Director William Wellman constructs a face-paced, entertaining and witty charade about love, journalism, crime and Broadway in ‘Love is a Racket’ (1932). It stars the often overlooked, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. with the always underappreciated cast of the ‘almost legends’ Ann Dvorak, Lee Tracy, Frances Dee and Lyle Talbot.
In the early Warner Bros screwball comedy, Doug plays Jimmy Russell newspaper reporter and author of the column, ‘Up and Down Broadway’. With his boyish energy and cheeky nonchalant attitude to his work he coordinates the journalism game covering entertainment and soft news and attempting to keep his life simple.
He is guided by his friends, the jovial and loyal Stanley (Lee Tracy) and the quick-witted, stable and cynical, Sally (Ann Dvorak). His downfall – like most Precode men – is a woman, the beautiful and engrossing Broadway star wannabe, Mary Wodehouse (Frances Dee). Jimmy chases her under the watchful eyes of “dragon-lady”, “old-terror”, Aunt Hattie (Cecil Cunningham).
He knows she’s a liar and uncontrollable but he falls in love with her anyway. But like any good Precode farce nothing is easy, this love match is four-cornered with Sally secretly in love with Jimmy and his pal Stanley in love with Sally.
Mary isn’t only ambitious, self-centred, manipulative and stunningly beautiful she’s in debt. Her love of clothes, makeup and vanity has left her owing $3,000 to the dangerous, gentlemanly side of organised crime, Eddie Shaw. Enlisted to help her out of her jam, is blinded Jimmy who’s willing to do anything to help his “weakness”. He attempts to talk Shaw out of debt nonetheless he finds there is more than money between his love and the gangster, Shaw wants Mary to himself and pursues her at all cost.
But, the plot spirals when Jimmy finds Eddie murdered. Methodically and calmly he covers up the murder as a suicide, removing all traces of Mary from Eddie’s house and removing suspicion away from the killer, Aunt Hattie. Battered and soaking wet, Jimmy’s actions and conscious is plaguing him as he decides what he wants the thrilling, consuming gaze of Mary or the warm embrace of Sally. Or perhaps he’ll find that, “love is just a mental disorder,” and it’s best not to get infected.
With the brilliant use of sharp and snappy dialogue and fast plot turns and twists, Wellman conveys truths behind love, relationships and its counterpoints ambition and money.
Doug’s way with dialogue and movement is charming and instantly likable, proving he is more than the son of his famous parents. The other leads – Ann, Lee, Frances and Lyle – also prove you don’t have to be melodramatic to be memorable, each stealing scenes with their mystery, charm, wit and execution. ‘Love is a Racket’ overcomes the issues that some early sound films have and is not overplayed or showy.
And above all the wonderful dialogue, excitement and action is the great appreciation for the talent that is Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Not a Precode class, but almost.