Picture Snatcher (1933) Lloyd Bacon

Within four years Cagney made 19 films establishing his brash New York City persona as an alternative to the typical Hollywood male stars of the era. Cagney and the advent of sound movies were a perfect fit. His fast talking self-confident, cocky style was a perfect antidote to the stiffness of many actors transforming themselves from silent films to sound. Besides the cockier Cagney was, the more we loved him.

“Picture Snatcher” is a breezy, fast paced entertaining pre-code film that does it all right without ever managing to achieve greatness. The film stars an electric James Cagney as Danny Kean a streetwise recently released ex-con who decides to go straight.

After telling his former cohorts, and collecting his share of the last job before his incarceration, that he is quitting the rackets Danny gets a job at a New York tabloid called “The Graphic” through a connection he made with the City Editor Al McLean (Ralph Bellamy) while in the clink.  Not suited for reporting but brash enough to take a job as a photographer when all others are reluctant to go the scene where a crazed firemen is hold up  with a rifle after discovering his wife’s remains in bed with another man after a fire. Posing as an insurance adjustor, Danny worms his way into the distraught man’s confidence while his real true goal is to steal a photo of the man’s family to publish in the paper.

Along the way, Danny meets Allison (Alice White) a two-timing dame who is supposed to be McLean’s girl but has desires for Danny who continually fights her off. Danny does have his principles, he does not fool around with a friend’s dame.  He is more attracted to a young journalism student  named Patricia Nolan (Patricia Ellis) who happens to be the daughter of tough but lovable cop Lt. Casey Nolan (Robert O’Connor).

Danny’s ethics as a press photographer are no better than they were as a hoodlum; he steals a pass from another reporter to gain entry into Sing Sing to witness an electrocution of a female prisoner. Inside the prison, Danny with a miniature camera strapped to his ankle gets his money shot which makes the paper’s front page, but in the process get s his girlfriend’s father/cop busted in rank as was in charge of security and received the blame for Danny slipping into the facility.

The execution sequence is based on the true story of one Ruth Snyder who in 1928 became the first woman to be electrocuted since the late 1800’s. Snyder and her lover, also electrocuted, killed her husband for insurance money (should sound familiar, the case inspired James Cain to use as the basis for Double Indemnity).   The New York Daily News hired an out of town photographer from the Chicago Tribune, someone unknown to the prison guards at Sing Sing, to sneak in to witness the execution and snap the photo which appeared the next day on the front page of the Daily News with the headline DEAD!

Danny does redeem himself somewhat by the end of the film when he is caught in an apartment with one of his former hoodlum buddies, Jerry the Mug. He protects Jerry’s frightened wife and kids trapped in the apartment as Jerry recklessly shoots it out with the police. As the battle with the police is about to reach it dramatic end, Danny gets an incredible photo of Jerry as he shot to death by the police.

Written by Allan Rivkin and P.J. Wolfson based on a story by Danny Adhern, The Picture Snatcher is overall a light-hearted fast moving film filled with gangsters and newspaperman directed by Lloyd Bacon and played to the hilt by Cagney. The films generally low opinion of the news media, whether intentional or not, remains relevant to today with the onslaught of all the in your face vulture paparazzi we see brought to the extremes today in gossip magazines and TV. The Picture Snatcher is Cagney’s film all the way, his exhilarating performance drives the film and must have been a revelation to audiences of the day who were used to more suave refined leading men than the in your face anti-authoritarian  character Cagney is here and would perfect in so many films yet to come.

Block-Heads (1938) John G. Blystone

Block-Heads (1938) is one of Laurel and Hardy’s best feature films and one of the last they made for Hal Roach Studios. Roach and Stan were soon in contract disputes resulting in Stan and Ollie leaving the Hal Roach Studios where so much of their great work was done. Unfortunately, after leaving the Roach Studios the teams work declined rarely reaching the quality of their earlier films.

    It is 1917 and World War I is raging. In a foxhole, among the soldiers are Stan and Ollie. The troops are told they are moving out all except for Stan who is to stay behind and guard the trenches until he is relieved. Stan and Ollie say goodbye and Ollie goes off into battle with the rest of the soldiers. Soon it is 1918, the war is over and the soldiers come home, all except for one. Time marches on and so does doughboy Stan, it is now1938, and Stan is still guarding the same trench marching back and forth, until a local pilot who he almost shoots down lands and tells him that the war has been over for twenty years.

