“She’s got a southern accent like I’ve got a southern accent”
Just like Sunset Blvd decided to stick the knife into the corpse of Queen Kelly, almost as if to thumb its nose at a relic of a bygone age (and in full view of an uncomfortable Erich von Stroheim), so too did Parachute Jumper receive a posthumous kicking almost thirty years later in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? As a result, and perhaps a little out of embarrassment, Bette Davis would for years mention how awful the movie and her performance in it were. I really didn’t know what to expect when I finally saw it, and although it’s actually a pretty decent movie, it turns out that the 30s producer character in Baby Jane was right about the accent but very wrong about the acting and the film.
Sadly, Bette Davis doesn’t really have a whole lot to do in the picture, as the story really belongs to Douglas Fairbanks Jr. He’s surprisingly good here, and does everything right but I always feel with him that no matter how respectable his career was, that possibly more than anyone in Hollywood he’s just someone who can’t escape the shadow of his last name. He’s always charming and never less than competent but he’s just not the larger than life character that you expect from the name Fairbanks.
Anyway, the story concerns Fairbanks and his pal Frank McHugh who are a pair of ex Marines looking for work in the Depression. They find a friend in Bette Davis and quickly decide to set up home with her for reasons not entirely explained or plausible. From there Fairbanks does whatever he can to earn money, becoming a parachute jumper (to justify the incredibly bland title), a chauffeur, a bodyguard and eventually a smuggler. That’s really it for the plot, but the fun comes from the colourful details as the film gallops through its breakneck running time of just over an hour. The film positively reeks of the Depression, with numerous episodes devoted to the survive-at-all-costs attitude, combined with some rather salacious pre-code fun.
Fairbanks shows quite a loose and playful acting style from the outset as he firstly staggers around drunk in a cantina (the tongue in cheek opening shot is of a rumba-ing bottom which pans out to show Doug cavorting with a dancing senorita while supposedly on duty with the Marines) then later while getting dressed in his apartment (he shares clothes with McHugh to save money) mincing around using a camp showgirl voice complete with exaggerated hand gestures (“Say listen dearie…”). It’s certainly not the image one expects from him but it’s so disarming and...unusual that he just about pulls it off.
Enter Bette Davis and her southern accent that veers from Dixieland drawl to Mae West impersonation then occasionally just reverts to her regular accent. Well, at least she tries. Doug and Bette bond over stealing from the local diner, then in the most heinous action I’ve ever seen in a movie, they steal a fish right from the mouth of a poor starving kitty cat. The confused little thing just blankly meows as if in shock then licks the sidewalk as if to convince itself that it will eat tonight, and it will feed it's poor starving kittens. Our heroes walk away laughing smugly to themselves. Animal cruelty is fun, isn’t it? No Mr Fairbanks, no it's not.
They move in together after just meeting, though in a platonic sense – she can do the cooking and housework for him. However, on the first night Doug walks into her room in the middle of the night, the cad. When Davis kicks him out he apologises with “It’s not going to happen again, at least not while I’m sober”. She replies, “Well, I’ll take a chance”. Either things were really bad during the Depression or she’s very easily convinced. Similarly, all Doug has to do to get his first job as a…(wait for it) parachute jumper, is tell the pilots that he has some experience in flying. That is it, no questions asked and before you know it he’s flinging himself out of a biplane and onto the tracks of an oncoming train. Again, either people were really gullible in the 30s or the Depression really thinned out the talent pool.
After this, the whole parachute jumper angle is dropped and we get to the real plot (you’d almost think that they had some footage of someone jumping out of a plane and they couldn’t find the right film to put in) where Fairbanks is hired by socialite Claire Dodd to be her chauffeur. His interview is hilarious as Dodd, who almost steals the picture channels the spirit of Lady Chatterley as she sees what he’s made of. Basically the interview consists of Doug taking his jacket off as Dodd feels his muscles and remarks “You seem to be a very well built young man!” You’re hired!
Later she turns on the charm again after he delivers her home. After noting that he’s earned himself a drink she notes that he’s “not just an ordinary chauffeur” and that the job will include “considerable night work”. Finally, in case we didn’t understand what she was getting at she mentions that her previous chauffeurs were all Frenchmen because they are “more versatile”. And just how much were you paying?
After such pre code hi jinks the film reverts to a kind of dull smuggling plot that is only enlivened by the revelation that Fairbanks and McHugh were not smuggling alcohol across the border but dope! Just due to its relative rarity as a plot devise, the admission that the bad guy is a drug baron is pretty shocking. Leo Carrillo (later to achieve a kind of immortality playing Pancho in The Cisco Kid on TV and in numerous other westerns) plays the villain of the piece with a smooth menace. He’s particularly good in an early scene when he kicks out Claire Dodd (shouting “don’t come back you bag!”) and later when he hires Bette Davis (yes, the writers find something for her to do) to be his stenographer. In the scene used to show how awful Baby Jane was as a juvenile lead, Davis doesn’t do too badly, using her not inconsiderable feminine wiles to get the job. It goes to show that context is everything, just like when they show clips of silent films in adverts for laughs. In it’s place it’s a pretty good scene. Twenty-nine years later in another film, it looks a little ropey.
After some thrilling aerial stunt scenes, and a possibly quite raucous gag where Frank McHugh gives the finger to a passing motorist (I watched the scene over a few times and he seems to raise his index finger but we’re clearly meant to thing it’s his middle one) we to get the final scene where Fairbanks runs through an office block looking for Davis, saying “I’m going to go through this building like a dose of…” before being cut off by the closing of the elevator door. He runs from office to office, barging in on a number of scenes, one of which involves a rather fey man taking notes. Doug puts on his showgirl voice again and briefly camps it up to apologise in an unexpected piece of 30s homophobia. In the end we never find out what office Davis was in, as he snatches her away from something unimportant (like you know, getting a job in the poverty stricken Depression) so that they can go back to his life of kissing predatory socialites, the hilarity of petty theft, being vaguely homophobic and getting enjoyment from watching animals starve to death. Life is fun if you are a parachute jumper!
When it comes down to it Parachute Jumper is a grubby little slice of life on the street level of the early 30s. I wouldn’t say Douglas Fairbanks Jr is charming as the hero but he’s certainly got some nerve and goes all out in the role. It’s a shame that Bette Davis wasn’t used better but, wobbly accent aside she does some good work when given screen time. However, I’d say that Parachute Jumper must rate with Lawyer Man as one of the most generic titles that Warners ever came up with. Yes, it’s technically correct but really, with a title like that I would expect…well, some more parachute jumping for a start.