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Masters of the '30s mob scene

James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson lead a sustained crime wave as gangstas who sometimes beat the rap.

July 16, 2006|Susan King

Warner Bros.

Tough Guy Collection

(Warner Bros., $60 for the set: $15 each)

G-Men

In the early 1930s, Warner Bros. excelled in producing gritty, ripped-from-the-headlines gangster films and cultivated a roster of brilliant actors such as James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson who brought such classics as "The Public Enemy" and "Little Caesar" to stunning life.

By the time Warners made "G-Men" in 1935, the Hollywood production code was firmly entrenched -- the hard-hitting, violent and sexually risque movies were things of the past. Even the actors were tired of playing the bad guys.

So in the exciting "G-Men," Cagney plays a guy from the wrong side of the tracks who, instead of turning to a life of crime, went to law school. After his boyhood friend, an FBI agent, is murdered on a case, Cagney's character decides to join up with the FBI.

Robert Armstrong of "King Kong" fame plays Cagney's no-nonsense instructor at the FBI. William Keighley directed.

Extras: "Warner Night at the Movies," which re-creates what it was like to go to the movies in the 1930s, includes a vintage newsreel; a frenetic comedy short called "The Old Grey Mayor," starring Bob Hope; and a cartoon, "Buddy the Gee Man." There's also the short "How I Play Golf, by Bobby Jones No. 11: Practice Shots," which features Cagney, and a riotous studio blooper reel from 1935.

Rounding out the disc is a new documentary, "Morality and the Code: A How-to Manual for Hollywood," and an exemplary commentary from USC film professor Rick Jewell, who talks about the film's historical significance as well as its charismatic star.

*

Bullets or Ballots

Robinson nearly turned down the lead in this taut 1936 crime melodrama because his character -- a former New York police detective named Johnny Blake -- turns mobster. But he relented when Warner Bros. agreed it might consider doing one of his pet projects, the life of Beethoven. (The studio never made the film.)

Truth be told, Blake actually is working undercover for his friend, now the police commissioner, to break up a powerful mob. A young Humphrey Bogart costars.

Extras: "Warner Night at the Movies" features a newsreel; a musical short, "George Hall and His Orchestra"; and the cartoon "I'm a Big Shot Now." Other special features includes the Bobby Jones short "Trouble Shots," which costars Joe E. Brown and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.; a 1936 studio blooper reel; the 1939 "Lux Radio Theater" adaptation; the featurette "Gangsters: The Immigrant's Hero"; and inspired, breezy commentary from film historian Dana Polan.

*

San Quentin

Pat O'Brien headlines this engrossing 1937 prison drama set in the infamous California penitentiary. O'Brien plays a caring ex-Army officer who takes a job as the head of the prison guards at San Quentin, where he encounters Joe (Bogart), the imprisoned brother of his new girlfriend, May (Ann Sheridan).

Extras: "Warner Night at the Movies" includes a newsreel, the Oscar-nominated Technicolor short "The Man Without a Country" and "Porky's Double Trouble." There's also a documentary on the popularity of prison films, "Welcome to the Big House"; a 1937 studio blooper reel; and fact-filled commentary from Patricia King Hanson, the executive editor and project director for the AFI Catalog.

*

A Slight Case of Murder

An absolute delight. A clever, witty 1938 mob comedy based on the flop 1935 Broadway play by Damon Runyon and Howard Lindsay.

Robinson plays a bootleg beer manufacturer who decides to go legit at the end of Prohibition. But his immense fortune declines when the beer he produces tastes like swill. While keeping his creditors at bay, he and his family go to their summerhouse in Saratoga, where they encounter dead mobsters, a state trooper and the disapproving father of his daughter's fiance.

Extras: "Warner Night at the Movies" includes a newsreel, the Oscar-winning short "The Declaration of Independence" and the cat-and-mouse cartoon "The Night Watchman." Also included is the featurette "Prohibition Opens the Floodgates" and commentary from film historian Robert Sklar, full of information but dull.

*

Each Dawn I Die

This 1939 prison drama stars Cagney as an earnest reporter who is framed for a murder and sent to prison. While his friends at the newspaper attempt to discover who set him up, Cagney becomes an embittered inmate bent on revenge. "Each Dawn I Die" also marked the Warner Bros. debut of tough guy George Raft, who had previously been under contract at Paramount.

Extras: "Warner Night at the Movies" presents a newsreel; a sappy dramatic short, "A Day at Santa Anita"; and the Oscar-nominated cartoon "Detouring America."

Other added attractions are the featurette "Stool Pigeons and Pine Overcoats: The Language of Gangster Films"; a 1939 studio blooper reel; the satirical cartoon "Each Dawn I Crow"; the 1943 "Lux Radio Theater" adaptation; and sharp commentary from Haden Guest, the curator of the Warner Bros. collection at the USC Warner Bros. Archives.

*

City for Conquest

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