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:

“You ain’t got enough dough in the register to buy your kitten cream.”

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

The weak narrative — a disappointingly bad script by Niven Busch (Duel in the Sun) — could have used some help from director Dillon (this is his last film), who looks like he fell asleep at the wheel. There is, however, a fantastically weird scene that involves an “acid bath,” a moment straight out of an old Bela Lugosi movie.

Bette 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 with a dubious reputation. She’s the best thing about the movie.

Davis has very little chemistry with co-star Charles Farrell, whose career was fading fast. Once again, Davis found herself in the position of co-starring with a popular silent actor on his way down. Like Richard Batherless (Michael Cutiz’s The Cabin in the Cotton) before him, Farrell had become famous as a sensitive leading man in the 1920s.

Farrell was particularly effective in a series of films with Janet Gaynor (e.g. Street Angel and 7th Heaven). In the midst of the Great Depression, Farrell’s career was in serious trouble. The Big Shakedown might have been the last nail in the coffin. He is not bad, but his personality doesn’t fit with Warner Bros’ grungy cheapies. Farrell 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.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

The Big Shakedown is only for Davis completists. It’s a time-filler, nothing more. The cast also includes Allen Jenkins (Pillow Talk), Henry O’Neill (Jezebel) and Dewey Robinson (She Done Him Wrong). B&W, 65 minutes, Not Rated.

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