cousin Bud's room and invites a slew of guests to get drunk on his dime. One is Jackie DeVoe, a showgirl who gets almost paralytically drunk. Another is Len Sully who's more than a little possessive of her and more than a little drunk himself. Then there's Shep Adkins who wants to take her home. The ensuing fight leaves the lights out, the room wrecked and Jackie dead.
Big City Blues is a cautionary tale but one that's hammered home with as little subtlety as could be imagined. Bud Reeves arrives in New York as green as green could be and is promptly taken advantage of by almost everyone he meets, even those like Vida who don't mean to. It's a city where everyone takes, even Hummell, the house detective at the Hotel Hercules, who asks Bud's party to quieten down but happily leaves with a bottle to keep him quiet in turn. The only person in the entire film who doesn't take advantage is an older lady who picks Bud up at a bar and takes him to the 55 Club so he can look for his girl and the implication there is that she would too if only he didn't find her.

Reeves may be the most passive lead character I've ever seen, trumping the sleepwalk of a performance that Jeff Goldblum gave in Into the Night, which bears a passing resemblance to this film. In both the lead characters do precisely nothing except be there so that the film can happen to them, in the form of a long string of characters who arrive as if out of nowhere and depart just as quickly. For instance, Adkins and Sully, whose fight causes such chaos for Reeves, are merely there. We know their names, we know they're played by Humphrey Bogart and Lyle Talbot and that's it. There's no background given to either of them, very deliberately because it just doesn't matter.

It's all summed up by a couple of lines that Vida tells Bud that follow each other so quickly that they're almost the same sentence. 'New York can be so cruel, so terrible,' she says, as the cops close in a dragnet for them. Yet when he suggests that they leave, she doesn't want to know. 'I want to stay where there's noise and excitement and crowds,' she says. As far as Big City Blues has it, New York is more than a character, it's a rollercoaster ride that you can't get off, it's a drug that can take you high up in the sky but can kill you too. In the end Vida can't or won't escape; Reeves does but ends the film telling us that he hasn't really, he's just taking a breather. He'll be back and of course we will too, because New York is a ride for us as well, through films like this that are so fast paced that they don't even give us a chance to think about anything else.

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