Bartlett Cormack’s The Racket made Edward G. Robinson a star on Broadway in 1927. Howard Hughes purchased the screen rights and made two movie versions of The Racket. Most people familiar with the story today will know it best through the later 1951 version of the film pitting Robert Mitchum versus Robert Ryan. If you’ve seen that version then you’ll find much of the 1928 silent production familiar. Familiar and better.Cormack’s 1927 play was an immediate smash in New York making a star of out Robinson and providing the prototype for the Little Caesar character he’d soon bring to the screen for Warner Brothers and First National Pictures in 1931.
Robinson had initial misgivings over The Racket, writing in his 1973 autobiography All my Yesterdays, “The role was that of a gangster, and I didn’t like it” (98). Being unfamiliar with “larceny and murder” he was “forced to invent” the role from scratch. “I didn’t want to do it,” Robinson wrote, but he accepted the part after another play flopped. “Boy, did that play change my life. It was a smash!”
Cormack’s play gained immediate infamy because the former Chicago newspaperman based it in Chicago and wove his featured gangster character, Nick Scarsi, deep inside the world of Chicago politics. Scarsi had a direct line to the “Old Man,” a relationship said to mirror that of real life Chicago personalities Al Capone and “Big Bill” Thompson, Mayor of the Windy City.
After it played New York The Racket hit the road for a successful tour. But not Chicago, where it was banned. It wound up as a Top 10 selection in the prestigious Burns Mantle’s annual publication, The Best Plays of 1927-1928 for that year.
The play starred Edward G. Robinson as Scarsi and pitted him against John Cromwell as honest policeman Captain McQuigg. The same John Cromwell would go on to enjoy a long career as a film director in Hollywood where many years later he wound up as the credited director on Hughes’ 1951 remake of The Racket.
But Howard Hughes was just 22 years old when he originally purchased the rights of the Bartlett Cormack play for his Caddo Company in February 1928. From the start it was planned as the first production featuring Hughes’ new star, Thomas Meighan. Meighan had been a huge Hollywood star during the silent era but his clippings indicate he had been in a bit of a slump leading up to the deal for The Racket. Meighan was cast as Captain McQuigg and was the focus of all of the advertising for The Racket.
Hughes added two key components from his second film production, Two Arabian Knights (1927), to The Racket by late March when he assigned Lewis Milestone to direct and cast Louis Wolheim as Nick Scarsi.
Milestone would later direct Wolheim once more for Universal in the classic anti-war film All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). They were set to reunite yet again in Cormack’s adaptation of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s Oscar nominated The Front Page back with Hughes and The Caddo Company. Unfortunately Wolheim was too ill to play in that film and died just a few weeks after having been replaced by Adolphe Menjou.
Louis Wolheim had been in the movies as long as Meighan by the time of The Racket, though he was best known for his Broadway portrayals of Yank in Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape and Captain Flagg in Maxwell Anderson and Laurence Stallings’ What Price Glory.
In case you’re wondering why Edward G. Robinson wasn’t cast in the Scarsi role instead of Wolheim, he was actually turning important heads from various studios at that very time during The Racket’s California tour. “Every studio offered me a contract," Robinson wrote. "It was all flattering and delightful, but I turned them all down. I was a New Yorker and a theater man, so thanks a lot for your silly movies, but no thanks” (99). Additionally Film Daily claimed Robinson was still under contract to the Theatre Guild.
Robinson finished up work on The Racket out west before heading back home to rehearse for his next Broadway production, A Man with Red Hair.
The 1928 film version of The Racket opens with a scene which would not have been in the stage production, nor was it in Hughes’ own 1951 remake.
The city streets are empty save Meighan’s McQuigg. But as he strides down the darkened street figures loom overhead from the windows in the apartments above. A gun is pointed down towards the lone figure and a signal is given from across the way by the mash faced Wolheim as Scarsi. A shot shatters glass just ahead of McQuigg, who dives into a doorway and peers around the corner looking for the source of the gun fire. The front door opens behind him and Scarsi emerges.
“Take a tip, Mac—change your racket,” Scarsi says as he approaches his car.
“I like my racket—” says Mac.
This is the first of a few face to face confrontations McQuigg and Scarsi will have throughout The Racket. Wolheim’s unique profile seems accentuated in each of these poses, perhaps best referred to as face-offs. When McQuigg really gets Scarsi’s goat Wolheim has a way of puckering his bottom lip out where it seems to nearly kiss the bottom of his most unique feature, that severely broken nose that dips down like an exaggerated eagle’s beak.
Now this wouldn’t have held true for the majority of the original 1928 screen audience, at least for those who hadn’t personally seen Wolheim on stage, but a familiarity with Wolheim’s few talking pictures only makes his portrayal of Scarsi even better. While I find myself imagining the voices of so many silent stars there is no need to do so for Louis Wolheim in The Racket. If you’re familiar with his raspy New York tones they make a nice match for Scarsi.
