BIG BROWN EYES: Grant & Bennett On the Road to Stardom

February 2, 2023 - 11:18am
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Raoul Walsh's Big Brown Eyes (1936) were written by Samantha Janes, PhD student in film in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. Big Brown Eyes will screen as part of an early Cary Grant double feature on Saturday, February 4 at 6 p.m., followed by Hot Saturday (1932) at 7:30 p.m. The double feature screens at the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is Free!

By Samantha Janes

Who wants to get their nails done and solve some crimes? If you say yes, then you’ll join nearly the entire cast of Raoul Walsh’s 1936 crime comedy film Big Brown Eyes. While the salon that doubles for a makeshift police bullpen is full of criminals and beauticians, the plot lies in the hands of the young Cary Grant, who emerges as the charming detective on the hunt for killer jewel thieves, and Joan Bennett, his manicurist girlfriend who polishes up her investigation skills to become a reporter. Though Cary Grant’s charming personality shines through this film and offers a glimpse of his future stardom in Hollywood, Grant was not the one the studios wanted in the lead role. Walsh noted in an interview that Grant was “in the doghouse” and that Joan Bennett, along with the studio wanted someone like Fred MacMurray to play Danny. After a string of praised performances in unsuccessful films, Grant was in a slump. Bennett, on the other hand, was gaining ground after beginning in silent movies. 1936 was one of her years as a blonde before a drastic change to brunette altered her career’s trajectory with roles in films such as The House Across the Bay (1940) and The Woman in the Window (1944). Though Big Brown Eyes ultimately did little to further Grant and Bennett's careers, it did provide space for both to demonstrate their fast-talking comedy skills while also indicating their ability to adapt to more serious thematic elements.

This snappy seventy-six-minute film from Paramount came during the middle of Walsh’s illustrious career that spanned from 1913 to 1964. Walsh was not only an actor in films such as The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Sadie Thompson (1928), but directed large scale projects such as The Big Trail (1930), Klondike Annie (1936), The Roaring Twenties (1939), and High Sierra (1941). Even after losing an eye while working on In Old Arizona (1928), Walsh had a knack for spotting and nurturing new on-screen talent. While the films he directed ranged drastically in genre and settings, when asked in an interview with Patrick McGilligan what makes a film a “Walsh film,” the director answered, “the tempo, breaking it up, and hustling it along.”

Balancing the tempo, breaking the story up, and hustling it along is exactly what allows the plot of Big Brown Eyes to successfully capture and keep the audience’s attention. The beginning of the film presents Grant’s character, Danny Barr, as an up-and-coming police detective who is investigating a string of jewelry thefts that involve wealthy older women. The most recent victim, Mrs. Cole, involves not only the police but also Richard Morey, a deceitful private insurance investigator. This introduction of Morey, played by Walter Pidgeon, begins the arrival of numerous other ne’er-do-wells played by character actors Lloyd Nolan, Alan Baxter, and Douglas Fowley.

While Danny is on the case of the jewelry thieves, Bennett’s character Eve Fallon become Danny’s eyes and ears within the confines of her work place, the salon. The purposeful editing throughout the salon scenes showcases the space where the community gathers to exchange gossip. Though the film does not have an intricate plot or intense cinematography, there are plenty of subtle key elements that liven up the film and force the audience to focus on the information being exchanged.

Although the film is a comedy, the stakes of the crimes increase when an unexpected murder occurs and the investigation is thrown into disarray. As Danny’s job now becomes a ticking clock to catch the murderers, Eve’s career takes a turn from manicurist to reporter when her talents become recognized by a local lead journalist. With both main character’s involvement in the hunt for the criminals, an audience might expect some suspense in finding the identity of the killers, but this film quickly reveals the one responsible for the murder and explores the injustice of the legal system when the killers go free. When Danny and Eve are foiled during their investigation, they both go through personal and relationship struggles as a result of their newfound cynicism. Eventually the pair manage to uncover the truth and bring about a happier ending to the story, but the unexpected darkness to the plot lingers even after the pair share their final kiss. 

Altogether, the tone of the film teeters between the couple’s comedy and their brewing disillusionment with the law, and often leans more into the gloomier mystery elements. Like many films of the 1930s based on pre-existing material, Big Brown Eyes is adapted from two of James Edward Grant’s short stories, “Hahsit, Babe?” and “Big Brown Eyes,” both published in Liberty Magazine in 1934 and 1935, respectively. Both of these stories feature reporter Eve Whitney and Sgt. Daniel Howard, the original source versions of Grant and Bennett’s characters, who clash heads while they are investigating the same murders. Both stories exhibit that hard-boiled tone that the film draws from during the latter half. Though the adaptation allows for a fleshed-out version of Eve and Danny, the film keeps the joke that appears in “Big Brown Eyes” that alludes to Eve being an even better investigator than Danny (she can convince anyone to do anything with her big brown eyes). While this detective-comedy film is not one of the most well-known in film history, ultimately, it provides a wonderful glance into the budding stardom of its cast.