Love is a Racket (William A Wellman, 1932)

Frances Dee and Douglas Fairbanks Jr

Countless movies from the 1930s feature fast-talking, fast-living  journalists, armed with battered old typewriters, phones and bottles of whiskey. Some of these reporters are fearlessly determined to expose corruption at any cost. Others, however, are quite the opposite, and the (anti)hero of Wellman’s quirky romantic comedy-melodrama Love Is a Racket is a case in point. Gossip columnist Jimmy Russell, played by a very young and handsome Douglas Fairbanks Jr, isn’t interested in putting his neck on the line. When he hears about a juicy story involving New York mobsters fixing the price of milk, he can’t get to the phone fast enough…  to keep it out of the paper!

This is one of six movies made by Wellman in 1932, during his amazingly prolific pre-Code days. Made under contract at Warner, it has the studio’s gritty style, but is also stamped with the director’s personality, as it lurches from witty dialogue to  black humour, practical jokes and slapstick. Also, about half the film seems to take place in torrential rain, Wellman’s favourite type of weather. There’s a great cast, with Lee Tracy, the original stage star of  The Front Page, as Fairbanks’ best buddy and newspaper colleague, Frances Dee as our hero’s on-off girlfriend, and Ann Dvorak, one of my favourite 1930s actresses, in a sadly small role as his pal who wants to be something more. Even with all this going for it, this film isn’t on DVD as yet and is one of the director’s more obscure early works. But it has recently been shown on TCM in the US, so there must be  a chance it will soon get released on Warner Archive.

The film moves at a breathless pace and packs a great deal into just 72 minutes. As with so many pre-Codes, it was originally intended to be longer and some footage was cut before release, and there is a long list at the imdb of actors whose scenes were never shown. George Raft was supposed to be in it but his footage sadly fell by the wayside. However, while I wish those missing scenes had been preserved, the film does feel complete as it is, unlike some other movies where footage was cut.

This movie was originally intended as a vehicle for James Cagney, who had starred in Wellman’s classic  The Public Enemy the previous year, but he didn’t take the role in the end, for whatever reason. I suspect the character was called “Jimmy” when the studio thought he would be playing the role – and one of the gossip paragraphs used as links between the scenes features an obscure story about Cagney, which looks to be some kind of in-joke.  I can’t help wondering how he would have played the role and suspecting that he would have made the character more intense and driven. However, Fairbanks gives a fine performance, and, with his upper-crust accent, he is believable as a gossip columnist mixing with celebrities in the early hours and then sharing their secrets with the public. (The film is based on a novel by Rian James, himself a newspaper columnist who had an adventurous background as a foreign correspondent, stunt pilot and much more, and there are intriguing mentions of Jimmy having a similar past, being known as the “great Russell” – but this isn’t really explored, as the film sticks to the gossipy here-and-now.)

Lee Tracy, Douglas Fairbanks Jr and Ann Dvorak

Russell writes a column similar to Walter Winchell’s real-life syndicated feature On Broadway, full of  scandal and innuendo about the famous people he spots in restaurants and nightspots. The movie opens with his newsdesk ringing to remind him that he needs to get to a job that evening – it’s 5pm and he hasn’t got up yet. However, he’d be well advised to get as much sleep as he can, since I don’t think he manages to go to bed again in the whole film, and well before the end of it he is staggering around wearily ordering himself “a gallon of black coffee”.

Russell doesn’t actually do all that much work, and rarely goes near the office, but he plays hard. When they are not in nightspots, he and pal Stanley Fiske (Tracy) hang out in an art deco apartment with a wall lined with books, at least a couple of which are fake volumes hiding a supply of bootleg hooch. They leave the door unlocked when they go out in case a friend pops by and wants a drink. There’s a lot of tomfoolery between the two, and their friendship comes across through this. Wellman is very good at portraying buddy relationships, as with Tom and Matt in The Public Enemy.

Jimmy is madly in love with aspiring actress Mary Wodehouse (Frances Dee), constantly giving her rather cheesy compliments. Mary  is also deeply in love – with herself. Dee is very charming as Mary, but makes it apparent that she is far more interested in her own looks and prospects than she is in worrying about the lovelorn Jimmy. She’s only too happy to stand him up at the last minute when a better offer, such as a trip to the opera with a rich admirer, comes to hand. However, she does turn to her loyal suitor for help when she runs into trouble, after writing cheques on an empty bank account for a string of “essentials” like designer clothes and expensive face creams. I was interested to note that her bills are all for things she doesn’t need, in order to ensure her character doesn’t become too sympathetic – in the Great Depression, many of the audience would have been able to sympathise with a character faced with debts they couldn’t pay, but probably not with someone spending a thousand dollars on make-up.

