Based on the true life and financial skullduggery of 19th-century entrepreneur James Fisk, Jr., the film has Arnold plays Fisk the Robber Baron with the aplomb of a swashbuckler. In tow are Cary Grant and Jack Oakie as his junior partners. They follow his lead from scheme to scheme like courtiers to a king.
Both, interestingly, play their roles in a subdued, understated manner. To some extent, their parts as written are subordinate to Arnold’s bombastic Fisk, but one expects more broad playing from Oakie in his stooge-like character. He is unusually restrained.
Cary Grant even more so. He is deferential to Arnold in business matters, and carefully avoids confrontation in a personal matter — Arnold’s new friend, lovely Frances Farmer. She is the showgirl, Josie Mansfield (who, incidentally had died only a few years before this movie was made), who Fisk takes on as his protégé and, probably, love interest. Their romantic involvement, with barely a suggestion of intimacy, is really left for us to assume. It’s not just the Production Code that prevents the movie from being more explicit about their relationship. Jim Fisk is so in love with money there’s little room for anything else in his life (though in real life he found time for both).
Josie thinks so, too, but is so grateful to her benefactor for the jewelry and the publicity for her career that she takes great pains to ignore her attraction for Grant. Cary, meanwhile, brushes her off with coldness bordering on anger, but it is just to mask his own attraction for her. He does not want to hurt Arnold by running off with his boss’s showgirl.
Donald Meek has a great role as Fisk’s fellow Robber Baron, Daniel Drew, the scripture-quoting cheapskate who wants to snatch the Erie Railroad from Cornelius Vanderbilt so bad he can taste it, and so enters into a partnership with the devil, Jim Fisk. Meek and Arnold are a study in contrasting temperaments (one reticent and cautious, one bold and risk-taking), physical types (one small and weak-appearing, and one large, appearing bolder still in uniforms the like of which might be worn by a vain dictator), and voices (the wizened whine of Meek, and the booming, barrel-chested baritone of Arnold). They are a little like the Laurel and Hardy of Wall Street.
Billy Gilbert has a minor role, too, as a frustrated photographer.
The movie begins at the outbreak of the Civil War, as Messrs. Arnold, Grant, and Oakie are playing a peddlar’s con game in the south. They are “outed” as Yankees, and make a mad dash for the Mason-Dixon line — just over that bridge — to escape certain death by vigilantes and the townspeople they cheated. Then Arnold decides smuggling cotton to the north, defying the Union blockade, would be a better racket. It is one of many speculative ventures that lead the trio from ruin to wealth, to ruin, to wealth.
The climatic scenes of the movie are the most dramatic, and involve Fisk’s attempt to corner the gold market, sending Wall Street into a tizzy. His rivals are frantic on the floor, while Arnold sneers over the merciless ticker tape. The price of gold rises and rises, and Wall Street shudders, storming over to Fisk’s place to kill the gold-eating monster. They don’t have to bother; President Grant (not seen in the movie) releases gold reserves and saves the day. (He should see the price of gold today.)
The montage of piling coins and falling stocks, with a ticker tape run wild, are images not unfamiliar to the generation that watched this movie in theaters. It had been only some eight years since the Crash of ’29 brought their worlds down upon them, so what we might view as a quaint and possibly over-dramatic representation of the financial panic of 1869 was to them a personal reminder of human frailty and financial Armageddon.
But this is perhaps nothing in comparison to the mind blowing image of Edward Arnold as a romantic rival to Cary Grant. It’s Mr. Arnold’s movie, right down to the melodramatic ending, and one can’t help feeling glad he’s got the spotlight.
Jacqueline T. Lynch is a freelance writer and published playwright currently maintaining three blogs. This piece is from Another Old Movie Blog, about classic film against the backdrop of the culture which produced it.