    Meanwhile back home Ollie is now married and henpecked, to Mrs. Hardy (Minna Gombell). It is their one year anniversary and Ollie ask permission of his wife to go out and buy her something special, promising he will be back within an hour. On his way out, he first says good morning to Mrs. Gilbert, the beautiful Patricia Ellis, whose husband Mr. Gilbert (Billy Gilbert) is coming home after two months on safari. Ollie then heads toward the elevator meeting James the porter, who is reading a newspaper with headlines about a doughboy who did not know the war has been over for twenty years. Ollie say he cannot imagine anyone being that dumb. Then he sees Stan’s photo in the paper.

   Ollie heads down to the Soldiers Home where he finds Stan sitting in a wheelchair giving him the impression poor Stan lost a leg. They reminisce and Ollie invites Stan home for one of his wife’s great home cooked meals. When they arrive, Mrs. Hardy is not home. Stan asked permission if it is all right for him to smoke. Ollie assures him it is okay, so Stan lights up an imaginary pipe, even lighting the pipe with an imaginary lighter all which, bewilders Ollie. When Mrs. Hardy returns she is not happy to see “another of Ollie’s tramp friends.” She and Ollie get into a big fight resulting in her packing and leaving. From here things just get worst for the duo. Ollie insists on cooking Stan a meal that results with the gas stove exploding. When next door neighbor Mrs. Gilbert comes by and offers to help clean up the mess she is accidentally splashed all over her dress with a bowl of punch. Unfortunately, she locked herself out of her apartment so Ollie offers her a pair his pajamas so she can get out of her wet dress and not catch a cold. Unexpectedly, Mrs. Hardy comes back, causing Ollie to hide Mrs. Gilbert, by throwing slipcovers over her and having her position herself as a chair. Mrs. Hardy finds the house a mess and another argument ensues. When Mrs. Hardy stomps out of the room, Ollie moves Mrs. Gilbert into a large trunk, which Ollie and Stan try to move out of the apartment by claiming Ollie is now moving out. The fighting is over heard by Mr. Gilbert, who is just coming back to his apartment. He tries to calm everyone down only to discover, due to Stan’s big mouth that his wife is in the trunk in Ollie’s pajamas! Stan and Ollie run out of the apartment with Mr. Gilbert, chasing after them with one of his hunting rifles as the film ends. 

   Laurel and Hardy’s best work was in the short two-reelers they produced from the silent days up until 1935 at which time, they completely switched over to feature length films. Block-Heads clocks in at 57 minutes barely making it to feature length status; however, it is one of their best feature films. Block-Heads contains some wonderful surrealistic scenes like Stan’s previously mentioned imaginary pipe smoking and the shadow shades Stan continuously pulls down as the boys are climbing up thirteen flights of stairs (who else would live on the thirteen floor but our luckless heroes). There are plenty of straight out laughs, notably when Ollie first sets eyes on Stan and believes he lost a leg. This entire sequence is just hysterical. 

    What’s wonderful about Laurel and Hardy is how their work always starts at a slow pace and as the film goes along it builds up to a frantic and chaotic ending.  Five writers are credited with the screenplay including Harry Langdon. Look for the great Jimmy Finlayson who makes a cameo appearance in a humorous role as a gentleman who picks a fight with Ollie. While some folks may miss Mae Busch , Minna Gombell is as sharp tongued as Mrs. Hardy with some great lines, for example, when Ollie defends Stan saying he is different from his other friends, she replies, “I’ll say he’s different!”

    One notable fact is the change from the original ending. Today, the film that we see ends with Billy Gilbert shooting at the boys, followed by about a dozen or so men jumping out of apartment windows and running away, presumably all involved in tawdry affairs. The original ending had this scene fading to black and then we fades back in to big game hunter Billy Gilbert’s apartment where we see Stan and Ollie’s heads mounted on Gilbert’s wall along with his other prized shoots. The film ends with Ollie’s famous saying “Well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into.” This ending has been unfortunately snipped from most copies now shown.