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Pre-Code Valentine

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LOVE IS A RACKET

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Say, ya want a snappy girdle-popping alternative to that sappy romance pap that boils over with a diabetic vengeance every February 14th? Well, take a load off, loosen your belt and feast yer peepers on LOVE IS A RACKET, a 1932 pre-Code pip, late on view from da folks finagling the DVD-R on-demand Warner Archive Collection.

It's a fast and furious gangster-tainted look at the effects of heart-palpitatin' rhythm, served up by director William A. Wellman and featuring the cast to die for. Check this out.

Wiseacre New York Globe reporter Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., covers the Broadway beat when not pining for actresses and debs – an even better arrangement when they occasionally hybrid into one equation, currently the case with the very acute angles of Frances Dee. Fairbanks shares his rather spacious digs with fellow newshound Lee Tracy, and they are quite a team to reckon with – trading barbs 'n' babes with equal fervor. And that's putting it mildly.

The most remarkable part of their habitat comes in the form (and what a form!) of ravishing Sally – the never-can-praise-her-too-highly SG [Say Girl] goddess Ann Dvorak.

Showgirl Dvorak loves 'em both – and is what the insiders call a “real pal.” It's what we today call “friends with benefits.” Truly a modern design-for-living arrangement, Dvorak's character obviously serves as a bedmate to both men when not additionally acting as mother-confessor. It's so cool to see her calmly listening to her Dee-obsessed bud Fairbanks mouth off whilst draped in her post-playmate bathrobe. Or offering advice with her bare legs hanging over a lucky chair (while the gentleman of the press stretches out in bed). Natch, she's got more than a case of the hots for Fairbanks, and, yeah, Tracy wants to take the amorous diversion the savvy woman supplies for him to the next level, but... To quote Sterling Holloway in Look Who's Laughing, “What fools we morons be!”

Tracy won't make a move because he knows she craves Fairbanks. She won't pounce on Fairbanks because he's panting for Dee (Say, “love's eating your heart out every time she has a cold sore on her lip!”).

It's only when the duplicitous nature of Dee's true personae surfaces that Dvorak swings into action – and then it's “Look out, below!” (and we mean that anatomically). No offense, but Dee is a psycho...and a nympho...and a thief...in short, a resplendent sociopath of the first order. Oh, yeah, and did I say psycho? Ah, yes, so I did! Of course, every schmoe in trousers wants her. And that goes for debonair mobster Lyle Talbot – the Great White Way’s most infamous ladykiller (often without the “lady” preface).

Fairbanks' job uncovers Talbot's unsavory connection to a heinous milk extortion enterprise. Due to his friendly contacts in the world of thuggery, he bows out – concentrating his wordsmith artistry for the safer confines of the footlight parade set.

This leads to moider, kidnapping and sexual blackmail, the latter played out a la Boardwalk Empire, in Atlantic City. Of course none of this matters since the jerk is still in heat over Dee, who’s now passing bad checks and whoring her way up the Follies.

It all ends up with a prominent rub-out in a deco penthouse on a stormy night...with no one innocent. And you ain't hearing anymore from me.

It never ceases to amaze me how much meat these pre-Code gems could pack into a small package. LOVE IS A RACKET runs all of 71 minutes, and, as expected, doesn't waste a second of it.

Wellman's direction barely allows viewers to catch their breath; it's one of the best (albeit most obscure) of his Warner Bros. output, which generally is primarily discussed in relation to Public Enemy and Wild Boys of the Road. Personally, I prefer Night Nurse and Hatchet Man to both of the loftier entries, but, gotta say it, RACKET's a swell runner-up contender.

You really can't do better than the players in LOVE IS A RACKET. While renowned for his heroic exploits in glossy pics like Sinbad the Sailor, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.'s pre-Code work at Warners is definitely worth a re-evaluation (beyond his Tommy Trueblood appearances in The Dawn Patrol and Little Caesar). He's a terrific borderline slimy-but-likeable dirt-bag in not only this corker, but in Union Depot and Parachute Jumper.

Frances Dee is a too-gorgeous-for-her-own-good presence who rarely got a chance to let her panties down. Unfairly tagged “the virginal type” by uninformed audiences, Dee demands a sampling of her jaw-dropping scurvier side, spectacularly on display here and in Rowland Brown's masterful Blood Money. Hey, when you match wits with Ann Dvorak, and still can leave walking – that's something!

