Saturday, August 7, 2021

Stubs - The Racket (1928)

The Racket (1928) Starring: Thomas Meighan, Louis Wolheim, Marie Prevost. Directed by Lewis Milestone. Screenplay by Del Andrews (Scenario), Harry Behn (Scenario), Tom Miranda (titles). Based on the play The Racket by Bartlett Cormack (New York, 22 Nov 1927). Produced by Howard R. Hughes Run time 84 minutes. USA Black and White. Silent. Gangster

During the first Academy Awards, in 1929, films like Sunrise (1927) and Wings (1927) may have captured glory but there were other films that were also nominated for the two top awards. A film like The Racket was overlooked then but deserves a second look now.

I came to this film through actress Marie Prevost. If you’re like me, your introduction to the one-time screen star was through Nick Lowe’s song of the same name, in which he erroneously chronicles her last days and those immediately afterward, when she became, in his words, “her doggie’s dinner” after committing suicide.

I have since learned more about her and was more interested to see her work after beginning to read Bathing Beauty: A Novel of Marie Prevost by Laini Giles. I had read Giles’ other two books, The Forgotten Flapper: A Novel of Olive Thomas and The It Girl and Me: A Novel of Clara Bow, both of which are well-researched historical fiction.

Marie Prevost was a Canadian-born actress, who came to Hollywood with her mother and siblings after her mom left her step-father. A legal secretary, she was discovered by Mack Sennett in 1915 and became one of his bathing beauties. With the help of the former “King of the Movies” King Baggot, Prevost got a contract at Universal Pictures, where Irving Thalberg was determined to make her a star.

She would later work at Warner Bros., where Jack Warner signed her and Kenneth Harlan, who would become her second husband, to star in  F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Beautiful and Damned (1922). As a publicity stunt, Warner had Prevost and Harlan get married on the movie’s set. One problem, she was still married to her first husband, socialite Henry Charles "Sonny" Gerke. The bigamy charges didn’t hurt the film reviews, however, and eventually Harlan and Prevost would legally marry.

Director Ernst Lubitsch liked working with Prevost, calling her one of the few actresses in Hollywood who knew how to underplay comedy to achieve the maximum effect. He cast her in three films, The Marriage Circle (1924), Three Women (1924) and Kiss Me Again (1925). Both Prevost and Harlan were let go by Warner Bros. in 1926, but Howard Hughes liked what he’d seen in The Beautiful and Damned and cast her in his film The Racket, which would turn out to be her last leading role.

The film is based on Bartlett Cormack’s play, The Racket, which ran on Broadway from November 1927 until March 1928. Cormack began his career as a newspaper reporter, society columnist and crime reporter and worked for Chicago Daily News. The play is based on Cormack’s reporting in Chicago, and while the city is never mentioned, one character, Nick Scarsi, is a reference to Al “Scarface” Capone, and the “The Old Man,” who is seen only briefly in the film and only from behind, is a reference to Chicago mayor William Hale “Big Bill” Thompson. The play would not be allowed in Chicago and came from New York to Los Angeles. The play’s star, Edward G. Robinson, would be courted by Warner Bros., where he would get his start playing gangsters and Hughes the ability to buy the film rights.

 Capt. James “Mac” McQuigg (Thomas Meighan) and crime boss Nick Scarsi
(Louis Wolheim) seem overly friendly after Nick's gang took a shot at Mac.

The film takes place during Prohibition but opens with what appears to be a botched ambush of metropolitan policeman Capt. James “Mac” McQuigg (Thomas Meighan) by the leader of one of the city’s crime bosses, Nick Scarsi (Louis Wolheim). Nick suggests that Mac should change his “racket,” but Mac replies that he likes what he is doing.

The corner of 8th and Grand before the fireworks start.

Later, Nick has his men purposefully deliver liquor to the territory of his rival, Spike Corcoran (Henry Sedley). But it is not a well-kept secret as both the police and Spike’s gang are aware of the delivery. There is a shootout but the police are there to put it down. One of Nick’s henchmen, Chick (Lucien Prival), kills one of the rival gang members and is arrested by Mac. When he learns of the arrest, Nick calls “The Old Man” to get him out.

Entering the Speakeasy for Joe's Party.

As an alibi, Nick has arranged for a birthday party for his younger brother, Joe (George Stone), at a local speakeasy and has invited Mac to attend. When he arrives, Mac notices that there is a place with Chick’s name on it. He informs Nick that Chick won’t be attending. No sooner have the words left his lips than Chick announces he’s there.

