Directed by James Tinling, Arizona To Broadway is a pre-code romantic crime drama starring James Dunn as prolific conman Smiley Wells, and Joan Bennett as Lynn Martin, who becomes embroiled in his schemes.
The film begins in Larrup, “the biggest little city in Arizona”, where Lynn is working flipping pancakes. Smiley is determined to woo her after he spots her through the shop window, and the two attend the carnival which happens to be in town that night. They watch a sideshow which is really an advertisement for a phoney cure-all tonic, and the salesman is accosted on stage by a woman declaring that she not only knows him to be a fraud, but has also told the sheriff about him. Smiley interrupts the woman by posing as a detective sent by the sheriff to pick up the salesman, and he takes him away in his car. As they drive away it’s revealed that the salesman is really Smiley’s righthand man Kingfish Miller (played by Herbert Mundin), and the two are running a scam together, the third they’ve pulled this month alone. As they’re speeding towards their hideout, Smiley stops abruptly; he wants to go back, realising he abandoned Lynn without saying goodbye, but he knows it’s too risky, and they continue on into the night.
Smiley and his gang of shysters are travelling together by train when he happens to bump into Lynn, who tells him she is on her way to find the three people responsible for tricking her brother into making bad investments with the money from an estate he’d been managing. Larrup is a small town, and if Lynn and her brother had gone to the police, news of his financial indiscretions would have spread like wildfire and ruined his reputation, forcing Lynn to take matters into her own hands. Smiley confesses to her that he is not really a detective but instead a scam artist, and insists that he is so besotted with her that he intends to use his particular set of skills to help her get all of the money back. But when he returns to his shady friends, Smiley’s true plan is revealed: he’s certainly going to recover the money, but he has no intention of giving any of it to Lynn.
The group travels to the hotel in New Orleans where two of the tricksters (John and Flo Sandberg, played by Earle Foxe and Merna Kennedy) are staying, and Kingfish Miller poses as a rich Texas oilman ripe for scamming. The gang swiftly dispatches Lynn to New York so they can outfox their rival scam artists, but a kiss before she leaves is enough to begin sowing seeds of doubt in Smiley’s mind about his dishonesty. When the Sandbergs attempt a honeytrap plot on Miller, he counters by posing as a sheriff serving papers on John. Things don’t go quite as smoothly as planned, but they do manage to get away with the money, and they are soon on their way to New York.
Hubert Wayne (played by Theodore von Eltz) is the third and final mark in Lynn’s plan. He’s sunk all of his money into his show, and he’s desperate for an injection of cash. Lynn tells him she can find him a man with money (who will of course be Miller in disguise). After they successfully pull off an envelope switch scam on Wayne and his gangster investor Tommy Monk (played by J. Carrol Naish), Smiley makes off with the money, leaving Lynn and Miller to deal with the consequences. They’re kept in the theatre under guard whilst the show takes place, which includes a Mae West drag act – made popular at the time of the film’s release by famed impersonator Julian Eltinge – alongside imitations of Ed Wynn and Jimmy Durante.
A car pulls up at stage door: it’s Smiley, who’s soon locked up with the rest of the group. After knocking out the guard, he telephones one of Tommy Monk’s rivals, impersonating the gangster and insulting the man in order to spark trouble. The rival gang soon arrives to break up the show, and in the confusion Smiley is able to escape with Lynn and his friends. Safely away on a moving train, everyone demands to know what he has done with the money. Smiley reveals that he has posted it to Lynn’s brother, and when the gang questions the whereabouts of their cut, he yells at them that
“You’re just good fellas is all, you did it to help a lady and all you’re gonna get is thanks!”
The experience seems to have instilled in them a sense of benevolence, and they vow to return to an honest way of life. Smiley and Lynn embrace as the end credits roll.
Arizona to Broadway is a strange film. It has a strong cast, and zips along at a brisk 66 minutes, but despite flashes of greatness it never seems to quite rise above the sum of its parts. Joan Bennett’s Lynn is criminally underused, but when she is on screen she steals it thoroughly. Her performance reminded me somewhat of Jean Harlow, and the two actresses share a kind of proto-screwball comedic energy, also seen in Me and My Gal (1932). She has good chemistry with James Dunn, whose performance as Smiley Wells is also enjoyable, but somehow everything else falls a bit flat. It’s the kind of film which feels like it would have benefitted greatly from one good script doctor – someone who understood that what Arizona to Broadway really needed was just more Joan Bennett!
It was released on 22 July 1933, to average reviews and similar box office performance. It was the last film Bennett would make with Fox, who seemed to have lost interest in making her a major star, and she would leave the same year to make Little Women (1933) with Katharine Hepburn at RKO. Arizona to Broadway would be reworked ten years later into Laurel and Hardy’s Jitterbugs (1943).