Saturday, September 10, 2011

DVD Review: Picture Snatcher (1933)

Picture Snatcher (1933)

(Released: 2008 by Warner Home Video)
Another looong DVD Review by Joe Torcivia

I’m a picture snatcher! When a millionaire’s wife hides out with a chauffer, I’m the guy who slaps their profiles on the front page. I track down the saps who have good reason to keep their pictures outta the papers. Murderers, embezzlers, crooked politicians… an’ people who pull down the blinds in th’ wrong houses!”

James Cagney does it again as “Danny Kean”, an ex-con, just released from prison, who wangles a job as a photographer for a scandal sheet – by using his moxie and his wits to get a photograph of the people involved in an infidelity incident.

Upon receiving his CAMERA, Cagney quips: “Works just like a GUN! Trigger an’ all!”

GREAT BIT: An exchange between Cagney’s “Danny” and a bespectacled, lanky nerd of a journalism student! Yes, there actually WERE nerds in the 1930s. We just didn’t have a name for ‘em! Our unfortunate student was played by an uncredited Sterling Holloway – later the definitive voice of Disney’s version of Winnie the Pooh! Pooh meets Cagney? How ‘bout that!

STUDENT: “Who, in your opinion, was the most difficult person to approach?”

DANNY: “The Governor.”

STUDENT: (writing on notepad): “The Governor… And what was the subject of the interview?”

DANNY: “I wanted to ask his PARDON.”

STUDENT: “Oh, I see… You owed him an apology.”

DANNY: “Heh-Heh! …Let it go at THAT!”

Over the course of the film, Danny snaps an expressly forbidden picture of an execution – and an action photo of one of his former gangland associates in the midst of a rather brutal police firefight. He also has the expected romantic complications with a police lieutenant’s daughter and the amorous girlfriend of his editor. Oh, that Danny

Picture Snatcher” is directed by Lloyd Bacon. Credited as “Dialogue Director” is William Keighley, later the director of such WB classics as “G-Men”, Bullets or Ballots, and a large portion of The Adventures of Robin Hood.

As with The Mayor of Hell, Cagney is superb as a “good bad guy”, employing his… er, “skill set” as a former gangster to his new line as a member of the paparazzi.

I’ve never seen or heard it mentioned before, but a long-time Disney comic book fan like myself cannot help but compare Cagney (in a picture like this – where he is driven, but not overtly "bad") to Floyd Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse of the 1930s! They are both scrappy little guys, full of moxie, who not only succeed at – but often revolutionize – their respective endeavors.

Donald Duck comic book legend Carl Barks has admitted to being influenced by that which he saw in the movies. It is certainly not a large leap to assume that, in the ‘30s, Gottfredson was similarly influenced by Cagney in films like this! I’ll bet Mickey could get some pretty nifty newspaper pictures too!

Additional oddities: Being still early in the Warner Bros. cannon, like “The Public Enemy” and “The Mayor of Hell”, it begins with “Warner Bros. Pictures and the Vitaphone Corp. Present:  [ with the WB Shield superimposed over the Vitaphone Pennant].

Also like “The Public Enemy”, every featured character in the film is introduced by a pose, in front of a black background, with both the name of the actor and the character he or she plays prominently displayed. In older films, I often have difficulty in determining “who-is-who” beyond the obvious star performers. This is a nice way to remedy that – and I wish it would have been employed more often.

Actor Robert Emmett O’Connor, as Police Lt. Casey Nolan (The cop who originally jailed Danny.), ironically also played “Paddy Ryan”, the bootlegger who thrust Cagney into a life of violent crime in “The Public Enemy”!

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


Extra Features: My standard for a movie DVD’s Extra Features is the inclusion of a theatrical trailer for the film, a commentary track, and “making-of” or background featurette. No featurette is included with “Picture Snatcher” giving it a CON, in this area.


The Film: Another triumph for Cagney! I’ve seen enough of these things now to say, unequivocally, that James Cagney was probably the finest all-around entertainer of this age! He is an absolute joy to watch, bringing great energy to everything he does.

The Cast:

• James Cagney as “Danny Kean”.

• Ralph Bellamy as “J.R. Mc Lean”.

