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.

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Taxi! (1932)

If you ask around among James Cagney fans about which of his movies they’d most like to see get a DVD release, this pre-code film will be near the top of the list. It was a huge box office success at the time, and is memorable in his career for several reasons.

It’s the film where Cagney has his first extended dance scene (there is a brief dance scene in the earlier Other Men’s Women, but you see more of his footwork here) – and the film with his first, and longest , scene speaking Yiddish. Most famously, it’s also the movie where he (almost) says “You dirty rat” – though the actual wording is “Come out and take it, you dirty yellow-bellied rat.”

James Cagney and Loretta Young

James Cagney and Loretta Young

The movie also features another major star, Loretta Young, who is at her luminous pre-code best here. It’s full of the trademark Warner grittiness, and packs a breathtaking amount of comedy, quickfire dialogue, action and melodrama into just under 70 minutes. Yet this movie has never been released on VHS, let alone DVD – and in the UK it is never even shown on TCM. Surely Warner Brothers should come up with a lovely remastered print soon in one of their box sets!

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Scarface (1932)

This is a contribution to the Early Hawks Blog-a-thon being hosted at Ed Howard’s Only the Cinema blog.

There are famous shootouts and violent episodes in The Public Enemy and Little Caesar. But I’d have to say they don’t come anywhere near the relentless violence of Howard Hawks’ powerful gangster movie Scarface. From the arresting scene near the start where Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) is seen in silhouette gunning down his boss,  Big Louis, the film seems to be riddled through with machine-gun fire.

I do have some mixed feelings about the film and think there are problems with it, which I’ll come on to later, not least Muni’s terrible Italian accent – but it’s second to none in showing the devastating effects of gang warfare in the streets.  

scarface21

Spoilers below cut

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They Drive By Night (1940)

I first saw the Raoul Walsh movie They Drive By Night about 30 years ago. At the time, I remember being slightly startled that long-distance drivers are presented in such an heroic light, and finding it faintly ridiculous when they are shown driving along roads at night accompanied by the sort of insistent, doom-ridden music which might usually mean a battle is about to break out. Watching again after all these years, I don’t find it ridiculous at all, but poignant.  I’m now a big fan of early, gritty Warners movies, with their focus on working lives, and am impressed the way that this film shows just how hard  it was for lorry drivers to make ends meet. 

I was struck now by how much it is a film of two halves. For me, the first half is brilliant – a powerful depiction of the tough conditions facing truckers – while the second  half is a rather weak film noir with a far-fetched crime plot. However, I am aware some critics think just the opposite and love the noir part.

GRITTY DRAMA: Humphrey Bogart, Ann Sheridan and George Raft

Spoilers behind cut