Bullets or Ballots (1936)
December 20, 2019 | by Shannon
This is one exciting gangster film with a unique twist! To underscore just how suspenseful Bullets or Ballots (1936) is, all I really have to tell you is that Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson star in the film. Two of the gangster genre greats in one film. Does it get any better? If you add Joan Blondell to the cast of stars, then YES, it does! And as you probably guessed, Joan plays the female lead here.
If you missed Bullets or Ballots on TCM yesterday, you can still catch it on tcm.com for the next week. The film is also available on Amazon to rent or purchase here! [aff. link] And I’ll tell you, Bullets or Ballots would make one awesome weekend movie night! Let’s get to the plot.
Edward G. Robinson plays New York City detective Johnny Blake. YES. For once, Robinson plays the detective, not the gangster! (Now that’s a twist in and of itself, isn’t it? I’ll expand on that later!) It’s Prohibition Era, and Johnny’s main goal as detective is to crack down on organized crime in NYC.
After newspaper man Ward Bryant is gunned down for his anti-organized crime media messages, Johnny Blake decides the police must take more drastic measures to keep gangsters from controlling the city.
Oh, and can you guess who’s responsible for the Byrant murder?
None other than Nick “Bugs” Fenner, played by a very young and very handsome Humphrey Bogart. Fenner is the right hand man to Al Kruger (Barton MacLane), the head of the mob. Or at least the figurehead of the mob…Johnny suspects that Kruger takes orders from someone else, someone who has managed to remain anonymous to everyone but Kruger. Even Fenner doesn’t know who the real mob kingpin is.
Johnny is confident that if he can just find out who’s running the city’s crime syndicate, the police will be able to bring the criminals to justice, stop the senseless mob murders, and take back control of NYC.
And here’s the big twist: Johnny decides that the best way to do this is to go undercover.
So Johnny stages his own firing from the police force, and very publically makes it appear that he’s not only severed all ties with the police department, but also seeks revenge for his firing. Johnny’s confident that Kruger—who’s been trying to recruit Johnny to organized crime for years—will offer him a position in the mob’s inner circle if Johnny is convincing enough in his post-firing rage.
Johnny’s plan works, so well in fact that he even fools his special lady friend, Lee Morgan (Joan Blondell). Lee is so convinced that Johnny’s cut all ties with the police, she offers him a job working with her and friend Nellie LaFleur in a numbers racket they’ve started at Lee’s casino.
The Plan Works
Kruger is also convinced of Johnny’s new loyalties, and quickly offers him an influential position in the city’s crime organization.
And if any mob underlings have a problem with an ex-cop joining their ranks, Johnny’s quick with the witty one-liners to put them back their place:
“I don’t like the way your face is fastened on.”
A disgruntled mob member says to Johnny his first day on the job.
“Well I’ll be down tomorrow morning, give you a chance to change it.”
Johnny retorts. This guy is cool and confident.
The Mob Crackdown
Johnny relays all the inside information he gets about Kruger’s operations to the police, and they begin to gain headway over the mob’s activities. Kruger is so happy over all the money Johnny’s made the mob with his suggestion that they take over Lee Morgan’s numbers racket, he’s blind to the parallel between Johnny’s entry into organized crime and the police department’s sudden success at curbing mob power. Only Bugs Fenner suspects that Johnny is leaking information to the cops.
Fenner is frustrated that Johnny is the new mob wonder boy. And he wants Kruger’s job for himself. So Fenner decides he’ll just kill Kruger, and appoint himself Kruger’s successor.
Johnny Gets the Job
But after Kruger’s murder, the mystery mob heads (it’s discovered that there are three) appoint Johnny to the position!
“I think I’ll keep sitting in the driver’s seat until I hear from them personally.”
Fenner tells Johnny.
“Oh sit anywhere you want to, but don’t try to stop me from carrying out orders.”
