The Gang’s All Here: Five Reasons to Love The Racket (1928)

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Chicago—night, circa 1925. A high window opens and a head bobs up in front of the dim, disquieting jumble of the city. From shadowy perches in brick buildings, a few ugly mugs peer out into the street. One gives the nod. We know by their eye-line matches that they’re looking at the indistinct, moving blotch that must be a lonesome man walking down the rainy, deserted street—with a gun trained on him from above.

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What a curtain-raiser! And all without a word, without a noise. This tense little opener suggests the compact sophistication of storytelling that films had achieved on the brink of sound—and how much of the gangster picture was already there, already loaded, before audiences could hear the Tommy gun, that great star of the talkies, add his voice to the melee.

The RacketDirected by Lewis Milestone and nominated for Best Picture, The Racket snappily adapted a smash stage play by Bartlett Cormack. The plot follows a stubborn cop, Captain McQuigg, in his attempts to take down Nick Scarsi, a notorious bootlegger—a thinly veiled stand-in for Al Capone.

Unfortunately for McQuigg, Scarsi wields power over certain important political wards that could slide an upcoming election. The gangster calls on his friends in high places to get McQuigg exiled to a precinct far from the action.

But fate intervenes, sending Scarsi’s beloved baby brother—and his platinum blonde fiancée—to jail for a hit-and-run in McQuigg’s precinct! The stage is set for a  major showdown between the fiercely determined, besieged lawman and the dangerously amoral outlaw.

If that doesn’t get you interested, here are five reasons why this movie is more than worth any trouble you might go through to see it.

5. Because it was long considered to be lost!

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Howard Hughes, who went on to produce Scarface, perhaps the greatest of the 1930s gangster films, also produced The Racket. For years, the film was out of circulation and historians figured that it had been destroyed, given the widespread callous neglect of silent films, thought to be obsolete and non-bankable as soon as sound came in. Well, Hughes might have been a real nutcase, but fortunately he knew well enough to stash away a print of this terrific gangster flick, which was discovered in his home after his death and restored. So tune in to it if you can—you almost didn’t have the chance!

 4. Crackling dialogue—and more time to enjoy it.

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I don’t know about you, but I can’t watch a Ben Hecht newspaper comedy without getting the Benz, in a delicious way, of course, but it takes effort to process that much cleverness so quickly. The nice thing about snappy silent “dialogue” is that you get to read it and actually savor a moment to chuckle over some of the puns and double-entendres that might get overlooked in the rolling tide of talkie wisecracks or patter.

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A few samples of The Racket’s funny or clever lines:

Scarsi (getting into his luxurious car, as poor police officer McQuigg stands in the rain): “Take a tip Mac—change your racket.”

McQuigg (holding a gin bottle just thrown through a window by a drunk reporter): “This is a fine thing to come sailing out of a police station in this God-forsaken Zone of Quiet.”

Scarsi (commenting on rowdy on-lookers at the funeral of a man he killed): “They ought to have some respect for the dead.”

Helen (to a hilariously naïve reporter): “I wonder what’ll happen if you ever have a baby, and no one’s tipped you off about storks.”

3. Because you can spend quality time with some wonderful, all-but-forgotten silent stars.

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Thomas Meighan. Marie Prevost. Louis Wolheim. Do these names mean anything to you? If you’d lived in 1928, these three would have been considered, respectively, what Ryan Gosling, Mila Kunis, and Christoph Waltz are today—fan favorites in the all-round hot guy, cute hot girl, and charismatic character actor categories.

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Smiley, cheekbone-blessed Thomas Meighan parlayed his good looks into romantic leads in Cecil B. DeMille’s refined sex comedies and shared billing with La Swanson. Unfortunately, the new influx of talkie stars and the effects of the transition to sound torpedoed Meighan’s career, even though his voice apparently wasn’t a barrier. Any chance of a comeback was destroyed a few years later when he succumbed to cancer.

It’s very sad since, in The Racket, Meighan’s black Irish sparkle and pearly, mocking grin make his tireless Captain McQuigg a delight to watch. He manages to project as much cockiness and swagger as the gangsters he’s fighting and thus avoids falling into dull good-boy hero territory. My favorite moment? When he tears up a writ of Habeas Corpus and snarls, “I’m sick of the law.” Maverick cops: making us identify with the Fuzz since way before Lethal Weapon.

