Monday, September 16, 2019

REMAKE AVENUE: The Racket, 1928 and 1951


Many of our excursions to Remake Avenue begin on Broadway and today's is no exception.

Bartlett Cormack's play The Racket had a run of 119 performances at the Ambassador Theatre in the 1927/28 season. Cormack (1898-1942) was a graduate of the University of Chicago, with experience in theatrical public relations. Passing at the early age of 44, Bartlett Cormack left many exciting and interesting screenplays for classic movie fans: Gentlemen of the Press, The Green Murder Case, The Front Page (adaption), The Phantom of Crestwood, Four Frightened People, Cleopatra, Fury, Sidewalks of London, and Unholy Partners.

The success of The Racket coincided with and promoted the beginning of the gangster cycle in entertainment. The three-act play is set entirely in a quiet precinct outside of Chicago where a single-minded police captain battles a mob and crooked politicians while wise-cracking reporters keep the pot boiling.

G. Pat Collins as Patrolman Johnson

G. Pat Collins (White Heat) played the pivotal role of Patrolman Johnson in both the play and the 1928 movie. On stage, reporters were played by classic movie stalwarts Willard Robertson (Heat Lightning) and Norman Foster (Skyscraper Souls). Edward G. Robinson was also featured as "An unidentified man". Could he possibly have played a gangster?


The Racket was among the first Oscar Best Picture nominees in 1929, losing to Wings. Our director, Lewis Milestone won the award for Best Director, Comedy Picture for Two Arabian Knights, beating out Ted Wilde for Speedy. The Academy dropped the Director for a Comedy category by the next season. 

Independent producer Howard Hughes brought The Racket to the big screen, and it was distributed by Paramount Studios. Thomas Meighan starred as Captain McQuigg whose feud with gangster Nick Scarsi played by Louis Wolheim impacts everyone around them. Note: Director Milestone and actor Wolheim collaborated on Two Arabian Knights, The Racket, Tempest, and All Quiet on the Western Front

Louis Wolheim, Thomas Meighan

Chicago is a tough town and it is split right down the middle. On one side is the political machine which controls the rackets and bootlegging gangsters like Nick Scarsi and Spike Corcoran. Honest cop Captain James McQuigg may seem like a lone figure in this battle, but he is obviously getting under the skin of the crooks for he is banished to the quiet suburbs, at least until after the upcoming election.

The one-set play was opened up to establish the antagonism between McQuigg and Scarsi. The audience is witness to a vicious street fight between rival bootleggers. A riotous party in a speakeasy gives us a taste of the high life enjoyed by the criminals.

The party is in celebration of Scarsi's kid brother Joe played by George E. Stone. The young man has graduated from college and is looking for a good time. He is attracted to singer Helen played by Marie Prevost, but Nick puts a stop (he thinks) to that as "women are poison." Helen resents Nick's insult and decides to go after Joe for kicks and revenge.

 Marie Prevost, John Darrow

All of these disparate characters and their conflicting intentions come together in the quiet burg that is now Captain McQuigg's stomping ground. On a fateful night, Helen is the witness to Joe's homicidal hit-and-run and his arrest by Patrolman Johnson. Skeets Gallagher plays a perpetually soused member of the press, who keeps the news and the tensions heightened. A naive rookie reporter played by John Darrow catches Helen's eye, and vice-versa. Nick is anxious to get Joe out of the slammer and to get revenge on those who crossed him. The double-crossers will come to include the "old man" who controls the rackets.

McQuigg is able to manipulate the circumstances put in place by Nick's anxiety over Joe, the political machinations, and an unexpected and blatant murder. Much is on the line and mistakes will be made. There is a semblance of justice at the conclusion, but the racket continues.

Thomas Meighan brings a weary stoicism with an underlying wit to the role of McQuigg. Louis Wolheim is as tough a mug as you'll see in this genre of film, yet we still get the picture of the sweat it took to reach his position, plus the affection he holds for his brother. Marie Prevost is a dream as Helen. We see her performing in the speakeasy, confidently handling the rambunctious Joe, falling in a sweet way for the rookie reporter, standing up to Nick and even sending a little sympathy the Captain's way.