• Patricia Ellis as “Pat Nolan”.

• Robert Emmett O’Connor as “Lt. Casey Nolan”.

• Alice White as “Allison”.

• Robert Barrat as “Mr. Grover”.

Menus: Menus are easy to navigate, and are nicely illustrated with colorized images of the film’s main characters. The Main Menu plays a nice, jazzy theme for “Picture Snatcher”. For once in a Warner set, it is not too loud but plays at a perfect volume in relation to the rest.

Extra Features:

Theatrical Trailer for “Picture Snatcher”: (01:03) Still drawings, representative of the film, display over the “jazzy theme” and here comes the Hype:


THEN, the hype takes the shape of a POEM: (Yes, really!)

He hides in boxes, barrels, and stalls,

He catches lovers in the halls,

And steals their pictures from the walls… PICTURE SNATCHER!

He’ll stop at nothing for a shot,

At something sexy, while it’s hot,

And therein lies the thrilling plot… of PICTURE SNATCHER!

Your sins, to him, are bread and butter,

He’s right behind you, lens and shutter,

He’ll put your picture in the gutter…


Oh, how do you not love stuff like this!

Theatrical Trailer for “Escape from Crime”: (01:36) A 1942 film, based on “Picture Snatcher”, starring Richard Travis, Julie Bishop… and Jackie Gleason!

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 recreates the movie-going experience of the day as a viewing option for “Picture Snatcher”. 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.

The program consists of:

Theatrical trailer for “I Loved a Woman”: (02:51) Starring Edward G. Robinson.

You asked for unusual entertainment…”, this trailer declares, “Here’s a picture that’s really different!”

Edward G. Robinson: “Your father’s selling the public CONDEMNED BEEF! He bribes officials to let him get away with it!”

Oh? So, does that mean he becomes a “beef bootlegger”? I guess that IS “really different”! No need to ask “Where’s the Beef?” Edward G. Robinson’s got it! The hype goes on:

Her love changes a DREAMER… into a TYRANT… with the most TERRIBLE POWER the world has ever known!

Um, really? …Behold the power of Beef!

Newsreel: (Runs 00:54) From “Hearst Metrotone News”: “Machine Gun Kelly taken in U.S. war on kidnappers – nabbed at Memphis, Tenn., after long hunt”. Kelly is seen walking in handcuffs, flanked by G-Men.

Oddly, Kelly was guilty of kidnapping an oil man! From today’s perspective of obscene oil company profits and job-killing, economy-eviscerating, manipulated high pump prices, would Kelly be seen as something of a “people’s hero”, as once were the bootlegging gangsters of Prohibition?

In context, this newsreel is quite interesting! The newsreel packaged with “The Mayor of Hell” (Also 1933), declares: “U.S. Acts to End Reign of Crime”. Now, we’ve “nabbed” Kelly! And the one packaged with Cagney’s “Lady Killer” (1933 Once Again) tells of the acquisition of Alcatraz Island as prison for criminals – including Machine Gun Kelly! Nice (if unintended) continuity between Newsreels by Warners!

“Vitaphone Presents: Plane Crazy”: (Runs 19:33) In case you were wondering, this is the version of “Plane Crazy” WITHOUT Mickey Mouse! I’m sure you ALL remember it! Aw, c’mon…. You don’t’ remember this classic starring Dorothy Lee, with Arthur and Morton Havel? It was directed by Roy Mack, fer cryin’ out loud! Really? No?

Well, anyway… We begin at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, NY. Bumbling and unsuccessful charter flyers “Jack and Bill” don’t “go up a hill”, but instead concoct a phony scheme to fly around the world – and gain notoriety for their business. Perky but dumb lady-friend “Dottie” (…who is indeed rather “dotty”) joins them in their deception.

This is actually quite a funny short, cleverly utilizing stock footage and (in certain spots) humor the likes of which Warner Bros. would apply almost sixty years later in such TV cartoons as Animaniacs and Freakazoid! – combined with good old standard Vaudeville bits. (Come to think of it… Animaniacs and Freakazoid! drew from Vaudeville-style humor when needed, too!)

