Love is a Racket (1932) Directed by William Wellman. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Ann Dvorak, Frances Dee, Lee Tracy, Lyle Talbot, Warren Hymer. (72 min).
A wise-cracking Broadway columnist walks “Up and Down Broadway” skirting both the racketeers and the swells. His sweet-faced girlfriend has a weakness for writing rubber checks and crosses paths with a gangster. This cracking yarn bounces between comedy and homicide, aided by sparkling performances and director Wellman’s sure hand.
In between his two 1932 farm outings with Barbara Stanwyck, So Big and The Purchase Price, director William Wellman sojourned in a tasty Art Deco Manhattan with Love is a Racket. This is a movie, as Moviediva, jr. says, where something happens. Wellman, of course was the director of the first film to win a Best Picture Oscar, Wings. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Lee Tracy are newspapermen, roommates in a book-strewn apartment where the door is always unlocked so their friends can wander in for some bootleg hooch. Doug Jr. plays hard-boiled New York Globe reporter Jimmy Russell, a character modelled on true-life columnist Walter Winchell. There were many films about journalists in the early talkie era, in part because so many of them moved to California to write screenplay. Hollywood paid so much better than newspapers.
Fairbanks had script and director approval, no doubt a courtesy to the son of one of the industry’s founding fathers. Only Richard Barthelmess, a more established star at Warner Brothers, had the same privilege. But Fairbanks, just 22, was hot, thanks to both his smash hit in The Dawn Patrol, and his high wattage marriage to Joan Crawford. The gorgeous couple received thousands of fan letters every week. He had been “plunged into the assembly line at the Warners film factory and averaged five films a year there between 1930 and 1933. He recalled a typical working schedule at the studio as ‘sometimes ten hours, usually nine a day–six days a week! Sometimes less, sometimes more!'”
Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., one of the most romantic lovers of the screen, has attained new popularity since the advent of the talkies. He will be heard again in “Loose Ankles.”
He’s a handsome fellow and no mistake.
Wellman’s mentor in the picture business had been the senior Fairbanks, and his son described Wellman as “reckless and wild. I think that anyone who knew him and his work would agree that he was a very good director indeed, and among those under contract to Warner Brothers at the time, one of the three or four best on their roster.” Wellman is never afraid to take chances, as when the concluding speech of the film is delivered mostly with the backs of the three principals to the camera. That must have been the only way he shot it, or surely the studio would have insisted on using a take where you could see the stars’ faces! His biographer, Frank T. Thompson, lists Love is a Racket with Night Nurse and others saying, “Wellman’s best films are often his least promising (his) prodigious talent was stimulated by second rate material; the less the project brought with it, the more Wellman was forced to reach into himself to fill it with skill and imagination.”
Fairbanks’ and Tracy’s early scenes together are swift and funny. Doug plays Jimmy as coolly aggressive; pretending to drowse while slowly chewing gum AND smoking a cigarette. The role had been intended for James Cagney, and he plays it with some of Cagney’s pugnacity. Perhaps, Wellman was an ideal director for Fairbanks. In his ingenue days, he sometimes doesn’t make a strong impression; it’s hard even to remember that he was in Little Caesar, so overshadowed is he by Edward G. Robinson’s ferocity. But as a breezy newshound, keeping his ears open “for a little wise chatter,” he’s great. Lee Tracy often played reporters, a bow to his early stage fame as the original Hildy Johnson in The Front Page. He’s great in Blessed Event, Bombshell and Dinner at Eight, but never better than he is here. He knows how to milk the humor from both the physical and verbal comedy, with the flutter of an eyelid or a fake smile. His film career came to rather an abrupt halt shortly after Bombshell when he was on location for a Wallace Beery film about the Mexican Revolution called Viva Villa, and he supposedly urinated on a passing Mexican military parade from a balcony. True or not, Hollywood decided his career was not worth salvaging, and they abandoned him. He had a brief comeback late in his life, as the US President in the stage and film versions of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man.