Helen Hayes (Marie Prevost) sings to Joe (George Stone). Nick is unamused.

During the course of the party, one of the speakeasy’s entertainers, Helen Hayes (Marie Prevost), sings to an enamored Joe. However, Nick, who thinks all women are poison, pushes her away and calls her a “gold digger,” to which Helen takes offense. That prompts her to dig deep and go after the younger brother.

Spike (Henry Sedley) is shot dead from under the table. 

As the party continues, Nick becomes aware that they are not the only party in the place. All around them are Spike and the members of his gang. Seeing this, too, Mac calls for reinforcements. However, they arrive too late to prevent Nick from killing Spike, shooting from under the table as the rival gangster lifts a napkin, which is hiding a pistol in his hand.

Shooting ensues before the police can intervene. Nick is arrested for Spike’s murder, but is let go when Nick’s attorney, Sam Meyer, is waiting with a signed writ of habeas corpus to affect his release. Angered by the miscarriage of justice, Mac vows to drive Nick out of the area, but instead Nick uses his influence to get Mac transferred to the 28th precinct, known as “the sticks” or as Mac tells a colleague to “hell and gone.”

Two reporters, Miller (Skeets Gallagher) and Pratt (Lee Moran),
want an interview with Mac after he's been transferred.

Two reporters, Pratt (Lee Moran) and Miller (Skeets Gallagher), are sent by their respective newspapers to cover Mac's demotion and wait in the lobby for the story. But Mac doesn’t want to discuss it. When Dave Ames (John Darrow), a young cub reporter fresh from a small-town newspaper, arrives and na├»vely expects to interview Mac, the captain takes pity when he sees the seasoned reporters mock Dave and allows him to interview imprisoned prostitutes who are being held in cells in the basement.

Mac then uses Pratt and Miller to relay a challenge to Nick. The reporters manage to track Nick to Spike's funeral and openly discuss in front of the gangster the rumor that he is afraid of the captain and that’s why he was moved.

Nick denies it to them and claims that he is waiting to cause trouble until after the upcoming Tuesday election. The newsmen go back to warn Mac that if he is unable to stop Nick before the election, which the Organization will likely win, the mobster will remain in power and Mac may be out of a job.

Joe tries to put the moves on Helen before she gets out of the car.

Meanwhile, Helen and Joe are driving in the area. They are apparently now engaged, but Joe doesn’t want to wait for the wedding and makes advances on Helen. A quarrel between them escalates and Helen leaves the car. She flags down a passing car, which happens to be driven by Patrolman Johnson (Pat Collins). He begins to harass Joe, who drives off recklessly. The patrolman takes chase and during the pursuit, Joe inadvertently kills an innocent pedestrian in a hit-and-run accident. Johnson arrests Joe and, unaware of his identity, takes him back to the station. Mac can’t be bothered and leaves Johnson to handle it. Johnson beats Joe, hoping for a confession.

Because she won't cooperate, Helen is put in a holding cell with prostitutes.

Helen is later brought to the station as a witness, but refuses to cooperate. Mac has her placed in with prostitutes. Dave has taken a shine to her and brings her things for her possible stay behind bars. She confides to him her concern that Nick will avenge Joe’s treatment.

Cub reporter Dave Ames (John Darrow) takes a shine to Helen and the feeling is mutual.

Soon after, District Attorney Welch (Sam DeGrasse), who is clearly under the control of the mob, visits Mac, warning him to release Joe before Nick brings pressure to have him thrown off the force.

Corrupt District Attorney Welch (Sam DeGrasse) warns Mac about holding Joe.

Mac taunts Helen for protecting Joe until she agrees to testify against him. She sends another patrolman to take her out to dinner and then to bring her back to the station. Johnson is anxious to get back out on the streets but Mac tries to protect him, making him stay in that night. Mac then leaves to go get dinner.

When the Desk Sergeant asks Johnson to watch the front, Nick enters the station. He is looking for the man who arrested Joe. Johnson is extremely proud to take credit. Nick isn’t really mad at Johnson for doing his duty, but not knowing he’s talking to Nick, Johnson tells him what he thinks of him. When he tells Nick that he should go to Hell, Nick takes that personally and shoots Johnson in the back.

