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Nominated for Best Picture during the first Academy Awards, The Racket (1928) was one of the movies that started the cycle of gangster pictures that would lead to Little Caesar (1931), The Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface (1932). It's also one of producer Howard Hughes' most sought after titles and has been out of distribution for decades until now.
During the time that gangster Al Capone controlled Chicago, Chicago Daily News reporter Bartlett Cormack electrified Broadway with his play The Racket, presenting a thinly disguised portrait of a city government and police force firmly in the pocket of a mobster. His chief criminal was named Nick Scarsi, an echo of Capones nickname "Scarface," while Chicago's mayor Big Bill Thompson became "The Old Man." The play showed Scarsi escaping arrest through a writ of habeas corpus snagged from a corrupt judge then, after shooting a policeman in the back, freed again after orders from "The Old Man."
Naturally, no matter how big a hit in New York, no staging was allowed in Chicago, so the theatre production traveled on to Los Angeles. Two results came from the move: the actor playing the gangster, Edward G. Robinson, was courted by the studios (Warner Brothers would eventually get him for their own gangster movies) and the 23-year old aviator turned movie producer Howard Hughes would buy the property for one of his first films.
Hughes put Lewis Milestone, who had just finished Two Arabian Knights (1927), in charge of direction and Milestone cast Louis Wolheim, a brutish-looking former mathematics instructor, in place of Robinson as the gangster. To get a touch of authenticity, Milestone turned to some local bootleggers and racketeers for bit parts. This was said to have backfired, according to Motion Picture Classic magazine, when the gangsters thought the movie did too good a job portraying their nefarious business and leveled death threats at Hughes, Milestone and the lead actors.
Whether this was truth or just Hollywood ballyhoo is not known but the movie hardly needed the publicity. The Racket opened to rave reviews and long lines. Variety called it, "as nearly perfect a slice of screen entertainment as had run the gauntlet in months," while Film Daily dubbed it "an improvement on the original." The newly-formed Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated it as Best Picture and its success led to Milestone's triumph two years later with All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) with Louis Wolheim playing the gruff Sergeant Katczinsky. All that success, however, did not get Chicago to change its mind. The film of The Racket was banned just as the play had been. Hughes remade the movie in 1951 with Robert Ryan in the gangster role but the original has remained locked up in his personal vault, unseen until now.
Director: Lewis Milestone
Screenplay: Eddie Adams, Del Andrews, Harry Behn, Bartlett Cormack
Cinematography: Tony Gaudio
Film Editing: Tom Miranda
Cast: Thomas Meighan (Captain McQuigg), Marie Prevost (Helen Hayes), Louis Wolheim (Nick Scarsi), George E. Stone (Joe Scarsi), John Darrow (Ames), Richard Gallagher (Miller).
by Brian Cady