Bullets or Ballots (1936) is an exciting gangster film with an unexpected twist. Starring the screen’s cultured gangster, Edward G. Robinson, in a good-guy role, Bullets or Ballots also features a young Humphrey Bogart, and our Star Spotlight, the beautiful Joan Blondell.
You can purchase or rent the film here on Amazon [aff . link].
Let’s get to the plot, then go behind the scenes of the film.
Bullets or Ballots: The Plot
Edward G. Robinson is New York City detective Johnny Blake. It’s Prohibition Era, and Johnny’s main goal as a detective is to crack down on organized crime in NYC.
After newspaper man Ward Bryant is gunned down for his anti-organized crime media messages, Johnny Blake decides the police must take more drastic measures to keep gangsters from controlling the city.
Guess who’s responsible for the Byrant murder.
Yes, it’s Humphrey Bogart, playing criminal Nick “Bugs” Fenner. Fenner is the right hand man to Al Kruger (Barton MacLane), the head of the mob.
More accurately, Kruger is the figurehead of the mob…Johnny suspects that Kruger takes orders from someone else, someone who’s managed to remain anonymous to everyone but Kruger. Even Fenner doesn’t know who the real mob kingpin is.
Johnny is confident that if he can just find out who’s running the city’s crime syndicate, the police will be able to bring the criminals to justice, stop the senseless mob murders, and take back control of NYC.
Johnny decides that the best way to do this is to go undercover.
Johnny stages his own firing from the police force, and very publicly makes it appear that he’s not only severed all ties with the police department, but seeks revenge for his firing. Johnny’s confident that Kruger—who’s been trying to recruit Johnny to organized crime for years—will offer him a position in the mob’s inner circle if Johnny is convincing enough in his post-firing rage.
Johnny’s plan works.
It works so well that he even fools his special lady friend, Lee Morgan (Joan Blondell). Lee is so convinced that Johnny’s cut all ties with the police, she offers him a job working with her and friend Nellie LaFleur in a numbers racket they’ve started at Lee’s casino.
The Plan Works
More importantly, Kruger is convinced of Johnny’s new loyalties, and quickly offers him an influential position in the city’s crime organization.
But not all the mob underlings want to have an ex-cop join their ranks. As one disgruntled mob member says to Johnny his first day on the job:
“I don’t like the way your face is fastened on.”
But Johnny’s quick with the witty one-liners, and puts the fellow back in his place:
“Well I’ll be down tomorrow morning, give you a chance to change it.”
Even in harrowing mob situations, Johnny Blake is cool and confident.
The Mob Crackdown
Johnny relays all the inside information he gets about Kruger’s operations to the police, and they begin to gain headway over the mob’s activities. And Kruger is so happy over all the money Johnny brings the mob with his suggestion that they take over Lee Morgan’s numbers racket, he’s blind to the parallel between Johnny’s entry into organized crime and the police department’s sudden success at curbing mob power.
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Only Bugs Fenner suspects that Johnny is leaking information to the cops.
Fenner is frustrated that Johnny is the new mob wonder boy. He also wants Kruger’s job for himself.
So Fenner decides to kill Kruger, and appoint himself Kruger’s successor.
Johnny Gets the Job
But after Kruger’s murder, the mystery mob heads–Johnny discovers that there are three–appoint Johnny to the position:
“I think I’ll keep sitting in the driver’s seat until I hear from them personally.”
Fenner tells Johnny.
“Oh sit anywhere you want to, but don’t try to stop me from carrying out orders.”
Johnny responds. It’s enough to make Fenner concede to Johnny’s position as Kruger’s successor, but it’s not enough to make Fenner trust Johnny.
Fenner appoints one of his henchmen to tail Johnny.
Johnny is Found Out
Through the tail, Fenner discovers that Johnny still works for the police department. He also learns that Johnny plans to plant the dirty money from the numbers racket earnings in the hands of the mystery mob heads—whose identities, three of the most influential bankers in the city–are only known to Johnny. As Fenner finds out, once these three kingpins are in possession of the dirty money, the police will match up the serial numbers, arrest the three men, and completely crush the mob’s control of NYC.
Fenner decides his best course of action is to stop Johnny:
“He [Johnny] said he was going to see them at 10 o’clock and I can’t warn them because I don’t know who they are. I’ve got to get to him before he gets to them.”
Johnny is officially Fenner’s hit now. And he has no idea.
Lee unknowingly tells Fenner the information he needs to find Johnny. She discovers her mistake, and rushes to get to Johnny before Fenner does.
But it’s too late.
When Lee arrives, Fenner has already shot Johnny. But Johnny is quick on the rebound, and shoots Fenner right back, killing him on the spot.
Johnny Gets the Job Done
Lee is unaware that Johnny’s been shot, and drives him to his meeting at the bank with the mob heads. Through sheer will power, Johnny manages to get the dirty money into the hands of the mob heads. They don’t suspect his betrayal, or that he’s been shot.
Johnny walks out of the meeting strong, but crumples to the ground as soon as he’s out of sight of the mobsters. Once he exits the bank building, the police swarm in, and the three kingpins are arrested.
Johnny’s mission is a success.
As Johnny says to Captain McLaren before dying at the crime scene:
“I like to think that when those mugs pass a policeman, they’ll keep on tipping their hats.”
And that’s the end of the film.
Bullets or Ballots: Fictional Story, Real Characters
The script of Bullets or Ballots was pure Hollywood, with maybe a few grains of truth. But the characters in the screenplay were based on real life characters from the Prohibition Era.
Johnny Broderick was the real-life detective that Edward G. Robinson’s character, Johnny Blake, was based on.
