The Warner Brothers studio of the thirties and forties is remembered for such classic movies as Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, to name just a handful of that studio’s outstanding films. However, the fun of being a fan of the old Warner Brothers movies and its stars is discovering the smaller films, the ones that aren’t always remembered but are still entertaining. Here are five such films:
The Whole Town’s Talking (1933): Not a Warners film per se, but a Columbia Studios film starring one of Warners’ biggest stars Edward G. Robinson in a dual role as a timid office worker and a ruthless gangster. Naturally, when the two get mistaken for each other, complications result. The film is never as funny as it wants to be, but it’s worth watching for the versatility of Robinson, who creates two entirely separate characters, and for some of the special effects used to put both Robinsons in the same shot.
Lady Killer (1933): An early James Cagney vehicle that often feels as if the script writers had no idea where they were going from one page to the next. Cagney starts off as a movie usher, becomes a gangster, and then a movie star. It’s a light comedy, a gangster picture, a satire on Hollywood; like many Warner Brothers films of the time, Lady Killer is a movie that tries to be several movies at once, and Cagney glides through it effortlessly like the dancer he was at heart.
G-Men (1935): One of the first James Cagney vehicles produced after the strict enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code, which, among other things, attempted to end the glamorization of criminal violence. Since Warner Brothers made a good profit from glamorizing criminal violence, they found a clever way around the code by turning the gangster film on its head and depicting events from the side of the good guys. In G-Men, James Cagney plays a federal agent fighting against the gangsters, and ironically, G-Men probably winds up depicting more violence than Little Caesar and The Public Enemy combined!
Bullets or Ballots (1936): Like G-Men, Bullets or Ballots turns the gangster genre upside down. Edward G. Robinson, who so often played gangsters, was now on the side of the law, a detective who goes undercover to join the mob in an effort to bring it down. His main foe is, you guessed it, Humphrey Bogart, who was often relegated to the role of the gangster or crooked lawyer that needed to be taken down in the final moments of a movie.
San Quentin (1937): A film with a superb cast (Humphrey Bogart, Pat O’Brien, Ann Sheridan, Barton MacLane) and a socially conscious script decrying prison conditions of the time, San Quentin is a perfect example of an average Warner Brothers film of its era. It’s not a great film, it’s not a bad film, nobody rises above the material, nobody falls below it. It is a movie that gets the job done but no more. Still interesting as an early near-starring vehicle for Bogart, still several years away from becoming a true movie icon.