Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.
First off, please forgive any typos. My left hand is a bit messed up at the moment, so I’m not sure how accurate my typing will be. I may even be more accurate than normal today because I’m aware of it. Anyway, there’s a collection of movies that I’m unlikely to ever see on my various Oscar lists because I just can’t get them. I was excited when TCM scheduled The Patent Leather Kid for its 31 Days of Oscar, but they pulled it last minute. The did run The Racket, though, a film that was thought lost until a single copy turned up in the vaults of Howard Hughes.
The Racket is an old school gangster film that features a couple of different factions butting heads. There are the gangsters, of course. One group of bootlegging thugs is led by Nick Scarsi (Louis Wolheim, who seriously looks the part). The rival gang is headed by a thug nicknamed Spike (Henry Sedley). The only good thing we can say about Spike is that he’s not Nick Scarsi. The only thing good we can say about Nick is that he’s sent his brother Joe (George E. Stone) off to college and wants to keep him out of the rackets.
Opposing the gangs, particularly Nick, are the police. Their faction is led in the film by Captain James McQuigg (Thomas Meighan). Caught in the middle of all of this are the press and pretty much everybody else. The press here are represented by old journalist hands Pratt (Lee Moran) and Miller (Skeets Gallagher) and eventually by rookie reporter Ames (John Darrow). Everyone else is represented by show girl Helen Hayes (Marie Prevost). Yes, they named her Helen Hayes.
Anyway, Nick Scarsi is connected to the local political machine, so every time one of his boys gets in trouble and gets arrested by McQuigg, he’s out on the streets almost immediately. When McQuigg gets too close, Scarsi uses his influence to get the captain transferred out to a police district as far away as possible from the action in the inner city. This turns out to be a blessing in disguise for Captain McQuigg when Joe Scarsi, on a date with Helen, tries to get a little fresh with her. When a patrolling officer (G. Pat Collins) tries to see what’s going on, Joe speeds off and strikes a pedestrian. Suddenly, McQuigg has Joe Scarsi in lockup on a manslaughter charge, which is certainly going to get Nick’s attention.
The Racket, at least for much of the running time, moves along at a pretty brisk pace. It slows down near the end, though, and while there’s all sorts of action going on through much of the film, not a lot of it really has much to do with the ultimate plot of having McQuigg and Scarsi facing off against each other. A great deal also seems to depend on our three reporters more or less hanging around the police station just waiting for a story to happen. The plot more or less depends on a bunch of things just happening in the right place and at the right time for all of the pieces to finally fall together in the right way.
In a way, that’s kind of the strength of the film, but it’s also its biggest weakness. A lot of things seem to happen just because they do and without much in the way of connection to anything else going on at the time around the actual story. There isn’t really a completely coherent story from the beginning to the end. Things just sort of happen, and by the end of the film, they have all coalesced into something like a series of events that get us to the conclusion. There’s even a romance thrown in here that literally goes nowhere. Our two romantic characters—Helen and Ames—end up walking off in different directions and at different times before the credits roll.
Ultimately, The Racket is a pretty good example of an early gangster film and not a terrible silent. It’s not going to make my list of great silent or ones that need to be seen by everyone, but it’s serviceable. The problem is that it’s really no more than serviceable. It has all of the problems of a lot of silent when played to a modern audience and lacks all of the charms of a truly great silent film. I’m happy I got to see it, but I don’t know that I’ll ever need to seek it out again.
Why to watch The Racket: Early cops and robbers!
Why not to watch: The plot is a series of weird, coincidental events.