The early years of sound in the 1930’s, those pre-code years, were William Wellman’s most inspired and also his most productive. He was a man who dived into the modern age of sound filmmaking and the mechanical age. An aviator in World War I, he continued on with his love affair for airplanes throughout his career, from “Wings” to “Island in the Sky,” “The High and the Mighty” up to his final film, “Lafayette Escadrille.” Wellman’s work from this period also addressed the Great Depression head on with serious works like “Heroes for Sale” and “Wild Boys of the Road.” Like many film pioneers in the early days, Wellman worked fast and he worked best when he had actors who kept up with his speed, performers like Cagney, Stanwyck, Lombard and Frankie Darro. Later in his career his films developed a slower pace and the actors he worked with reflected that too e.g.; Henry Fonda in “The Ox-Bow Incident” and Robert Mitchum in “Track of the Cat.”
In 1932, while under contract to Warner Brothers, Wellman pumped out some of pre-code cinema’s most invigorating and outrageous films; “The Public Enemy,” “Night Nurse,” “Safe in Hell” and “Love is a Racket.” Starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Ann Dvorak, Frances Dee and Lee Tracy, “Love is a Racket,” based on a novel by former newspaperman, Bian James, adapted for the screen by Courtney Terrett is unpredictable in style, but thoroughly entertaining. One of the more unique aspects about the film is there is hardly a moral character to be found. Our alleged hero, Jimmy Russell (Fairbanks), a Broadway columnist for the New York Globe can do or not do the right thing. Mainly, he does what’s best for Jimmy. His is in love with Mary Wodehouse (France Dee), who claims to be in love with him, but her main goal in life is to become a star on Broadway. Then there is Stanley Fiske (Lee Tracy), another writer on the paper and best friend to Jimmy who doesn’t mind covering up a dirty deed even when he thinks Jimmy committed a murder. Finally, there is Hattie Davidson (Cecil Cunningham) Mary’s aunt who will do anything and we mean anything for her niece. The only decent person in the film is Sally (Ann Dvorak), a side kick to Jimmy and Stanley who is in love with Jimmy but he is completely blind to her charm even after her skirt flies up revealing a pair of nice legs early in the film. Sadly, Dvorak is wasted in the film even though she received second billing.
Jimmy Russell is a cocky; know it all columnist whose beat is Broadway. Despite his savvy ways, he’s blinded by his love for the sly ambitious Mary Wodehouse who wants to a Broadway actress. Mary has been bouncing checks all over Manhattan from the East Side to the West and wants Jimmy to help get her out of debt. Jimmy, a sucker for the dame agrees to help, but before he can make any kind of deals, underworld figure Ed Shaw (Lyle Talbot), who has developed an interest Mary, has bought up all her debt. Shaw and his buddies have been involved in a milk racket which Jimmy’s newspaper is about to expose. The hoods warn Jimmy not to print the story and arrange to send him on a wild goose chase down to Atlantic City to get him out of town. Meanwhile, Shaw attempts to lure Mary up to his place with his newly possessed possession of the checks. Mary’s over protective aunt Hattie shows up at Shaw’s place instead…with a gun. Jimmy meanwhile flees Atlantic City and arrives at Shaw’s place in time to see Hattie hiding the gun in a flower pot. After she leaves, he finds Shaw’s dead body on the floor. In order to protect Mary not getting involved, Jimmy tosses Shaw’s body off the gangster’s penthouse balcony hoping to make it look like a suicide. Watching all this is Jimmy’s fellow reporter, and best friend, Stanley who sees Jimmy tossing the body. After Jimmy leaves, Stanley takes the gun in hopes of covering up what he assumes is Jimmy’s killing of Shaw.
The police investigate and rule Shaw’s death a suicide. Mary to no one’s surprise, but Jimmy’s, marries a rich Broadway producer who plans to star her in his next big Broadway show. Jimmy mails the gun back to Hattie letting her know in a note he knows what really happened. The film ends with Jimmy swearing off ever falling in love again. “Love is a racket,” he says as he slyly winks at Sally.
“Love is a Racket” piles up coincident after coincident yet this small “B” programmer moves along at a brisk pace. A potpourri of melodrama, romance, comedy and gangsters, the film juggles all these elements into an absorbing tale of its time. The characters are cynical, attitudes are cavalier and ethics are questionable.
Fairbank’s Jimmy Russell take on life pretty much with the attitude of the world revolves around me. He mixes as easily with the Broadway establishment as he does with the underworld elements that hung around the peripherals of the Broadway scene.
Its pre-code credentials are firmly established by some spicy dialogue and the fact no one is punished for Shaw’s murder. Our so called hero tosses a dead body over a balcony in an attempt to cover up a murder and Stanley, Jimmy buddy covers up a murder scene for the sake of his friend. The police causally consider Shaw’s death a suicide. A couple of years later with the tightening of the production code this ending would have been completely unacceptable, someone would have to pay the price.