I’ve watched a few little-known pre-Codes lately which aren’t masterpieces by any means, but are still interesting. I thought I’d post a few thoughts on them before they fade in my mind completely, starting with this early Bette Davis comedy-drama from Warner Brothers. Davis is one of my favourite actresses and I’ve been trying to watch as many of her movies as possible, so that’s why I tracked this down, though it isn’t on DVD as yet. There may be a hope that it will turn up in Warner Archive in the future.
I was especially intrigued by this film because of the title, since I am a fan of 1930s aviation dramas and recently reviewed Wellman’s Central Airport, also made in 1933, which features a woman parachutist. Sadly, however, Bette isn’t the parachute jumper in this one, staying firmly on the ground throughout! In fact it is top-billed star Douglas Fairbanks Jr who does the jumping, though he doesn’t do very much of it.
The movie was directed by Alfred E Green, who was at the helm for Davis’ Oscar-winner Dangerous – but also for the forgettable romantic comedy Golden Arrow. Davis herself is said to have disliked Parachute Jumper, and it is interesting that a clip from it was used many years later in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, to illustrate her character’s dodgy early roles. I’d have to say the film is a bit of a waste of Davis, who plays a fairly conventional girlfriend role as would-be stenographer Patricia “Alabama” Brent. The most noticeable thing about her character is a strong Southern accent, which I didn’t find all that convincing, though I’m no expert on American accents!
Nevertheless, I found the film very watchable, packing an awful lot into just 65 minutes. It is set in the midst of the Great Depression and there’s some at times fairly black humour about the characters’ desperate struggles to get by. Fairbanks Jr and Frank McHugh star as two flying buddies who are sacked in Nicaragua, and come to New York hoping to work for a commercial airline – but discover it has gone bust. They then spend weeks looking for other jobs without success.
A broke Bill (Fairbanks) is sitting in the park playing with his last remaining coins when he sees Patricia watching him. They strike up conversation and he realises she is hungry. He offers to share what money he has with her, and they go to a cafe where she eats a small snack . He pretends he isn’t hungry as he doesn’t have enough money for two meals, but they steal a bottle of sauce on the way out. Shortly afterwards they spot a cat guarding a package of fish and chips, which they promptly steal from it, and take back to Bill’s apartment to share with “Toodles” (presumably an air force nickname for McHugh). This is all fairly similar to the first meeting in a park for the hungry Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young in Frank Borzage’s great Man’s Castle, made the same year – but in Green’s film the mood is much lighter, and you never really believe the characters are hungry. Their plight is largely played for laughs, although, of course, underlying that is the knowledge that the reality wasn’t so funny.
“Alabama”, as Bill nicknames her, moves in with the two men right away, sleeping respectably on the couch, though there are some fairly sexy scenes between her and Bill. Desperate for money, Bill briefly works as the parachute jumper of the title at an air show, improbably jumping very near to a railway line – yes, you guessed what happens next. But fortunately the train doesn’t actually run him over.
He then finds another job as chauffeur for a gangster’s moll (Claire Dodd), who seems far more interested in his looks than his driving skills – there’s a suggestive scene where she examines his muscles and gasps, “You are a very well-built young man!” Later in the film, Davis’ character also uses her looks to gain a job as a secretary, and in both cases there is a suggestion that they may have to sell themselves along with their skills – but, as with the hunger, it is all kept fairly light and jokey.
A series of speedy plot twists sees Bill give up being a chauffeur and take up yet another job, as a pilot for gangster Weber (Leo Carrillo). Unfortunately, though, the cargo which he and Toodles is transporting turns out to be narcotics, and they are soon being chased by government agents. There’s some exciting (possibly stock) aviation footage in this part of the film.
I didn’t feel there was all that much chemistry between Fairbanks and Davis, but some of the dialogue is quite snappy, and McHugh adds some comic sparkle in all his scenes, as he does in so many 1930s movies. All in all, it’s not a great movie, but worth a look if you like pre-Codes and are a fan of any of the actors. And it’s interesting to see the jokey treatment of Depression life, which comes across as a determination not to be crushed.