There’s a lot to take in while watching this movie: two engaging stars, some nifty direction and cinematography, a sterling line up of supporting players, and a very schizophrenic approach to tone. However, on the whole Big Brown Eyes doesn’t quite equal the sum of its parts, but strangely this is exactly why it’s such a fascinating and compelling film.
Released in April 1936, Big Brown Eyes from all appearances is firmly a B picture. For a start there’s the bland generic title that unlike similar 30s movie titles with no thought put into them (such scintillating gems as Lawyer Man, Parachute Jumper, Air Hostess and Jewel Robbery spring to mind) succeeds in not only being unimaginative but in no way describes or has relevance to the plot. Whose brown eyes? And how do we even know? The movie is in black and white! One would assume it refers to Joan Bennett’s character but they could have at least written one line into the script to reference it. She has eyes, but to my knowledge they are neither big nor brown.
The film is unusual due to its odd mix of genres, styles and tones. Ostensibly it’s about the relationship between quick talking detective Dan Barr (Cary Grant) and his equally sharp witted girlfriend, manicurist Eve Fallon (Joan Bennett). They bicker, fight, fall out and make up over the course of the movie and in doing so foil the plans of a gang of jewel robbers. The thing is,there's so much going on it’s as if the writer(s) just had lots of bits left over from other films and decided to throw them all together to see what fitted. It’s at once a cops and robbers movie, a poor girl made good movie, a fast talking journalist movie, and a lone detective movie. It’s also both a breezy romantic comedy and a gritty gangster film, and none of these elements fit together very well. When lowly manicurist Bennett becomes a hotshot reporter for the local newspaper seemingly overnight you can tell the writers are making this stuff up as they go along.
Most jarringly is the tone, sweeping from the light and snappy one liners of the soon to be typical Cary Grant romantic comedy to the darkest of the dark, during which the criminals accidentally shoot a baby in the park when a gangland disagreement goes wrong. We see the anguish of the mother as she looks into the bullet ridden pram then…the movie continues in its merry way, and the jokes and silly situations continue. In fact the criminals in the film are about the most unsavoury bunch I can remember seeing outside of the early pre-code gangster movies and at times just seem to be in the wrong film. More leftover plots from an earlier time?
The movie’s B credentials are furthered by two solid mid level stars as leads. Obviously, Cary Grant would go on to greater things but here he’s not quite there yet (but almost). In Joan Bennett the movie gains a young, pretty name actress, but not one who ever quite made the A lists despite a long career as a star actress. In fact I always think of Joan Bennett at one of the great unsung talents of the 30s and 40s and a real dependable utility player in Hollywood. I started noticing it whilst listening to Lux Radio Theater as whenever an advertised star had to cancel due to ‘illness’, it always seemed like Joan Bennett was the girl chosen at short notice to replace them (and if she wasn’t available Virginia Bruce got the call). She has a great range and is everything a star should be, but often just seemed to get lost in the shuffle, with very few of her early films remembered well today. Perhaps this a case of someone who movie history has overlooked but I wish she had become a bigger star. In any case dependable is good, and in Big Brown Eyes she is simply wonderful. In fact if she was as charming and sassy in all her movies as she is here, I know we would remember her much more, though her career would perhaps be less interesting.
You could write a whole book studying the young Cary Grant’s path of discovery towards becoming the Cary Grant character in his early films, which is one reason why they are often so fascinating. Here he’s 18 months and half a dozen films away from his breakout performance in The Awful Truth, and you can see him gaining confidence and starting to put the pieces together for his new screen persona. He plays a confident, wise cracking cop trying to solve a murder and has loads of opportunity for the sort of self effacing foolery he later made an art. He is charming, forceful and funny but somehow he’s not 100% believable in the role. He hasn’t quite joined the dots on how to pull it all off sucessfully and behind the smile there is a smidgen of doubt. He didn’t have long to wait though, and we all know how that worked out (yes, he was never heard from again...).
