Monday, April 6, 2015

Pre-Code Blogathon [Late entry] – Little Giant

As Little Giant (1933) opens, it's November, 1932, and Franklin D. Roosevelt has just won the presidency by a landslide, James Cagney plays Bugs Ahern, the Beer Baron of Chicago, who has seen the writing on the wall that Prohibition is about to be repealed. Rather than fight the inevitable, he decides to  split the profits of his bootlegging empire with his gang, and he and his right-hand man move to the posh community of Santa Barbara, California, to retire. Of course, he doesn't fit in, but makes every effort to smooth off the rough edges. With the help of Mary Astor, he rents a huge estate and sets out buy his way into high society. I don't think I can go into any more details of the plot without spoiling things. 

As a pre-code movie, Little Giant is kind of tame. There is a fairly mild reference to cocaine that surely wouldn't have made it through the Hays censorship, and Cagney says that he got " trimmed by a lotta fags with handkerchiefs up their sleeves." I'm sure the f-word there wouldn't have made it either. The way they present Helen Vinson as a  gold-digger and a tramp, is probably a bit more blatant than they could have got away with a year or so later. In fact, the whole premise of the movie might not have made it. Under the Hays code, criminal activity had to be punished, and criminals were never to be portrayed as sympathetic. Possibly, this could have been sidestepped, because James Cagney was a retired criminal, and his criminal activity ended before the start of the film. 

Still, none of this is done purely to be salacious, it's mostly driven by the demands of the story. As such, it's not your typical pre-code film. It is, however, a very good film. It's great to see Cagney play a hoodlum, who's walking around on eggshells, trying to impress a bunch of rich people who ultimately turn out to be way more crooked than he ever was. Cagney is both funny and touching. Mary Astor is great as well as his secretary and later love interest.

Because it doesn't have nudity or extreme violence, Little Giant sort of gets lost in the shuffle of pre-code films, which is a shame for such a very good and funny movie. The ending where Cagney returns to his old ways to set things right is wonderful. This really a great movie, that rises above the din of scandal that dominates most pre-code films, making Little Giant a rare comedy gem.


This post is part of the Pre-Code Blogathon. Apologies for being late. I blame the TCM Film Festival and Wonder Con for being on back-to-back weekends, well, and my apparent inability to understand the inner workings of a calendar.  The Pre-Code Blogathon is hosted by:

Thanks for all of their hard work and another apology for my tardiness.

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