Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Racket Busters (Warner Bros., 1938)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I caught this morning was Racket Busters, a typical Warners programmer from 1938 written by two estimable scribes — Robert Rossen and Leonardo Bercovici — not that that helped much, and directed in his usual unsubtle slam-bang style by Lloyd Bacon. Humphrey Bogart is top-billed — though not above the title — as Martin (his first name is John but that’s not revealed until he’s arrested and tried at the end), a “racketeer” in the literal sense of the word: one who organizes phony “associations” — ostensibly unions or business groups, but actually shakedowns in which the members are forced to pay up or else have their livelihoods destroyed and sometimes get killed. Walter Abel plays Hugh Allison, the prestigious attorney who’s drafted as a special prosecutor to try to bust the rackets for good — he got a similar appointment previously but was unable to make his charges stick because the judges and juries were successfully intimidated — and who runs up against a wall of silence from the people whom the rackets are exploiting.

Among these are independent truck driver Denny Jordan (George Brent) and his pregnant wife Nora (Gloria Dickson, someone Warners clearly was trying to build into a star, but it didn’t take), along with his sidekick Skeets Wilson (Allen Jenkins) and Skeets’ girlfriend Gladys (Penny Singleton, pre-Blondie). It’s pretty much a standard by-the-numbers Warners gangster flick, with exciting chase scenes, elaborate montages to advance the story (including one in which Bogart’s face looms spectrally over the actions committed by his hired thugs, running rebellious truck drivers off the road and pouring gasoline over produce owned by commodity merchants who refuse to pay tribute to his gang) and a down-the-middle plot line that acknowledges the existence of honest labor unions while strongly suggesting that the Teamsters Union wasn’t an honest union later taken over by gangsters, but was a gangster-led enterprise from the get-go.

Racket Busters is unevenly acted — Bogart, in the nominal lead, does little more than snarl (he was clearly getting tired of these cookie-cutter gangster parts and this was around the time he joked that he could write all his lines on 3” x 5” cards because he said the same things in every movie and all that varied was the order in which he had to say them); Gloria Dickson tries hard but shows why she never became a major star; Allen Jenkins is his typical self until the end — when he tries to rouse his fellow truckers to break a gangster-called strike, gets picked off by a Martin assassin for his pains, and has a surprisingly moving and finely acted death scene reminiscent of Jimmy Durante’s in The Wet Parade. But the big problem with this movie is that the role of Denny Jordan cried out for James Cagney and got George Brent, who not only fails to convince us that he’s a proletarian but also is utterly incapable of tracing the character’s arc from heroic resister of Martin’s machine to Martin’s stooge and back to decent human being again.