The Racket has a runtime of just under 90 minutes and every minute moves the story of graft and violence forward through startling images and fine performances.

Thomas Meighan, Jim Farley

McQuigg: "I'd like a little sleep but by the time I get through with the coroner and the rest of the public servants it will be time to go to mass."



Boldly Begins Where the Senate Crime Committee Left Off!

The 1950 United States Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce chaired by Senator Estes Kefauver captured the public's imagination through television broadcasts and is the obvious inspiration for Howard Hughes to revive and remake his earlier hit, The Racket. Perhaps some bright producer is considering a 21st century take on the story. Crooks and grafters never seem to go out of style.

The film was directed by John Cromwell who, in another lifetime, played the protagonist Captain James McQuigg in the original Broadway production. William Wister Haines (Command Decision) and W.R. Burnett (High Sierra) wrote the screenplay from Bartlett Cormack's play placing an emphasis on a newly formed Crime Commission in an unnamed city. The syndicate wishes to run their business as a business and are not only at odds with investigators and police but with Nick Scanlon. Nick is an old school gangster played by Robert Ryan. While the "old man" in charge wants to use non-violent ways to deal with issues, Nick is more psychotic and entrenched in nature and intends to continue running things his way.

Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan

When Nick goes against orders and bumps off a squealer, it opens up an entirely new avenue for honest cop McQuigg played by Robert Mitchum. McQuigg has been bounced around the precincts to keep him out of hot spots, but now the hot spot has come to him.

On the personal front, Nick has put a lot of time and money into the gentrification of his kid brother Joe played by Brett King and does not approve of his involvement with a nightclub singer Irene played by Lizabeth Scott. As in the earlier versions, these characters are central to the circumstances which will result in Nick's downfall but are far less compelling in this screenplay.

William Talman, Virginia Huston

The movie gives our Captain McQuigg a home life and a wife played by Joyce McKenzie. The same is done for Patrolman Johnson here played by William Talman (Armored Car Robbery). Virginia Huston plays his loving wife. The young cop is a veteran Marine and an honest man. He would follow McQuigg into Hell and is not afraid of confronting the mob. Maybe he should be.

Robert Hutton plays the naive reporter Dave Ames, who was in the Marines when Patrolman Johnson was his Sergeant. His old Sarge lets the newshound in on the case where everyone seems to know that District Attorney Welsh played by Ray Collins is syndicate's latest front for a judge and that Sergeant Turk played by William Conrad is the syndicate's trouble-shooter. The emotional young reporter becomes easily distracted when he falls for singer Irene. 

Robert Mitchum, William Talman, William Conrad

Both the 1928 and 1951 films run just under 90 minutes, with this feature having more characters and more action sequences. Nonetheless, when it came time for the finale, Haines and Burnett went back to the original concept with the violent murder and double-crosses taking place in the precinct.

Added to the exciting finish is some unnecessary moralizing from Captain McQuigg and some even more unnecessary happy conclusions to a couple of subplots. It is my feeling that the more satisfying film experience was released in 1928.

Robert Ryan and Robert Mitchum have given us their share of both good and bad characters over the years and the casting here would seem appropriate. However, after a couple of viewings, I feel like each actor might have done better in the other's role. Ryan's over-the-top antics and Mitchum's laid back persona came across more as boredom to me. Also, the movie was stolen from everyone by William Talman as Patrolman Johnson. Perhaps they sensed it.

Captain McQuigg: "Rest? Yeah, but tomorrow it starts all over again."


Connections:

Ray Collins as Lt. Arthur Tragg and William Talman as Hamilton Burger, District Attorney
Perry Mason (1957)


The Racket falls one short of the Crossfire, 1947 trio of Robert Young, Robert Mitchum, and Robert Ryan. See Mitchum and Ryan also in The Longest Day, 1962 and Anzio, 1968.


