US Release Date: 01-28-1933
Directed by: Alfred E. Green
- Douglas Fairbanks Jr., as
- Bill Keller
- Bette Davis, as
- Patricia 'Alabama' Brent
- Frank McHugh, as
- Toodles Cooper
- Claire Dodd, as
- Mrs. Newberry
- Leo Carrillo, as
- Kurt Weber
- Harold Huber, as
- Steve Donovan
- Thomas E. Jackson, as
- Detective Lt. Coffey
- Walter Brennan, as
- Counterman at Jewel Diner
- Leon Ames, as
- Pilot with Alabama
- Nat Pendleton as
- Motorcycle Policeman
Bette Davis meets Douglas Fairbanks jr. in Central Park in Parachute Jumper.
Late in her life whenever Bette Davis was asked to name her least favorite picture out of the more than 80 she made in her career she nearly always mentioned Parachute Jumper first. A clip from it was even used in 1962's Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (along with a scene from Ex-Lady) to demonstrate just how inept an actress Jane Hudson was as an adult. It is easy to see why Davis disliked the part. She plays yet another thankless girlfriend (a role more suited to Glenda Farrell or Joan Blondell) where she looks pretty and makes with the wise cracks but for the most part takes a backseat to her male costars. It also features the most overcooked Southern accent of her career.
Despite Miss Davis's reservations, Parachute Jumper (the third of seven movies she would make with director Alfred E. Green from 1932 to 36) is actually a fairly enjoyable little pre-code quickie from Warner Brothers. It has plenty of action, rapid fire dialogue and a pace that doesn't allow for boredom. Some of the more memorable moments include Fairbanks approaching Davis in the middle of the night hoping for sex as she sleeps on the couch, an excitingly filmed sequence where Fairbanks parachutes onto some train tracks and narrowly misses being run over, Fairbanks doing some very effeminate homosexual mimicry, and a hitchhiking Frank McHugh giving a passing motorist the finger for not stopping (OK so he used his index finger, the gesture is still unmistakable).
Doug Fairbanks Jr. stars as Bill Keller a tough as nails pilot in what seems like a role more suited to James Cagney (or perhaps Chester Morris or maybe even Dick Powell). As the story opens he and sidekick/best friend Toodles (the reliably amusing Frank McHugh) are pilots in the marines stationed in Nicaragua. After a brief opening scene the story finds them in New York looking for work. Keller meets a cute blond unemployed stenographer (Davis) in Central Park (see photo). Her name is Patricia but due to her pronounced Southern accent she is known as Alabama. Keller buys Alabama lunch and they bond as they steal a bottle of ketchup and other items from the diner and then take a fish from an alley cat. Keller invites Alabama back to his and Toodles place and the three of them set up housekeeping together.
Eventually Keller lands a job chauffeuring a wealthy socialite named Mrs. Newberry (Claire Dodd) who is also the mistress of a racketeer named Kurt Weber (Leo Carillo years before taking on the role of Pancho, sidekick to the Cisco Kid). One night Weber catches Keller in a compromising position with Mrs. Newberry. He is impressed with the way Keller faces down a gun without showing fear and he hires him to be his personal bodyguard on the spot. Keller's job duties entail sitting behind a curtain in Weber's office with two loaded pistols just in case any of Weber's clients get tough. Pilots Keller and Toodles wind up smuggling alcohol (and unbeknownst to them heroin) into the country from Canada for Weber as the story heads to its climax.
Parachute Jumper may not have been one of Bette Davis's favorite roles but it is the perfect old B & W movie for a rainy day matinee. It has a memorable cast and some decent action scenes. Look for uncredited bit parts from Walter Brennan in a diner scene as a greasy spoon cook and Leon Ames as a pilot.
Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Bette Davis in Parachute Jumper.
