Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Bette Davis Month Bonus: 'Parachute Jumper' (1933)

Bette Davis apparently cited Parachute Jumper as the worst movie she ever made, and clips from it were used in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? to illustrate the terrible roles her character was forced to take. To be fair, Davis is pretty bad in this movie, but the film itself isn't nearly as awful as plenty of others she churned out in the '30s, or some of the truly dreadful stuff from late in her career. Maybe because she was annoyed at being stuck with yet another faithful girlfriend role, Davis coasts through Parachute Jumper, affecting a terrible, inconsistent Southern accent as a woman nicknamed "Alabama." She's the third most important character at best, behind star Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as former military pilot Bill Keller and Frank McHugh as his buddy and fellow former airman Toodles.

The two of them get booted from the Marines after going AWOL and getting drunk in Nicaragua, and they find themselves broke in New York City at the height of the Depression. Although it's mostly a lighthearted caper, Parachute Jumper does show some of the harsh realities of the Depression, including Bill and Toodles sharing the same worn-out suit to look for work, and Bill and Alabama joking about eating a stray cat. That comes soon after the two of them first meet, and she immediately shacks up with Bill and Toodles, amid plenty of sexual innuendo. The pre-Code naughtiness is Parachute Jumper's greatest appeal, and it includes lots of double entendres, drug-dealing and murder, characters in their undershirts, and Toodles giving the middle finger to a rude driver.

But the plot is a bit of a mess, jumping from the trio looking for jobs to Bill getting hired as a chauffeur for a randy socialite to its eventual focus as all three go to work for a suave gangster named Weber (Leo Carillo). They come across as simultaneously naive (believing Weber's story about border patrol agents really being hijackers) and devious, and they eventually scheme to bring Weber down, mainly because working for a criminal organization has become too risky to justify the money. They manage to escape without any legal consequences, and the movie ends with Bill and Toodles rejoining the military (from which they couldn't wait to get away), because that's apparently the only reliable source of income, and slightly less risky than working for the mob. It's a haphazard ending to a haphazard movie that never really figures out what it's supposed to be about.

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