Fans take noteThe Racket, 1951 has an excellent Pat Flaherty sighting. At 54, he still made a good movie cop.












40 comments:

  1. ROBERT MITCHUM & WILLIAM TALMAN were both in ONE MINUTE TO ZERO, a war movie. The leading lady was ANN BLYTH who turned 91 last month!

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    1. One Minute to Zero slipped my mind while writing this piece. A heart wrenching movie. I enjoyed the quiet moment of Robert and Ann singing at dinner.

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  2. I looked up the credits of JOYCE MCKENZIE. According to imdb her last credit was in 1961. It was an ep of PERRY MASON titled THE CASE OF THE DUPLICATE DAUGHTER(which, as you stated, had WILLIAM TALMAN as HAMILTON BURGER). MISS MCKENZIE will be 90 next month. She was born in 1929 so 1961 would mean her last credit was the year she turned 32.

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  3. On the lobby card(I think that's what it is) it says LA GANG instead of THE RACKET. Also it doesn't show ROBERT RYAN. Do you know LIZABETH SCOTT from very many movies? What are your favorites?

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    1. I often find the international posters and lobby cards the most interesting.

      While I don't think the role of Irene is one of Ms. Scott's best, I have often enjoyed her performances: Pitfall, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Too Late for Tears, Desert Fury, and Dead Reckoning are some favourites.

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  4. I've never seen the 1928 version but can't say I'm really a big fan of the '51 version, despite the excellent cast.

    In an old review I wrote: The stuff of greatness is there, it’s just that it is all too moralistic, too simplistic, too clear-cut. The good guys are good, the bad guys bad. Nobody’s motives and intentions are in the least bit murky, there’s no ambiguity here.
    And that's the problem with this movie. It's lacking punch.

    Mitchum is a problem too. This must be one of his blandest roles, it's a toothless performance from one of my favorite bad boys. Really only Ryan is the saving grace.

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    1. Your take and mine on '51 are not that far apart. I hope you get a chance to see the '28 film. I'm a big fan (or was that obvious?).

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  5. Caftan Woman, if KIRK DOUGLAS was in the movie would you want to see him play the cop or the bad guy? Kirk was known for playing intense roles but sometimes the good guys he played had his intensity. He played a cop in DETECTIVE STORY with ELEANOR PARKER as his wife.

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    1. Det. McLeod is the polar opposite of Captain McQuaig, except for their steadfast belief in justice. McLeod could not bend to reality while McQuaig has more understanding. I think the officer would have been an interesting role for Douglas.

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  6. JOHN CROMWELL directed some interesting movies including THE ENCHANTED COTTAGE with ROBERT YOUNG and DOROTHY MCGUIRE(who is an actress that we both admire). Like you said ROBERT YOUNG was the missing Robert in this movie-there were all three(MITCHUM, RYAN and YOUNG in CROSSFIRE). When I saw all three ROBERT names in the credits I was like huh? I bet that never happened again!

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    1. I hope the three Bobs had fun at the first read through of Crossfire.

      Some of my favourite movies directed by John Cromwell are The Prisoner of Zenda, Jalna, Banjo on My Knee (quirky), Algiers, and Since You Went Away. The Racket was a disappointment to me.

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  7. I just looked up DENNIS OKEEFE because I remembered that hes one of the fellows that you liked. I was wondering if he had ever played any cops. The other day I looked up WILLIAM TALMAN and that's why I made this connection now. TALMAN died on AUGUST 30, 1968 and OKEEFE on AUGUST 31, 1968. It was the same cause-lung cancer. Talman was only 53 and OKeefe was 60. P.S. I liked DENNIS OKEEFE in a comedy movie where RUTH HUSSEY played his wife. It was THE LADY WANTS MINK.

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    1. Dennis O'Keefe is equally fine in tough film-noir and in comedy. He wrote and starred in a Christmas-set mystery called Cover Up. Maybe it will come your way this season.

