Warner Gangster Collection, Volume 3 – DVD Review

Available at Amazon.com

Has there ever been a tougher trio of actors than Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney at a single studio? They were to Warner Brothers what Universal had in Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolfman. The human trio horrified and entertained America with their portrayal of underworld figures. They weren’t merely thugs, but crooks with charisma. It was impossible not to impersonate their charms as well as their gun face. Warner Gangsters Collection Vol. 1 contains all the seminal works of the trio. Volume Three packages together their lesser known films for fans of the tough guys during their outlaw prime. It’s refreshing to see these underworld superstars in lesser vehicles that weren’t rerun to death on The Million Dollar Movie.

Smart Money (1931 – 81 minutes) is the only time Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney shared the screen. Robinson runs a small town barbershop that hosts gambling in the backroom. Cagney is his assistant clipper and croupier. Robinson gets on a hot streak and takes his luck to the big city for a major Poker game. His small town clients all chip in $10,000 to stake him. All looks good as Robinson sits down with four of the biggest names in cards including Hickory Short. But lady luck kicks his ass when the cards turn cold. The big city hustlers fleece the small town barber. Robinson realizes he’s been cheated, but his first attempt to break up the game gets his jaw busted. The recovering barber plots his revenge to regain the cash and his reputation. His scheme turns him into Nick the Barber, a gambling superstar. The cost of fame and success earns him a bigger enemy: the law! Smart Money is required viewing for kids glued to the TV Poker craze.

Picture Snatcher (1933 – 77 minutes) releases Cagney from prison. His old gang welcomes him home. They’re ready to put him back into the lush life of crime, but Cagney has a different plan. He wants to go straight because he’s stick of being stuck in the stir. He finds an honest job working at a tabloid newspaper. He procures those scandal photos that sell papers. He uses his con-man tools to swipe the story from various subjects. Is this really a step up from being a crook? His criminal past helps him land the big scoops, but the cops suspect he’s about as dirty as the fishwrapper that pays him.

The Mayor of Hell (1933 – 90 minutes) has Cagney not merely go straight, but play a state government official. He’s not the cleanest of political appointees. He’s supposed to just pick up his paycheck and do the bare minimums of the gig. On a tour of a reform school, he realizes that he must take his duties seriously. He sees himself in the eyes of the juvenile delinquents. He wants to reform the reform school so he can prevent these kids from becoming lifelong crooks. It’s Cagney in the Pat O’Brien role. There’s a thrilling and vicious riot scene.

Lady Killer (1933) stars Cagney as a movie theater usher with an attitude. He gets fired for telling a lady where to put her dog. Cagney doesn’t let this down. He’s a hustler that hooks up with a pack of crooks. They quickly become big time operators with a casino and a robber racket. When the law gets too hot, Cagney flees to Los Angeles where the local police give him a swell welcome. Broke and broken, Cagney gets discovered by a talent scout that wants him to play mobsters in the movies. The usher becomes a cinema superstar. Unfortunately his old business partners wander into town with stars in their eyes. He’s got to stop them or his Hollywood career is kaput. There’s a hilarious scene where monkeys take over a fancy party.

Black Legion (1937 – 80 minutes) is Humphrey Bogart’s first leading role. He’s a machine shop worker who gets screwed over on a promotion. He gets frustrated watching immigrants moving up the corporate ladder. His anger makes him an easy mark for the Klu Klux Klan. Beneath the hood, he finds a fast track for taking control over his career. However he realizes the cost of being in the Klan is more than the monthly dues and the laundry bill for his sheet washing.

Brother Orchid (1940 – 87 minutes) starts with Robinson retiring from the rackets. He wants to live the good life and gain class. He turns his operation over to Bogart. He takes a trip to Europe and blows his wad on horses, diamonds and casino wagering over the course of five years. He calls off the retirement and wants control of his empire. Bogart isn’t eager to give up his throne for the old boss. Robinson builds a new underworld organization to challenge Bogart. This is a comedy that packs a punch so don’t expect too much fierce gangster action. They even have a hood named Mugsy.

This collection doesn’t contain any of the classics that get all the raves when film historians describe Warners gangster output. But all six titles have their charms as they show Robinson, Cagney and Bogart giving two-fisted performances. While some of the films had to lighten up their tone to pass the Hays Office code, they still show outlaw stars in their prime. If you’ve picked up the first two volumes, you’ll be throughly entertained by this latest heaping of underworld cinema.

All six films are 1.33:1 full frame. The restoration jobs are spectacular for celluloid of this age. The Dolby Digital Mono is crisp without any nasty pops or static. Each film has a commentary track featuring historians. Alain Silver and James Ursini are on Smart Money. Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta converse about Picture Snatcher. Greg Mank gives a solitary perspective on Mayor of Hell. Dr. Drew Caspar tackles Lady Killer. Anthony Slide and Patricia King Hanson join forces on Black Legion. Alan L. Gansberg and Eric Lax cultivate Brother Orchid. All the chats give a healthy dose of information about the stars and the productions. It doesn’t feel like you’re stuck in class taking notes as they talk. The subtitles are in English and French.

Picture Snatcher
Picture Snatcher trailer (1:03) shows how tabloid photographers will got to extremes to take those smutty pictures. Most of the trailer is made up of stills and paintings.

Escape from Crime trailer (1:36) features the remake of Picture Snatcher with Richard Travis and Jackie Gleason.

