erik lundegaard

Wednesday April 12, 2023

Movie Review: The Racket (1928)


A cop and a gangster lock horns until the cop is reassigned to a tranquil precinct (because of corrupt ward politics), while the brother of the gangster is led astray by a woman. That’s this movie in a nutshell.

Four years later, in MGM’s “The Beast of the City,” a cop and a gangster lock horns until the cop is reassigned to a tranquil precinct (because he’s too gung-ho), while the brother of the cop is led astray by a woman. 

So should Chicago scribe Bartlett Cormack, who wrote the play on which “Racket” is based, have gotten a writing credit on “Beast”? Who knows? Maybe the above is general enough. Also, the WGA hadn’t been created yet. Who was he going to complain to?

Too much staring
At the first Oscars—created to stave off guilds like the WGA—“The Racket” was one of three films nominated for “Best Picture, Production” (as opposed to “Best Picture, Unique and Artistic Production”), which it lost to “Wings.” Its director, Lewis Milestone, did win a “Best Director” statuette, but for “Two Arabian Knights,” another Howard Hughes production featuring Louis Wolheim. When Milestone won again for “All Quiet on the Western Front” in 1930, he was the first director with two Oscar. Milestone was a milestone, you could say. A year later, he was nominated again for “The Front Page.” He also did  “Of Mice and Men” in ’39, a version of “Les Misérables” in the 1950s, and “Ocean’s Eleven” in the early ’60s. And he was the director who was called in to replace Carol Reed on “Mutiny on the Bounty” when Marlon Brando went nutso. It was his last feature film.

“The Racket,” a silent film, has it moments, but there’s altogether too much staring between the principles. I also got the feeling that they should know each other from childhood but we never get that backstory. The movie opens with a man walking down the street, eyed by several men in tall buildings with rifles. One takes a shot and misses. On purpose. It pushes the man into a stoop, where, out of an adjacent door, another man emerges, and they exchange greetings.

  • Hello, Mac.
  • Hello, Nick.
  • Take a tip, Mac—change your racket.
  • I like my racket—and I haven’t shot yet.

The one who’s told to change his racket turns out to be, alley oop, a cop: Capt. James “Mac” McQuigg. The other, Nick Scarsi (Wolheim), has a framed certificate on his wall from “The Anti-Liquor League of America,” so of course he’s a Prohibition-era gangster who specializes in trafficking booze. Right from the start, the movie has a nice cynical sensibility.

Between staredowns with McQuigg, Scarsi is trying to take over the territory of rival gangster Spike Corcoran (Henry Sedley). He’s also throwing a birthday party for his younger brother Joe (George E. Stone), whom he warns away from two things: women and slang—like “swell flash” for a ring—since he’s a college man. He’s the relative the tough gangster hopes will go straight and legitimize the family. Cf., the kid brother in “The Doorway to Hell” and Michael in “The Godfather.”

If he’s trying to keep Joe on the straight and narrow, throwing a booze-filled party isn’t exactly the best path, particularly since the entertainment is Helen Hayes. No, not the actress. That’s the character name, played by Marie Prevost. She’s a Mae West-y singer-dancer who goes full Roaring Twenties by singing on stage with a megaphone. Before that, she does an odd dance number with a male partner, both in grotesque peasant masks like it’s 19th century Eastern Europe. Was this a thing in the ’20s? So creepy.

Mac has been invited to the party—to be mocked, I suspect, more than anything—but Spike and his gang show up, too, and we get another long staredown. Just as the tension is dissipating, Scarsi shoots Spike from beneath the table, then surreptitiously passes the gun to an underling. Mac still hauls him in, but his attorney, Sam Meyer (uncredited, even among IMDb's uncrediteds), is waiting at the police station with a writ of habeus corpus. More staredowns. Mac tells him it’s the last murder he’ll get away with in his district—a qualification that cracked me up—while Scarsi calls him “a dumb harp” and tells him he’s through.

