Monday, October 22, 2012


RE(TRO)VIEW: The Big Shakedown (1934)

Charles Farrell - Jimmy Morrell
Bette Davis - Norma Nelson
Ricardo Cortez - Dutch Barnes
Glenda Farrell - Lily Duran
Allen Jenkins - Lefty
Dewey Robinson - Slim

Directed by John Francis Dillon

★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ (warning: some spoilers)

To say that Bette Davis single-handedly saves this film from disaster would be an overstatement - but it's not too far from the truth.

The paperthin plot tells the tale of enthusuastic but dumb Jimmy Morell, pharmacist, who gets conned/blackmailed into making counterfeit toothpaste (!) by mob boss Dutch Barnes. Things go so well that Dutch gets another bright idea: counterfeit cosmetics and perfumes! By now Jimmy is in deep and though he protests, goes along with the scheme. His fiancé, smart cookie Norma (Davis) is against Jimmy's involvement from the start but, for unclear reasons, still stays with him.
Not knowing when to stop, Dutch now orders Jimmy to copy a popular brand of antiseptic. Jimmy tells him he's unable to copy the product exactly this time but Dutch doesn't care and makes him manufacture the inferior antiseptic anyway. Lily, Dutch's jilted lover, decides to rat him out to the company that produces the original antiseptic and is promptly murdered, preventing the company to sue him without Lily as their witness.
Feeling invincible, Dutch now forces Jimmy to produce fake digitalis, a heart stimulant. The fake stuff is useless because Jimmy can't get all of the needed ingredients. A melodramatic turn of events soon escalates into confrontation and gruesome death, followed by a very sudden happy end.

As manufactured and flimsy as the plot is, there still are things to be enjoyed in this studio quickie. For one thing, at just over an hour long, it doesn't outstay its welcome and the action is fairly fast-paced. Bette steals the show with minimal effort, showing glimpses of the actress she would soon become (her breakthrough film Of Human Bondage is from the same year). Everyone speaks in a loud stage voice and overall the acting is too broad for the screen. There are plenty of comical moments, especially with Dutch and his cronies but that is one of the problems with this film: it can't decide what it is. Is it a comedy or a crime thriller? A melodrama? It has elements of all three and never settles on one of them. The deaths in the story are too brutal to sit next to comedic moments with cartoonish gangsters.
Charles Farrell is alright as the not-too-bright pharmacist but you have to wonder what Norma sees in him. He means well, I suppose. Ricardo Cortez does very well as the crime boss, though subtlety is not in his dictionary. There aren't all that many scenes with Bette Davis but when she does appear, she lights up the screen and instantly lifts the film from mediocre studio fodder to something lightweight but entertaining.


  1. I would like to see this simply because I love Bette and want to see every film she ever made. I am not familiar with Charles Farrell...wish it was with George Brent, with whom she made so many early 30's films.

    You did a great review here. I think reviews ought to be a regular part of your blog.

    1. Thanks Patti! I enjoyed writing the review - and watching the film with the review in mind.
      I couldn't agree more about George Brent - I love it when Bette teams up with him.


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