Lee Tracy and Ann Dvorak

Of course, this whole storyline is partly scoffing at women for supposedly being gold-diggers and wasting money on frills, and  the trailer for the film, available at the TCM website, goes on this angle quite heavily, with the words on the screen claiming that the movie is all about “the unfair sex – those cheating charmers who have taken love out of the parlor and put it on a gold standard!” This isn’t really what the film feels like, though. Mary might have “a price tag on her emotions”, to quote another line from the trailer, but the real heroine, Sally (Ann Dvorak)  isn’t a gold-digger, and is down-to-earth, funny and genuinely in love with Jimmy. By contrast, Mary’s penniless elderly aunt, Hattie (Cecil Cunningham) certainly was a gold digger in her day, and thinks grimly back to her own past as a chorus girl as she calculates which man will be the best bet to pay Mary’s debts. The presence of her character shows the stakes that Mary is playing for, as she strives to avoid ending up like Aunt Hattie herself.

What’s more, Mary herself stays likeable, if shallow and frothy, because Dee brings a warmth to the character. And you have to feel sympathetic to her when a gangster, Eddie Shaw (Lyle Talbot in one of his very first roles) buys up her bounced cheques  and makes it clear he would like payment in kind – setting the scene for some melodramatic plot twists towards the end of the film.

Jimmy might not be prepared to take on the mob for the sake of the public, but he will do it for Mary. He heads off to Atlantic City for a confrontation with Eddie, but finds himself faced instead with Eddie’s goonish sidekick Bernie Olds, played by Warren Hymer in a scene-stealing comic performance. One of my favourite moments in the whole film comes when Jimmy walks in from the heavy rain to be faced by Bernie. Holding him at gunpoint, Bernie barks his fearsome instruction: “Take your coat off, you’re all wet!”  The whole scene with the two of them holed up together in a hotel room becomes increasingly hilarious as Bernie decides to amuse himself with some ridiculous and dangerous practical jokes, reminiscent of those Jack Oakie’s character plays in another early 1930s film from Wellman, Looking For Trouble.

I discuss the ending in this next bit. 

Douglas Fairbanks Jr

However, the most characteristic and memorable scene is the movie’s climax, where Jimmy goes to confront Eddie in his apartment, but sees Aunt Hattie leaving after murdering him. Jimmy then goes into the flat, finds Eddie’s body, and throws him off the roof, after first setting the scene to make it look like a drunken accident. Most of this is done as a silent scene, with striking, moody cinematography from Sidney Hickox and the only sound coming from jaunty jazz music as Fairbanks carries out his sinister errand in the torrential rain. It’s all laced with extremely black comedy, and reminiscent of the famous rain scene where Cagney is shot in The Public Enemy.

There are more twists to come, as Jimmy feverishly completes his cover-up of the murder, only to be jilted by Mary when she goes off with a richer love rival. He still gets a happy-ish ending, though, as first he gives a little speech about how he has learned that “love is a racket”, and now intends never to fall in love again. But, as the film ends with Fairbanks and Dvorak gazing into each other’s eyes, it seems unlikely he will keep that resolution.

The whole way that the murder is swept under the carpet and followed by a romantic comedy ending would never have been possible under the code, as TCM’s article on the film points out. There is another good article on the film at Moviediva.

Many thanks to Cagneyfan for putting me on to this movie, which I really enjoyed – the whole mood of it reminds me a lot of Looking For Trouble, which I also love.

20 thoughts on “Love is a Racket (William A Wellman, 1932)

  1. From John Greco:

    I am hitting myself in the head as I write this. I remember seeing this in the TCM listing but for some reason did not realize it was a Wellman film nor did I know its plot involved gangsters and newspapers, two of my favorite themes in film. Needless to say, I still have to catch up with this. Wonderfully entertaining review Judy. Look forward to catching this.


    • Thanks, John! This comment showed up in the wrong thread, possibly some glitch at WordPress, so I have copied it over here. I find it’s very hard to keep track of all the films I want to see that crop up on TV, so it must be even harder for you with all the goodies that turn up on TCM in the US! Hope you do get to see it before too long – as a fan of gangster and newspaper films, you should enjoy it.


  2. Judy, this has to be one of your best reviews yet, and that’s saying something b/c your reviews are some of the best on the web. You’ve captured the film perfectly. As much as I like James Cagney, I have to say I’m glad Douglas Fairbanks, Jr, plays the lead in this movie. I thought he was excellent, and he and Lee Tracy play off each other very well. The only thing I regret is that Ann Dvorak doesn’t have more to do. Here’s hoping that “Love is a Racket” is on Warner’s radar for a DVD release at some point soon. Again, wonderful post!


