Robinson Ties In With the Mugs!
“Bullets or Ballots” was affected by the new motion picture Production Code introduced in 1934. The Code stipulated, among other things, that gangsters could no longer be glorified in films as had been done with “Little Caesar” (1930) and “The Public Enemy” (1931). That meant that Warners resident gangsters Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney had to come over to the right side of the law.
Cagney had done so in 1935 with “G-Men” but in 1936 was embroiled in a contract dispute with Warners and had left the lot. That left Robinson. You can just hear the brain trusts at Warners saying, “Let’s put Eddie Robinson in a new crime picture only this time we’ll have him go undercover so that he can ACT like a gangster while satisfying the Code by really working on the side of the law”. “Bullets or Ballots” was the result.
Gangster Al Kruger (Barton MacLane) is a new order of corporate type gangster that shuns the old violent ways of the 20s. He is controlled by unseen bosses well placed in the business community. His second in command Nick “Bugs” Fenner is of the old school. When crusading newspaper reporter Ward Bryant (Henry O’Neill) is murdered by Fenner, it sets off a cry for justice. Police Captain McLaren is appointed Special Commissioner charged with cleaning up the rackets.
Detective Johnny Blake (Robinson) is a down on his luck policeman who has been exiled to an outer precinct. One day he learns that McLaren has fired him as part of his cleanup. But as we learn, Blake is really working undercover informing McLaren of the mob’s plans. Blake then joins up with Kruger and rises quickly through the ranks. Fenner, meanwhile doesn’t trust Blake and the two compete against each other.
As the result of the crime crackdown, the mob’s earnings have dropped. Blake suggests that they move into the numbers racket which was being run successfully on a small scale by Blake’s girlfriend Lee Morgan (Joan Blondell) with the aid her pick-up man Herman (Frank McHugh) and Harlem contact Nellie (Louise Beavers).
With the success of the numbers game, Fenner sees that Kruger has gone soft and is neglecting the mob’s other businesses. Fenner murders Kruger and vies with Blake to take over. Blake succeeds and continues to inform McLaren of the mob’s intentions. Fenner decides on a showdown and…………….
Robinson, who was a well educated and classically trained actor wanted to get away from gangster roles and did so whenever he could. But in spite of that, he will always be best remembered for these types of roles. Barton MacLane for once doesn’t play the brutish gangster. He plays Kruger as a businessman and not a thug. Bogey on the other hand, had just made his mark in “The Petrified Forest” (1936) and was typecast for the most part as a gangster for the next five years. Joan Blondell is wasted in her superficial role as Robinson’s love interest and McHugh is just along for comedy relief.
Still, “Bullets or Ballots” remains one of the all-time gangster classics.