Bette Davis' Least Favorite Film
By Ed Garea
Parachute Jumper (WB, 1933) – Director: Alfred E. Green. Writers: John Francis Larkin (s/p), Rian James (story “Some Call It Love”). Cast: Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Bette Davis, Frank McHugh, Claire Dodd, Leo Carillo, Harold Huber, & Thomas E. Jackson. B&W, 65 minutes.
Back in the days of my misspent youth, one of my television staples was late night programming, especially Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett. I would alternate between them, depending who the guests were that night. One night, Cavett was the clear winner because his only guest that night was the one and only Bette Davis. Davis was always a great interview because of her no holds barred approach to any subject. At one point in the interview she was going on about her early years at Warner’s, back when she appeared in almost anything to get experience. I remember Cavett asking what her least favorite film was. Without hesitating, Bette spat out “Parachute Jumper.” I forgot the specific reasons why that night, but it seems that she held it in low regard for quite some time. A clip from the movie was even featured in Davis’s film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? as an example of her character’s declining movie career.
But was it as dreadful as she said it was? I remember writing down the title after the Cavett show and taping it next to my television as a reminder. Every week I would scour through TV Guide, back then the indispensable resource for the Movie Nut. After weeks of searching, I finally found the film listed for a late showing. When I watched it I realized it was not nearly as bad as Davis intimated. It wasn’t good, but it wasn’t that bad; at least it was watchable. I came to realize that perhaps the reason Davis hated the film so much was because she wasn’t very good in it.
Parachute Jumper was made during Davis’s early years at Warner Bros., when they didn’t exactly know what to do with her. It wasn’t until she made Of Human Bondage in 1934 for RKO that they knew what they had. And even after she won the Oscar the next year for Dangerous, they still didn’t know what to do with her. She had to flee to England and try (unsuccessfully) to break her contract before Warner’s finally got the message.
But back in these early days, Davis usually was cast as “The Girlfriend.” In Parachute Jumper, Davis is Patricia “Alabama” Kent, an unemployed steno who runs into the duo of Bill Keller (Fairbanks) and Toodles Cooper (McHugh), two former Marine pilots looking for work as commercial pilots. Patricia is supposedly called “Alabama” because of her Southern accent, but the film is being very generous here, for it sounds as if Patricia is from southern New England rather than the Southern United States. After buying her breakfast with the remains of his money, Bill, upon hearing that Alabama is homeless, invites her to bunk with him and Toodles in their apartment. Discerning that his intentions are honorable, she agrees. Bill tries his hand at parachute jumping (hence the title) with an aerial show and is nearly killed when he lands on railroad tracks in front of an oncoming train.
After promising Alabama he will never try that stunt again, Bill overhears two chauffeurs talking about a Mrs. Newberry, who is in dire need of an elegant chauffeur. He spends the money he earned for the parachute stunt to buy a uniform and gets the job. It seems, though, that a chauffeur is to provide more services for Mrs. Newberry (Dodd) than merely driving. As she’s coming on to him in her apartment, her gangster boyfriend, Kurt Weber (Carrillo) enters, catching Keller in a most awkward position. He gets set to shoot Bill, but impressed with his pluck in the situation, boots Mrs. Newberry out of the apartment and offers Bill a job as his bodyguard, which Bill accepts.
At first Bill’s job consists of hiding behind a curtain in Weber’s office, pistol ready in case someone tries to kill his boss. One day, he hears Alabama in Weber’s office flirting and offering her services as a secretary. Back home, Bill and Alabama argue, mainly, it seems because they’re supposed to fight about something at this juncture of the movie.
Weber is, among other nasty things, a bootlegger, and once he discovers that both Bill and Toodles are pilots, he hires them to replace his former pilots, whom he hasn’t paid, to smuggle booze in from Canada. The former pilots are whacked for their troubles in trying to collect what was owed them. So now we have it that Mr. Weber is not exactly a nice guy, which will play itself later into a stronger plot point.
During a smuggling trip to Canada, Bill and Toodles are intercepted by the Border Patrol. Bill shoots them down, believing them to be hijackers. Alabama overhears a conversation Weber is having with his enforcer about taking out Bill and Toodles. She informs Bill and convinces him to resign, which he does. But Weber asks him to do just one more job and Bill reluctantly agrees. When Bill discovers that the little packages he’s been picking up along with the hootch contain drugs, he decides he’s had enough. But Weber forces him and Toodles into the plane, planning to kill them and dispose of their bodies while airborne. Bill overpowers Weber, tells Toodles to hit the silk, and crashes his plane, making it look as though Weber had been flying with him as his captive.
The film fades out with Toodles re-upping in the Marines, and Bill, after getting Alabama’s permission, joining him as well.
Parachute Jumper is nothing more than a routine programmer, directed by Alfred E. Green, who, along with Lloyd Bacon was one of Warner’s house directors, counted upon to deliver the script as is in a pre-set amount of time with no hijinks in the artistic department. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. was Warner’s answer to Clark Gable, although he was never given the sort of roles – and expense budgets – that would propel Gable into the stardom stratosphere. Fairbanks was actually a good actor saddled with an impossible legacy, being the son of Douglas Sr. and the stepson of Mary Pickford. As a star, he lacked what would be later called the indeterminable charisma to carry a picture. Later, he reinvented himself as a sort of David Niven-esque actor; a charming bon vivant. McHugh is the comic relief in the film as exemplified by the name “Toodles.” Toodles? Leo Carrillo is smoothly sinister as Weber, and Claire Dodd practically invisible as Mrs. Newberry.