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Curvaceous, flirty Marie Prevost sure knew how to light up a silent screen with her naughty, fun-loving, yet cynical demeanor. As the golddigging speakeasy singer Helen, she strikes the perfect balance between sultry, sentimental, and vulgar. And smart, too—she’s the one who manages to wrench a confession from tough guy Scarsi in the end! This is one sharp tomato. Watch and learn, ladies, watch and learn.

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And Louis Wolheim gives us one of the most arrogant, puffed-up gangsters of all time—a theatrical, yet efficient SOB who grins and chuckles one instant and shoots a guy in the back the next. Wolheim’s nose, so broken and battered that it’s practically a historical landmark, deserves its own Supporting Actor Oscar, if they’d had them in 1928. He’s so irrepressibly, sneeringly good that you can hardly believe he’s a multilingual Cornell grad and ex-math teacher and not a bona fide former racketeer. Although, boy, I bet every kid in his class knew his multiplication tables by heart!

As a bonus, you can also savor seedy, runty five-foot-three character actor George E. Stone—who would continue to play gangsters and snivelling sidekicks in the sound era, most notably in Little Caesar and in the Boston Blackie series—who turns in a delightfully caddish performance Scarsi’s slimeball little brother. This spoiled dirtbag even goes so far as to pull the “my car ran out of gas routine” on the luscious Prevost hoping for a little roadside petting. Sorry, but no dice, little man. Maybe it’s the ‘stache.

2. Because The Racket‘s attitude toward corruption is really ahead of its time.

37“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” That utterance makes it onto every list of the best movie lines of all time because it epitomizes the unresolved cynicism, the disillusionment, the paralyzed force of the New Hollywood’s noirish dark side. How newfangled, how courageous, how ambiguously—oh, wait. The Racket did something totally similar in 1928. Sorry, Bob Towne.

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As much as Captain McQuigg has struggled to bring down Scarsi—and ultimately gets him out of the way—he watches a new crime lord, a new shady political honcho immediately step in to win public favor. Exhausted and defeated, the exiled policeman hunches over his desk as the already jaded Helen comes over to inform him that it’s a dog-eat-dog world. He was wrong to expect positive results from his heroism.

McQuigg’s deputy suggests that the worn out policeman get some sleep but he shrugs it off, explaining that there’s a lot of clean-up questioning and statement-giving to do. By the time the production’s over, morning will have dawned and “it’ll be time for Mass,” he sighs.

38Whoa! No triumphalism, no note of self-congratulation. Just grim soldiering on in the face of insurmountable vice. Way to portray an unrelenting cycle of violence and the Sisyphus-like labors of a decent man in a bad world! The Racket refuses us the comfort of a happy, neat ending and thus delivers a stronger message about crime, corruption, and society than many movies that have come after it.

1. Because it showcases the force of the cinematic medium.

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In some ways, The Racket proves how a silent crime picture could actually use cinematic language better than its soon-to-follow talkie descendants. The need for sound synchronization snuffed out some really witty material, as this movie shows us. For instance, in one farcical scene, Scarsi pays his phony respects to a bootlegger rival (whom he himself filled full of slugs!) at a big production gangland funeral. Why, no self-respecting punk would miss the event! As the seasoned racketeer Scarsi surveys at a row of trimly dressed mourners, the camera lingers to examine the black bowler hats on their knees… and then a dissolve provides this laugh-inducing shot of what they’re hiding!

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Scarsi chuckles at these deceiving appearances—since his trained mobster X-ray vision can see through them. These kinds of purely visual, abstracted touches don’t show up as often in sound gangster films. Don’t get me wrong: talkie crime films possess moments of apt creativity, like the off-screen killings in The Public Enemy, but I love The Racket for its whimsical, abstracted moments.

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For me, this film also deserves major props for proving that the movies can improve on stage play source material—not just reproduce its success. For instance, that opening sequence in which all the eyeline matches, as the hired killer trains his gun on McQuigg, harness the power of editing to keep us on the edge of our seats—that rhythmic use of shot length couldn’t exist in theater. That manner of orchestrating and taming space is unique to the Seventh Art.