Suffice to say (and I DO mean “Say!”), Ann Dvorak (to me) is the most interesting character in LOVE IS A RACKET. Eternally posed in SG fashion, hand on hip, lips on quip – she's (as usual) outstanding. Her aforementioned FWB portrayal isn't pathetic or maudlin – it's fun. Dvorak knows what she's doing – that waiting it out is her best defense. And she confidently knows how to use her sexuality to shvitz off that bathhouse of erotic steam that exudes out of every pore of her silky epidermis. I'd love to have seen a version of this movie with her as the main character. While Dee has to really work it to achieve results (which she admittedly does), Dvorak need only smile and walk across the frame.

When it comes to pre-Code fast-talkers, you can't do any better than Lee Tracy. He dominates all his scenes as the second banana in RACKET. He's hilarious and cool as Fairbanks' bestie – yet subtly poignant when he and Dvorak, aware of Dee's treachery, plot their strategies. Furthermore, I can't believe that his repeatedly wacky high-pitched enunciation of “Coitainly!” didn't inspire the subsequent vocalizing of the brilliant orator Curly Howard.

Lyle Talbot, I'm delighted to say, is as oily and insincere as ever. That his role of Eddie, a milk-stealing scumbag, remains bizarrely affable attests to his admirable thespian abilities.

Then there's Warren Hymer, perhaps the only actor who can make Nat Pendleton look intelligent. As a thick mob hit man, Hymer is truly challenged by his affection for Fairbanks – a contract he genuinely doesn't want to kill.

Rian James wrote the novel on which LOVE IS A RACKET is based. That his prose nostalgically recounted the “good old days” of New York racketeering (those much-mourned times of yore being only five years previous) remains a rose-colored remembrance of dem floozies 'n' doozies that sanguinely painted the East-side-West-side-and-all-around-the-town red.

Courtenay Terrett (with uncredited assist from Darryl Zanuck) adapted James' book for the screen, and it's a bang-up job. As expected, the dialogue is chock full of pre-Code zingers – some which I can't resist enticing readers with.

The gay orientation of a minor character is effortlessly sized up by Fairbanks & Co “...due to his lavender spats” giveaway. A Broadway skank is referred to as a “peroxide pirate” who can carnally “stir up a stink.” Fairbanks' blight of bullets and broads are chided with a telling “You couldn't have gotten into a meaner mess than if you had the whole United States Congress to help you!”

As the enclosed trailer reveals, Dee is a babe “with price tags on her emotions, and a taxi meter on her heart,” while Dvorak, a “girl who made the most of 'it',” comes from “a long line of...back rubbers.” Dee's mentor, an ancient gold-digging spook, known as Aunt Hattie (Cecil Cunningham – yeah, that's right, Cecil), has been haunting Broadway “since Cohan was playing juveniles!”

The piece de resistance – the gibe alone worthy of a purchase – comes, not surprisingly from the salivating confrontation between Dee and Dvorak. Unexpectedly, it's the former who scores the bon mot, the result of having witnessing one of her rival's performances. Surveying Dvorak from top to bottom, Dee purrs, “I thought you had the loveliest natural curly hair I've ever seen.” It stopped the screening cold.

LOVE IS A RACKET was shot by the great Warners cameraman Sid Hickox, and it's a shimmering black-and-white keeper. The gleaming deco architecture, the silvery nightclub atmosphere and the rainy nocturnal finale are all indicative of the thumbs-up craftsman at his peak.

Only in the 1932 pre-Code universe was it possible to get away with murder, with a bonus for additionally doing it with style. That's called class! That said, LOVE IS A RACKET puts the V.D. in Valentine's Day. That's called crass. From an educational standpoint, RACKET is a glowing heart-on testament to the foibles that befall all who defiantly don't think with their heads. In my cynical noggin, there is no better way to honor February 14th than with a movie whose sadder-but-wiser protagonist brandishes the mantra, “Love: the biggest sucker game in the world!” And with that in mind, I'm off to buy some flowers and candy. Or else!

LOVE IS A RACKET. Black and white. Full frame [1.37:1]. DVD-R, made-on-demand. CAT # 883316882467. Mono audio. SRP: $19.95.

Available exclusively through the Warner Archive Collection [www.warnerarchive.com].

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