And, just when it appears to have succeeded beyond my expectations as a comedy vehicle, it abandons its story, moves into – and ends with – a BIG “wedding cake” dance production number! Yes, really!

I REALLY have no idea what to make of this! But, overall, I liked it! Far more than I expected to – so that ain’t bad!

I also wonder if stuff like this was ever on TV… or if it was just consigned to the Warner vaults (or Water Tower, for you Animaniacs fans) until “escaping” onto this DVD!

“Wake Up the Gypsy in Me”: (Runs 07:25) A Merrie Melodies cartoon by Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising, with Leon Schlesinger – Producer. Drawn by Isadore (later “Friz”) Freleng and Larry Silverman. The Merrie Melodies opening theme for this one is “Get Happy”.

The WB Shield and Vitaphone Pennant introduce this cartoon, where animated Russian peasants dance and make music. Then, they “give the business-ski” to “Rice-Puddin the Mad Monk”, who has kidnapped a little Gypsy girl.

Oddly, I have NEVER SEEN this cartoon at any point in my life… and I think we can all agree that I’ve watched a lot of cartoons! The little Gypsy Girl pops out at cartoon’s end to say “So long, folks!”

The film itself: Return with James Cagney and Ralph Bellamy to the days when competing NEWSPAPERS were everyone’s primary source of information – and learn that scandal was big even in the supposed “good old days”. Cagney shows us why he’s one of Warner’s brightest stars in a superb vehicle that rarely pauses to take a breath!

Commentary Track by Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta:

Vance and Maietta offer a lively commentary for the entire 01:17:02 length of the film – exhibiting great enthusiasm and handing-off to one another like a combination of Warner Bros. “Goofy Gophers” and yours truly and my great friend and comics-writing editor David Gerstein, if we were discussing the aforementioned Carl Barks and Floyd Gottfredson.

Er, that’s a COMPLIMENT to the pair, in case you were wondering!

Observations include:

• “Picture Snatcher” was shot in a mere 15 days!

• Cagney was quick with the humorous ad-libs. He reasoned that, despite playing shady characters, no one could hate someone who made them laugh.

• “Picture Snatcher” was a pre-code film, as were “Little Caesar”, “The Public Enemy”, and “Scarface”. But, in view of the changing times, it was an attempt to make a “gangster-type film”, with everything but the “overt gangster-ism” in it.

• Deaths by electrocution (as seen in this film) were both new and mysterious to the public at the time. Thus, the urgency to obtain a photo of the event at all costs. Also, there were 20 deaths in New York’s “Sing-Sing” Prison (where the film’s execution took place) in the previous year – 1932.

• The incidents of the execution (with smuggled photo) and gangster/police firefight were drawn from actual news stories of the time.

• Prohibition would end late in 1933, meaning that it was still in force during both the making and release of “Picture Snatcher”. Given this, a fair amount of the film takes place in speak-easys – and is an accurate reflection of real times. The showing of illegal drinking was a standard in films of the time.

• In the frantic car chase to get Danny’s unscrupulously obtained photo of the execution to his paper, his car LOOSES A TIRE. But, in subsequent scenes of the chase, the tire is BACK ON AGAIN – AND BACK OFF! Oopsie!

• They conclude: So, for the most part, electrocutions and gun battles aside, everyone who survives ends up – more or less – happy! And you really couldn’t ask for more from an early 1930s Warner Bros. picture!”


I ended up quite “happy” too! “Picture Snatcher” is another of those lesser known films that should really be more of a classic! Every moment of it, is exciting and/or great fun! Ralph Bellamy is a solid, if unremarkable, second banana, and Robert Emmett O’Connor is one of the best “Irish Cops” you’ll ever see on film!

But James Cagney is the REAL “Picture Snatcher” here – in every sense of the phrase! There isn’t a moment when he’s on screen that you won’t be thoroughly entertained!

Warner Night at the Movies” allows you to experience the film in a 1933 context. The rest is ably filled-in by our pair of intrepid commentators.

It is highly recommended for fans of James Cagney, fast-talking comedic action, mixed-up romance, the newspaper business, very old cars, gangster and crime films in general, Tommy guns, electric chairs, and those who might romanticize about life in the Great Depression.

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