Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Bette Davis Month Bonus: 'The Big Shakedown' (1934)

As I get down to fewer and fewer Bette Davis movies that I have yet to see, more and more of them are concentrated in the early-to-mid-1930s, a period in which Davis was under contract to Warner Bros. and churning out a quick succession of B-movies while working to make a name for herself. That means that Davis' parts in these movies are often not very substantial, and the movies themselves are usually forgettable and sloppy. There are occasional pleasant surprises (like 1932's The Rich Are Always With Us), but The Big Shakedown is not one of them. It's a rather ludicrous melodrama about gangsters making counterfeit pharmaceuticals, and the devastating effect this has on the absurdly naive pharmacist (Charles Farrell) who helps create the products.

Davis plays the pharmacist's wife, a sunny and optimistic woman with very little personality and the reason that he risks breaking the law to make some extra money. Both of them value the simpler time of the friendly corner drugstore, but the mob has other ideas, and the ambitious gangster played by Ricardo Cortez wants to build an empire off of ersatz toothpaste. It's all fun and games until the pharmacist is charged with creating knock-off medications that are harder to concoct than toothpaste, and he's forced to turn out defective products to meet the demands of his overseers (who shockingly decline to let him leave his position when he asks politely). Of course these medications turn out to be the only thing that can save his unborn child, thus teaching him the consequences of his criminal ways, etc.

Although there is some fun pre-Code nastiness here (the gangster gets his comeuppance by being dumped into a vat of acid), The Big Shakedown is resolutely square and dull, with a bland lead performance from Farrell. Davis has a few cheeky moments with the drugstore's goofy customers, but mostly she just has to stand around and look either concerned or proud. Glenda Farrell has a much sassier, Davis-like role as the gangster's moll, although it's a pretty small part. The movie barrels through its moronic plot in a little over an hour, and the actors just stand around and try not to get run over.

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