I think that Davis ranking this movie as her least favorite probably had more to do with the experience of making it than it did with the actual film. Her part doesn't exactly stretch her talents and the southern accent she was required to do that Patrick mentioned is so bad that when I first heard it I assumed her character was faking it. She also stated later that director Alfred E. Green had an infantile sense of humor. Her co-star Fairbanks had the opposite opinion of her, calling her in his biography, plain and utterly humorless. In any case, none of that means, as Patrick mentioned, that this isn't a mildly entertaining little film.
Fairbanks makes a dashing leading man, but I agree with Patrick that someone like Cagney or even Gable would have been better in the part. Fairbanks had leading man good looks, but he lacked Cagney or Gable's roguish charisma. Cagney and Blondell or Gable and Harlow would have brought an extra spark and some real heat to the leading couple, something the lukewarm Fairbanks and Davis are unable to generate.
Being a pre-code film there are several scenes that stand-out. Patrick mentioned the moment where Fairbanks comes upon a sleeping Davis with the clear intent of wanting sex. In fact, even having a single woman living with two men wouldn't have been allowed after the code. Another risque scene comes later when Fairbanks is hired as a chauffeur for Claire Dodd's Mrs. Newbury. During the interview process she leers at his body, forcing him to remove his jacket and spin for her so she can get a good look, even feeling his muscles in the process. She then makes it as plain as she can without using the actual words that part of his duties will be having sex with her for which he will be compensated.
The quite literal title seems rather silly. There are a couple of parachute jumps in the film, both Fairbanks and McHugh being pilots, but they're hardly the focus of the plot. I suppose in 1933 they were still something of a novelty and maybe they brought in the curious, but surely they could have thought up a better title than that. Despite the misnomer, the action is fairly good for the time.There are several scenes in the air and a couple of airplane crashes.
Fans of Davis may be disappointed with her part as she isn't given much to do, but it's still interesting seeing her when she was still young enough to be mildly attractive. And like many films of the era, it only runs a little over an hour. Not a classic, but as Patrick intimated, it's a fun watch.
Bette Davis, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Frank McHugh in Parachute Jumper
Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was one of a few silent leading men whose career improved with sound. Like his first wife, Joan Crawford, Fairbanks Jr. starred in several silent films but also appeared in some classic sound movies. They co-starred in Our Modern Maidens in 1929, the same year they married. The year Parachute Jumper was released also saw Fairbanks Jr. and Crawford divorce.
As Scott wrote, Fairbanks Jr. had classic matinee idol good looks. His hair was slicked back and his pencil thin mustache was quite dashing. However, he lacked real star quality. As my brothers noted, any number of actors could have been an improvement. In fact, Nat Pendleton, who has a small part here as a motorcycle cop, would have added some real charm to the role of Bill Keller.
Either way, Mrs. Newberry finds Bill attractive and jumps on the excuse to get him alone when he drops her off at her apartment and asks, “How’s the chances of a salary advance?” She smiles, “It’s a bit chilly. Can you make a fire, killer? Then come up. Make me a fire and we’ll talk.” Bill tells a waiting Patricia and Toodles that he has to go up and build a fire. An annoyed Patricia states, “A fire! That dame looks pretty hot to me.” They wait in the street for Bill to come down. A frustrated Patricia says to Toodles, “He’s been up there an hour. It wouldn’t take that long to build a fire with a pocket knife.”
The dialogue is dated and clichéd. When Kurt catches Bill with his girl he brandishes a gun and says, “I have seen enough. I am presenting you with a belly full of lead.” When Bill gets warned about some dangerous men, the man’s choice of words are perhaps a double entendre, “(If) these mugs get gay, remember they pack their rods right here.” He then pats himself on his butt.
Bette Davis may not have thought of this film as her best but neither is it Fairbanks’, whose career peaked with Gunga Din (1939). The midair plane hijacking attempt by another plane does not make sense. Still, with such a limited running time, a quick pace and these notable stars, Parachute Jumper remains an interesting watch for any 1930s film buff.
Photos © Copyright Warner Bros. (1933)