Wednesday, March 2, 2011

DVD Review: Bullets or Ballots (1936)

Bullets or Ballots (1936)

(Released: 2006 by Warner Home Video)
Another looong DVD Review by Joe Torcivia

His name is “Bugs”, and he is associated with Warner Bros. Who is he?

No, it’s not “Bugs Bunny”, it’s Humphrey Bogart!

Coming off his acclaimed performance in “The Petrified Forest(See that review HERE!), Bogart delivers another tough-guy, gangster gem as “Bugs Fenner” in “Bullets or Ballots”!

Make no mistake; his is decidedly a supporting or co-star role. This vehicle belongs to the great Edward G. Robinson, but “Bullets or Ballots” cements (pardon the expression) Bogart’s early reputation as an effective screen heavy.

Robinson, as “Johnny Blake” (oddly playing a COP) infiltrates the New York rackets run by “Al Krueger” (Barton MacLane) and his bloodthirsty lieutenant “Bugs Fenner” (Bogart).

A pawn in the game is the not-so-innocent “Lee Morgan” (Joan Blondell), who has more or less created “The Numbers”, and plied that “trade” in sections of The Bronx and Harlem, with the aid of a partner played by black actress Louise Beavers (…in what the “back-of-the-case-blurb” describes as “…an unusual story element for the times”).

Despite her ambiguity toward the law, Morgan has a soft spot for Johnny Blake – and Blake and Fenner play her (and her very profitable revenue stream) from both sides.

Does Johnny Blake succeed in bringing down the Mob? Does the Mob bring down Johnny Blake? It is a little of both? Is it a LOT of both? Of Blake, Krueger, Fenner, and Morgan, who (if any of them) is left standing?

No further spoilers, but this is a superior example of the gangster genre – with two of the best that ever played the game – Robinson and Bogart – set against each other!

Two unusual items of note:
As with “The Petrified Forest”, this film begins with the Warner Bros. Shield catapulting to the forefront of the screen, just as it does at the start of Warner’s Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons. This would indicate that Warner FILMS opened similarly to their cartoons – at least during this period of the 1930s.

Actor Joe King’s portrayal of Police Commissioner Dan McLaren in this film might very well have been BATMAN creator Bob Kane’s template for the character of Commissioner James Gordon, when the character debuted three years later in 1939. It’s too close a matchup to dismiss from consideration. McLaren worked surreptitiously with Robinson’s “Blake” character, just as Gordon worked with Batman. Like Gordon, McLaren is also elevated from the rank of Captain to the office of Commissioner.

As is our custom in these reviews, we’ll break it into CONS and PROS.


Can’t really find any “CONs” to list. So, let’s move on to…


The Film:
Nicely done example of the Crime/Gangster genre, with solid performances by the cast.

The Cast:
Edward G. Robinson as “Johnny Blake”.
Joan Blondell as “Lee Morgan”.
Humphrey Bogart as “Bugs Fenner”.
Barton MacLane as “Al Krueger”.

Extra Features:

Theatrical Trailer for “Bullets or Ballots

Ah, there’s nothing like foot-high hyperbole like THIS exploding across the screen:




Commentary Track by Dana Polan: Professor of Cinema Studies at NYU. Polan delivers a fine commentary for the 1:21:35 length of the film. It is a bit light on the stars and studio politics, but heavy where it needs to be, on the plot, the times, and especially the challenges posed by new production codes.

Items of interest include:
Warner Bros. was under pressure from the HAYES OFFICE to concentrate on CRIME FIGHTERS, rather than gangsters. Thus the notion of portraying Robinson as a COP, pretending to be a gangster. That way Robinson could “be” a gangster (as audiences presumably wanted to see him), and satisfy the cinema overlords.

To this end, the title “Bullets or Ballots” was selected over such alternatives as “And the Home of the Rackets” – a reworking of our National Anthem to indicate the infiltration of The Mob into everyday life.

A scene where a businessman named “Will Hayes” was menaced by gangsters was supposedly written and later deleted from the script.

