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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Castle on the Hudson (1940)

Ever since watching the Michael Curtiz pre-Code prison movie 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, starring Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis, I’ve been interested in seeing the Anatole Litvak remake with John Garfield and Ann Sheridan taking over their roles. Now at last I’ve had the chance, after the release of the title in the Warner Archive series. I don’t think the print has been remastered, but it looks and sounds fairly good all the same. As with the original, there is some footage which was shot on location, in Sing Sing prison, and the shots of the long rows of small cells make a powerful impression.

Unfortunately it is now a couple of years since I saw the earlier version on TV and I apparently failed to keep a copy of the movie, so I can’t make detailed comparisons – but a look back at my review confirms my impression that the two are very close, with almost identical scripts. Like the original, this is the tale of a cocky young gangster, Tommy Gordon (though his name is spelt ‘Gordan’ in the newspaper headlines running all through this version)  who swaggers into prison under the impression he is entitled to special treatment, but changes his ways of thinking under the guidance of the prison governor, Warden Long.  Both films are based on the memoirs of the original of Long, real-life warden Lewis E Lawes, so it is no surprise that the character is glowingly presented – although, to be fair, he does seem to have been a reforming figure in real life.

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Wild Boys of the Road (1933)

Frankie Darro and Dorothy Coonan in 'Wild Boys of the Road'

All six of the William A Wellman pre-Codes included in the Forbidden Hollywood Collection volume three are great to watch, and am sure I’ll go back to them all in the future. But the last one in the package, Wild Boys of the Road, may just be the best of all – and it’s also the one which addresses the Great Depression most full-on.

One of Warner Brothers’ stories “ripped from the headlines”, this is a powerful, fast-moving melodrama, with a script by Earl Baldwin from a story by Daniel Ahern, turning the spotlight on the vast army of teenagers who really were living on the streets of America at that time. The second time I watched the film I was struck by how many shots there are suggesting that these children are being regarded as society’s rubbish – from a car scrapyard scene early on to the section with a large group  living in a “sewer pipe city” and another scene where they are living on New York’s municipal garbage dump. There is also a brief sequence where Frankie Darro, playing young runaway Eddie, eludes a policeman by jumping into a rubbish bin, and peeps up over the edge after he has run past.  I’ve seen plenty of chase scenes where people hide in bins in comedies and cartoons – but in this one the image of Darro peeping out of the bin is heartbreaking as well as funny.

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Beggars of Life (1928)

After being overwhelmed by William Wellman’s  Wings (1927), I wanted to see another of his few surviving silent films. This is a haunting tale of tramps wandering through a shadowy underworld, starring Louise Brooks, Richard Arlen and Wallace Beery.

Louise Brooks and Richard Arlen

Although this film was made before the Great Depression, it looks forward to later Wellman movies like Wild Boys of the Road (1933) in focusing on the outcasts of society and showing poor people’s desperate struggle to survive. I’m not going to go into as much detail about this movie as I did about Wings, but I definitely think it’s another masterpiece – and I’m saddened that it is so little known.

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Interview with Olivia de Havilland

The Independent newspaper in the UK published a fascinating interview with Olivia de Havilland earlier this month – I’ve just belatedly caught up with it and am passing on the link for others who had missed it. She says quite a lot about her feelings for Errol Flynn.  Apparently she is hoping to have a first draft of her autobiography finished by September.

The headline is slightly misleading, as it claims she is the last of the 1930s Hollywood legends, whereas in fact there are one or two others still alive, including, of course, her sister, Joan Fontaine – Olivia refused to make any comment in the interview on their famous feud.


I actually came across this interview via, a blog about Gone With the Wind and Vivien Leigh, so will pass on the link to that too. Since this post is about Olivia de Havilland, I can’t resist including a picture of her with James Cagney from The Strawberry Blonde, which is one of my favourite movies – and yet another one I really want to write about…

Sinners’ Holiday (1930)

The movie which made James Cagney’s name was The Public Enemy, where he played snarling gangster Tom Powers. Yet his first screen role was in this little-known film, where his character is anything but a tough guy.
James Cagney and Joan Blondell

James Cagney and Joan Blondell

The movie is a melodrama set in a fairground at (or near) Coney Island, during the era of prohibition, where the indomitable widow Ma Delano (Lucille LaVerne) runs her family’s penny arcade. She is helped by older son Joe and daughter Jennie, and hindered by weak younger son Harry (Cagney), who is unemployed and drifts into running booze. The film has that gritty early Warner Brothers feel to it and packs an awful lot of dialogue and action into a running time of less than an hour.
I was impressed by how strong Cagney’s screen presence is even in this early film. He is third-billed, below Grant Withers and Evalyn Knapp, but dominates every time he is on screen – rivalled only by a fiercely protective LaVerne as the first of his screen mothers.
One possible sign of his inexperience on camera is that Cagney’s voice isn’t quite as expressive here as it later became. It’s very high-pitched and so breathlessly fast, even for him, that I found one or two lines impossible to make out, though that could have been partly due to the quality of the recording from TV I was watching. (If only Warner Brothers would release more of these old movies!) However, the tremulous voice goes well with the weakness of the character, so it could have been deliberate.

(The part of this review behind the cut includes spoilers)

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