Fairbanks is mooning over Frances Dee, who’s “pretty as a little red wagon.” But there is something askew about her…is it her teasing sexual reticence? And the barrier’s not just because of the cynical nursemaiding of her Aunt Hattie, a retired chorine whose been wised-up “since George M. Cohan was a juvenile.” It’s not too surprising that in looking for all the angles little Mary encounters smarmy racketeer Lyle Talbot. But, Mary’s conniving is no match for Ann Dvorak’s shrewd intelligence. Dvorak’s a pal; quite at home in the boys’ flat, and in one scene is lounging around in a comfy chenille bathrobe. Is she sleeping with Lee Tracy (on the couch) or just using the flat as a flop?
Frances Dee mostly played good girls, epitomized by her role as Meg in in 1933 Katharine Hepburn version of Little Women. Dee was born in LA in 1907, and for a while when she was a child, she and her future husband, Joel McCrea, lived only a few blocks from each other without ever meeting. She briefly attended the University of Chicago, but scouted in the school play, she ended up at the Pasadena Playhouse and then as a movie extra. Maurice Chevalier personally chose her as his leading lady in Playboy of Paris (1930) which elevated her starlet status at Paramount. She had a few good roles, in An American Tragedy and opposite Bette Davis in Of Human Bondage, after becoming a WAMPAS Baby Star in 1931. She met her husband on a movie set (The Silver Cord) . McCrea had become a film actor mostly because he saw it as a way to make easy money for his dream, to buy a ranch. In 1933, the year they married, he bought 1000 acres west of LA for $12.00 an acre. He continued adding to his spread over the years; they were one of the wealthiest couples in Hollywood. When she became pregnant with her first child in 1934, she basically retired from the screen, making only a dozen or so films the rest of her life. At the 2019 Turner Classic Movies Film Festival, another of her Pre-Code films, Blood Money, was screened. In it, she plays a straying society girl “with decidedly kinky tastes. It’s hard to tell which is the bigger surprise, seeing (Judith) Anderson as a glamour girl, or seeing Dee–best know for playing simple, virtuous heroines–as a compulsive liar and sex maniac” (TCMFF Program). But, in this film she is also slyly cast against type.
Ann Dvorak was born Annabelle McKim in New York City. Her father was a silent film director and Biograph Studio manager, when D.W. Griffith was making movies on 14th Street. Her mother acted in silent films. She left school at 15 to become a chorus girl at the Pom Pom Club in LA, and then was a chorine in 20 films in 1929-31. Her first important role was in Howard Hawks’ Scarface. She was smoldering and sexy as the kid sister for whom Paul Muni had a more than brotherly concern. She was under personal contract to Howard Hughes at the time, and she had a brief affair with him. Warner Brothers bought out her contract and gave her all the studio’s best roles, opposite James Cagney in the auto racing drama The Crowd Roars, an unwed mother in the Strange Love of Molly Louvain: she is one of the Goddesses of Pre-Code. She was just 20 years old when she starred in Three on a Match, what Bette Davis called “a dull B picture”—as well she might, because Dvorak, the studio’s most valuable young actress, had the best role. Shortly afterwards, Dvorak bolted for Europe with her new husband, Leslie Fenton, before she really had a strong position at the studio, and basically screwed up her career. When she returned, Warners put her on the back burner for her rebelliousness. She never regained her status, ceding it to Bette Davis, who waited until she was in a much stronger position to win her eventual showdown with the studio. It might take a lifetime for an actress to get as many great parts as Dvorak had in 1932, alone. James Wolcott in his April 2001 Vanity Fair piece about Pre-Code movies celebrates Dvorak, calling her “sensational…vibrating like a struck tuning fork as the high strung thrill seeker in Three on a Match….Nobody embodies the raw appetite and the exposed wiring of women who’ve gone without and now can’t get enough better than Dvorak.”
Warren Hymer has a great featured role, as a gun toting practical jokester. Hymer was born in New York City, his father was a Broadway playwrite, and rather than the rough talking tough guy he often plays, Hymer actually went to Yale. Although he has 128 credits for his fifteen year career, his alcoholism cut his life and career short.
Here’s how the girls acquire a sun tan along the Pacific. It’s a swell method–when the girls are as pretty as Ann Devorak (sic) and Marjorie King. After donning a coating of petroleum oil, they allow the sun to paint their skin the proper tint of tan.
