It’s never a good idea to give too much of yourself in a relationship, and that’s a lesson newspaper columnist Jimmy Russell (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) is about to find out the hard way. He’s in love with aspiring actress Mary Wodehouse (Frances Dee), and since he writes the Broadway gossip column, he uses that to help influence her career. His friend Sally (Ann Dvorak) has been in love with him, but he’s too blind to see that Mary will take him for everything she can get. Even though Mary has also been seeing a Broadway producer, when Mary writes a bunch of bad checks, of course Jimmy wants to jump in and pay them off for her. But it turns out someone has beaten him to the punch. Gangster Eddie Shaw (Lyle Talbot) isn’t too happy with Jimmy or his newspaper since he found out they were planning to break a story about a racket he’s involved in. Even though Jimmy agreed to kill the story, Eddie went ahead and bought up all of Mary’s bad checks. Eddie tells Jimmy that he’s headed off to Atlantic City for a few days and Jimmy follows them, but when Jimmy arrives, he finds out it’s a trap and is held captive by one of Eddie’s cronies.
Meanwhile, in New York, Eddie takes this opportunity to start winning Mary over. He sends her a bracelet and a telegram telling her to come over to his place. Mary is scared and with Jimmy out of town, doesn’t know what to do. Finally, her Aunt Hattie decides she can’t sit idly by and watch Mary fall in with a guy like Eddie, so she decides to settle the score herself. By now, Jimmy has gotten away from Eddie’s cronies and makes it back to Eddie’s apartment just in time to see Jimmy dead and Hattie ditching the evidence. Still wanting to protect Mary, he destroys all the evidence and makes it look like Eddie killed himself. But in yet another crazy twist of fate, Jimmy’s friend Stanley (Lee Tracy) also comes by just in time to see Jimmy shove Eddie’s body off the building and assumes that Jimmy was the one who killed him.
Everyone believes that Eddie committed suicide, but Stanley doesn’t know the real story. To protect his friend, he took some incriminating evidence from the scene of the crime and hands them over to Jimmy. He has no intention of ratting his friend out, he just doesn’t want them falling into the wrong hands. Later, they head back to Jimmy’s apartment and get a telegram from Mary announcing her sudden marriage to that Broadway producer. Finally, Jimmy realizes what a sap he’s been. He sends Aunt Hattie a little wedding present — the gun she used to kill Eddie — and declares that he will never fall in love again. But the way he looks at Sally lets us know that won’t last long.
I think Love is a Racket is something of an underrated pre-code. The story is pretty convoluted, but its sharp script and strong cast make it pretty enjoyable. Doug Fairbanks, Jr., Frances Dee, Lyle Talbot, and Lee Tracy are all great, although it’s too bad that there wasn’t more to Ann Dvorak’s character. She gets some witty lines to say, but other than that, there’s just not a whole lot of substance to her part. Give this one a shot next time it’s on TCM. With a runtime of just over an hour, what have you got to lose?