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  8. I never saw MARK STEVENS play a cop but I liked him in OH, YOU BEAUTIFUL DOLL with the adorable JUNE HAVER and THE SNAKE PIT as the husband to OLIVIA DE HAVILLAND. To me Mark was cute and attractive in a guy next door way. I don't think I ever saw him in a movie until 1987 or 88. The first one was probably ... BEAUTIFUL DOLL. Also THE RACKET came out the same year I LOVE LUCY premiered. Mark had done a movie with LUCILLE BALL earlier but Ive never seen it-THE DARK CORNER.

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    1. The Dark Corner is a dandy film-noir. Great dialogue and atmosphere. When my mom asked to borrow my DVD of the movie she admitted to having a crush on Mark Stevens in her younger years. You think you know a person!

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  9. MICKEY KUHN is 87 today. He played BEAU WILKES, the son of ASHLEY and MELANIE WILKES in GONE WITH THE WIND. He is the only male living from GWTW. He also played the young MATT in RED RIVER with JOHN WAYNE. MATT is later played by MONTGOMERY CLIFT. MICKEY played the young WALTER in THE STRANGE LOVES OF MARTHA IVERS where KIRK DOUGLAS later played WALTER. (KIRK is 102.) In the cast of...IVERS is LIZABETH SCOTT who was in the movie on this page!

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    1. Well, (giggle), we certainly came around the circle. It is incredible that we have two remaining cast members from Gone With the Wind.

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  10. I have seen the original screen adaptation, but like the 1951 version due to William Talman, Ray Collins, and Lizabeth Scott. I could listen to Ms. Scott read the phone directory and be entertained.

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    1. Talman is always fascinating to watch, and this role is certainly no exception. I still don't feel the rest of the movie is up to is standard. Who knows how I will feel on some future viewing. I'm sure there will be one someday.

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  11. MICKEY KUHN had an uncredited role in A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN. imdb has him as one of the boys at the CHRISTMAS tree place. I know we have mentioned this movie before. I think DOROTHY MCGUIRE and JOAN BLONDELL should have been nominated for the ACADEMY AWARD. Dorothy is also really good in OLD YELLER. She is always a welcome presence to me in a classic movie. Dorothy was in SUSAN SLADE, SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON and SUMMER MAGIC.

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    1. P.S. A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN has LLOYD NOLAN as a police officer who has declared his intention for matrimony to KATIE(DOROTHY). Later they play a married couple who are the parents of SUSAN SLADE(CONNIE STEVENS). Also TROY DONAHUE is in this movie and he played the son Johnny to MISS MCGUIRE earlier in A SUMMER PLACE. PLUS JOHN MILLS played her husband in SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON and then HAYLEY MILLS, the daughter of John, played her daughter in SUMMER MAGIC. WHEW! It goes around!

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    2. I agree with your assessment of Ms. McGuire and Ms. Blondell deserving of Academy recognition for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It is fun to recall where we have seen the same actors paired in different movies. I especially enjoy it when the characters are quite different from one story to the next.

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  12. I haven't seen either version, but I'm hoping to see both at some point to compare notes. It's disappointing to see the 1951 version isn't generally thought to hold up as well as the earlier version, despite the top-notch cast. I never thought a movie with Young, Mitchum and Ryan – and Scott! – could be less than stellar, but I guess you can't always bat a thousand.

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    1. I had seen the 1928 version first and fell hard, so the first time I watched 1951 I presumed it was my underlying prejudice. A further viewing simply confirmed my earlier reaction. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on both someday.

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  13. Speaking of KIRK DOUGLAS today his son MICHAEL DOUGLAS turns 75 and CATHERINE ZETA-JONES(the wife of Michael) turns 50. Milestone birthdays! Do you know Michaels movies very well? Or Catherines? I like that Catherine always dresses elegantly and it reminds me of the OLD HOLLYWOOD GLAMOUR days. Kirk kind of has an innocent crush on Cathy(as they call her) from what I have read. That Kirk likes to flirt! Also Michael looks really good with white hair.

