Talking pictures revealed many flaws about the silent movie stars audiences had idolized. Although Carole Lombard masterfully transitioned into talkies, it’s a wonder the remainder of the cast in The Racketeer had careers at all. This was among Lombard’s first sound pictures, as was true for most actors in 1929 when the technique really took hold. Despite what was a poor-quality print aired on TCM (we should be grateful to have access to it at all), I was able to determine that Lombard and her leading man Robert Armstrong were about the only ones on screen with any acting talent.
We open on a city street where a man attempts to play the violin but can barely hold himself up out of malnutrition and poor health. A big shot saunters up as a cop is questioning the man and insists the guy cannot be arrested if he has $50 in his pocket, and thus provides the downtrodden musician with a bit of charity. Just as this big shot, racketeer Keane (Armstrong), walks away, he sees a blonde in a cab notice the nearly unconscious musician and help him into the hack as though she knows him.
Keane later sees this blonde Rhoda (Lombard) at a gambling party. She arrives and the whispers begin as we learn that she had left her wealthy husband for a musician she was madly in love with only to end up penniless. She joins Keane’s table and plays many a good hand of poker. In one instance, however, the desperate woman cheats and only Keane notices and defends her against the others’ suspicions.
Keane comes around to visit Rhoda, who is trying to nurse back to health her long-lost alcoholic lover Tony (Roland Drew), and the two start a relationship that allows Rhoda to have some financial stability and care for the man she loves –at least until he’s well enough to tell her to leave. The conflict arises over whether she should choose her former love or her new comfortable life and we too are not sure who is the best fit.
Besides the quality of this film being in desperate need of remastering, the acting and dialogue delivery is poor at best. Most characters give awkward and unnatural performances and let Lombard and Armstrong carry the movie. Lombard uses many of her signature facial expressions here although in excess. I cannot recommend this flick for everyday watching but forced myself through it merely because of a devotion to Lombard.