Nick flees, but the police follow close behind and capture Nick while his chauffeur manages to temporarily get away.

This time the police don't let Nick or Sam Meyer go.

When Meyer arrives with yet another writ of habeas corpus to free Nick, Mac rips it up, then locks up the attorney for being drunk and disorderly.

Meanwhile, Helen’s hardened heart is softening toward Dave, telling him that he affects her like a mammy’s song. She fears Dave will be killed before he can testify, and so she tricks Nick into confessing to the killing while the police are listening.

Helen is worried for him but Dave is willing to bear witness against Nick.

Mac suggests to Welch that the Organization cannot win the election if it protects Nick, given the solid evidence against him, then allows him to use his office to meet with his client. Before Nick is brought to the room, Welch has a phone conversation with The Old Man (Burr McIntosh), then he and his assistant, Sergeant Turck (Dan Wolheim), set up a trap in the room for Nick.

In the meantime, the gun Nick used to kill Johnson has been recovered and taken into Mac’s office as evidence. The gun is emptied of the bullets and the one spent shell and left on Mac’s desk.

When Nick is brought in, Welch tells him that The Old Man will not jeopardize the election on his behalf, causing Nick to threaten to go to the press with all that he knows about the Organization. He even goes so far as to call for Pratt and Miller.

In response, Welch tells Nick that they have arranged an escape route for him and points to an open window. However, as Nick starts to flee through the window, Mac enters the room.

Nick holds the DA and Mac at bay before he is shot and killed.

Nick, who has found his gun on the desk, attempts to shoot Mac, but the gun is empty. Turck, on Welch’s signal, shoots and kills Nick.

Although Mac tells the reporters that Nick was shot while attempting to escape, they ask why the police did not simply capture the mobster. Surmising the real answer, Pratt becomes philosophical and says, “So that government of the professionals, by the professionals and for the professionals shall not perish from the earth.” Content that the news is a “break” for the papers’ Sunday editions, they leave.

Dave and Helen are free to go. Although Dave invites Helen to come with him, she realizes the match is unsuitable, and they part after shaking hands.

Helen tells Mac that they have a lot in common.

Helen turns her attention to the exhausted Mac, who barely registers her presence. She tells him they have a lot in common, for neither of them can change. She then leaves.

Mac is tired, but there is still much to do.

When a policeman asks Mac what next must be done, the Captain admits he would like some sleep, but says he must deal with the coroner and other public servants, then it will be time for Mass.

The film, according to the AFI, was released on June 30, 1928, soon after the play finished its run on Broadway and was a big hit. Variety’s review stated that The Racket “grips your interest from the first shot to the last, and never drags for a second.” The paper would also give high praise to the dialogue, crediting Tom Miranda’s title cards as if he was the de-facto writer. “Tom Miranda was given wide latitude with slang and gun chatter and the result is the most authentic set of titles that have graced an underworld picture to date. The gorillas talk as they should and not as some lame-brained obstructionist thinks they should. They don’t go to jail – they go to the can – and without those diagrams, the average super wants with any title in vernacular.”

The film would go on to be nominated for Best Picture, Production in 1929, losing to Wings.

While Marie Prevost was the compelling reason to watch, she is more of a secondary character in the film. The obvious female lead, she gets much less screen time than her male counterparts, owing to the subject matter of the film. She is long past her bathing beauty days at Keystone, but her performance is sort of hard to judge. She is good in the role, but I wouldn’t call her out.

By this point in her career, Prevost was depressed and was drinking and eating heavily. She began drinking as a way of dealing with the loss of her mother, who had died in a car crash in Lordsburg, New Mexico in 1926. She was also depressed after her love affair with Hughes had ended, causing her to binge eat.

By now, she was relegated to secondary parts, including in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Godless Girl (1928). The star of that film, Lina Basquette, would detail in her 1990 autobiography that Prevost was not outwardly bitter about losing her leading-lady status, stating, "Aw, hell, that's the way it is." Prevost did receive good reviews for her performance and signed a contract with MGM in 1929.

Prevost made the transition to sound, even singing in The Flying Fool (1929), and worked steadily at the studio, though only in secondary parts. She appeared in such films as Paid (1930), with Joan Crawford; The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931), with Helen Hayes; and Three Wise Girls (1932), with Jean Harlow and Mae Clarke.

