Frances Dee

Love is a Racket (1932)

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?

I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

When Besty Connell (Frances Dee) agreed to take a nursing job in the Caribbean, little did she know she would soon find herself caring for the living dead.  When she finds out Paul Holland (Tom Conway), a sugar plantation owner in Saint Sebastian, needs a nurse for his wife Jessica, she is eager to trade Canada for the Caribbean and takes the job.  When she arrives, she lives on the plantation with Paul, his half-brother Wesley Rand (James Ellison), their mother Mrs. Rand (Edith Barrett), and Jessica.  During her first night at the plantation, Betsy hears some mysterious crying, and when she goes to investigate, she finds herself backed into a corner by a sleepwalking Jessica.  Not realizing who Jessica was, she screams and wakes up the whole house.  The next day, she talks to Jessica’s doctor who explains that Jessica suffered from a severe fever that caused permanent damage and there is no cure.

After spending some time in the Caribbean, Betsy begins to fall in love with Paul and becomes determined to get Jessica to walk again to make him happy.  After insulin shock treatments don’t work to bring Jessica back, Betsy decides to bring Jessica to see a local Voodoo priest.  When they arrive at the houmfort, Betsy is shocked to discover that the Voodoo priest is none other than Mrs. Rand!  Mrs. Rand (who is also a doctor) explains that she’s using Voodoo as a way to make typical medicine more accepted among the natives.  Meanwhile, the natives begin to suspect Jessica is a zombie.  After Betsy takes Jessica home again, the natives become quite insistent that Jessica be returned so they can determine whether or not she’s a zombie.  Tensions rise to the point that an official investigation into Jessica’s condition was started.  When Mrs. Rand finds out about this, she claims that Jessica really is a zombie after all.  She says that when she found out Jessica had fallen in love with Wesley and was planning to leave Paul, she put a curse on Jessica to turn her into a zombie.  Wesley suddenly becomes determined to get Jessica out of her perpetual zombie state any way he can.

What fascinates me about I Walked with a Zombie is that for a horror movie, there’s very little violence, blood, or even screaming involved.  The one really violent act takes place off-screen, you never actually see any blood, and there’s only one scream in the whole movie.  And even though it’s a movie about zombies, this zombie isn’t like anything you see in Night of the Living Dead.  But it still manages to be quite eerie.  Jacques Tourneur worked the scenery, cinematography, and the music for all their worth.  Even though I typically only watch this one around Halloween, I always kind of feel like I should be watching it in the summer because the atmosphere is created so well that I can almost feel the warm breeze when I watch it.  The character Carrefour also adds a lot of creepiness, especially when he shows up at the house to get Jessica.  I Walked with a Zombie truly is a testament to Val Lewton’s ability to turn out outstanding low-budget movies.  Nothing about this movie looks low-budget or like it was made in only a few weeks.  Overall, it’s a very solid horror film, very worthy of being a classic Halloween flick.  And best of all, it’s only 70 minutes long!  I always love a movie that manages to get so much wonderful stuff into such a short timeframe!  With such a short runtime, there’s no reason to not give it a chance.