Tuesday, July 15, 2008
Howard Hughes is known by many as a aviator and then, in his later life, an all around general eccentric, but what is often forgotten is that as a young man, he produced several high quality films of the late silent era. The Racket is one such film, nominated for Best Picture in 1927, but winning out to the crowd-pleasing aerial epic, Wings.
Hughes' immense fortune allowed him to hire the best directors, the best talent, and the most competent behind-the-scenes workers. This was true with The Racket, whose director, Lewis Milestone, later went on to direct one of the best anti-war films of all time, All Quiet on the Western Front. Though Hughes produced only four silent films, all toward the end of the '20s, each was of uniformly good caliber and almost all pushed the envelope to a degree most of Hollywood would not. Hughes-produced films were among the first to showcase nudity, for example, though to a degree that seems beyond tame these days. Nudity in the silent era was a kind of "Did-I-really-see-what-I thought-I-did" kind of peekaboo tease of a second or two.
A focus on gritty realism and the more lurid details of life characterize these films, much more in line with the overseas film market than the domestic market, which was content to churn out lighthearted, fluffy films seemingly without much care. While America was basking in the glow of an broadly optimistic, overly cheery period, the shadowy, symbolic stagecraft and dark shadows of German expressionism and Danish and Swedish cinema of the period was quite the contrast. Hughes' films, unlike most conventional American films of the time, have a more cynical, street-smart overall attitude, while still managing to managing to appear thoroughly American in delivery.
Having viewed several dozen silent films, most of them have the same kind of saccharine, contrived plots and lazy camera work as today. Put together in a cookie cutter, assembly line fashion, most were designed, then as now, as star vehicles which pushed pretty faces in exotic circumstances. This makes The Racket all the more special, because it strikes the optimum balance between edgy art and commercial sense, a combination which many artists seek to find but few lack the sensibility to pull off.
The Racket's innovative camera work and shot composition put it heads and shoulders above almost all of the films of the period. Today's audience often assumes that all silent films had some kind of noble character and high artistic merit, and this is largely because only around 10-20% of them survive. At best carelessly preserved, if preserved at all, their printing upon highly fragile celluloid filmstock proved to be the undoing of many of them. The only films that survive are generally those which either made lots of money at the box office, or contained spectacular artistic achievements. Often films survive that were stored in the private collections of auteurs like Charlie Chaplin who took similarly obsessive control over their prints and the craftsmanship of their movies. Indeed, the only reason The Racket survives is because Hughes himself included the picture in his own personal archives.
Controversial for its time because it revealed a large city totally under the sway of a gangster (a thinly veiled portrait of mobster Al Capone), even a largely corrupt police force, The Racket ushered in an crime drama obsession in cinema that ran for the next five to six years, well into the era of the early talkies.