After James Cagney became a star with PUBLIC ENEMY and Edward G. Robinson with LITTLE CAESAR, it was only natural that Warner Brothers would want to pair them up. It's just too bad they didn't come up with a story that allowed equal footage for both men. Cagney may be second billed, but SMART MONEY is Robinson's show all the way. I don't know if they wrote this script specifically for Cagney and Robinson or if they just had a decent script lying around, but I suspect the latter. There probably wasn't a whole lot of time for a fresh script. This was both Cagney and Robinson's first appearance after their landmark hit gangster films, although Robinson did appear in the short The Stolen Jools, starring a gaggle of Hollywood's biggest stars (confirming, of course, Robinson's overnight stardom). SMART MONEY is a good film for 1931, but there just aren't any fireworks between the two Warner greats.
What a shame, because this potentially dynamic team would never team up again. At the time, there was nothing else in the movies like the energy and aura of violence both men projected in their performances. SMART MONEY is the only film to star both Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney, and yet it just isn't nearly as exciting as it should be. Cagney, in fact, has little to do and, as befitting his part as Robinson's younger business partner, he is often subservient. Both men seem to enjoy working with each other and in their few scenes together, they never try to outdo the other, and maybe that's part of the problem. And considering we're talking about Cagney, one of the toughest tough guys ever to slap around a pal, the homoerotic overtones of his friendship with Robinson's character feel a little strange to watch. Oh, and Robinson's habit of rubbing a black man's head for luck is no longer really as endearing as they probably thought it was in 1931.
Nevertheless, SMART MONEY is worth a look. Robinson is already showing the range that would make him the best of all the Warner leading men. Instead of the cold-hearted Little Caesar, Robinson plays a likable small-time barber who gets staked to a big poker game in the big city and builds on his success there until he is running the biggest illegal gambling parlor in town. But he's not a gangster, at least not in the sense we might expect him to be. No tommy guns, no assassinations of rivals, no slapping guys around. He just gambles and wins, except when it comes to women, where he gambles and loses, eventually losing everything over a dame. But even when his life is completely ruined, he still seems like a fun guy to be around.
Talk about casting: A pre- - JBBoris Karloff shows up for about two minutes, as does character actor Charles Lane (you know him if you see him), whose long and successful career playing a serious guy with glasses began with this picture.
WAY BACK IN TIME
"Nick is played by Edward G. Robinson, an actor with the face of a depraved cherub and a voice that makes everything he says seem violently profane." - from the Time review, 1931.