From the outset, Blonde Crazy promises to be a midwestern hotel chamber piece. It’s a story of the help: including opportunistic bellboys (James Cagney) and plucky chambermaids (Joan Blondell). He does her a service by nabbing her a job, and in such a world, he probably expects some recompense.
James Cagney is still kicking around and feeling out his persona; Joan Blondell’s on the way up with him. It’s mind-boggling that in the year 1931 alone both of them put in time in over half a dozen pictures each for Warner Bros. They were both building up a body of work quite quickly.
In a movie like this, the people I’m often preoccupied with are the Charles Lanes and Guy Kibbees — the host of able character actors who always show up in a movie like this. Blonde Crazy has quite the assortment. It’s stuffed with the kind of familiar faces, making a small trifle like this worthwhile, playing desk clerks and delinquent jewels salesmen, among other things. You know the types.
If the story remained in the hotel, it would be severely handcuffed because its stars are meant to be out in the world! Thankfully, the movie breaks out of the constraining formula and finds itself allowing Cagney to shine because there was no one who could do charisma like him. However, Blondell’s never one to be discounted, keeping with him tit for tat.
She exhibits plucky defiance ranking up there with any of the top female performers of the 1930s, coping with the social systems while still holding her own in a man’s world teeming with come-ons and everyday misogyny.
Does it matter what it has in the way of plot? Hardly. Instead, Bert (Cagney) and Anne (Blondell) leave the hotel, becoming business associates or better yet, accomplices drumming up clever (and slightly dubious ways) to make a quick buck.
Blondell is never taken in. She sees right through Burt and still stays with him. He has flashes of decency but driven as he is by money and other superficial qualities, he’s a tough guy to try and wrangle in. Still, their prevailing attribute is their loyalty to one another. Cagney likens himself to a modern Robin Hood. He does have that kind of rapacious charm (and this is before the world knew Errol Flynn).
In time, they’ve had an upgrade frequenting the lavish hotel circuit as partners, though their romantic status remains a bit hazy. Bert inserts himself into a fistfight on the dance floor. It seems like the perfect point of intersection for Cagney. He comes to the aid of Louis Calhern a man he’s been eyeing for some time namely, because of his scintillating female company (Noel Francis). She’s been giving him the look. Anne knows it too. She wasn’t born yesterday.
Unfortunately, Bert gets punked. He’s been made a sucker. In the movie world, you don’t make a sucker of Jimmy Cagney and get away with it. With his pride hurt by the big boys, he looks to regain his stripes by pulling a double-sided con of his own, just to break even. He doesn’t bother to tell Anne. It’s preliminary work for greater coming attractions. If you want to try and get a line on Cagney’s character, he’s not quite his usual gangster type; he’s a smaller operator, but still stretching the boundaries of the law. In his own words, he’s “not tough just mercenary.”
For all the names crammed in the picture, I almost forgot to mention Ray Milland. I hardly knew he was in pictures this early in time, and he looks like a babyface, albeit a handsome one. He’s relegated to the secondary role. He’s Anne’s dreamboat. The complete antithesis of Cagney. He has class. So they get married. But he’s fallen into a bit of misfortune. The only man who can probably pull him out is good ol’ Bert.
All these bits and pieces feel conventional. There’s the immediate romantic tension and the story zips along. Milland is nothing aside from the other man. But if you miss out on Cagney and Blondell’s rapport, then you’ve failed to appreciate the merit of the picture. They make it shine.
While it’s not cutting-edge entertainment, Blonde Crazy does simultaneously straddle the lines of genre. It’s not totally gangster — there’s romance and melodramatic flourishes — and there’s a lightness of comedy. This is what lingers.
Because, in the end, Bert’s sent up for a prison sentence and Anne dutifully shows up professing her undying love. They were meant to be together. What I will remember is how Cagney says “Hone-eee,” and how Cagney, donning his most elocutionary voice, spouts off a bit of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. And it’s a violent picture: full of socks, slaps, and spanks, all in a comical vein and totally indiscriminate. Everyone gets in on it. It helps in illustrating the underlying fact that this is not just Cagney’s movie. Blondell more than holds her own, and they make it better together. What’s more, this was just the beginning.