Again, when Scarsi shoots his rival in a speakeasy, we see him pull the trigger from under the table. Of all those present, only we the viewers are in on his secret, though we experience the killing from the vantage point not of Scarsi, but of the gun itself. This movie’s sly, fast-paced visual storytelling, carefully trimmed down to slick efficiency, should hardly come as a surprise, since it was shot by Tony Gaudio (who also did the cinematography for talkie gangster classics like Little Caesar and High Sierra.

So check out this silent gem. And if you think silent films are composed of all swooning maidens and melodramatic plot twists, you better watch The Racket and reevaluate your prejudice. ’Cause the boys are all here—and it’s gonna be one wild, hard-hitting ride.

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This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, hosted by Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club, Aurora of Once Upon A Screen, and Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled. Visit their blogs and learn more about this wonderful blog event! Find the blogathon on Twitter by searching the #31Days hashtag.

I’m doubling my fun here, since this is also part of the Scenes of the Crime Blogathon! Check it out, see?

Scenes of the Crime Blogathon

The Comedy Is Ended: Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928)

Laugh, Clown, Laugh

My whole career has been devoted to keeping people from knowing me.

—Lon Chaney

Lon Chaney could play just about anything—hunchbacks, legless gangsters, and all manner of “freaks.” However, Laugh, Clown, Laugh offers perhaps his most moving performance because, for much of it, we can’t shake the feeling that we’re watching Lon Chaney… as Lon Chaney. In fact, Chaney would remember the sad funnyman Tito as his favorite role.

As a traveling commedia dell’arte clown torn apart by his love for the foundling girl he adopts, Chaney gets the rare opportunity to inhabit a character devoid of menace and to act wearing little makeup for most of the film.

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Indeed, apart from a brief show scene towards the beginning, the grotesque clown makeup doesn’t factor in until rather far into the film. Already, we have a chameleonic performer playing a performer and this kind of double fiction ironically flakes away at the illusion of the film and gives us glimpses of the Chaney buried under all those ferocious facial expressions and disguises.

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For me, the most powerful scene in the film, even more powerful than the emotional breakdown of the third act, takes place when Tito is visiting a psychoanalyst to discuss his depression—he is always prone to fits of weeping. While there, he meets a rich playboy struck with the opposite affliction: bouts of uncontrollable laughter. The doctor, unaware of Tito’s profession, takes him onto the balcony of his office and points to a poster of Tito as Flik the Clown that just happens to be plastered on a building below.

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The doctor suggests that a funny show might do the melancholy man a world of good, but Tito reveals the flaw in this argument.

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No sooner does the celebrated jester announce his identity than the doctor and Count Luigi pay their respects to the great comedian who wearily thanks them. I may be projecting this, but the gracious but tired expression that comes across Chaney’s face reminds me of what you might’ve seen if you’d asked him for an autograph. His Tito conveys such exhaustion—exhaustion from living a life in which he cannot reveal his true self to anyone, much less his “daughter” with whom he’s fallen in love and who loves another man.

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Obviously the plot is something of a contrivance to wring tears out of us, but you get the feeling that the burnt-out sadness, the gloom which Tito lugs around with him, when not in make-up, derives not from Chaney’s craft as an actor, but rather from personal reserves of angst. He even supposedly said in real life, “Between pictures, there is no Lon Chaney,” as if even all that pretending and creating of screen illusions had worn away his essence as a coherent individual.

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Tito is expected to put on a show for everyone and has to lie about his feelings to Simonetta—and so he lives in a state of perpetual exile from himself.

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Contributing to the poignant realness of the situation, the radiant adolescent Loretta Young plays a radiant adolescent ingénue, Simonetta. We seem to watch both Loretta and Simonetta come of age and blossom onscreen.

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Laugh, Clown, Laugh

Apparently, during the making of the film, the nasty director, Herbert Brenon, liked to bully the 14-year-old Young, once even nastily telling her, in front of the crew, “I don’t know whatever gave you the idea you could be an actress.” As Young recalled, “[Brenon] would rip me up one side and down the other… but never when Lon Chaney was on the set.”

