'God Gave Me Twenty Cents' could be a great title for a comedy film, but this silent sudser is a serious movie. Deadly serious. It was directed by Herbert Brenon, whose films were always tinged with an air of unreality. This was an asset when Brenon directed fantasies ('Peter Pan') or films with unusual subject matter (such as the circus scenes in 'Laugh, Clown, Laugh'). But 'God Gave Me 20¢' deals with extremely prosaic and gritty themes, and Brenon's inflexible directorial style pushes this dreary material dangerously into the region of self-parody.
Steve Doran (handsome Jack Mulhall) is a sailor on shore leave in New Orleans, whose good-time girl is dance-hall floozie Cassie: a second-rate Sadie Thompson (played by Lya De Putti, a notorious silent-screen vamp who was totally forgotten until Liza Minnelli mentioned her in 'Cabaret'). Steve's shipmate is Barney, who just got back from China with some valuable jade for his poor old mother. Cassie wants the jade, even though she looks pretty jaded herself. She vamps Barney and steals his rocks (the green ones, I mean), but she gets caught and goes to prison.
With time on his hands, Steve meets a virginal waitress named Mary ... played by Lois Moran, a competent silent-film actress who wasn't quite talented enough for true stardom. Steve and marry Mary ... no, I mean Steve and Mary marry. She's in love with him, but ... well, Steve's a wandering seaman, and Mary is handy while Cassie's in the clink.
SPOILERS COMING, BUT THERE'S NOT MUCH TO SPOIL. When Cassie gets out, she immediately gets Steve drunk and she tries to get him to abandon Mary and come back to her. She taunts Steve into letting the matter be decided by a coin-toss, for which she has two dimes. (Why does she need TWO dimes?) Anyway, they toss the dimes and Cassie calls 'heads': both dimes come up heads, which is all the incentive Steve needs to abandon Mary and go on a drunken fling with Cassie. With plenty of other men on the waterfront, it's not clear why Steve is such a hot catch that Cassie would want this particular load of seaman. The penniless Mary decides to fling herself into the sea, hoping to drown so that she can come back to life as a seagull. (I am NOT making this up!) Just before she can drown herself, Mary finds two dimes on the quayside. She decides that this money was sent to her by God, because 20¢ is just enough for Mary to buy herself a little white nosegay for her hair, that will cheer her up and persuade her that life is worth living.
As you've likely guessed, the two dimes Mary found were the two dimes Cassie tossed. They were thrown away by Steve, because he found out that Cassie cheated him when she called 'heads' in the coin toss. They were two-headed dimes. (But, again, why did she need to toss TWO coins?) Oh, blimey! This movie is bilge! The dead-earnest plot is bad enough, but it's made worse by Brenon's decision to use close-ups freely throughout the entire film, so that they lose their dramatic effect. Brenon should have taken a lesson from William Wellman, a much better director who only used close-ups very sparingly.
Thelma Todd is quite beautiful in her brief appearance as a dance-hall girl. Jack Sharkey flexes his muscles impressively. William "Buster" Collier gives a good performance as the unfortunate Barney. I'll rate "God Gave Me Twenty Cents" one point out of 10 ... and that one point is because I really like this movie's title.
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