Broderick was a “celebrity detective.” His name, case accomplishments, and controversies frequently made the papers. Broderick was one of the best known officers of his era, both for his decorated valor and use of excessive force on those in police custody.
Interestingly, Broderick was still a detective when Bullets or Ballots was released. He objected to all the drinking and smoking Robinson’s Johnny Blake does in the film: in real life, Broderick didn’t smoke or drink, and he wanted his film character counterpart to share this characteristic.
Al Kruger (Barton MacLane) was based off of mobster Dutch Schultz. Similar to Kruger in the movie, Schultz was involved in bootlegging and the numbers racket. And just as in the film, when Al Kruger finds his career ambitions and life stymied by Bugs Fenner, in real life, Dutch Schultz found his ambitions and life threatened by mobster Lucky Luciano. Luciano ordered that Schultz be killed after he disobeyed mob orders and attempted a hit on prosecutor Thomas Dewey.
Humphrey Bogart’s Nick “Bugs” Fenner was modeled after notorious mobster Lucky Luciano, “the father of modern organized crime.” Just as Luciano was responsible for ordering the death of Dutch Schultz in real-life, in Bullets or Ballots, Fenner guns down Al Kruger.
With a nickname like “Bugs,” it also seems clear that Fenner was at least in part inspired by the infamously violent gangster, Bugsy Siegel. Obvious name similarities aside, Fenner’s trigger-happy actions in the film channel Seigel’s reputation for similar behavior.
Stephanie St. Clair
Joan Blondell’s Lee Morgan and Louise Beavers’ Nellie LaFleur in Bullets or Ballots each take characteristics from Madame Stephanie St. Clair, the French African founder of the numbers game in Harlem. In real-life, St. Clair resisted mafia control, and her numbers racket—unlike Lee Morgan’s in the film—never became part of the mob’s domain.
Edward G. Robinson: An Unlikely Leading Man
Edward G. Robinson is a fascinating movie star. Born in Romania, Eddie and his family immigrated to the US when he was nine years old. Eddie learned English at this time, and, inspired by his father’s example, firmly believed in the American Dream. Through hard work and determination, Robinson became one of the most successful and respected leading men of his generation, despite his unconventional looks. Robinson himself once said:
“I’m not much on face value, but when it comes to stage value, I’ll deliver for you.”
By the time of Bullets or Ballots, Robinson had made a name for himself as the screen’s quintessential gangster. He appeared in a long string gangster flicks after the success of Little Caesar (1931). But with the advent of the Production Code Administration in 1934, coupled with a push for more optimistic films with President Roosevelt’s New Deal, Hollywood decided that Edward G. Robisnon’s screen persona needed a make-over.
Bullets or Ballots: A Non-Gangster Role for Eddie
Bullets or Ballots was the perfect vehicle to accomplish this: with the Johnny Blake character, Robinson could play a detective, a “good guy,” not a gangster for once. But, since Blake was working undercover pretending to be a gangster, Eddie could still do and say all the mobster things on screen that audiences expected of to see in an Edward G. Robinson film.
Eddie’s new image was short-lived, and it wasn’t long before he was back to mostly playing the familiar gangster roles. But as Bullets or Ballots demonstrates, Edward G. Robinson is completely believable as a good guy.
Robinson’s Successor: Humphrey Bogart
Some viewed Humphrey Bogart as Edward G. Robinson’s successor in the gangster genre. With Robinson playing against type in Bullets or Ballots, the gangster role of Nick “Bugs” Fenner was wide open. Young Bogie, fresh off his success in The Petrified Forrest (1936), rose to the occasion. It would still be another five years before he was a bonafide star, but Bullets or Ballots marked the beginning of Bogart’s “gangster years” on film, the most prolific period of his career.
Bullets or Ballots: Joan’s Chance at Stardom
For Bullets or Ballots’ leading lady Joan Blondell, superstardom was always just out of reach. But if there was ever a time in her career that Joan was primed to become a big star, the late 1930s was it.
Joan’s difficult marriage to George Barnes officially ended in 1936. This fresh start in her personal life coincided with her exciting new role in Bullets or Ballots, where Joan had the chance to showcase her talents as a dramatic actress for a change.
Joan was perhaps her most lovely in 1936. Following the divorce from Barnes, she dropped 13 pounds—still retaining her famous curves—to fit into a gorgeous gown created for her by renown designer, Orry-Kelly. Shortly afterwards, Joan gained a reputation for being a fashion plate.
And if any more validation was needed that Joan’s beauty was gaining attention, her mouth was declared the loveliest in Hollywood. As Joan said at the time:
“Now that I dress carefully and do everything a girl should do to make the most of herself and her opportunities, people show decidedly more interest in me.”
One of the people who “showed more interest in her” was Dick Powell.
Joan and Dick became a couple in 1936. Soon they were one of the public’s favorite movieland pairs. Adoring fans wanted to know what Joan and Dick ate, what they did on dates, their likes, dislikes, etc.
Both Joan and Dick were given greater star treatment by Warner Bros. because of their popularity as a couple. Joan finally received a star dressing room on the lot. It included not just a room to do her makeup, but two bedrooms, a living room, a fireplace, and a kitchen.
Indeed, Bullets or Ballots would come to signify a high point in Joan Blondell’s career.
More Joah Blondell, More Edward G. Robinson
That’s it for Bullets or Ballots.
Read the rest of my Joan Blondell series in the articles below:
Read the rest of my Edward G. Robinson series in the articles below:
Little Caesar (1931)
Kid Galahad (1937)
Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939)
Double Indemnity (1944)