Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Parachute Jumper

TCM's star for Summer Under the Stars on August 14 is Bette Davis, which gives TCM the opportunity to show one of those zippy little movies she made at Warner Bros. at the beginning of her career. This time around, that movie is Parachute Jumper, which kicks the day off at 6:00 AM.

Davis plays a character who has the nickname "Alabama" because of her southern accent. But she doesn't show up right at the beginning of the movie. That honor goes to the male lead, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., playing Marine pilot Bill Keller. Bill and his friend "Toodles" (Frank McHugh)are leaving the Marines because they're going to get more lucrative jobs as commercial pilots. The only problem is that, when they get to New York, they find out that the airline for which they were going to work has gone bust. There's a depression on, don't you know. Unemployed and without much money, Bill meets Alabama, who, like thousands of other people, has migrated to New York in search of a job. She hasn't been able to find a job either, so Bill comes up with an idea: why not have Alabama shack up with him and Toodles, Three's Company-style? Well, the genders are reversed, and there's no busybody landlord to overhear things but comedically misinterpret them. In fact, the movie isn't a comedy at all.

With the depression on, Bill is forced to take on any work he can get, including doing stunt parachute jumping. This nearly gets him hit by a train, but it also brings him in contact with the rich Mrs. Newberry (Claire Dodd) and the servant set, from whom he hears that Newberry needs a new chauffeur. Bill takes the job, and eventually finds out that Newberry is the mistress of smuggler Kurt Weber (Leo Carrillo). When Kurt finds out that Bill was a pilot in the Marines, Kurt enlists Bill to fly shipments of booze over the border from Canada. Since there was a strong sentiment in society that Prohibition was immoral, Bill takes the job. But then he finds out that Kurt is also smuggling harder drugs. Apparently it's OK to alter your brain chemistry with some chemicals, but not with others, because this is where Bill draws the line, leading to an exciting climax in the air. Or, at least, in sets designed to look like airplane interiors, combined with process photography of planes in flight.

Parachute Jumper runs a brief 70 minutes or, but like a lot of the short movies of the 1930s, it packs a lot into those 70 minutes. (TCM's database lists multiple running times, all of which are different from the schedule's mention of 72 minutes; IMDb lists 65 minutes.) It's not one of the highest points of Bette Davis' career, although she's enjoyable enough. Fairbanks is adequate too, with what comedy there is provided by McHugh. If I were going to introduce people to 1930s programmers, I think there are quite a few other movies I'd pick before Parachute Jumper in that they're higher-quality overall; have things in them that I find fun; and would be easier for people who aren't movie buffs to get into. But for anybody who already likes such programmers, Parachute Jumper is a good entry that successfully enterains the viewer.

I don't believe Parachute Jumper has ever received a DVD release, not even courtesy of the Warner Archive.

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