Johnny responds. It’s enough to make Fenner concede to Johnny’s position as Kruger’s successor, but it’s not enough to make Fenner trust Johnny. So Fenner has one of his henchmen tail Johnny.
Johnny is Found Out
Through this tail, Fenner discovers that Johnny is actually still working with the police department! He finds out that Johnny will plant the dirty money from the numbers racket earnings in the hands of the mystery mob heads—who only Johnny knows are the three most influential bankers in the city. Once these three kingpins are in possession of the dirty money, the police can match up the serial numbers, arrest the men, and completely crush the mob’s control in NYC.
“He [Johnny] said he was going to see them at 10 o’clock and I can’t warn them because I don’t know who they are. I’ve got to get to him before he gets to them.”
Fenner tells one of his men. Uh oh…trouble for Johnny! He’s Fenner’s hit now. And Lee unknowingly tells Fenner the information he needs to find Johnny. When Lee discovers her mistake, she rushes to get to Johnny before Fenner does.
But it’s too late: when Lee arrives, Fenner’s already shot him. Johnny’s quick on the rebound, and shoots Fenner back, killing him on the spot.
Johnny Gets the Job Done
Lee is unaware that Johnny has been shot, and drives him to his meeting at the bank with the mob heads. Through sheer will power, Johnny manages to get the dirty money into the hands of the mob heads. They don’t suspect his betrayal, or that he’s been shot.
Johnny walks out of the meeting strong, but crumples to the ground as soon as he is out of sight of the mobsters. Once he exits the bank building, the police swarm in, and the three kingpins are arrested. Johnny’s mission is a success.
“I like to think that when those mugs pass a policeman, they’ll keep on tipping their hats.”
Johnny says to police Captain McLaren before dying at the crime scene. And that’s THE END.
Fictional Story, Real Characters
The script of Bullets or Ballots was pure Hollywood, with maybe a few grains of truth. But the characters in the screenplay were based on real life characters from the Prohibition Era. Do any of the following names sound familiar?
Ok this name wasn’t familiar to me, but he’s the real-life detective that the Edward G. Robinson character, Johnny Blake, was based on in Bullets or Ballots.
Broderick was a “celebrity detective” in his day, meaning that his name and case accomplishments/ controversies were frequently in the newspapers. Broderick was one of the best known officers of his era for both his decorated valor and use of excessive force on prisoners in police custody.
Interesting fact: Broderick was still a detective when Bullets or Ballots was released, and he objected to all the drinking and smoking Robinson’s Johnny Blake does in the film. In real life, Broderick didn’t smoke or drink, and thought his film character counterpart should share this characteristic.
Al Kruger (Barton MacLane) was based off of mobster Dutch Schultz. Similar to Kruger in the movie, Schultz was involved in bootlegging and the numbers racket. And just as in the film, when Al Kruger finds his career ambitions and life stymied by Bugs Fenner, in real life Dutch Schultz found his ambitions and life threatened by mobster Lucky Luciano, who ordered Schultz be killed after he disobeyed mob orders and attempted a hit on prosecutor Thomas Dewey.
Humphrey Bogart’s Nick “Bugs” Fenner was modeled after notorious mobster Lucky Luciano, “the father of modern organized crime.” Just as Luciano was responsible for ordering the death of Dutch Schultz in real-life, in Bullets or Ballots, Fenner guns down Al Kruger. I would also say that Bogart’s Nick “Bugs” Fenner may have been further inspired by the infamously violent gangster, Bugsy Siegel. The name similarities are obvious, and Fenner’s trigger-happy actions in the film channel Seigel’s reputation for similar behavior.
Stephanie St. Clair
Joan Blondell’s Lee Morgan and Louise Beavers’ Nellie LaFleur in Bullets or Ballots each take characteristics from Madame Stephanie St. Clair, the French African founder of the numbers game in Harlem. In real-life, St. Clair resisted mafia control, and her numbers racket—unlike Lee Morgan’s in the film—never became part of the mob’s domain.
