Maybe it’s because Warren refers to “dames” so many times throughout, but I’ve come to think of Don’t Bet on Blondes as Warner Brothers in-house shoestring attempt at replicating Warren’s previous success as Dave the Dude over at Columbia in Lady for Day (1933). What a shame that the original story is by Isabel Dawn and Boyce DeGaw and not Damon Runyon.
Don’t get me wrong, I like Don’t Bet on Blondes, and excluding a couple of the Perry Mason movies it’s probably Warren William’s best title at Warner Brothers under Production Code enforcement, but just imagine how much more snappier it could have been had there been a real dame on hand and if a few of the dudes had some snappier lines.
What we’ve got is pretty good though. Warren is star, though overall it’s a middling Warren William title. It has some notable highs and lows. I will admit that I’ve reached the point where I cover my ears whenever Maude Eburne shows up for a round of husband-calling (They just had to work that in a second time, didn’t they?). Must have been deafening in the theater!
I’ll talk over the story a little more in my more general post at Immortal Ephemera, but the basics are this: Warren William plays the delightfully named Odds Owen, a bookmaker who sours on the class of his clients. He decides a change is in order so he turns his sports book into an insurance outfit that handles only the juiciest freak policies of the kind normally associated with Lloyd’s of London, who are discussed as inspiration.
The first wave of fun comes in the form of the silly policies. Besides Eburne’s husband-caller there’s Hobart Cavanaugh seeking to insure himself against twins—the joke is that such a little guy doesn’t have enough oomph to produce them anyway—and a few others milling about the Owens’ office. Odds Owen will insure practically anything.
Our key policy holder, and easily the most colorful character found in Don’t Bet on Blondes, is Guy Kibbee’s Col. Jefferson Davis Youngblood. The Colonel has spent “thirty years of endless research” towards putting together a book purporting to tell “the world the truth about the Civil War.” As he lounges amongst his toy soldiers listening to Southern flavored tunes such as “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “My Old Kentucky Home,” the Colonel hasn’t a worry in the world. Until T. Everett Markham (Clay Clement), our villain, enters to set him on edge about the possibility of a Yankee son-in-law blocking his path to rewriting history.
Markham (Clay Clement) is looking to settle a score with Odds and thinks he’s found his way when he reads about the former bookmaker’s new line of business in the paper. The Colonel’s daughter, Marilyn Young (Claire Dodd), is the most beautiful woman on Broadway. She’s a talented actress happily supporting her delusional father, but what would happen, Markham asks the Colonel, if she were to marry? And what if her husband were the type of man who would cut off funding for the Colonel’s literary pursuits?
The Colonel goes one on one with Odds, giving both Kibbee and Warren their best scene in Don’t Bet on Blondes.
“Ah, you interest me strangely,” Odds says in a playful tone after first meeting the Colonel.
“You’re charm excuses your accidental Northern birth,” the Colonel says in response to one of Odds’ digs.
Odds parries back, “A nicely turned phrase sir.”
As the Colonel slowly explains his situation to Odds, Warren’s character quickly catches on. When he suggests that the heart of the problem is the Colonel’s worry that a new son-in-law might cease financial support of the Colonel, an irritated Kibbee replies, “Your words are offensive as your thoughts are accurate.”
Odds calls in Numbers (William Gargan), who is dead-set against any such policy on Marilyn Young and, in case you were wondering, informs us that the odds are 1-to-3 on a woman aged 23-26 getting married.
“The novelty of your request intrigues me,” Odds tells the Colonel. He overrules Numbers and accepts the strange proposal.
The Colonel is to pay $100 a week for three years on a $50,000 policy against his daughter’s marriage.
Odds and company hold a board meeting and decide that no man is to have more than three dates with Marilyn. That brings us to a couple of good gags as the boys work to prevent a fourth date with a pair of suitors, one of them Errol Flynn in only his second Hollywood role, but Warren‘s Odds is only involved in the hatching of these plans. They play out through a host of other characters including the appropriately Runyonesque Brains (Vince Barnett), anything but the genius his name implies.
Upon meeting Marilyn, Odds decides to get more directly involved in handling policy 627 series B himself. He falls in love with her. When Marilyn grows suspicious of the situation she plies the Colonel with liquor and gets the full story about the policy out of him. That leads to what is perhaps Warren William’s greatest accomplishment in Don’t Bet on Blondes: Making ice queen Claire Dodd break down and cry:
Of course, Dodd is given the rare chore of playing a sympathetic character in this one, so if you’re waiting around for her to turn cold you’ll be disappointed.