    • Thanks very much, and thanks again for putting me on to this film, which I enjoyed so much. It’s intriguing to wonder how Cagney would have played it, but I must agree with you that Fairbanks Jr is excellent in the part and works well with Tracy – I’ve seen Fairbanks in a couple of other buddy roles, in minor pre-Code ‘Parachute Jumper’ and in Hawks’ heartbreaking ‘The Dawn Patrol’, and he was good in both. Agree with you that Dvorak doesn’t get enough to do in this, though she is great in the scenes she does get. And yeah, it would be great to see this get a DVD release!


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  4. Judy, that title sounds like the archetypal pre-Code film, and the film itself sounds like it might live up to the name. I’ve just seen Lee Tracy in Blessed Event and Bombshell and he can be entertaining if handled with care, and I’d trust Wellman to handle him right. Now that I have a DVR, I’m hoping that TCM will run it again soon. Your review is more evidence for Wellman’s awesome cumulative achievement in the pre-Code era.


    • Agree with you on the title, Samuel! I haven’t seen those Tracy films as yet, but hope to do so before too long, as he is an actor I need to see more of – ‘Blessed Event’ is also yet another part which Cagney turned down! I love that description “awesome cumulative achievement” – the sustained quality of Wellman’s pre-Codes is so impressive, but he doesn’t always seem to be as highly regarded as some others from the era, although with more of his titles getting DVD releases maybe that is starting to change. Many thanks.


  5. I can see the ending makes the film in a sense, throws back its perspective on the whole of it. E.M.


  6. Judy, I have an acute case of micro-processor induced amnesia: each time I sit in front of a computer I forget half of what I meant to write, and then I have a hard time expressing the other half. Meant to add earlier that if anyone has seen The Rich Are Always With Us, he will recognize that George Brent’s apartment in that movie is the same set used as the apartment for Fairbanks and Tracy in Love is a Racket. [Also—and this is almost off topic—the iconic double cigarette lighting scene in Now, Voyager was nothing unique. The scene debuted first in The Rich Are Always With Us.] Warner Bros loved to recycle!


    • I know what you mean about that particular type of amnesia, which sometimes hits me too – though in my case I sometimes also suffer from the opposite complaint, thinking of loads extra that I want to say and writing far too much. Thanks for the extra info – interesting how the studios kept recycling, as you say, not only the sets and sometimes costumes but also lines and quirky bits of business. I haven’t seen ‘The Rich Are Always With Us’ as yet, but it is one I’m definitely intending to see! Thanks again!


  7. “This is one of six movies made by Wellman in 1932, during his amazingly prolific pre-Code days. Made under contract at Warner, it has the studio’s gritty style, but is also stamped with the director’s personality, as it lurches from witty dialogue to black humour, practical jokes and slapstick. Also, about half the film seems to take place in torrential rain, Wellman’s favourite type of weather.”

    You say quite a bit there Judy, but overall this is a fabulous piece of writing that shows you in the same form that you were in last month during the musical countdown. I waited a little to read this, but I must say I was hooked immediately. YHes, Wellman loved using rain, and he is well-known for his brisk pacing and managing so much in short running times. I was intrigued to read about Cagney’s near-involvement, though you are obviously impressed with Fairbanks here. I was particularly riveted by your description of the film’s most memorable scene, with its indeptedness to silent cinema, and the use of the jazzy music, and the moody cinematography by Hickox. Yes, that black comedy in PUBLIC ENEMY was quite startling when I first saw it, and it’s apparently a Wellman element. I can’t wait till Warner Archives releases this. You made such a persuasive argument here and then some!


    • Thanks very much, Sam – your support is much appreciated, as ever. The closeness of that scene to ‘The Public Enemy’ quite surprised me – and yes, I think there is a lot of black comedy in many Wellman movies. Definitely agree it would be good to see this one get a release on WA before too long.


  8. I thought Lyle Talbot quite good in this film and he should have played heavies more often, instead of the romantic types he seemed (IMO) unsuited for. There also is some irony in Dee’s choice of husband, considering that a lot of big Broadway producers were falling onto hard times as this film was being made. Also ironic was Cunningham’s line about no newspaperman being worth a nickel, thus ignoring Joe Pulitzer and Arthur Brisbane. And Winchell himself.

    One question – What does Dvorak’s character do for a living? I couldn’t figure it out either time I watched the film.


    • That’s an interesting point about the Broadway producers – this hadn’t struck me at all, but yes, Dee could well be making the wrong decision there financially! I wondered about Dvorak’s job, too, and thought maybe I had missed something – as she hung out with Fairbanks and Tracy such a lot, I wondered if she was supposed to be a newspaper colleague. Maybe it was made clear what she did for a living in the cut scenes? Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this film.


  9. You had me at “Lee Tracy”, but your review sold me on the rest of the film too. Since I don’t have cable (I do miss TCM!) I’ll join the chorus in hoping for a Warner Archive release.


    • Thanks for the nice comment, Helen – I haven’t seen all that many films starring Lee Tracy yet, but need to catch up on some more of them! I hope that Warner Archive does release this one soon.


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