Scarsi’s right: A newspaper headline trumpets, CAPTAIN MCQUIGG SENT TO STICKS, i.e., the 28th precinct, which Mac calls “the country” as well as “to hell and gone.” Even from a distance, though, Mac and Scarsi taunt one another, which two Chicago reporters aid and abet. But what finally brings our principles together again is Helen Hayes and the kid brother. Out for a drive, Joe tries to make a move but she’s not having it. So he proposes marriage and gives her the ring Scarsi gave him. She accepts it but won’t accept a kiss, so he tells her to shove off. Problem: Apparently there was a law back then against abandoning women on the road, since a cop sees this, gets involved, Joe panics and drives his car into a wall. There might’ve been a hit-and-run, too. All of this happens in Mac’s precinct. It's his jurisdiction.

Oddly, Mac doesn’t recognize Joe, whose party he was recently at, and Joe’s not talking, even though it’s implied they bat him around. It’s Helen who finally IDs him as Scarsi’s brother, but she’s put in jail, too, without a phone call—the Chicago Way.

Seriously, no group comes off well here. Ward politics is corrupt, the press is sensationalistic, the law excuses the powerful and the police bat people around. When Scarsi’s lawyer shows up with another writ, Mac, our hero, actually tears it up, saying “I’m sick of the law!” Then the cops trip the attorney, claim he’s intoxicated, and throw him in jail. They make Eastwood’s Dirty Harry look like a card-carrying member of the ACLU. 

From her jail cell, Helen is romanced by a dewy-eyed cub reporter, Dave Ames (John Darrow), as Mac works to get intel from recalcitrant sources while protecting eyewitnesses such as the arresting officer. Which means the officer is all alone in the precinct when Scarsi saunters in. After a failed bribery attempt, Scarsi shoots him and lams it—but he’s picked up and brought back. Will justice be served? Will DA Welch (Sam De Grasse) let him go? What does the ultimate ward boss, the Old Man, think? 

In the end, the Old Man decides he can’t carry Scarsi and the upcoming election, so Scarsi will have to cool his heels for a week or so. He’s not having it and threatens to squawk. So they open the window for him—the DA and the hoodlum-y Sgt. Turck (Wolheim’s brother, Dan), and, yes, he’s killed “trying to escape.”

Now everyone has to file in to view the body and wrap things up. First it’s the reporters.

Reporter 1: But why shoot him?
Reporter 2: So government of the professionals, by the professionals, and for the professionals, shall not perish from the earth.

Then it’s the kids, Helen and Dave Ames. Though he’s been puppy doggish around her, when she tells him she’s not going his way he’s almost like “OK, see ya!” She stays behind, Mac looks wrecked, she says a few snide things. Then it’s just Mac and a fellow cop, who literally asks “What now?” Mac says he’d like some sleep but he has to do X, Y and Z, and by then “It’ll be time to go to Mass.” Fade out. 

Yeah. Not a good ending.

What did I like about the movie? Some of the lingo. When they capture Scarsi, for example, Mac says to the other cops, “Did you fan him?” I guess that meant “frisk” back then.

Wolheim is great as Scarsi. He’s got a bulldog face and a smashed nose—from an old football injury—and exudes a Capone-like toughness. I also like Lucien Prival as his dandy-ish right-hand man Chick. Was he a Frank Nitti clone? Was Nitti known then? Because I flashed on Billy Drago’s great turn in “The Untouchables.” Prival also has a bit of Wallace Shawn and Pee Wee Herman in him, believe it or not.

John Darrow as the cub reporter isn’t a bad looking kid. He became a mid-level star but then chucked it in the mid-1930s to become a talent agent. There’s a throwaway bio snippet on IMDb that feels like a tale worth telling: “Darrow and his partner Charles Walters were together from 1936 until Darrow’s death in 1980.” 

Sadly, the three principles were all dead within a decade:

  • Wolheim in 1931, age 50, from stomach cancer
  • Meighan in 1936, age 57, from cancer
  • Prevost in 1937, age 40, from malnutrition and alcoholism

Maybe the thing I liked most about “The Racket” was finding out who played Scarsi when it hit Broadway: a little up-and-comer named Edward G. Robinson. It was his first gangster role. In fact, he didn’t want to do it because he didn’t know from gangsters. “I had no yardstick by which to create him,” he wrote in the autobiography. But when another play he was in, “The Kibitzer,” folded, he says, “I accepted with considerable misgiving. … Boy, did that play change my life.”

Edward G. Robinson (left) as the original Scarsi, see?

Posted at 06:14 PM on Wednesday April 12, 2023 in category Movie Reviews - Silent  
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