Though much derided by Bette Davis — it was one of the “idiotic” movies she always cited as the reason she sued Warner Bros. for better parts — Parachute Jumper is actually something of a Pre-Code delight, if a rather strange one. Not the least strange thing is its title. Yes, for a span of about five minutes star Douglas Fairbanks Jr. is indeed an exhibition parachute jumper. But if the film had to be named after one of his jobs during the course of the proceedings, Marine Flyboy, Chauffeur, Kept Man, Bodyguard, Bootlegger, or Dope Smuggler would have done as well, and possibly better. As might be guessed from the range of occupations Mr. Fairbanks undertakes over the movie’s brisk 71 minutes, Parachute Jumper is a tale of the Depression when work was hard to come by. Fairbanks plays Bill Keller, who, along with his friend Toodles (Frank McHugh), is kicked out of the Marines in the film’s opening. The two head for New York to take jobs for a commercial aviation company, only to find the business has gone belly-up by the time they get there. Along the way, Bill picks up down-on-her-luck Patricia “Alabama” Brent (Davis) and takes her to share his poverty with Toodles — nothing indecent, mind you, though he does make an attempt at it.
The rest of the jobs — along with his romance with Alabama — make up the bulk of the movie. Considering the running time, you may reasonably conclude that Parachute Jumper wastes no time in telling its story. Yet it still has time to pepper the film with moments of great charm and the usual Warner Bros. early talkie array of risqué Pre-Code jokes. It’s really no surprise that Davis hated the film — her appalling Southern accent is on the embarrassing side, and she isn’t given much to do — but it’s all fast and funny, hard-boiled and slightly cynical. In other words, it’s the kind of early 1930s fare that only Warner Bros. could make. The always-underrated Alfred E. Green does a terrific job of keeping things moving and displays a knack for moving camerawork throughout. Viewers may be surprised to see Leo Carrillo — mostly associated with warm, comedic characters — as a ruthless and lecherous gangster, but he’s effective in the role.
The Asheville Film Society will screen Parachute Jumper Tuesday, May 13, at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.