Love is a Racket was Lyle Talbot’s first movie. In his daughter’s lively biography of him, The Entertainer, she tells the story about how Wellman watched his screen test, and asked for him in his movie. The test had actually been a terrible faux pas. Talbot had done a scene from a play, Louder Please, written by a disgruntled former employee who had ridiculed Darryl F. Zanuck, a powerful Warner Brothers executive. He had only thought the monologue showed off his acting skills, not that it would insult his potential future employer.
“About a week into the shooting, Wellman ambled over to Lyle and clapped him on the back. ‘You know, Talbot. You’re really something. You’re terrific.’ Lyle was flattered, thinking Wild Bill was referring to his work in the film. ‘Thanks, Mr. Wellman,’ he said eagerly. ‘I’m enjoying working with you, too.’ ‘Oh,’ said Wellman, with another bearish swat. ‘You’re OK in the part. But, you’re really something. You guys from the theater. You know what I mean.’ He went on in this vein, as Lyle nodded politely, ever more puzzled. ‘That test of yours.’ Oh, thought Lyle, that. ‘You really gave it to Zanuck. Good for you.’ Wellman, that indefatigable tweaker of authority, loved the idea that Lyle was the same breed. The fact that Lyle was not was no discouragement.”
The plot leads to murder, a mesmerizing set-piece in the pouring rain, ironically scored to a perky jazz band on the radio. Love is a Racket has electrifying language (getting drunk is “swacko”) great overcoats and a swanky Art Deco penthouse (courtesy of art director Jack Okey). There is no costume credit Orry-Kelly or Earl Luick? Dvorak wears a tunic dress in the last half that resembles some of Aline MacMahon’s outfits from The Gold Diggers of 1933, so I vote for Orry-Kelly. Warners starlet Polly Walters makes an unbilled appearance in a newspaper cheesecake photo.
Look at them! Photos taken off tv screen from ancient VCR tape.
I’m a big fan of Celluloid Skyline by James Sanders, (www.celluloidskyline.com) which I recommend highly. The author talks about how Movie New York, created by writers, directors, production designers and others homesick for the center of the universe far away on the opposite coast, created a Dream New York so potent that it became almost more real than the actual city. Love is a Racket is definitely one of those hundreds of pictures that by glorifying the newshounds, gangsters, hoofers, nightclubs, restaurants, streets and penthouses of New York makes every dreamer wish to live there.
It seems like every time I watch this film, there is something else to remark on. The gay shop clerk at the salon with the name that sounds like Elizabeth Arden. Lee Tracy saying, “son of a B…” The way the elderly white telegraph messenger is called “Sonny.” The wonderful tirade against love at the end, and the expressions on the faces of Fairbanks and Dvorak. The telephone operators do so much for callers! The paper tubes for coffee, and for mailing. Let’s watch it again.
Hilda Price was pasting movie reviews in her scrapbook the month Love is a Racket was released:
Do you think the reviewer even saw the movie? George Raft isn’t in the picture, and Talbot’s name is mispelled.
This reviewer crammed in too many movies if he can’t remember this one; I guess 1932 held an embarrassment of riches. Mostly right on the money, though, and correct about Dvorak’s being underused. Same photo as previous.
The story is confusing mostly because it zips right by…or do we have to know everything? This reviewer likes Dvorak, too
(Photo of Fairbanks from February, 1930 Screen Secrets. Photo of Dee from September, 1931 New Movie Magazine, shocking cheesecake photo of Dvorak from October, 1931, New Movie Magazine, contemporary reviews from Hilda Price’s moviestar scrapbook. Sources include, The Salad Days by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., “William Wellman” by John Gallagher in the May, 1982 Films in Review, and a letter about Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. by him in the February 1982 FIR.The Entertainer by Margaret Talbot is a fascinating look at her father’s long career. Here is a link to her excerpt in The New Yorker about Talbot in Hollywood in the 1930s http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/10/01/121001fa_fact_talbot ), The Wampas Baby Stars by Roy Liebman, “Joel McCrea and Frances Dee” by DeWitt Bodeen in the December, 1978 Films in Review,TCMFF 2019 Program