Fri 24 Apr 2015
THE RACKETEER. Pathé Exchange, 1929. Robert Armstrong, Carol Lombard (sic), Roland Drew, Paul Hurst, Kit Guard, Al Hill, Hedda Hopper, Jeanette Loff. Story: Paul Gangelin, with dialogue by A. A. Kline. Director: Howard Higgin.
The Racketeer was one of the earliest films of the sound era, and it shows. The players orate rather than speak in normal tones — most of them, that is, not all of them — and use their hands and excessive gestures to make sure the audience knows what their characters are thinking and doing.
And yet the story itself is actually quite good, filled with nuances and little bits of action, if not full scenes, that mesh together in quite a fascinating, if not always satisfying, fashion. One cannot blame the actors. They do what the director wants them to do, and the director…
Well, I’m no expert, but I have to assume that this early in the game he had to rely on two things: his instincts, left over from the silent era, and the limitations of the equipment he was forced by necessity to use.
If you can understand and live with those limitations, this is an enjoyable film. Robert Armstrong is the racketeer of the title, a ruthless fellow when he has to be, but the screenwriter makes sure we know from the beginning that he also has a pragmatic, practical side. He turns one of his underlings who has betrayed him over the police, for example, instead of the usual long ride to nowhere.
And he slips a vagrant violinist on the street fifty dollars rather than let a cop run him in. And this is the incident that begins the story itself. The vagrant has a girl friend (Carol Lombard), and as chance would have it, she needs a helping hand from this very same gangster to keep from being caught after cheating at poker at a charity function.
Which begins a love triangle of sorts, not overtly per se, but a quiet, tacit one, one that (as expected) boils over at the end. Robert Armstrong is his usual professional self, but I’m afraid that at the time I might not have predicted much of a future in talkies for his leading co-star, already a veteran of some 40 or so silent films, but she learned, and how.