In the later film version of The Racket the McQuigg character, played by Robert Mitchum, is already firmly established in his precinct after a history of being shifted around by his tormentor, Robert Ryan’s Nick Scanlon. I’d imagine this is similar to Cormack’s original 1927 stage play which was supposedly set in a single precinct.
In the 1928 film version, working from a screenplay adapted for the screen by the playwright Bartlett Cormack himself, it takes a good amount of time for Captain McQuigg to be resettled to the sticks. This gives the earlier film some of its most exciting scenes, including the opener described above.
Just as quickly Nick pays McQuigg a visit at his precinct to warn the police captain that he plans to invade a rival gangster’s territory that night. Scarsi tells McQuigg to keep away. Nothing doing, says McQuigg. “There’ll be hell popping!” he says to one of his men—Scarsi is headed into Spike Corcoran territory!
Before heading out Nick invites McQuigg to the big birthday bash he’s giving his brother Joe (George E. Stone) later that night. McQuigg promises he’ll be there. But earlier that evening he makes it a point to be at Eighth and Grand, the site Nick had warned him about. Corcoran territory.
On Eighth and Grand all hell breaks loose in the streets between Nick’s boys, Spike Corcoran’s gang and McQuigg’s police department. Nick’s right hand, Chick, winds up taken into custody by McQuigg. But Nick isn’t phased when he hears of Chick’s arrest. “The Old Man’ll fix that,” he says.
Unlike the later movie we catch a quick glimpse of the Old Man in this one. Just the back of his bald head, fringed by gray hair. He’s the ultimate power in this city. Nick Scarsi’s strong arm tactics are what keep the Old Man’s machine running. While the 1951 film doesn’t show the Old Man it relies heavily on an additional middleman character, Connolly (Don Porter), who adds a layer between Nick and the Old Man, but who winds up feeling a bit redundant.
Nick presents his brother with a ring prior to the big birthday party. In the later movie we first glimpse this ring when it is already on Lizabeth Scott’s finger. That discovery causes Robert Ryan’s Nick to give his little brother a good smack down. In this earlier version we get the story leading up to that disappointment beginning with Joe Scarsi (Stone) asking his brother if there are going to be any women at his party.
“No women! Women are poison to me!” says Nick.
In the silent version the gifted ring winds up around the finger of nightclub performer Helen Hayes (Marie Prevost), who Joe meets at his party. Once again showing us more, seeing how the ring is passed from Nick to Joe to Helen, makes the silent film a bit more interesting than the later talkie version. We're that much more invested in the ring and in Helen.
After Marie Prevost's Helen captures Joe's attention, Nick shoos his college-educated brother away when he spots his rival Spike Corcoran at the door with a posse of his men. Spike (Henry Sedley, who plays Scabby, a favorite from Little Caesar) takes a seat across from Nick. As the two men scowl at one another Spike’s men take their places surrounding Nick’s table.
McQuigg, who had previously arrived and exchanged some tough banter with Nick, had left the area to await the arrival of his officers. Once the other policemen arrive they take sets near each of Spike’s men. Nick, pistol in hand concealed under the table, gains confidence in his position with the emergence of the police.
Another scene of wild gunfire takes place with bodies falling all over the speakie. McQuigg takes Nick into custody. Nick’s lawyer witnesses the arrest and manages to beat it down to the station to be waiting with his latest writ of habeas corpus in hand. Scarsi is free, yet again. This time Nick threatens McQuigg calling him a “dumb harp” and warning him that “you’re going out.”
The newspapers soon report: “Captain McQuigg Sent to Sticks.”
McQuigg is safely out of Nick’s way now, but uses the power of the press, specifically as played by Lee Moran and Skeets Gallagher, to lure Nick to him and present another opportunity at evening the score. With McQuigg at his new precinct the 1928 silent version of The Racket largely plays out as the later remake did. Several of the key scenes in the 1951 movie were repeated exactly as scripted in the 1928 film and, presumably, the 1927 stage play.
The Racket then, as now, draws comparisons to Josef von Sternberg’s slightly earlier Underworld (1927), which kicked off a gangster cycle prior to the better remembered cycle ushered in by Little Caesar and The Public Enemy in 1931. Underworld, as the title implies, puts its entire focus on the criminal element as portrayed by George Bancroft’s kingpin, Clive Brook as his underling and Evelyn Brent as Feathers, the girl between them.
In The Racket not only is Thomas Meighan starred as Captain McQuigg, he is the hero of the story. The criminal element may be at times charming as personified by Wolheim, but he is never a character we are expected to think of as anything more than a menace. The same may be said of the later Enrico Bandello or Tom Powers, yet in Little Caesar and The Public Enemy we are given over to the world of those characters to, at times, view it from their perspective. In The Racket we see the world primarily from Meighan’s eyes as Captain McQuigg.
While McQuigg may be the moral compass of The Racket he is not without his flaws. Wolheim’s personality towers over Meighan’s throughout this movie, similar to Robert Ryan's presence in relation to Robert Mitchum in the remake. Meighan’s McQuigg makes for an interesting comparison to Mitchum, especially as each film comes to a close. While each man’s nemesis suffers matching fates the Meighan character is emotionally broken while the Mitchum character is not only a-okay, but even managed to one-up Meighan strategically. Mitchum’s winner is boring whereas Meighan’s is a character who left me curious as to what comes next.
