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During his years as a contract director at Warner Bros., William Wellman made his mark early with the influential gangster drama The Public Enemy (1931) but didn't have another major box office success until after he left the studio and directed A Star Is Born (1937), produced by David O. Selznick and distributed by United Artists. Yet, during his tenure with Warner Bros., Wellman churned out a number of energetic, fast-paced entertainments which are often overlooked by admirers of his work but stand out from the assembly-line programmers they were intended to be. Among the highlights from this early period are Night Nurse (1931) with Barbara Stanwyck, the grim Pre-Code drama Safe in Hell (1931) and Love Is a Racket (1932) starring Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. as a newspaper columnist working the Broadway beat. The latter film is not only a fascinating time capsule of its era, with glimpses of then-popular New York City nightspots such as Sardi's, but also presents an unapologetic, cynical view of reporters who often resort to any means necessary to score a front page story.
Mixing comedy, romance and melodrama in equal measure, Love Is a Racket breezes along as a free-wheeling portrait of a callous newshound/ladies' man until the midway point when it escalates into a crime story complete with blackmail and murder. The central premise has columnist Jimmy Russell (Fairbanks) romancing Mary (Frances Dee), an aspiring actress, while racing around the theatre district on the hunt for juicy stories and gossip. A friend to both mobsters and cops, Russell always gets the inside dope on any newsworthy item but his self-serving behavior doesn't go unnoticed by his best friend and rival reporter Stanley (Lee Tracy) or Sally (Ann Dvorak), his ever-faithful admirer on the sidelines. In an ironic twist, Russell becomes a victim of his own tactics. Mary's shopping debts are bought up by gangster Eddie Shaw (Lyle Talbot) who wants her for his mistress and Russell tries to prevent the news from becoming a tabloid headline while he figures out a way to resolve Mary's dilemma.
A B-movie in the best sense of the word, Love Is a Racket is often surprisingly unpredictable in its approach to genre filmmaking. For example, Russell is no hero. In fact, he's definitely a cad with a cavalier attitude toward women and a questionable sense of ethics when it comes to his profession (at times, he seems to be modeled on Walter Winchell, a powerful New York gossip columnist). Russell is just as comfortable cavorting with shady characters in sleazy establishments as he is socializing with Broadway's elite. Interestingly enough, he doesn't win the girl in the end. Mary runs off with a wealthy producer instead, proving that behind her innocent facade lies a calculating opportunist.
In many ways, Love Is a Racket looks ahead to Wellman's other films set in the newspaper world - Nothing Sacred (1937) and Roxie Hart (1942) - where reporters are about as lovable as vultures and the media is depicted as a circus, not a respected institution. [SPOILER ALERT] The film is also a prime example of Pre-Code morality; the murderer of Eddie Shaw goes unpunished and is never even identified by the police. Even more surprising is what Russell does with the gangster's corpse which is trumped by Russell's friend Stanley who removes evidence from the scene of the crime. All of this culminates in an ending as light and frothy as a screwball comedy. This would rarely happen, if ever, in a film made beyond 1934.
When Love Is a Racket was released to theatres, it garnered respectable reviews and did brisk business. The Motion Picture Herald reported that "the film is possessed of enough lightness, speed and general activity to safeguard your promise of an entertaining picture," while Variety noted the "picture has persuasive comedy, capital melodramatic moments, engaging romance and a cast of players that handle it neatly." Wellman would go on to make several more distinctive B-pictures for Warner Bros. including the post-World War I social drama Heroes for Sale (1933) and the picaresque railroad adventure, Wild Boys of the Road (1933), but Love Is a Racket is a fun, unpretentious introduction to his Pre-Code films for the studio.
Director: William A. Wellman
Screenplay: Courtney Terrett, Rian James (novel)
Cinematography: Sidney Hickox
Film Editing: William Holmes
Art Direction: Jack Okey
Music: Harry Warren
Cast: Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (James Russell), Ann Dvorak (Sally Condon), Frances Dee (Mary Wodehouse), Lee Tracy (Stanley Fiske), Lyle Talbot (Eddie Shaw), Warren Hymer (Bernie Olds).
by Jeff Stafford