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.)
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.
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.
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.