The Bette Davis Project: The Big Shakedown (1934)

The Big Shakedown (1934)


A druggist, Jimmy Morrell (Charles Farrell, City Girl), runs a successful pharmacy with the help of his longtime girlfriend, Norma (Bette Davis). Unfortunately for the hard-working couple, kingpin Nick Barnes (Ricardo Cortez, Midnight Mary) eyes Jimmy’s business and forces him to enter an illegal racket that threatens to destroy the pharmacist’s life and work.

Reaction & Thoughts:

Frankly, The Big Shakedown, directed by John Francis Dillon, is rubbish even by potboiler low standards. It’s rather sloppy put together movie, and nothing happens that holds one’s attention.

Oh yes, there is a curious scene that involves an “acid bath” — a moment that belongs in a Lugosi/Karloff movie, not a gangster film. The weak narrative — a disappointingly bad script by Niven Busch, who is best remembered for his multi-layered westerns — could have used some help from director Dillon (this is his last film), who looks like he fell as sleep on the wheel. Farrell and Davis have little chemistry, and while Cortez is an appropriately menacing bad guy, he is unable to create any sense of danger.

Once again, Davis found herself in the position of co-starring with a popular silent actor on his way down.

Like Richard Batherless (The Cabin in the Cotton), Farrell had become famous as a sensitive leading man in the 1920s. He was particularly effective in a series of films with Janet Gaynor (7th Heaven). In the midst of the depression, Farrell’s career was in serious trouble. I don’t know, maybe the public got tired of him. The Big Shakedown might have been the last nail on the coffin. He is not bad, but his personality doesn’t fit with Warners’ grungy cheapies. He is clean-cut to a fault — an actor like Paul Muni could have given the role some sass. Later, Farrell became a big TV star, and even dabbled in local politics with great success.

Davis’s role feels like a prop to justify the narrative’s romantic angle. She has very little to do here. It’s a role that any relatively talented starlet could have done with ease. Years later, Davis rightly complained that the best female part in the film was played by Glenda Farrell (no relation to Charles), and I agree. Miss Farrell has a field day as a woman of dubious reputation. She’s the best thing about the movie.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

The Big Shakedown is only for Davis completists. With Allen Jenkins (Pillow Talk), Henry O’Neill (Jezebel), Dewey Robinson, and John Wray. B&W, 65 minutes, Not Rated.


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