“Well, boys,” Warren tells his troops, “I had it coming. I should have had more savvy than to make book on a dame.”
For Warren William, Don’t Bet on Blondes came along in between two Perry Mason movies, which means Warner Brothers actually gave him three good projects in a row!
With a working title of Not on Your Life, Warren was originally slated to co-star opposite Dolores Del Rio, a job he would have soon enough anyway in The Widow from Monte Carlo (1935), the beginning of the run of clunkers that led to his buying his way out of his Warner’s contract. At this time though, just prior to the start of production on Don’t Bet on Blondes, Warren’s contract was renewed and he received a $500 raise to $2,750 a week. Del Rio backed out and was replaced by Dodd at the last minute. Shortly thereafter the title of the project was changed from Not on Your Life to the catchier Don’t Bet on Blondes.
Later that same year, while Warren was serving a rather cordial suspension for refusing I Found Stella Parish, young Don’t Bet on Blondes supporting player Errol Flynn, who had two scenes in the film (one of them rather good), was being cast in Captain Blood and well on his way to eclipsing any of the other names mentioned in this post.
Period reviews for Don’t Bet on Blondes were mixed though leaned poor in those I sampled. Some blamed the story, some the director and others the cast. Thornton Delahanty of the New York Post came down especially hard upon Warren: “The heavy and unimaginative acting of Warren William slows up Don’t Bet on Blondes and turns it into an obvious and sentimental journey.” Twice Delahanty mentioned how the project would have better suited William Powell’s brand of “deft and racy comedy,” though Powell was by this time firmly entrenched at MGM.
Winston Burdett of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle heaped praise on Kibbee, before withdrawing it and stating that he only singled out Kibbee by way of comparison to the rest of the film. Of Warren, he wrote, “he … struggles valiantly to look dashing and racketeerish, but the struggle itself is too apparent.” Burdett concluded: “Don’t Bet on Blondes is exactly the kind of thing that Hollywood can do well, but in this case it hasn’t.” Harsh. It’s better than that.
The unsigned New York Times review placed the blame squarely on director Robert Florey, who was said to “lack(s) the requisite lightness of touch” and be better suited to other types of movies. Florey had previously directed Warren William in Bedside and Smarty (both 1934), perhaps Warren’s two most over-the-top titles, either of which makes Don’t Bet on Blondes look sophisticated by comparison. Florey later directed Warren in 1937’s Outcast, during Warren’s deal with Emanuel Cohen Productions. Outcast was no doubt their highest quality pairing and more serious in tone than any of the three other romps they had been mutually assigned.
Don’t Bet on Blondes is a nice change of pace for Warren, who besides the Perry Mason films had been busy playing second fiddle to actresses such as Kay Francis, Barbara Stanwyck and Claudette Colbert in his few preceding films. There is no doubt Don’t Bet on Blondes is Warren’s movie all the way. Even leading lady Claire Dodd’s screen time pales in comparison (though I wonder if that would have been the case had Del Rio gone ahead in the part).
The movie as a whole is a bit sloppy with a long list of characters moving in and out around Warren and Claire Dodd, none of them but Kibbee really seeming to care too much. Clay Clement is more or less invisible as the villain looking to attach himself to Dodd and destroy Warren in the process. The actual insurance policy that the Colonel takes out on his daughter was more treacherous than Clement’s T. Everett Markham.
Errol Flynn fans will be disappointed by his total screen time (three minutes), but will be charmed by his second and final scene. While there isn’t enough here to say that it hints at what is to come, it is enough to say he deserved another, more involved, opportunity. Incremental advancement did not follow, but the big juicy plum of a leading role in Captain Blood did!
While Guy Kibbee steals every scene he is in, Warren otherwise stands out giving a performance similar in tone to those in his surrounding Perry Mason movies. His Odds Owen is Dave the Dude without any cause but his own.
Don’t Bet on Blondes is a Warner Brothers release packaged with Times Square Playboy and The Woman from Monte Carlo as one of three movies in Warner Archive’s Made to Order Warren William Collection. At least Don’t Bet on Blondes can claim to be the best of this overall underwhelming grouping.
- Burdett, Winston. “The Screen.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle 22 Jul 1935: 6. Web. Old Fulton NY Post Cards. 15 Nov 2013.
- Delahanty, Thornton. “Comic Idea Missed in the New Film at the Capitol.” New York Post 22 Jul 1935. Web. Old Fulton NY Post Cards. 15 Nov 2013.
- ”Don’t Bet on Blondes.” The New York Times Film Reviews, Vol. 2 1932-1938 New York: Times Books, 1990. 1193.