Let’s all agree: Hollywood is hot for its Bad Boys. And I’m not just talking about Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, the stars of Bad Boys (1995) and its sequel Bad Boys II (2003). Or, Sean Penn, the headliner in Rick Rosenthal’s 1983 movie Bad Boys. I’m talking about a more general infatuation with the charismatic, misbehaving, Bad Boy archetype. As Laura Jacobs wrote in a recent Vanity Fair article, “America has always loved its bad boys, but it wasn’t until the movies that we got to revel in them as one nation. Suddenly, in the 1930s, the libertine, gangster, outlaw, scofflaw, public enemy, serial seducer, bank robber, and sexy barn burner had faces. And what faces!”
To that list of no-gooders, we must add one more bad boy – the infamous pool hustler. That is the premise of John Blystone’s 1935 billiards movie Bad Boy, based on the story of the same name by Viña Delmar. To my knowledge, Bad Boy is the first full-length (56 minutes) billiards movie, though other short films about billiards (e.g., Billiards Mad (1912), A Game of Pool (1913), and W.C. Fields’ well-known Pool Sharks (1915)) preceded it by more than two decades.
In Bad Boy, James Dunn plays Eddie Nolan, a wisecracking pool ace in love with the sweetheart Sally Larkin (Dorothy Wilson). Eddie’s plans to proclaim his love of Sally to the woman’s parents are foiled when the father recognizes him as the “pool shark” who periodically hustles him. In a fit of rage, the father makes it clear the romance has no future, saying he “had higher hopes [for his daughter] than to marry a street-corner loafer” and insisting that she stop “chasing a pool hall hoodlum.” Her mother echoes this sentiment, bemoaning that her daughter is “too fine a girl to get mixed up with a bad boy.”
Hoodlum? Street-corner loafer? Bad boy? Since when did playing pool take become so sinful? So akin to the aforementioned list of criminals and reprobates?
Alas, for Nolan there is no nobility playing in pool in the 1930s (some might argue the same is true today, unfortunately), so the only path to legitimizing his love and making his marriage public is to find a real job – ideally selling pool tables at a local sporting goods store — before a competing suitor, who has a “good job at a bank, car all paid for, two lots in Flushing, and a savings account” makes in-roads on his missus. He doesn’t get the job initially, but things do seem to work out, albeit very abruptly, in the end.
Bad Boy is quaint and dated, though it still retains a certain gosh-golly Capraesque feel. But, as a billiards movie, it sets a standard in trick shots that was not surpassed until 1961 with the production of with The Hustler. Even more impressive, James Dunn makes all his own shots. Sure, they’re classic trick shot setups, but the opening scene shows Dunn (1) making a backspin draw shot that sinks two opposing balls in the middle pockets; (2) hitting a frozen cue ball corner shot; (3) doing a beautiful masse shot; (4) using his Stetson as a pseudo-bridge for his cue stick; and (5) shooting one-handed through the bend at his elbow. (All of these are made as part of a straight pool game to 100 in which the winner gets $2.)
Bad Boy is available to buy as a DVD for $15 from Loving the Classics. Even if you don’t watch the whole movie, it’s worth buying for the opening few scenes that feature the aforementioned sequence of shots. They’re pure billiards gold.