As for Fairbanks and Davis, their chemistry is limited, as if they were speeding through the picture. As a matter of fact, the pacing of Parachute Jumper is rapid, with one scene melting into another no matter if there’s a logical relation or not. There's the scene with Bill joining the aerial show as a parachute jumper, then just as quickly dropping the job to become a driver and ultimately get involved with bootlegger Weber with all the fell of merely being inserted to justify the film’s title; after all, he only jumps once in the film, while the title would lead us to believe it’s about the world of those who do it for a living.
Davis herself has little to do in the film besides admiring, and later scolding, Bill’s acts of courageous stupidity. As mentioned before, it’s not one of her better performances, but it is better than some of the programmers she did in 1935 and 1936. Perhaps the reason she knocked it so much was because, for her, all the small bad roles seemed to have melded into one with the passage of time.
McHugh is McHugh – always entertaining no matter what the plot or set-up. As Comic Relief his one duty is to be a loyal sidekick to The Hero, which he does quite admirably. He has one good scene after hitting the silk at the end, landing safely, and trying to hitch a ride. When a motorist drives by without stopping, McHugh drops his thumb and flips the bird.
There are other telltale signs that this is a Pre-Code film as well. Their Marine commanders discover Bill and Toodles in a brothel in Nicaragua after being presumed lost when their plane crashed.
Despite the fact that Alabama sleeps on the couch in Bill and Toodles’ apartment while the boys share a bed, there are still some sexual goings-on between Bill and Alabama with Bill walking in on her in the middle of the night. When she calls him on it he weakly replies that he’s only checking up on her to see if she’s OK, then tells her that it won’t happen again, at least not as long as he’s sober. When Mrs. Newberry hires Bill as her chauffeur she first notices his physique and later tells him that his job will include considerable “night work.” In case he doesn’t quite get it, she goes on to tell him that her previous chauffeurs were all Frenchmen because they are much “more versatile.”
Bill is perfectly happy smuggling in liquor because Prohibition was treated in the movies as the national joke. It’s referred to in one scene as “What Law?” “The one we all laugh at.” But when Bill discovers that, in addition to booze, he’s also smuggling in narcotics, well, that crosses the line and Weber is not only a criminal, but a low life as well. Even though “Weber” is a somewhat generic name, Leo Carrillo, a distinctly Italian-looking actor plays him with a trace of Italian accent. Our heroes may be smugglers, bootleggers and petty thieves, but they are not dope dealers.
In the next to final scene, Bill is looking for Alabama in an office building. “I’m going to go through this building like a dose of . . .” as the elevator doors close, cutting him off (though the audience well understood what he was saying). As he runs from office to office, barging in, looking for Alabama, he comes across a rather fey individual taking notes. Fairbanks’ reaction to is put on a showgirl voice and camp it up.
The other thing Parachute Jumper has going for it is the mood and tone. Set in the midst of the Depression, it reflects the things most people had to do back then just to survive. When Bill meets Patricia on a park bench and offers to buy her breakfast, he shows her some sugar cubes he’s stolen as they left the restaurant. She replies by showing him a bottle of ketchup she heisted from the place. Comparing their respective take, they laugh about it while worrying where the next meal will come from. We’re never far from the realities of joblessness and homelessness, but we are still determined not to let it get the better of us. We may get knocked down, but we get right up again. This is the underlying message of the film. Watch Fairbanks in any of his other Warner's films and we get the same impression of Depression life. He may have to sell his body to Mrs. Newberry to keep his job, but that was accepted as part of the facts of life, as was Davis’ flirtation with Weber to land a job as his secretary. It was nothing that couldn’t be overcome with time and luck.
Parachute Jumper, while not the best picture of the Pre-Code period, is still entertaining, not only because of the snappy dialogue, but also for its aerial scenes. One sure way to entice an audience in those days was to feature airborne daredevil acrobatics, as flying was still a novelty. Given the fact that in 1933 sound itself was still in its infancy, we can understand the inclusion of the action sequences as sound was tied to the stage; a straight progression with nuances such as subtext still in the future. Best of all, Parachute Jumper clocks in at an economical 65 minutes, which makes it ideal viewing for late at night.
Leo Carrillo was a solid supporting actor who kicked around in movies until gaining a measure of fame as Pancho, the sidekick to Duncan Renaldo’s Cisco Kid in a series of films made from 1948 to 1950, and continuing as a television show for 157 episodes from 1950 to 1956.
In his autobiography, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. said that Bette Davis thought director Alfred E. Green’s sense of humor was infantile. Of his co-star, he stated that she was “not particularly pretty,” but rather quite plain. But “one didn’t easily forget her unique personality.” He also characterized her as always conscientious and serious, devoid of humor. Be this as it may, it certainly didn’t stop producer Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. from hiring Davis two decades later to star in Another Man’s Poison.