The Hayes Office had Warner Bros. remove a scene where mobsters are forcing movie theatres to install air conditioning systems – presumably mob-merchandise serviced by mob-contractors. I guess it was frowned upon to associate the movie-going experience with gangsters – whether or not it was true.

Ironically, the Hayes Office’s opposition to savage, machine gun-toting gangsters unwittingly made the cinematic depiction of gangsters MORE RESPECTABLE! As seen in this film, they are businessmen and capitalists – with three BANKERS behind the crime syndicate. Polan puts it best: “The PILLARS of the community are the PILLAGERS of the community!”

Edward G. Robinson agreed to do “Bullets or Ballots” if he could play the subject in a proposed film on the life of Beethoven! The film was never made, but it sure would have been interesting!

For the final climactic showdown, the script said “20 shots are fired”. I counted only EIGHT bullets fired! Once again, Polan observes, the work of the Hayes Office wanting to mitigate the violence. …I wonder how many “Ballots” were counted?

There is one annoying flaw in Polan’s commentary… He consistently refers to the Police Commissioner character as “MacLane” (Perhaps confusing him with Barton MacLane who played gang boss Al Krueger?) rather than the character’s correct name of “McLaren”! Polan or someone in editing SHOULD have caught that!

Warner Night at the Movies. Not so long ago, when Warner was the BEST DVD PRODUCER of them all, it offered the outstanding “Warner Night at the Movies” with select DVD packages. I couldn’t be more pleased, when I uncover one of these gems!

Warner expertly reconstructs the movie-going experience of the day as a viewing option for “Bullets or Ballots”. The film may be viewed as part of the entire program, on its own, or the viewer may pick and choose among the included items. Unlike “The Petrified Forest”, there is no optional introduction to the program by film historian Leonard Maltin. Pity, because the perspective of someone with Maltin’s credentials is quite valuable in appreciating – and sometimes INTERPRETING – the experience.

The program consists of:
· A theatrical trailer for “The Charge of the Light Brigade”, starring Errol Flynn, Olivia DeHavilland, and David Niven – narrated by “The Voice of Warner Bros.” Robert C. Bruce.

· Newsreel: Not the sort of typical newsreel you might expect. “Crazy Newsreel – A Cocktail of the Loopiest News Items of 1936” appears to be a British import, with dialogue you can barely understand, and covering a family with lots of kids, a cute litter of puppies, and the expected “flying machine” that doesn’t work.

· “Vitaphone Presents: George Hall and his Orchestra” (Runs 10:45) 30’s bandleader George Hall and (all together now) his Orchestra can’t find a hotel, so they bunk-down for the night in the theatre at which they are to play. They first rehearse, and then bed themselves on the floor. A male singer does a number. A female singer does a number. Then, alas, a stereotypical black porter checks out the theatre, and the band scares him off with a “Skeleton Dance”. (Of course, Warner offers the usual disclaimer about such things!) Finally, they sleep – perhaps one act “too late”. As the band’s manager dreams of the fat contract they will receive, he is awakened by jackhammers – and learns that the theatre is going to be torn down! Yep! That’s it! “Th-th-that’s ALL folks!”

Oh, this short falls under the long-forgotten sub-title: “A Vitaphone Melody Master”.
· I’m a Big Shot Now, a Merrie Meoldies cartoon directed by I. (Friz) Freleng. This is the only COLOR element in the whole set. A fitting accompaniment to the film, is this tale of a Bad Blue-Jay, of the community of “Birdville”, who becomes a (guess what?) gangster! “Big Shot Blue Jay” and his gang rob the Birdville Bank of all its worms (Yuck!) but are overcome by superior numbers of “Police Birds”!

What? This is 1936! You were expecting “One Froggy Evening” or “What’s Opera Doc”? This was about as good as it got! Includes the song “I’m a Little Big Shot Now!” ...Sorry, I can only find a "Blue Ribbon" title card! No other images of the cartoon whatsoever!

