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, 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. 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. 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."
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 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.
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? Dvorak is unforgettable in films like Scarface and Three on a Match; one of the Goddesses of Pre-Code. Warren Hymer has a great featured role, as a gun toting practical jokester.
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.
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.
I've been reading 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, chorines, nightclubs, restaurants, streets and penthouses of New York makes every dreamer wish to live there.
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.)