Oscar Vault Monday – The Racket, 1928 (dir. Lewis Milestone)
The Racket was long thought a lost film. After the death of Howard Hughes, however, one surviving print was recovered. It was restored with help from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. As you can probably tell from the date, it was one of the first Best Picture nominees. This is a tricky ceremony, as the Academy had two Best Picture categories, one for Best Production and one for Most Unique and Artistic Production. After they dropped the latter category, the Academy tends to count the former as the official “Best Picture” nominees. Thus I decided to write about a film that was nominated in that category, but I am going to list all six films that were nominated in both categories. It’s important that you watch them all because you can really see why a split category like this was necessary at the tail-end of the Silent Era. But with the invention of sound, artistry got lost in the mire while the industry struggled to get back to the basics, only this time with sound. The nominees for Best Production were: The Racket, Seventh Heaven and winner Wings and the nominees for Most Unique and Artistic Production were: Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness, The Crowd and winner Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans.
Also split into two categories that year was Best Director, split between Comedy and Drama. Lewis Milestone won Best Director, Comedy at this first ceremony for his film Two Arabian Knights, which was another film thought lost until after the death of Howard Hughes. Milestone went on to win Best Director a second time, for 1930’s All Quiet On The Western Front and was nominated for 1931’s The Front Page.
The Racket begins with an introduction to bootlegger and all-around crime boss, Nick Scarsi played so wonderfully by Louis Wolheim. He is your typical crime boss type character, but what makes the film so interesting is that it was one of the first films to tackle this subject. Wolheim’s Scarsi is basically the inspiration for all crime bosses throughout the rest of cinema history. Fan of The Godfather? Watch this film and see its origins.
Right from the beginning this film explores the irony inherent in prohibition, how a bootlegger outwardly would look like a model citizen. You can see the influence on this film as late as something like Brian De Palma’s 1987 film The Untouchables. Really, in this film you can see the rise of the Pre-Code era of talkies. This film made way for Scarface, Little Caesar, The Public Enemy and the like. Much like those films, because The Racket touched on controversial issues (such as corruption in the police force/city government), the film was banned in Chicago.
Scarsi’s life gets disrupted by Police Captain McQuigg, played with honesty and passion by Thomas Meighan. McQuigg is determined to close down Scarsi’s operations, no matter the costs. The film really sizzles when the two actors share the screen. It’s all in their faces and their body language. I find it really quiet fascinating to study the acting in later silent films. You can see it evolving from straight-up pantomime to something much subtler and much more natural.
Weaving in and out of the two worlds of the film is a group of reporters played by Lee Moran, Skeets Gallagher and John Darrow. The three add insightful quips and witticisms about the war between the police and the criminals, all the while just trying to get a good story. There’s some interesting commentary on the nature of newspapers in there somewhere.
Stealing the show is veteran actress Marie Prevost, who plays nightclub entertainer Helen Hayes (not to be confused with the actress of the same name). Prevost’s Helen is insulted by Scarsi early on in the film and spends much of the rest of the film exacting her revenge. She is a ball of fire and does not allow anyone to walk over her. Prevost made 121 films from 1915 before her death in 1936 at the age of 38. Actually, Prevost’s story is one of the most depressing tragic tales of Old Hollywood. You can read more about it here.
The final confrontation scene in the film is simply fantastic. It’s the perfect culmination of all the energy and anger that built up throughout the film. The actual final scene of the film has got to be one of the most bittersweet endings in film history. If you ever get a chance to catch this film on TCM, I highly recommend it. You can also purchase The Racket as part of a compilation of early Best Picture nominees released by TCM.
Posted on July 11, 2011, in Oscar Vault Monday and tagged 1928, John Darrow, Lee Moran, Lewis Milestone, Louis Wolheim, Marie Prevost, Oscar Vault Monday, Skeets Gallagher, The Acade, the Academy, The Racket, Thomas Meighan. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.