Douglas Fairbanks Jr. never intended to go into picture making, but the environment he was born into, his good looks and innate charismatic nature somewhat “impressed” him into the industry. He was not an immediate success, but his marriage to Joan Crawford whose star was on the rise in the late 20s, helped grease the wheels. As voracious as her appetite was for success, Crawford also campaigned for her reluctant husband, which helped secure him supporting roles in some successful films; including Our Modern Maidens (1929) and Little Caesar (1931). He was soon elevated to leading man status. Although he’s best remembered for his namesake and his roles in the classic Gunga Din (1939) and Sinbad the Sailor (1947), he made a string of early 1930s B pictures that have become somewhat forgotten today, excepting for film fanatics such as myself and the editors of The Retro Set. Thankfully, Warner Archive Collection have re-released several, including 1932’s Love is a Racket and 1933’s Parachute Jumper, which help remind us what a charming and compelling star he was.
Both fun pre-code romps, Parachute Jumper is the better of the two. Best known as the film co-star Bette Davis once rated as the least favorite film she ever made, it’s a winning adventure, reveling in “thrilling” airplane derring-do and snappy dialogue, as well as delicious performances from perpetual sidekick Frank McHugh (I think he’s been in 3,000 movies), and more mirthful than menacing “heavy” Leo Carrillo.
Fairbanks and McHugh (“Toodles”) are demobilized US Marine flyers who return to Depression-era New York down on their luck. They can’t find a job anywhere, let alone in their chosen field. Fairbanks takes everything that comes his way, from a barnstorming biplane jumper to a rich vamp’s chauffeur (she more interested in “after hours antics” with her hired hand than his actual driving skills). Along the way, he picks up out-of-work stenographer, Bette Davis–sporting a somewhat contrived southern accent, giving her the nickname “Alabama,” and the three revel in that optimistic pennilessness that was so pervasive in early talkies.
Fairbanks ends up working as a hired gunsel for Bootlegger Carrillo, and together he and McHugh rumrun into Canada, getting into some high flying shoot’em ups with the Border Patrol. Interestingly, once Fairbanks realizes he’s not just smuggling booze but drugs, he defies Carrillo and sides with the law. (By then prohibition was all but a joke, with audiences generally favoring the law breakers.)
The dialogue is punchy, the scenes short and sweet, and the film a fun diversion. Best of all, Parachute Jumper enjoys its pre-code status with an extended shot of a Nicaraguan woman’s gyrating posterior that goes on much longer than needed, several double entendre(s) about the Fairbanks/McHugh-Davis “sleeping arrangements,” and at least one painfully awkward “gay” reference.
Love Is a Racket (probably my favorite 1930s film title ever) is the weaker of the two, with a muddled and confusing plot that has Fairbanks as a Broadway gossip columnist mixed up in blackmail and murder. Directed by Warner Brothers contract powerhouse and social commentary specialist William Wellman, “Racket” is far from his brutal Public Enemy (1931) or delirious pre-Code melodrama Safe in Hell (1931), but still sports some of the Wellman panache for shock, surprise and sex. Fairbanks Jr’s columnist is a heel, an unscrupulous headline grabber who will do anything for a scoop, but at the same time, won’t go out on a limb. He has a chance to work with a crime reporter and turn a dime on a gangster, but argues that it’s outside his “Broadway beat” and even tells the gangster what the paper is up to. Meanwhile, he romances aspiring actress Mary (a very sexy Frances Dee) who is more eager to “make it big” than a “roll in the hay.” In the midst of a heavy petting session that threatens to go “all the way,” Fairbanks promises to marry her, but can’t seal the deal until she lets it slip that she owes a lot of money all over town. Fairbanks promises to talk to her creditors, but finds out gangster Eddie Shaw (Lyle Talbot) has already paid off her debts, as long as she “delivers the goods.”
This is where the fun and frenzied tone changes, and Fairbanks ends up not just blurring the line between newspaperman and accessory to murder, but breaks some major laws in the along the way. No spoiler alerts here, but the ending is somewhat jenky and resolutely misguided.
Separately, the films are fleeting diversions, but watched together, they make for a fun Double Feature that gives great insight to Fairbanks Jr’s winning style, light touch and unpretentious turn as a solid, if somewhat undeservedly forgotten movie star.