For me though, Joan Bennett is the real star of the movie. She has an air of confidence that really carries the film, and she really needs it to get away with some of the ridiculous fashions she sports during the proceedings. It's almost as if her part was another holdover from the pre-code era, a final hurrah to the sort of girl who works her way up from the shop floor to success and romance, the sort of girl who is tough and hard because her life is, yet becomes all smiles and big eyes when love comes her way. There are comedic moments when Cary Grant threatens to outshine her, but she holds her own, and frequently manages to get bigger laughs. A scene where she mimics Grant is both hilarious and unexpected and she shows a flair for outrageous comedy. Bennett literally stomps through the picture unperturbed, instantly becoming a reporter, keeping her boyfriend in line and solving a crime while buffing nails like it's the best day out ever. It's a breathlessly effervescent performance that is perfectly judged (unlike the script) and makes one wish she had been given similar vehicles in the pre-code era.
Surprisingly (at least to me), Big Brown Eyes is directed by Raoul Walsh. I'm surprised because I always associated Walsh with a higher quality of product but a quick glance at his filmography shows that after his great silent successes of the late 20s such as What Price Glory and The Thief of Bagdad, he spent most of the 30s making fairly forgettable movies. This creative lull would come to an end in 1939 with a move to Warner Brothers for The Roaring Twenties and after that he had an incredible run of great movies that would continue pretty much to the end of his career. So what happened in the 30s? I'd take a guess and say he was just seen as a contract studio director at Paramount and never given the chance to direct anything worthy of his rugged talents. Every studio was a fit for certain stars and directors, and it seems that Paramount had no idea what to do with him.
Despite being given a fairly unremarkable vehicle to work on, Walsh and his crew work hard to bring the movie up to a level above the norm. There are some stunning Art Deco sets, some of which seem so incongruous with the tone of the movie that they stand out like a sore thumb. This, combined with some outrageous high fashion really makes the visual style memorable, and the movie is at times an awkward halfway house of early and mid 30s styles. This is complemented by a style of direction and cinematography that while patchy, is at times far better than a film of this type deserves. There is a wonderful opening sequence set in the beauty salon where the premise of the diamond thieves is explained through a stunning montage of gossiping staff and customers in the salon. The quick cuts and extreme close ups of the faces, combined with the constant chatter and whisper about the scandal produces a scene worthy of Hitchcock and more importantly sets up the plot perfectly in about 30 seconds. This trick is repeated in a more unusual way, full of strange camera angles to heighten tension during a later court scene.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the movie, and the area where Raoul Walsh exerts his influence the most noticeably is in its treatment of the criminal characters. To do this successfully, the movie casts a group powerhouse character actors that get some of the best roles of their careers. If we ignore the fact that the tone of the movie is schizophrenic, the part dealing with the jewel gang is excellent, and it's all down to the talent of the actors and a firm directorial hand. The criminal scenes are shot in a matter of fact way, with a bleak dispassionate stare and a black streak of humour.
Lloyd Nolan plays Russ Cortig, the head of the jewel gang and brings to the role his customary combination of believability and rough charm. The character is both thuggish and cultured, an arrogant criminal yet a man with a sensitive side that hints at hidden depths. When we see his apartment it is dressed with all different types of flowers, and Cortig himself is listening intently to a horticultural show on the radio. His interest in flowers is not merely a lazy gimmick, it is a motif that is woven into all his appearances in the movie. When detective Dan Barr (Grant) arrives to confront him, he puts his drink in a vase of lilies, much to Cortig's dismay. Barr replies by saying “There'll be plenty left for your funeral” thus foreshadowing a prominent use for the precious flowers in the gangster's life. The flowers may put Cortig a cut above his loutish cohorts but when he is acquitted of the baby murder he shows his true colours and leaves the courtroom laughing heartily, ready to get back to his beloved plants. That we still have a degree of sympathy for the character after this is all down to the subtle playing of Nolan.
