Racket Busters – 1938

Racket Busters Poster

My Review

—Ugh—

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Director: Lloyd Bacon

The Lowdown

A truck driver (George Brent) has to rally his fellow drivers when a gangster (Bogart) threatens to turn their union into a mob controlled racket.

What I Thought

Let me sum this one up for you quickly to save some time:

A brave man stands up to a gangster. The gangster starts hurting people. The brave man instantly caves and joins the gangster’s racket. One of the brave man’s friends dies. The brave man returns . . . a little too late in my opinion . . . and finally saves the day.

Director Lloyd Bacon is by no means a shoddy director. Working with Bogart on seven different films – Marked Woman, San Quentin, Racket Busters, The Oklahoma Kid, Invisible Stripes, Brother Orchid, and Action in the North Atlantic – this film is by far the weakest out of all of their collaborations together. And that’s saying something, considering how maligned The Oklahoma Kid has become for casting Bogart as a black hat villain against James Cagney’s white hat good guy. (Although, in the spirit of full disclosure, I really, really liked The Oklahoma Kid.)

The main problems with this film are firmly rooted within the script. It’s pretty hard to root for a hero that abandons his friends until they start to get beat up and die. Maybe if they’d stopped short of actually killing Brent’s friend and mentor played by George O’Shea – you know, maybe just put him in a coma – our sympathies for Brent’s heroic revival might have been achievable.

As it is, I found it very challenging to root for Brent at all. I was just waiting for someone, including his main gal, played by Gloria Dickson, to stand up and shout, “Uh, thanks! But where you a few days ago when everyone wasn’t injured or dead?”

Am I being too hard on this film? Maybe. Maybe I’m just sore because Bogart is used in only the most basic and bland ways as the lead villain. But this one sure seems like a big misstep between an actor and a director that worked pretty well together.

The Bogart Factor

Playing gangster John ‘Czar’ Martin, this isn’t a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it part for Bogart, but it’s not much more. He makes a brief appearance every once in a while in order to boss his goons around, but I’d be shocked if any of his scenes here last more than forty-five seconds.

Considering that this is another one of his tough-as-nails gangsters, you would think that it’d be a slam dunk to let Bogart do some of the heavy lifting with the beat downs and the gunplay. Instead, I think the most dramatic scene that he’s involved in before the final shootout involves a massage table and some snarky dialogue.

This one’s not a must see for anybody.

The Cast

George Brent plays Denny Jordan, our main truck driving protagonist. It’s no fault of Brent’s that this one is a lemon. He showed us some good stuff alongside of Bette Davis in Dark Victory and In This Our Life, but the script here completely fails him. On a positive note, he does a great job pulling off a more blue collar role than I’ve seen him in before.

Gloria Dickson plays Brent’s wife, Nora, and that’s about all you really need to know about this underwritten role.

Allen Jenkins is one of the few bright spots in the film, playing another trucker, ‘Skeets’ Wilson, who opens up his own tomato company during the trucking racket controversy. Still, the writers weren’t able to give a guy as amazing as Jenkin’s more than one or two mild laughs.

Bogie Film Blog favorite Penny Singleton plays Jenkin’s wife, Gladys. She’s another small bright spot in the film, but her part’s even smaller than Bogart’s.

Oscar O’Shea plays the truck driving foreman, Pops. O’Shea comes out the best here, as you’ll like his character so much by the time that he dies that you’ll want to give up on the film just for being so cruel. Yes, small spoiler there. But you need to prepare yourself for one of the dumbest script choices in Bogart’s filmography.

Fifteen time Bogart collaborator John Ridgely shows up for a tiny role as a truck driver who calls Brent “yellow.”

Classic Bogie Moment

There’s very little to pick from here, but Director Bacon has a mildly creative crime montage where Bogart is superimposed in the background, smoking and smirking. I guess it’s kind of interesting:

Racket Buster Classic

The Bottom Line

For Bogart completists only.

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5 thoughts on “Racket Busters – 1938

  1. You’ve kind of made me want to see this even though you make it sound so dreadful – you’ve sparked my curiosity! I’m also interested to see that Gloria Dickson is in it, since I liked her with John Garfield in ‘They Made Me a Criminal’… sadly it seems she has been forgotten because she died in a house fire in her 20s.

  2. Pingback: Allen Jenkins | The Bogie Film Blog

  3. Pingback: Lloyd Bacon | The Bogie Film Blog

  4. Pingback: The Gangsters | The Bogie Film Blog

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