Newsreel (0:54) features “Machine Gun” Kelly being taken to the airport by the police.

I Loved A Woman trailer trailer (2:51) has Edward G. Robinson as a romantic lead. Don’t laugh.

Plane Crazy (19:33) is a musical-comedy at an air show starring Dorothy Lee.

Wake Up The Gypsy In Me (7:25) is a Merrie Melodies cartoon directed by Hugh Harman & Rudolf Ising. It’s comic moments in a rural Russian village. A mad bomber revolts against Rice-Puddin’ “The Mad Monk.”

Lady Killer
Footlight Parade trailer (3:16) hypes all the stars in this musical.

Newsreel (1:33) has the announcement of Alcatraz being turned into a prison for the worst gangsters in America.

The Camera Speaks (10:36) lets us know what a newsreel camera would say if it had a voice.

Kissing Time (21:49) is an operetta starring Jane Froman & Georges Metaxa. Americans in South America find everyone breaking into song during a local festival.

Lady Killer trailer (2:30) shocks you with Cagney declaring, “Nuts to you!” My tender ears are aching.

The Shanty Where Santy Claus Lives (7:10) is a Merrie Melodies cartoon directed by Hugh Harman & Rudolf Ising. A poor orphan is abducted by a bearded old man and taken to a slave labor camp in the arctic. He is brainwashed by tiny robots into accepting his fate.

Smart Money
Other Men’s Women trailer (2:48) promotes a “Romance of the shining rails” starring Mary Astor and James Cagney.

Newsreel (0:27) has Al Capone head into the courthouse for his conviction.

George Jessel and His Russian Art Choir (8:04) has the Toastmaster General introduce a group doing those old favorites from Moscow.

The Smart Set-Up (18:31) stars Walter O’Keefe and Margaret Lee. This musical has showgirls argue over a horny nightclub singer who tries to work his mojo on society dames.

Big Man From the North (7:46) is a Looney Tunes cartoon directed by Hugh Harman & Rudolf Ising. Bosko is a mountie on the trail of a peg-legged crook. This really plays like a counterfeit Mickey Mouse cartoon. Pay attention to see animated butt crack!

Black Legion
Black Legion trailer (1:40) lets us know that this is the story of “a man, a woman and a mob.”

The Perfect Specimen trailer (3:36) has Errol Flynn boxing to get into shape for this film. How come the trailer for Hulk doesn’t show Ed Norton doing sit ups?

Hi De Ho (10:42) is Cab Calloway and his Orchestra making the neighborhood jump and jive. If you loved him in The Blues Brothers, experience a youthful Cab.

Under Southern Stars (17:16) is the saga of Stonewall Jackson with a little Civil War singing.

Newsreel (1:00) has the mayor of New York City tossing confiscated gangster guns and slot machines into the ocean.

Porky and Gabby (7:04) is a Looney Tunes cartoon directed by Ub Iwerks and animated by Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett. The pig and goat go camping.

Mayor of Hell
The Kennel Murder Case trailer (2:19) sells us that this is the strangest crime ever committed. William Powell arrives as investigator Philo Vance to solve it.

Newsreel (1:20) has the Attorney General announce how the justice department will fight kidnapping and racketeering.

The Mayor of Hell trailer (2:31) reminds us that James Cagney “lives on a melting pot of human hatred and they call him The Mayor of Hell.”

Crime School trailer (1:37) hails that this is a place “where crime becomes a career and a killer is born.” This is a Dead End Kids vehicle.

Hell’s Kitchen trailer (2:22) swears, “A thousand forgotten boys gave this place its name.” It also stars the Dead End Kids.

The Audition (9:16) has Hannah Williams and the Three X Sisters performing for a booking agent. Don’t get your hopes up, the X isn’t the rating on the sister act.

The Organ Grinder (7:17) is a Merrie Melodies cartoon directed by Harman and Ising. A devious monkey goes to extremes to collect coins for the organ grinder.

Brother Orchid
Brother Orchid trailer (1:43) promises us Edward G. Robinson “stepping out with Ann Sothern and clashing with Humphrey Bogart.”

It All Came True trailer (1:52) lures us with “the girl who gave the world a new word is showing Humphery Bogart what it really means!” Ann Sheridan goes beyond being the Oooph girl.

Newsreel (1:36) has the stars at the race track including Robinson and William Powell. The audio is missing from the first part.

Henry Busse and His Orchestra (9:46) has them perform several musical selections. These were the true pioneers of MTV.

Busy Bakers (7:06) is a Merrie Melodies cartoon directed by Cal Dalton & Ben Hardaway. A poor baker gives a blindman a donut. His charity is repaid overnight.

Slap Happy Pappy (7:01) is a Looney Tunes cartoon directed by Bob Clampett. Things get out of control on Porky Pig’s farm when the eggs hatch. There’s a Jack Bunny and Rochester joke.

Warner Gangsters Volume 3 is another dazzling boxset for film fanatics. The bonus features are generous as they present what the the movie-goers seven decades ago saw on the screen before the feature. While these films aren’t quite as gangster as the iconic selection on Volume One, there’s no denying the toughness in Bogart, Robinson and Cagney when they stepped in front of the camera. This is another splendid reminder of a time when Hollywood could put men on the screen without turning them into pathetic saps.

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Warner Home Video presents Warner Gangster Collection, Volume 3. Starring James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart. Six films on six DVDs. Released on DVD: March 25, 2008. Available at Amazon.com.

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