Eventually he is shot dead by fellow gang members, surrounded by his plants. Unaware that he will be the recipient of a hit, he tells his would be assassins about this love of flowers: “American Relatives. My favourites. I guess that's because they're so expensive”. The line is delivered so perfectly, all at once undermining any pretence of depth in the man, and confirming that his tastes, though genuine were largely a matter of ego and status. As he goes to put the flowers in a vase, he talks to them (“these go in poppa's bedroom”) and absentmindedly lectures his friends on the ins and outs of flower arranging. He puts a flower in his lapel, turns around and is shot to death. As predicted, earlier, the flowers find a use covering his dead body.
Another memorable player in the movie is Douglas Fowley, who plays the gang's resident wise guy Benny Battle. He has the most amazingly high-waisted trousers, a cocked hat and the catchphrase “Howzit babe?” that mark him out as a come to life figure out the pre-code era. He is all front, with his corny patter and Bowery bravado he is the epitome of Warner Brothers gangster film swagger. Later, he is arrested and is convinced that he has squealed on his gang, so flips out in the police station, and we see the most amazing transformation from bully to scared little boy. It's a brief but intense performance and is easily one of Douglas Fowley's best character parts.
Despite these great performances, the movie is completely stolen by Alan Baxter in the role of gang hitman Cary Butler, who appears alongside his brother and fellow hitman, played by Henry Brandon (here billed as Henry Kleinbach). Alan Baxter is someone who I wasn't aware of before this film but he made such a big impression here that I have to start tracking down his other appearances. He looks impossibly young (actually 27) in this movie, but with a cold steely eyed determination in his face that just oozes menace. His character only appears a few times in the movie, but each appearance is sufficiently striking that at times it seems like he is in a completely different movie (again, this is probably the script's fault but his scenes are directed with a degree of seriousness that is still at odds with the majority of the film).
Cary Butler and his brother are always together, always similarly attired and always looking shifty. It is an argument with brothers that causes Lloyd Nolan's character to shoot the baby, and so later it is up to the them to sort the mess out. In a rather chilling scene, the real boss of the gang (played by Walter Pidgeon) calls them up with a job, we find them lying on a bed together smoking and staring off into space as if they are automatons that have nothing to fill their lives without killing. As the phone rings, they look at each other then sit up in unison. Butler talks in a low, clipped monotone, stone faced but for the hint of a cruel smile. Now with a job in hand, they calmly start packing and talk about catching a flight. It is the brothers that kill Russ Cortig, with Butler looking particularly cold and inhuman in the face of a man and his enthusiasm for tending for plants. After the shooting he throws some flowers on the prone body, snarling “Take these with you...daisies never tell”
Alan Baxter's performance really has to be experienced, as his otherworldly deadpan approach is strikingly modern. He doesn't say or do much but every movement and every word is laced with threat and menace hiding behind a boyish face and dead eyes. Mention also should be made for Henry Brandon playing his brother, though he isn't quite as good, his size and mean face (which were put to such memorable use in Laurel and Hardy's Babes in Toyland) combined with his almost complete lack of dialogue gives him a scary presence.
All in all Big Brown Eyes is a really watchable film. It's odd combination of the serious and the comic, and its mix of genres and characters at least makes it far from ordinary. I would love to know about the genesis of the script as there are so many elements and characters that seem decidedly pre-code. It's almost as if it was a script that was lying around in a studio drawer for a while and subsequently spruced up by Raoul Walsh for a 1936 audience. Nonetheless it is a great film, with two stars at very interesting parts of the careers, a host of top notch character actors giving scene stealing support and a director trying to do a little more that is usually required with a B movie and a B script. And if nothing else, it's really worth watching for the final seconds. As the criminals are rounded up and justice prevails, Cary Grant grabs Joan Bennett in the clinch for the customary final kiss and fade out and...let's just say he's enthusiastic! Cary Grant has always been a great screen kisser but here he looks like he's really giving it the old college try. Well, maybe it was her big brown eyes...