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Monday, December 29, 2014

Precode Hits The Silk

Parachute Jumper (1933) and Living By Depression Wits

Snappy as young Doug's fedora, Parachute Jumper got known, unfairly, as one of lousy programmers Bette Davis had to muddle through on her climb to stardom. The actress had clearly not seen such precodes for years when she dismissed (in fact, "hated") the lot, excepting Cabin In The Cotton and a couple with George Arliss. She'd not object when Robert Aldrich used Parachute Jumper (and Ex-Lady) clips to illustrate what a terrible actress "Jane Hudson" had been in comparison with sister Blanche when both had fictional Hollywood careers in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?. Pleasures of Parachute Jumper have little to do with Davis in any event. She's there, more/less throughout, as "Alabama," with an accent not likely heard in her namesake or any other state in the South. PJ is more a showcase for Doug Jr., sprung to stardom by The Dawn Patrol, a major hit in 1930 for which he got deserved credit with Dick Barthelmess and directing Howard Hawks.

Fairbanks the younger could look uncannily like newcomer Clark Gable at particular angle or light, but was cultivated where CG was brutish. In a close-fisted Depression where survival was for fittest, it was Gable who'd speak clearest of gentility put aside by men starved of necessities. What Fairbanks asked politely for, Gable seized. Example in Parachute Jumper: Fairbanks lets evictee Bette Davis share digs with he and pal Frank McHugh, she taking the couch. During night, Doug enters her sanctum on cat feet, his intent not altogether clear as Gable's most certainly would have been. Upon BD's startled reject, he backs sheepishly off, like the gentleman he, both on and off screen, assuredly was. This was a personality who, given added maturity during the silent era, might have been a leading man among better-behaved likes of Thomas Meighan, Milton Sills, Norman Kerry. As it was, Doug went too gentle into dark night that was 30's Depression.

There was something innately comic about the title itself --- "Parachute Jumper" --- a thing to be recalled as insubstantial, if not foolish. Fairbanks joined Davis in saying as much in his memoir, Salad Days, where Parachute Jumper ("the damned thing") was tabbed "a sub-average story," and part of "punishment" for Doug seeking better terms at WB. "Today I have no more idea of the story of Parachute Jumper than what anyone may guess from its title," said the actor, writing from fifty-six years' distance. Neither Fairbanks nor Bette Davis lived long enough to see Parachute Jumper become common currency on TCM and DVD (from Warner Archive), though I have to wonder if Doug Jr., who did attend a 90's-era Cinecon in Hollywood, might have been shown the tainted title there, or perhaps at a Film Forum precode festival among many that theatre staged in Gotham, where DF Jr. resided in later years.

Doug and buddy Frank McHugh are introduced as skylarks living off government grub while occupying Nicaragua, a US intervention forgotten today and viewed as a mistake by most in 1932, when Depression worries here made horning in there seem a waste of time and resource. Many a soldier of fortune got starts in Nicaragua, it being go-to for men at loose ends or ones with fight still in them from WWI. Once cut loose from that fray (America withdrew forces through 1932 and had troops out the following year), Fairbanks and McHugh are living by wits in NYC, stunt flying where air circuses permit, and, in one telling scene, seizing wrapped fish from a cat's grip as starvation grips them. That part shocks today more than it would have in 1933, food off the street or out of garbage cans an oft-recourse for those with empty cupboards at home, if they had homes. Cruelty of life and people living it is aired but not emphasized, Fairbanks hired to fly contraband based on understanding with gangster Leo Carrillo that prohibition is a "silly law" they need not recognize (the gov't would scrub Prohibition along with Nicaragua in 1933). Parachute Jumper is full-up on cynicism and selective observance of statutes. We can assume it reflects attitude of those who made movies, but how many in viewership shared their outlook? Strict adherence to the Code by mid-1934 may have come with Hollywood realization that a wide public didn't see things altogether their way.


Blogger Tom said...

Your comment that Fairbanks was tough in his Salad Days autobiography on Parachute Jumper reminds me that he was also quite tough in his appraisal of the terrific Angels Over Broadway, saying, among other things, that both he and Thomas Mitchell overacted in it. Can't agree at all with that statement.

Back in the '60s I sent Doug Jr. a letter, telling him I had just gone to a Toronto film revival to see his Dawn Patrol, which I enjoyed very much.

Classy gentleman that he was, Fairbanks responded with a two page typed letter thanking me for my appraisal of his career, and expressing interest that his 1930 DP was being shown locally.

He also gave me a list of his favourite film roles. Being the diplomat that he was, he selected about ten of them.

Some years later I sort of crossed paths with Fairbanks again. A friend had been in contact with him, and it turned out that Fairbanks, in an attempt to collect video tapes of as many of his own films as he could, was missing a copy of Green Hell.

I had a copy of that adventure film and, through my friend, sent him a duped copy of my tape. Isn't that something, a film collector sending a copy of a film to the STAR of that very movie.

Again, in Salad Days, though, Fairbanks' appraisal of Green Hell was tough. He called it the worst film of his career. I hope it wasn't the second generation video tape copy quality of the tape I sent him that had an undue influence upon his final appraisal of the film.

10:11 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Love Tom's stories about DF Jr. Suggests what most of us suspect... the guy was a class act on and off screen.

And I love PARACHUTE JUMPER, which I saw for the first tie just a few months ago. As to Doug's motive for creeping around the sleeping Davis, I don't think they are all that mysterious, John. Her character says no, although in this pre-code depression era context, the film lets us infer she might just have well said yes (hey, he gave her a free bed for the night!) His character retreats although in this pre-code depression era context, the film lets us infer he might just have well forced himself on her (hey, he gave her a free bed for the night!)And in that marvelous early thirties Warner Brothers way no great virtue is attached to either decision.

Oh, then there's Frank McHugh flipping off that driver!

1:12 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I'll take Davis' early movies over her later, more "important" releases any day. Have you seen "The Big Shakedown," where she plays a pharmacist at a drugstore owned by a guy making bootleg toothpaste for a gangster? A lot more fun than "The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex"!

4:20 PM  

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