But that’s a last second reprieve for Meighan’s largely vanilla McQuigg. And while Wolheim may be more fun than any character in either movie it turns out that Marie Prevost plays the most interesting character of them all with her unfortunately named Helen Hayes (renamed Irene Hayes for Lizabeth Scott in ‘51).
A sad sleepy post-war setting may play darker, noirish even, but that ain’t never gonna beat 1928 by my history books. And who better to personify those rip-roaring pre-Depression times than an actual singing, swinging flapper!
Helen Hayes lives the life and thus mingles with the characters such a life brings. As The Racket draws to a close Prevost’s Helen hasn’t so much changed as she has exposed herself.
She’s hardboiled, you bet, but after more of the same old story with the Scarsi brothers she finds herself utterly charmed by the young cub reporter, Ames (John Darrow), who sees her as more than a piece of flesh. She picks on him from the time they meet, mocks him, brushes him off, but is slowly warmed by his kindness and repelled when the Scarsi hand reaches out to strike him.
This is another character that gets a neat bow tying together her story at the end of the later version of The Racket where she is played by Lizabeth Scott. In the silent version the Scarsis, McQuigg, even Ames, are just additional episodes in the life of this fast-paced American girl. No neat bow for her, just more life to follow.
The 1951 version takes the action out of the precinct for a handful of scenes. But the silent version manages to defy those largely static boundaries for so long that I wasn’t even aware that The Racket was an adaptation of a stage play until I bumped into Edward G. Robinson’s autobiography.
Thomas Meighan can be a bit stiff, but as mentioned he packs a wallop towards the end. Despite all the various advertising built around Meighan, some of it displayed on this page, Louis Wolheim steals The Racket away from him and dominates every scene they share. Yes, the profile helps, but Wolheim brings a whole lot of intensity to the Scarsi role as well. Watching Marie Prevost sashay about made me feel like I was watching what a younger Mae West would do if we had such a thing available to view today.
Pat Collins, as Officer Johnson, appears to be the only member of the original Broadway cast to play in the 1928 film adaptation of The Racket. The part of Johnson was much larger in the remake, where it was played by William Talman, and Collins does little to distinguish himself in it.
Riding John Darrow’s cub reporter are the experienced pair of rival reporters played by Skeets Gallagher and Lee Moran. They make for a fun duo. Darrow is a bit too virtuous, but he does provide a fun arrival full of spunk and screaming inexperience.
Sam DeGrasse is largely invisible as Welch, the part taken by Ray Collins in the 1951 film version. The better mobsters, such as Henry Sedley as Scarsi rival Spike Corcoran or Lucien Prival as Nick’s right hand Chick, do a fine job of appearing the right combination of sleazy and scary, just as any second rank gangsters should.
Intriguing casting in Dan Wolheim as Sergeant Turck, a small part in the silent version of The Racket and one of the few improved in the remake as played by William Conrad. Wolheim is typically an extra who I am pretty positive was Louis Wolheim’s younger brother.
The Racket and Meighan’s second film under contract to Howard Hughes, The Mating Call (1928), were both Caddo Company productions undertaken in the midst of the long production history of the far better known Hell’s Angels (1930). Both of the Meighan films were distributed by Paramount.
The Racket premiered June 30, 1928 and was a critical and commercial hit. Comparisons were as popular in the period reviews as they’ve been in this article: “Just about the best of this type, not excepting Underworld,” said Film Daily; “may be compared favorably with Underworld,” said the Telegram; “more believable and more genuine than Underworld,” said the Sun.
But it stood on its own feet as well: “The film has color and movement and intelligence in direction, in acting and in story telling,” said the Herald Tribune; “sincere, capable and thoroughly commendable work,” said the Sun; “One of the outstanding pictures of the year,” said the Post; and “One of the most entertaining pictures in quite a time now grins merrily from the screen of the Paramount,” said the Times.
Despite the acclaim The Racket saw it’s share of troubles from the local censors. The August 2, 1928 edition of Film Daily reported that Howard Hughes was hoping for Will Hays’ help in the censorship battle. The Racket had been banned in Portland, Oregon and Hughes said that the censors in New York, “so emasculated the picture it was not worth showing.”
The Racket had been thought lost, but a single copy was found in the collection of Howard Hughes after his death. It was restored by the University of Nevada, Las Vegas film department. Turner Classic Movies first showed the restored version of The Racket in 2004.
The Racket is one of eight early Oscar nominated films released by Hollywood Select Video in their Academy Collection: The Envelope Please, Vol. 1. It’s a bit grainy and comes with a light watermark at the bottom right corner, so you may just want to wait for it on TCM.
Check the top area of The Racket page at TCM.com for any future scheduled airings.
The 1951 version of The Racket can be purchased as part of the Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 3.
- Robinson, Edward G. All My Yesterdays. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1973.