Nick the Barber (Edward G. Robinson) is more than a barber, he has devoted his life to the pursuit of gambling and assists others to do the same. He has his own shop in this fairly small town, but likes to travel around to get to where the big games and bets are happening, however, don't think he is stingy with his money, as he is successful enough within his circle to be able to give money (never lend it - he doesn't expect it back) to anyone who needs it, as he does today when a young lady in trouble asks for a hundred dollars to solve her problem. But this generosity can have its pitfalls, as he realises when he wins back that same hundred dollar note in a dice game...
And the person he wins the note from is Boris Karloff, the same year the famed horror star saw his career go ballistic with Frankenstein, yet here went uncredited because nobody knew who he was at this point. Smart Money was better known for a different pair of stars, and as it was a Warners production of the nineteen-thirties, pre-Code so they could get away with not only the oblique abortion reference at the beginning, but also a few jokes about these two stars being so close they could be homosexual, there was a gangster flavour to the proceedings. Certainly an organised crime theme was apparent, but Robinson shied away from outright villainy.
He once said the "G" in his stage name stood for "Gangsters or God alone knows", and he did play an awful lot of crime bosses in his career thanks to the huge success of his breakthrough hit Little Caesar. He was so vivid in that villainous role that everything afterward tended to be in its shadow, no matter how he tried to vary his work, and Smart Money was his first attempt at avoiding stereotyping as he insisted Nick the Barber should not be an out and out bad guy to show he could do other things on screen. Hence the business with his streak of generosity, so we were on his side, yet also aware of how he could be the architect of his own downfall by the end.
The other star? He wasn't a celebrity when he started filming this, but by the time it was released The Public Enemy had created a new megastar, funnily enough in much the same manner as his pal and co-star Robinson. He was James Cagney of course, and his career took much the same trajectory though he was able to branch out into musicals which Robinson could never have done, but it was as the anti-hero criminal that audiences loved to watch him. Here he was very much the second banana, as it was Eddie's show for most of the way, but it was a lot of fun to see them interact, clearly on chummy terms with one another behind the scenes which helped with their rapport on the screen. Otherwise, the plot tended to meander as it provided excuses for the lead to do his thing, revelling in the riches the Depression-era audience loved to dream of.
You could tell the Nick part had been written with a more villainous turn in mind, and indeed it might have been improved if he had been a lot more ruthless more often, but Robinson was too charismatic a performer to allow the movie to sink with all hands. Nick's quirks, like his magnanimity and his love of blondes (to the extent of keeping a pet canary called Blondie) fleshed out the character adequately when the storyline seemed to be flagging and introducing new characters simply to give the star something to do during the eighty-minute running time. We are sympathetic because he is duped when he visits the unnamed city with his friends' cash to spend on a major poker game, not once but twice (this time the blonde proves duplicitous!), but when he gets his own back and finds pride comes before a fall, as do gambling rackets, we still like the guy as he is the victim of nobody but his own better nature. If the meeting of Robinson and Cagney in the same film should have been more momentous, star power made this worth a look; racial historians would appreciate uncredited but prominent John Larkin as Nick's black friend, a good luck totem.