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    1. Funnily enough, I was speaking to someone today about The Streets of San Francisco, which is where I became a Michael Douglas fan. I think Catherine was amazing in Chicago. Kirk Douglas' books are excellent reading and, naturally, it is his movies which I have seen the most.

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  14. Speaking of CHICAGO did you like RICHARD GERE in it? I didn't see the movie but I liked him in PRETTY WOMAN(and JULIA ROBERTS was really good). One time when people were mentioning who should have Oscar noms (on a computer site) someone answered about Gere by saying what would he have been nominated for? and also said he wasn't in the same category as the other people mentioned. Earlier that same person said MEG RYAN and DIANE LANE had never given a movie performance worthy of an OSCAR. People can state their opinion, of course, but they should be nicer and not come across as rude. Diane Lane DID get a nom for UNFAITHFUL and Gere played her husband in that movie. Also Zeta-Jones won the Oscar, I think, for Chicago that Richard was also in.

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    1. Also speaking of CHICAGO there was the movie ROXIE HART in which GINGER ROGERS played the title role. Then the musical plays on BROADWAY and LONDON, etc. were called CHICAGO. CHRISTIE BRINKLEY played ROXIE. Christie was to be on DANCING WITH THE STARS but she injured her arm and her daughter SAILOR BRINKLEY-COOK stepped in. Ive only seen a little of DWTW over the years. Have you ever seen the show? Also ZETA-JONES DID win the Oscar for Chicago.

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    2. Of course I meant DWTS-short for DANCING WITH THE STARS.

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    3. 1. I thought Richard Gere did a very good job in Chicago. I can't recall seeing him in anything else. My husband and I started to watch Pretty Woman but gave up after 10 minutes. Sometimes a movie does nothing for you.

      2. I have seen one professional production of Chicago, and one in community theatre, and the 1942 movie Roxie Hart. Last year we attended a screening of the 1927 version of Chicago which was accompanied by a jazz combo. It was fabulous! I'd love to see it again.

      The story's popularity proves that people really haven't changed much; perhaps they never will.

      DWTS must be on my busy night or opposite something else that I watch because the show and I haven't gotten together. I think there is too much TV these days. Lots of things look good, but where do people find the time?

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  15. Did you see HOME FROM THE HILL with ROBERT MITCHUM? It also starred ELEANOR PARKER, GEORGE HAMILTON and GEORGE PEPPARD. I saw it in the late 80s. I have seen PEPPARD in HOW THE WEST WAS WON and THE CARPETBAGGERS. I remember that you said you saw that movie but don't remember it. I also saw a few episodes of BANACEK. I like Peppard in everything Ive seen him in. By way, Banacek had some great guest stars including STELLA STEVENS, JANIS PAIGE and PERNELL ROBERTS. Also KEVIN MCCARTHY and DAVID WAYNE.

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    1. I run hot and cold on Peppard. Sometimes I like him, sometimes not. From those guests it appears I should have paid more attention to Banacek!

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  16. P.S. Did you watch TRAPPER JOHN, MD which starred PERNELL ROBERTS? I thought it was a really good show. JANIS PAIGE, as Ive mentioned before, was on the show the final season as CATHERINE HACKETT, the new administrator. The show was on CBS from 1979 to 1986. It was on SUNDAYS until the last season when it was moved to TUESDAYS.

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    1. I enjoyed Trapper John, the stories and particularly the regular cast/characters. Pernell Roberts deserved a hit.

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  17. DID you see HOME FROM THE HILL? Also what about TRAPPER JOHN? I remember you like JANIS PAIGE.

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    1. I was typing my above post while you were typing your answer about TRAPPER JOHN. I liked the entire cast also. SIMON SCOTT who played ARNOLD SLOCUM sure turns up a lot on rerun shows.

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    2. Home from the Hill is a bit much, but when I'm in the mood for "a bit much", I'll turn to it.

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