The Racket Is Paced Almost Perfectly
In the last days of the silent era, “genre” filmmakers were churning out elevated classics. Lewis Milestone, a prolific director who specialized in fraternal masculinity and war pictures, preceded the ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1930) boom of his career with a succession of solid silent films. Two, produced by Howard Hughes in his earliest Hollywood efforts, were nominated at the 1st Academy Awards: TWO ARABIAN KNIGHTS (1927) and THE RACKET (1928). The former is a middling comedy with some uncomfortable racism/misogyny, but the latter is a surprising, lively pre-Pre-Code gangster film that deals frankly with corruption and features incredible performances for a stand out cast of characters.
In fact, THE RACKET is a sudden favorite from 1928, the last full year of the silent era as we know it. It’s a perfect example of “popular entertainment” given more heft perhaps because of its lack of audible dialogue. Let me put it this way: THE RACKET as a 1929 film would not be as good as the one we do have. Nominated for Outstanding Picture (the equivalent of the Best Picture category at the Oscars), THE RACKET stars Thomas Meighan as Captain James McQuigg and my favorite (or one of my favorite) supporting silent actor(s) Louis Wolheim as Nick Scarsi. McQuigg is an untouchable police captain above the corruption of his city, heavily implied to be Chicago. This apparently led to some problems for exhibition of the movie in the city, actually. Scarsi is a gangster serving the higher powers in the city, including “The Old Man” running for elected office. He and his gang can get out of basically any charge with no problem. This causes no end of consternation for McQuigg, and eventually, he gets “mysteriously” transferred into the “country,” the outskirts of the city where not much is going on.
Wolheim is a charismatic force in every film he’s in, whether it’s as a rough-and-tumble buddy or, as in this film, a jovial monster. It’s almost unfair to pit Meighan against him; the ostensible star of the film is certainly the weakest link in the cast, although he does admirably as the strait-laced leading man. Wolheim is so good you almost find yourself rooting for him, until the plot necessitates a switching of sides. Marie Prevost plays Helen Hayes, a moll-ish nightclub singer who has a fling with Scarsi’s younger brother Joe (played to weaselly perfection by George E. Stone). Scarsi thinks women are “poison,” and disapproves of the relationship. Through a series of events, Joe ends up in McQuigg’s jail, away from the immediate influence of his brother. Hayes becomes an informant against him, all while striking up a remarkably touching romance with the green newspaperman Dave Ames, played by John Darrow.
Speaking of newspapermen! Prevost would be the ultimate scene-stealer in THE RACKET due to her brilliantly played wise cracks and confident swagger, a perfect prelude to the fiery Pre-Code and film noir woman. Would be, except for the comic relief provided by Richard “Skeets” Gallagher and Lee Moran, playing journalists Miller and Pratt, respectively. Miller is a coolly confident drunk and Pratt is his more energetic counterpart, and they enliven every corner of THE RACKET in which they appear. They aren’t just filler novelties, too; they generally advance the plot. And this is where THE RACKET’s nuance comes in. I think most of us are pretty familiar with the bootlegging/Great Depression gangster tropes modeled after Chicago: the corrupt government officials, temporary bookings, shady electioneering, a press out only to sell papers and serve an agenda.
These are plot points that have been played to death. Besides the fact that THE RACKET did them before they had become film cliches, it also plays them remarkably straight and “realistic.” Miller and Pratt are hungry bloodhounds, sure, but they’re not vilified enemies. McQuigg’s interplay with the two characters is modeled perfectly after the bizarre relationship that exists between police and reporters, a sort of mutual respect and exasperation. He even uses them to his advantage a few times, and they know it: but they’re reporting the news. It’s a brilliant illustration of the late 1920s dynamic, and it’s almost certainly my favorite aspect of THE RACKET.
The corruption angle can be driven home a bit too hard, but it’s refreshing because at no point is there a central mystery to THE RACKET. Everyone knows what’s going on. There’s an understanding among every character that shady shit is happening, and that every other person knows said shady shit is happening. This isn’t a film about McQuigg trying to uncover who is dealing booze or setting up a false, corrupt candidate. It’s about McQuigg engaging in a battle of wits with Scarsi, a sort of “lowbrow” Holmes and Moriarty dynamic. That allows for these characters to become fleshed out and really inhabit this world.
But maybe I should get to the central conceit of why I love THE RACKET and the very concept on which the title of this article is based: the movie is just paced wonderfully. Even at just 83 minutes, THE RACKET was not assured to move quickly; I could point to a million other silent (and sound) films around the same length that do not. But remember how I said THE RACKET was essentially “popular entertainment?” That’s because it’s about as lively as you can get, moving from character to character and intrigue to intrigue at a comfortable, engaging speed. Everyone gets their time to shine; Meighan is not even remotely in every scene. This serves to extend the scope of what could be a pretty typical dramatic film into an amusing, wry assessment of the underworld and those who fight/chronicle it. THE RACKET is this close to being an ensemble film, and if everyone involved had been famous, it would be called as such.
Prevost, Gallagher, and Moran end up stealing most scenes they’re in, but Wolheim is the driving force behind THE RACKET’s ever-increasing energy. Meighan does his part dutifully, and his orbit serves to put everyone else into interesting situations. The film’s straight forward depiction of corrupt municipal and state government is admirable, especially for the time, and its portrayal of the relationship between press and power is really fun and impressive for this journalism school graduate. THE RACKET is about as wholly entertaining a film as you’re going to get from the silent era, a movie with something to say while having fun saying it. It’s a shame it’s not readily available (I was only able to watch it one day before putting together a retrospective on the first Oscars, and only then after searching for it online for some time), but if you can track it down, watch it!