The Big Shakedown (1934) Review

Proof That It’s Pre-Code:

  • You know blatantly Jewish stereotypes, yes? Oy, they are in this film! I’m kvetching!
  • Gangsters dealing with the end of Prohibition.
  • Out and out catfight that lasts for about a minute. Stay classy, you crappy movie!
  • Drugs and narcotics mentioned often. If only they passed some out to the audience maybe then this could have been a worthwhile experience.

The Big Shakedown is cheap, shallow, and moralistic in the stupidest ways possible. As a film, it falls closer to ‘ripped from the headlines’ dreck like the original Reefer Madness or I Accuse My Parents than anything you’d expect out of a studio system firing near the peak of its creative output.

Don’t get me wrong, it starts off okay. It opens with Bette Davis in her own private version of Clerks as she helps customers and would-be customers in a dingy drugstore on a New York City street corner. One is a Jewish kid who keeps careful track of his expenditures (including a $.06 ice cream cone) in a ledger. Another is a woman who needs alcohol for her baby’s condition, even though both she and Bette know that that bottle isn’t going to last the walk home.

And, man, if you thought Prohibition was a joke before it was repealed, this film rips off its clothing and soaks it in seltzer water. While Bette is busy in her little drug shop with her pharmacist fiance, Jimmy, the local mafioso is having trouble pushing its latest swill. The bartenders now laugh in their faces– not only is booze cheaper from their competitors, it tastes better and has the backing of advertising. To drive the point home, a cop walks in and orders a beer, laughing in the former bootlegger’s face.

This is Jimmy. He’s stupider than a bag that’s even devoid of rocks.

Distraught, the mob boss and a couple of his dumb mugs wander into Bette’s store and come upon a solution to their problems. Jimmy shows the boss, Dutch, how he can replicate brand name toothpaste with just a few simple ingredients. Well, Dutch needs an angle (ha!) and Jimmy needs some money, so they merrily join the world of product counterfeiting.

This is where the film takes a turn for the stupid, as Dutch gets greedier and greedier while Jimmy gets dumber and dumber. Soon they’re both inundated with money, which makes Dutch brazen: he’s making fake toothpaste, why not fake medicine, too?

Jimmy may be a pharmaceutical genius, but he’s a complete moron. Every time he tries to get out, Dutch tricks him into getting back in, either with money or a very obvious setup.

This leads to the point where Jimmy is manufacturing a useless version of a heart drug that, low and behold, his wife needs to get through her pregnancy. He rushes to his shop, grabs, the real thing and– oh, it’s too late. His baby is dead. But Bette survived and it looks like she took the whole “losing her child because her husband is a scumbag thing” in stride since she’s smiling later with nary a mention.

The ending of the film is the most interesting (and depressing part). Not to spoil too much, but here’s another reminder for everyone out there: do not leave your vats of hydrochloric acid laying around in the open. Do not build the railing above the vat out of wood, though, if you do, at least make sure it goes above thigh height.

“Look, you mug, I love vats of hydrochloric acid, and any attempts to make them safer to be around interferes with my libertarian values!”

Even worse, after said encounters with random vats, the film’s moral flares up like a chorus of slide whistles. Jimmy, who has bankrupted companies, been an accessory to murder, sold fake drugs that ended up killing his own child all for his own greed, is acquitted and lives happily ever after with Bette. The mobsters who don’t end up in vats are at the prison yard, breaking rocks, lamenting that they ever got caught up in product counterfeiting.

“If you sell counterfeit products, repent. Know you’re hurting others,” the film lectures. Yeah, and if you keep doing it, you may have more crap like this to sit through.

Bette Davis apparently ran away from Hollywood after being forced to make this movie. I can’t fucking blame her.


Danny lives outside Tokyo, Japan, with his lovely wife, adorable daughter, and two yappy dogs. He blogs bi-weekly at, a website dedicated to Hollywood films from 1930 to 1934, and can be found on Twitter @PreCodeDotCom.

Leave a Reply!