Sunday, August 24, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: LOVE IS A RACKET (1932)

William Wellman's film introduces us to an ambitious, crusading journalist who's working on an expose of a milk racket. The public may not care about bootlegging and other crimes, but the writer surmises that they'll care if they learn that gangsters are forcing up the price of milk through extortion and other measures. This would-be hero has the ear of his editor and wants the help of his paper's star gossip columnist, Jimmy Russell, who has a lot of underworld connections. Jimmy thinks the story's too dangerous, however, and his caution convinces the editor to kill it. Jimmy (Douglas Fairbanks Jr) is the hero of our story, so you can probably guess where this is going -- but since this is Pre-Code Cinema, you're probably wrong. Jimmy never does expose the milk racket, while the crusader is never shown to be other than what he seems to Jimmy: a reckless fool. He's dumb enough to call his city desk from inside a "speako" owned by head racketeer Eddie Shaw (Lyle Talbot), without realizing that one of Eddie's men is listening in upstairs. Since the crusader is still trying to get Jimmy involved in the story and mentions his name on the line, Eddie sends his head goon, the practical-joking bully Bernie (Warren Hymer) to Jimmy's apartment. Hard-boiled Jimmy isn't scared, or doesn't show it if he is, but he seems genuinely annoyed when Bernie explains why he's there and what the crusader is up to. He calls the pressroom and kills the milk-racket story -- Jimmy has Walter Winchell-like popularity and authority -- and Bernie in turn calls his men to call off a hit on the crusader. That's how things are done in the big city. Crime isn't Jimmy's business and he keeps it out of his column. He goes along to get along and really feels no regrets about it. Nor do the filmmakers expect anyone in the audience to share the crusaders' outrage over the milk racket. This is a comedy, after all -- I think.

The irony of Love is a Racket is that love is the racket that destroys Eddie Shaw. He has the hots for Mary Wodehouse (Frances Dee), the daughter and granddaughter of showgirls and Jimmy Russell's girlfriend. Mary loves Jimmy in spite of the skepticism of her grandma (Cecil "yes, it's a woman" Cunningham), an original Floradora girl, who doubts the reporter's moneymaking potential despite his rather impressive apartment. Still, Jimmy can prove useful, since he devotes his column to promoting Mary's career and hopes to land her a role in the newest production of big-time showman Max Boncur. Unfortunately, Mary is sort of living on spec and has written a number of bad checks. This is the sort of thing that gets people blackmailed, and who should end up with the bad checks but Eddie Shaw? Luring Jimmy out of town by planting a false item that he's gone to Atlantic City, Eddie expects Mary to come to his penthouse and make some sort of deal to get the bad checks back. In Atlantic City, Jimmy blunders into Eddie's trap and becomes Bernie's prisoner. Bernie is irked because he'd bet Eddie fifty bucks that no one would fall for such an obvious plant, and he takes it out on Jimmy by giving him hotfoots and setting his newspaper on fire. But Bernie gets too involved in his gags to keep Jimmy covered properly and the columnist makes his escape to set up the picture's climactic set piece.

Jimmy knows that Eddie has the checks and heads for the penthouse through a signature Wellman rainstorm. Reaching the roof, he hears gunshots, then sees a figure -- it's Mary's grandma -- dart out and dump a gun in the shrubbery before exiting. Jimmy enters the apartment to find Eddie dead. Wellman learned something about soundtrack counterpoint in The Public Enemy, when he played "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles" on a record as Cagney's corpse is delivered to his ma, and he does something similar here. A radio broadcast from a jazz club plays as Jimmy discovers Eddie's body. "The show continues!" the announcer says between tunes. Realizing what's happened and its implications for Mary's future, Jimmy decides to cover up for the grandma. He pours whisky and disarranges furniture to make it look like Eddie had gone blind drunk. Then, after patting down some shrubbery, he drags Eddie's body out to hurl it down to the street. At this point, Jimmy's pal Stanley (Lee Tracy), a reporter for another paper, has shown up. Not knowing about the grandmother, he sees Jimmy lugging and dumping the corpse -- Wellman sends a dummy down and suggests the impact by showing a single shoe landing some distance from the rest of Eddie -- and draws his own conclusions. Lingering after Jimmy leaves, he also sees that Jimmy has left implicating evidence behind, but collects it to protect his friend. That's what reporters do for each other.

It's really a tragedy played as farce the first time around. Returning to the penthouse to report on Eddie's death, and not realizing what Stanley has done for him, Jimmy has a panicky moment when the cops discover a newspaper -- he had carried one with a damning phone number written on it -- and remark on their interesting discovery. It turns out to be a glamour-gal photo on the front page. The cops, being Pre-Code cops, are quite convinced that Eddie died accidentally and no one, presumably, is interested in autopsying Eddie's remains. Only after Jimmy is in the clear does Stanley give him back his own newspaper and tell what he thinks he knows. Naturally, to protect his prospective in-laws Jimmy doesn't set Stanley straight.

If all of this hasn't convinced you that love is a racket, the reporters return to Jimmy's pad with galpal Sally (Ann Dvorak), only to receive a telegram -- Jimmy fears worse when the buzzer rings -- announcing Mary Wodehouse's wedding to Max Boncur. This news inspires a tirade in which Jimmy states the theme and title of the picture and vows to get out of this particular racket for good, only to be stopped short when he finally sees in Sally's eyes what we and Stanley have seen all along. Jimmy doesn't exactly capitulate immediately, but his closing acknowledgment of Sally as "you racketeer" has a here-we-go-again tone that suggests a sequel we'll never see.

A case can be made for Fairbanks Jr. as a definitive male Pre-Code star if only because his Pre-Code persona is so different from the swashbuckling star, his father's son in effect, that classic movie fans actually remember. He's a revelation practically every time I see him, and I've come to like his youthful streetwise self, the one who sounds more Noo Yawk than English, better than his sometimes campier swashbuckling self, who seems a sort of surrender to his heritage after some success creating a distinctive persona that would suddenly be forgotten. Alongside Fairbanks the then fast-rising Lee Tracy is little more than a stooge as Stanley, a character who, depending on how you look at it, is pining for Jimmy from afar as much as Sally is. Fairbanks is really playing the sort of character Tracy would specialize in at his peak of stardom, and this is the rare Pre-Code in which Tracy isn't the most charismatically amoral character on screen. Junior fits the role quite nicely, and his arc of worldy-wise cynic made stupid and reckless by love makes Love is a Racket work, in a modest way, as a somewhat dark comedy, if also a relative trifle in Wellman's torrent of filmmaking at the time.

Here's the trailer from

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