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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The Hatchet Man (1932)

As a gangster film made only the year after The Public Enemy, directed by William A Wellman and starring Edward G Robinson and Loretta Young, this could have been a masterpiece. Sadly, it isn’t. The big problem is that it is supposedly set in the San Francisco’s Chinatown, but almost all the characters are played by Caucasian actors – something which was done in many films in the 1930s, but was criticised even then. I found a contemporary review from The New York Times which pointed out the wild mis-casting of Robinson. 

I’m only going to write a brief review of this film, but wanted to say that it does have its moments, as you’d expect from any film directed by Wellman – and Robinson in particular has some powerful scenes despite everything. I also liked the dark, shadowy cinematography by Sidney Hickox, who  worked with Wellman on other pre-Codes like Safe In Hell, The Purchase Price and Frisco Jenny – which also has scenes in Chinatown. It’s just a shame that the print I saw isn’t very good and so there are some scenes where, amid the darkness, it is hard to work out exactly what is going on.

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Safe in Hell (1931)

It seems to me as if 1931 was a great year for William Wellman. He made five films that year, four of which I have now seen and loved – including his masterpiece The Public Enemy. (I hope to write about that one in due course, but am slightly daunted by its fame and the amount which has been written, so thought I’d watch and write about a lot of his other 1930s movies first to see if they give me any different perspective on the film.)

The others I’ve seen from that year are Other Men’s Women, Night Nurse and now the melodrama Safe In Hell, starring Dorothy Mackaill and Donald Cook, which is one of the best yet. It’s a pity Warner didn’t find room for it in their Forbidden Hollywood 3 set, but I suppose the fact that it doesn’t have a big-name star worked against it. Perhaps it will turn up in their Archive series. At present it is only available via the “grey market” and by downloading, though I gather it is sometimes shown on TCM in the US.

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