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William A. Wellman directed eleven films in 1931 and 1932, which averages a movie every sixty-six days. The classic The Public Enemy is one of them. Wellman had a reputation for masculine action pictures, but he was much more versatile than that. Nobody made better Pre-code dramas about life in the Depression years. Whether lurid (Frisco Jenny), shocking (Safe in Hell), or politically radical (Heroes For Sale), they were always well crafted and dramatically intense.
Love is a Racket is a reasonably slick story of romance and murder in Manhattan, with an interesting cast. The source story is a book by Rian James, who seems to have been a man from the William Wellman mold -- a journalist who was also an aviator, parachute jumper and stunt man. As with several other Pre-code tales of the city, the main character is a colorful newspaper columnist who hobnobs with both show people and gangsters. "Where the underworld can meet the elite", go the lyrics for the title song to the musical 42nd Street. Rian James was one of its screenwriters.
At the New York Globe, show biz columnist Jimmy Russell (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) warns his editor to back off attacking the milk racket run by Eddie Shaw (Lyle Talbot), as Shaw and his henchman Bernie Olds (Warren Hymer) are dangerous men capable of harming the paper's crime reporter. Jimmy is in love with showgirl Mary Wodehouse (Frances Dee), who is stringing him along to make better career connections. Mary's conniving mother Hattie (Cecil Cunningham) wants her to zero in on a millionaire, or even better, the Broadway producer Max Boncour (André Luguet). Jimmy soon finds himself in a thorny romantic tangle. Friend Sally Condon (Ann Dvorak) loves Jimmy and can't seem to convince him that Mary is just a climber. His best buddy Stanley Fiske (Lee Tracy) is likewise frustrated in his affections for Sally. But things heat up when Eddie Shaw becomes obsessed with making Mary his latest conquest. The gangster is so fixated on that goal that he buys up thousands of dollars of Mary's outstanding debts and blackmails her into keeping a date at his penthouse apartment. Shaw and Olds pull a ruse to lure jimmy out of town. How far will Russell go to protect Mary's honor?
The eventful Love is a Racket is basically about a nice guy taken in by a smiling beauty who we would now pigeonhole as a 'user'. The casting works in some ways but not in others. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. does well enough with the dialogue and certainly looks good, but he comes up a bit short in terms of charisma. It doesn't help that his character is inconsistent. Jimmy Russell is sufficiently cynical to passively protect the gangster character. He has a cozy, cooperative relationship with the thug Bernie Olds, and kills an exposé article that tells the truth about Eddie Shaw's milk racket. Jimmy takes plenty of affectionate abuse from Mary Wodehouse, who double-books her dates and mainly uses Jimmy as a way to be seen by other more influential men. Everybody but Jimmy seems to realize that Mary is using him to dismiss her stacks of unpaid bills. Mary is especially effective as a little troublemaker because she's played by Frances Dee, a specialist in sincere sweethearts.
Ann Dvorak is always good, and Love is a Racket needs her to make Jimmy seem like a worthwhile guy instead of a doormat. 1 A couple of movies down the line, Ms. Dvorak would play a sex- and drug addict tangled up with Lyle Talbot in the essential Pre-code Three on a Match. Her Sally is mainly "around" to make goo-goo eyes at Jimmy, mostly when he's not looking. We love Ann, but there's not enough for her to do here.
Wise-guy specialist Lee Tracy is an expert at machine-gun dialogue delivery, used in Pre-code pictures to portray the fast-pace of the Big City; his gossip columnist in The Blessed Event talks with a constant caffeine buzz. Here his Stanley is just the columnist's sidekick, offering advice that isn't followed and stepping in to be a True Pal when things get dicey. Stanley's yen for Sally is downplayed, as he doesn't seem to be serious about anything. Considering the casual abuse Jimmy dishes out, it seems odd that Stanley should be so loyal. In the very first scene Jimmy tricks his pal into jumping into a bath of cold water, on a $50 bet that Jimmy has no intention of paying. Yet Stanley comes through for his pal, even when he thinks he sees Jimmy committing cold-blooded murder by tossing a corpse from a seventeen-story balcony.
Love is a Racket has some odd notions. Considering that Jimmy is an influential Broadway columnist like Ed Sullivan, it would seem smart for Mary Wodehouse not to treat him in such a shabby way. Jimmy isn't described as making piles of money, but he does lead a pretty swank lifestyle. Most shocking is the film's attitude toward the law. Jimmy abets a known gangster ripping off people buying milk for their children. He's almost buddy-buddy with Bernie Olds, a boastful killer. And he covers up a murder to the extent of cleaning up the crime scene and mailing all the evidence to the murderer. The movie takes it for granted that city corruption is so endemic that it doesn't pay to swim against the current, the old "we're all part of the same hypocrisy" attitude. But hey, now that the real killer has all the evidence, it would seem that killing Jimmy would be the way to bury the secret crime forever. Watch out, Jimmy.
Screenwriter Courtenay Terrett has written (or has retained from the book) plenty of stylized 'smart' dialogue, some of which sounds a bit forced. All the actors handle it well save for Fairbanks Jr., whose delivery is only acceptable -- his smiles and pleasant manner do a better job of selling his character. Lee Tracy, naturally, makes the snappy bons mots into little gems. At hearing good news, Tracy slaps his knee and says, "Well I'll be a son of a ... Bulgarian acrobat!" He makes it sound perfectly natural.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Love is a Racket is a sterling transfer of a film that, were it not for Turner Classic Movies, surely would be an all but lost obscurity. Sid Hickox's cinematography flatters the actors, making Frances Dee and Ann Dvorak look truly delicious. The actresses unfortunately share no major scenes. They're on screen together for just one cold snub; had they resolved their differences in an out 'n' out catfight, Love is a Racket would be a classic.
A trailer is included as well. I think the happiest part of the WAC and Forbidden Hollywood disc series has been discovering the movies of William A. Wellman -- his career has much more to offer than titles like The High and the Mighty.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Love is a Racket rates:
1. It's the Sancho Panza theory of character relationships. Don Quixote is a cranky, senile old dotard, but since the warm and lovable Sancho loves him, we love him too.
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T'was Ever Thus.