Well, Chaney caught wind of this and decided to protect the vulnerable girl by always being on-set—even when he wasn’t filming any scenes. Young gave him credit for coaching her sensitive performance: “He really directed me.” A lot of that genuine paternal warmth and mentorship comes across in their onscreen chemistry.

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Tito’s fatherly love for Simonetta and her caring devotion to him light up the screen. Indeed, Young always remembered Chaney’s protectiveness and said years later, “I shall be beholden to that sensitive, sweet man until I die.”

Laugh, Clown, Laugh

I strongly recommend that you watch this movie for a master class in the glowy, gauzy textures of the silent era. I love how much un-stylized information seems to fit into each frame of silent films, as though the lack of sound facilitated a fuller picture of reality, one untrimmed of its fringes, wrinkles, and unvarnished natural details. The brilliant cinematography shows that, even relatively early in his career, James Wong Howe could coax the heartbreaking shades and nuances out of every petal on a flower, every ruffle on a costume, every plane of a character’s face.

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Almost all the silent tropes are there: the nobleman and the common girl, unrequited love, and lots and lots of scenes of characters longingly watching other characters.

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The contrast between the buoyant, lily-like grace of an angelic Loretta Young and the pathetic, knockabout ugliness of Flik make this film remarkably striking.

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The juxtaposition of beauty and grotesqueness produces enough visual tension to sustain a story that really doesn’t have much to it in terms of intrigue. The difference between Chaney’s facial expressions and the constant painter smile of the clown makeup also interjects a creepiness into the scenes where he becomes enraged or breaks down into tears.

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And then there’s the brilliantly expressionistic final sequence. Don’t read on if you don’t want major spoilers.

Realizing that he could never make Simonetta happy, even though she agrees to marry him out of gratitude, Tito goes to the theater gets into costume and psyches himself up into a frenzy in front of a mirror—if he can’t be himself and be happy, he’ll at least die in the role that everyone expects him to play.

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The visuals in this scene turn incredibly flamboyant and disorienting, providing a glimpse into his unhinged mind.

As he stands on the stage, the yawning theater dwarfs him.

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Flik hallucinates an audience and we see a superimposed kaleidoscopic ring of spectators hovering around him

Laugh, Clown, Laugh Laugh, Clown, Laugh Finally as he ascends his signature head-stand “death-defying slide” he looks down on his partner from an angle so high and canted that it borders on total abstraction.

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Then he lets himself go into the slide—and slides right into the camera, as though crashing into the audience! Then he tumbles off the wire.

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Simon and the stage manager pick up the mortally wounded clown and, as they do, his big floppy fake feet swing towards the camera making him bitterly ludicrous even in his dying moments.

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As Simon cradles Tito in his arms, Tito turns to the camera, touches his nose as though taking us in his confidence, and breathes his last words—still in character.

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This announcement not only breaks down the forth wall, it widens the context of the movie’s theme of the actor as a kind of sacrifice, an object of consumption for an audience who fails to understand the pain behind the mask. By declaring that the comedy is over just as the film itself is coming to a close, Lon Chaney as Tito invites us to think of the story as a parable for the travail of anyone who hides his identity behind an act put forward for our amusement.

Laugh, Clown, Laugh

As much as “the tears of a clown” are kind of a cliché, I can’t help but watch this without thinking of all the silent stars who succumbed to their own press mythology and died early deaths. I particularly think of my favorite silent clown, Max Linder, who slit his wrists (and those of his wife) just a few years before this movie was made.

Laugh, Clown, Laugh

I imagine that’s one hell of a burden when thousands of people applaud you, but have no clue about the person you really are. In fact, when a person attains that kind of celebrity, and Chaney conveys this beautifully, I suspect that the performer begins not to know who he is himself! The essence of a person breaks down into frayed personae that will not be reconciled. An actor is something like a philosopher in the sense that he is always both himself and looking in at himself. This schism can be funny. But really it’s quite, quite sad.

And, on that happy note, la commedia è finita.

Oh, and I took all these screenshots of the glory that is Nils Asther. I’m certainly not letting them go to waste. You’re welcome.

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