For me, the true highlight of this cartoon was the brief shot of a NEWSPAPER announcing the headline of BSBJ’s robbery (mirroring the similar “newspaper headlines inform the audience” device of the main film) that references Warner animation personnel and other items:

· “Tubby Millar Buys Home in Burbank”
· “Norm McCabe Arrested Again”
· “I. Freleng Wins Award”
· “Warner Bros. Expanded”
· “Baseball is being Played in Japan”
· “Bigamist in Jail”

About that last one… I’ll assume this was the first and last time the word “bigamist” was used in a cartoon… at least until the FOX TV prime time animated series began!

· The film itself. One hour and nearly 22 minutes of gripping entertainment! What an experience a 1930s “night at the movies” must have been!

Other Extra Features Include:

“Gangsters: The Immigrants’ Hero”: (Runs 20:56).

A 2006 documentary on how gangsters were viewed at the time, and their depiction in cinema – liberally sprinkled with Warner Bros film footage of Cagney, Robinson, and Bogart.

Participants include Bogart biographer Eric Lax, film historian Dr. Drew Casper, Martin Scorsese, Talia Shire, Irwin Winkler, Nicholas Pileggi, and others.

A wonderful quote from Edward G. Robinson is recounted here, when asked who the better gangster was – Bogart or himself: “I killed Bogie THREE TIMES! He only killed me ONCE!”

“How I Play Golf by Bobby Jones # 10: Trouble Shots”: (Runs 10:42) Famed golfer Bobby Jones apparently did a series of instructional shorts for Warner Bros. As I neither play golf, nor have any interest in it as a spectator sport, this was my LEAST anticipated feature of the set. Honestly, if I did not intend to review the set as a whole, I would most likely have SKIPPED this one altogether. Turns out, I’m glad I didn’t.

No sooner does Jones begin the program than… Edward G. Robinson appears! With him is comic actor Joe E. Brown, and Robinson suggests that Brown play Jones as a bet! Well, you just don’t say “No” to Edward G. Robinson! However, the catch is that Brown will play Jones’ drive (which will presumably be a good lie) and Jones will play Brown’s drive (which will presumably be the opposite).

Brown sets up one tough golf shot after another for Bobby Jones, but Jones is more than equal to the task. And wins by knocking his ball OVER BROWN’S BALL and into the final hole!

Sure, the situations are contrived, but the shots Jones makes to recover are for real… and Jones explains how he performs each one. Robinson and Brown are uncredited – as are Joan Blondell (also of “Bullets or Ballots”) and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., who are members of the gallery!

“Breakdowns of 1936”: (Runs 09:36) Nearly ten minutes of BLOOPERS from Warner Bros films – all, presumably, from 1936. See outtakes and blown lines from both “Bullets or Ballots” and “The Petrified Forest”. See Edward G. Robinson blow a line and Bogie crack up! See lots more of same! See star after star utter unspeakable words after each flub! Given the production codes that so influenced “Bullets or Ballots”, I wonder how this would have played in the theatre! Such language! Tsk! Tsk!

Lux Radio Theatre broadcast: April 16, 1939: An audio adaptation of “Bullets or Ballots” with Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor.

Bullets or Ballots” may not be a well-known film, but it is a superb example of the gangster genre, particularly as done by Warner Bros. Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart are outstanding, and the story will keep you glued until the very end. The wealth of Extra Features makes the package as a whole irresistible! And the “Hayes Office Intrigue” (once known) only serves to create greater interest!

Highly recommended for fans of Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart, gangster films, crime drama in general, Big Bands, enthusiasts of 1930s Hollywood and/or old New York, radio plays, early Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, golf, bloopers, celebrity cameos, and the list goes on and on!

SOMEWHERE in there, will be SOMETHING you like! You will NOT be disappointed! …Unless you’re expecting Bugs Fenner to say “What’s up, Doc?”

1 comment:

Ryan Wynns said...


Ah, there’s nothing like foot-high hyperbole like THIS exploding across the screen:




They don't advertise anything like that anymore, eh?! The average person would scratch their head, or maybe snicker, or totally miss it, because of their short attention span. I eat that stuff up, though.

The film, and the DVD presentation, sound really good! And, once again, I suspect that watching it would be almost as fun as learning about it by reading your post! :)