The downward spiral became aggravated when her weight problems forced her into repeated crash dieting to keep whatever bit part a movie studio offered. Prevost made her last on-screen appearance in Ten Laps to Go (1936), in a bit part as a waitress.

She would die on January 21, 1937, of acute alcoholism at the age of 40, though her body wouldn’t be discovered for two days when neighbors complained about the noise from her dog. Her funeral would be paid for by Joan Crawford, to whom Prevost owed $110 at the time of her death.

A publicity shot from The Racket showing the leads,
Thomas Meighan, Marie Prevost, and Louis Wolheim.

Thomas Meighan had been in films since 1914, appearing in the London production Dandy Donovan, the Gentleman Cracksman, after first finding success on the Broadway stage. His first major contract, with Famous Players-Lasky, had him appearing in The Fighting Hope (1915). He became a big enough star to make a propaganda film in 1918, for World War I, titled Norma Talmadge and Thomas Meighan in a Liberty Loan Appeal. That same year, he would star opposite Mary Pickford in M’Liss.

One of his better-known films at the time was The Miracle Man (1919), which featured Lon Chaney Sr. He would also appear in Cecil B. DeMille’s Male and Female (1919) opposite Gloria Swanson and Lila Lee and Why Change Your Wife? (1920) with Swanson and Bebe Daniels. He would remain a star throughout the Roaring Twenties, making The Alaskan (1924) and The City Gone Wild (1927) opposite Louise Brooks.

Variety called Meighan’s role in The Racket as Captain McQuigg “his best role in years.” He is good in the role and seems to personify all that is supposed to be good in the world, a heavy load that he seemed to carry. Think of him as the first coming of Gary Cooper.

Meighan made the transition to sound with The Argyle Case (1928), but decided at 50, fearing his popularity would wane, to go into real estate. He appeared in fewer films, his last being Peck’s Bad Boy (1934).

In 1914, on the advice of brothers Lionel Barrymore and John Barrymore, Louis Wolheim entered films, his first being an uncredited role as a policeman in The Warning. He would appear in films with both Barrymore brothers, including four films with John Barrymore, The Test of Honor (1919), Dr Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1920), Sherlock Holmes (1922) and Tempest (1928). He would even appear in two silent films with their sister Ethel.

His rough physical appearance relegated him to roles mostly of thugs or villains in the movies, though he occasionally got to play against these stereotypes in such films as Howard Hughes's Two Arabian Knights (1927), when he played a rambunctious Sergeant, and in Tempest (1928), in which he played a comic Russian officer.

In The Racket, Wolheim is playing to his stereotype. Variety seemed impressed, adding that as Nick Scarsi, Wolheim “adds to a screen rep that has already labeled him the best character-heavy, the one-eyed monster has ever pecked at.” He definitely comes across as someone you wouldn’t want to cross.

Wolheim would only appear in a handful of sound films, including All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), directed by Lewis Milestone and Danger Lights (1930). He would die suddenly on February 18, 1931, while preparing for another Hughes’ production The Front Page (1931). His role as Walter Burns would go to Adolphe Menjou.

Lewis Milestone deserves most of the credit for the success of The Racket. There are some very innovative shots and transitions. During Spike’s funeral sequence, the film “cuts” from one character to the next using a sort of blurring transition of one face to the next. Also, during the same sequence, we’re shown through a different transition that the derbies in the mourner’s laps are actually hiding guns ready to fire (see images below).


While he had a good story to work with, Milestone made it better. While he was not nominated for his work on this film, he did win that year for Best Director, Comedy Picture, the only year this award was given, for his work on Two Arabian Knights. He would win Best Director for All Quiet on The Western Front and would be nominated for The Front Page (1931).

Milestone would go on to direct such films as Rain (1932), Hallelujah, I'm a Bum (1933), Of Mice and Men (1939), A Walk in the Sun (1945), The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), and Mutiny on the Bounty (1962).

It is always a treat to see films shot during the time they are depicting. You get a real insight into the culture at the time that films made later might not get quite right, including fashion and slang. The Racket, as they say now, was ripped from the headlines. While the character names are fictional, the story seems very real.

Touted as one of the best silent gangster films ever made, The Racket can be seen as a precursor of Little Caesar (1931), Public Enemy (1931), and Howard Hughes’s Scarface (1932). While I went in looking forward to seeing Marie Prevost's performance, I did find a very well-made film. If you like the gangster films of the early 1930s, you should see The Racket.

No comments:

Post a Comment