Edward G. Robinson: An Unlikely Leading Man
Ok, Edward G. Robinson is such a fascinating, interesting guy, I have to include a little bit about him here! Robinson was born in Romania. He and his family immigrated to the US when Robinson was 10 years old. He learned English at this time, and, inspired by his father’s example, firmly believed in the American Dream. Through hard work and determination, Robinson became one of the most successful and respected leading men of his generation, despite his unconventional looks. Robinson himself once said:
“I’m not much on face value, but when it comes to stage value, I’ll deliver for you.”
By the time of Bullets or Ballots, Robinson had made a name for himself as the best (alongside James Cagney) gangster on screen, and Robinson appeared in a long string gangster flicks after the success of Little Caesar (1931). But in 1934, Hollywood created a self-imposed Production Code to regulate what was and was not morally acceptable content for films. Code enforcement, coupled with a push for more optimistic films with the advent of President Roosevelt’s New Deal, meant Edward G. Robisnon’s screen persona needed a make-over.
Bullets or Ballots was the perfect vehicle to accomplish this: with the Johnny Blake character, Robinson could play a detective, a “good guy,” and not a gangster for once. But, since Blake was working undercover pretending to be a gangster, Robinson could still do and say all the mobster things on screen that audiences expected of him and wanted to see in an Edward G. Robinson film. Win win!
Well, Robinson’s new image was short-lived, and it wasn’t long before he was back to mostly playing the familiar gangster roles. But Robinson is totally believable as a good guy, and thankfully, Bullets or Ballots gave Robinson the chance to show he was just as believable playing a character with a strong moral code as he was at playing a character without one.
Robinson’s Successor: Humphrey Bogart
In many ways, Humphrey Bogart was Edward G. Robinson’s successor in the gangster genre. With Robinson playing against type in Bullets or Ballots, the gangster role of Nick “Bugs” Fenner was wide open. Young Bogart, fresh off his success in The Petrified Forrest (1936), rose to the occasion. It would still be another five years before Bogie was a bonafide star (can you believe it?!!!!), but Bullets or Ballots was the beginning of Bogart’s “gangster years” on film, the most prolific period of his career.
Joan’s Chance at Stardom
As I mentioned in my previous posts on the fabulous Joan Blondell, superstardom was always just out of reach! But if there was a time in her career that Joan was primed to become a big time star, the late 1930s was it!
Joan’s difficult marriage to George Barnes officially ended in 1936. This fresh start in her personal life coincided with her exciting new role in Bullets or Ballots, where Joan had the chance to showcase her talents as dramatic actress for a change.
Joan was at one of her most lovely in 1936. Following the divorce from Barnes, she dropped 13 pounds—still retaining her famous curves though!—to fit into a gorgeous gown created for her by renown designer, Orry-Kelly. Shortly afterwards, Joan gained a reputation for being a fashion plate. And if any more validation was needed that Joan’s beauty was gaining attention, her mouth was declared the loveliest in Hollywood! Joan said at the time that
“Now that I dress carefully and do everything a girl should do to make the most of herself and her opportunities, people show decidedly more interest in me.”
One of those people was Dick Powell! Joan and Dick became a couple in 1936, and the public loved them together. Think of them as like a Brangelina of the 1930s! The public wanted to know what they ate, what they did on dates, their likes, dislikes, etc.! Both Joan and Dick were given greater star treatment by Warner Bros. because of their popularity as a couple. Joan finally received a star dressing room on the lot that included not just a room to do her makeup, but two bedrooms, a living room, fireplace, and kitchen! Bullets or Ballots definitely represented a high point in Joan’s career!
And That's It!
This post is getting far too long, so I’ll wrap it up here! Stay tuned for our last week of Joan Blondell films! There are just a couple next week, but they’re good ones. Check my site calendar for titles and showtimes!
Also, I’ve debated back and fourth about this, but next week I’ll be doing a special surprise post in place of a Joan Blondell film review. You won’t want to miss it!