Tuesday, April 8, 2014

THE BIG SHAKEDOWN (1934)

Sporting a title more appropriate for a '50s crime picture, The Big Shakedown asks the question: What happens to the bootleggers now that Prohibition's over? Gangster Dutch Barnes, impressed by pharmacist Jimmy Morrell's way with chemicals at the local drugstore, comes up with the brilliant idea of hiring him to manufacture bootleg toothpaste. Desperate times call for desperate measures -- like coming up with a movie that takes the concept of bootleg toothpaste seriously.
 
Soon, Dutch's goons are strong-arming local druggists to buy their product, just like the good ol' days. But perhaps realizing such a conceit would eventually make him the laughingstock of his fellow criminals, Dutch soon orders Jimmy to whip up cosmetic knock-offs. Naturally, the lipstick-happy dames can't tell the difference. Then, instead of making the logical move to, say, pseudo-Brioschi, Dutch decides to go into the medical-supply business, blackmailing Jimmy into creating bogus antiseptics and, eventually, digitalis -- a dose of which causes Jimmy's unsuspecting wife, Norma, to suffer a miscarriage. The moral of the story: toothpaste is a gateway drug.

She's a good actress, but not good enough
for those Bette Davis eyes to hide her contempt.
You just know that ingenue Bette Davis (Norma) was secretly praying for studio head Jack Warner to keel over with a shot of phony digitalis himself for forcing her into melodramatic hooey like The Big Shakedown, roughly her 20th movie in three years. Still a few years away from being treated like the royalty she always thought herself to be, Davis can't completely mask her disgust with the ridiculous script or her milquetoast leading man, Charles Farrell, the kind of actor she'd happily chew up and spit out before breakfast.

"...And next week I want you to make a vat of
interferon, or else!"
However, the ever-reliable Ricardo Cortez plays Dutch Barnes with his usual oily, clenched-teeth style. A well-dressed sociopath, Barnes has no problem flooding the city's hospitals with phony medicine if it means keeping the money rolling in. As Rand Paul would urge, let the marketplace decide what to do with him. 

"How can I be anti-
Semitic if I'm Jewish?"
Made near the end of the pre-code era, The Big Shakedown has plenty of little moments that would never have made it in a movie a year or two later. A dumpy housewife is humorously portrayed as a cough syrup addict. Sidney Miller, Warners' go-to whiny Jewish kid, is obsessed with keeping track of his money. The scientist who eventually shoots Dutch gets away with it because 1) Dutch stole his formula, and 2) Dutch had it coming. In order to further protect the doctor, Jimmy dumps the murder weapon into the same vat of bubbling acid where Dutch's body falls. Very Shakespearean stuff.

One gag probably baffles most contemporary viewers. A mousy middle-aged guy enters Jimmy's store and asks for a druggist. When Bette Davis informs him that she's the druggist, the guy gulps and, thinking fast, asks for a bottle of aspirin. Davis smirks knowingly. Audiences in 1934 would have immediately caught the unspoken subtext: the guy had come in for condoms but didn't want to ask a woman for them. Now you can find them at any bodega next to the Milk Duds. I'm not certain we've made progress.


"And I ain't talkin' soda!"
Most unexpected of all is a line of dialogue spoken by the great Allen Jenkins. When informed that the gang is moving from beer to drugs -- pharmaceuticals, that is -- Jenkins misunderstands. "Not me," he replies. "I got a brother doing twenty years for going into the drug business and all they found on him was two decks of coke." There's nothing better than drug references in old movies. Except maybe sex references.

Bootleg toothpaste, Jewish stereotypes, a murderer getting off scot-free, drug humor, cough syrupholics -- it's just another day on the Warner Brothers lot. If not the best pre-code picture, The Big Shakedown is certainly one of the more entertainingly absurd. On the other hand, the next time you visit New York's Chinatown district, stay away from the exotic-looking toothpastes. Many contain diethylene glycol, a substance usually found in, among other things, heating fuel and brake fluid. As least Jimmy Morrell's stuff cleaned your teeth without killing you.

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