Proof That It’s Pre-Code:
- There are gay people in this film, and our hero boldly mocks their lisps.
- Our comic relief dishes out the middle finger to a jerk.
- Some attempted adultery, and a rich woman hiring a guy on his looks. She notes, “I’m making an exception here. All of my other chauffeurs have been Frenchmen! I find Frenchmen are more… volatile.”
- Booze running up through Canada since this was made in the waning days of Prohibition, but then the movie doesn’t stop there– there’s honest to God narcotics trafficking as well
- Though he’s talking about murdering people, this line still probably couldn’t make it past the censors a few years later: “I’ve rubbed out a few in my day.”
- And these lines definitely wouldn’t have: “What law?” “The one we all laugh at.”
Seeing as how I’m about 25 films into my series about Pre-Code Hollywood, I decided, at long last, to actually sit down and read the Hayes Code of 1930 which laid out the moral guidelines that films were supposed to follow. They finally started following them in 1935 when all scripts became required to get the Code’s approval before being filmed, which hampered severely Hollywood’s previous reaction to the Code which was, “It’s better to ask for forgiveness than to ask permission. And even then, you really only need to ask for forgiveness if the film flops.”
Parsing through the code, it’s interesting to see not only the stuff I knew would be in there (people who break the law aren’t allowed to get away with it, no adultery, etc), but also the stuff I hadn’t even considered. The end features a gag where our comedic sidekick throws up his thumb to try and get a ride– the car passes him by, and that thumb morphs into a middle finger. Could you do this two years later? Nope. That gesture was forcibly removed from the cinematic lexicon for two decades.
The Code would later declare a lot of Parachute Jumper off limits, and for more than just one extended appendage. The story of two men who are thrown out of the Marines after one airplane crash that landed them in a South American brothel, they both find things going from bad to worse as the Depression kicks in.
Of the two pals, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. is the romantic lead and a veritable low-rent Clark Gable, the guy who wears a big moustache back when it was still cool. Frank McHugh is his sidekick and his character’s name is “Toodles”; if the fact that you’re portly doesn’t illustrate where you are in the screenplay hierarchy, then that name certainly does.
Fairbanks Jr. is Bill, who, despite sharing his only nice suit with Toodles day in and day out, still manages to hook up with a good looking Southern girl named Patricia. Patricia is played by Bette Davis. I love Bette Davis– give me some Now Voyager any day of the week and I’m a happy camper– but it pains me to say it: Better Davis is awful in this film. Saddled with a terrible accent and given the rather clunky nickname of ‘Alabama’ to boot, Davis practically holds her character at arm’s length. I can’t say I blame her– it’s not much of a character anyway.
She mostly serves to ogle at Bill’s acts of courage and stupidity. He’s the titular parachute jumper, though he only parachute jumps once (1 time) in the entire film. This gets him enough money to get into the employ of a smuggler, who hires him and Toodles to fly across the Canadian border to pick up some still-illicit booze as well as a few other mysterious packages.
It’s rare you see a film from the 30’s deal with any substance other than booze (and even more rare that you see any of them treating Prohibition with an ounce of respect), so Parachute Jumper taking Fairbanks Jr. into the ‘dope’ trade surprised me. The only function of it is to up the stakes: everyone is okay with transporting alcohol, but a small amount of dope? Now it’s time to punch men with smaller, blacker mustaches in the face!
The moral indignity that the film traffics in for dope smuggling compared to the way it handles booze smuggling, sexual harassment, seduction, murder, and even the middle finger is quite interesting. Peeking through these old films isn’t just a way to find some fun, obscure movies, it’s fascinating to see how the American film industry has depicted American values. Because while our heroes are adulterers, bootleggers, and petty thieves, they will not deal drugs.
Parachute Jumper itself is rarely interesting outside of the morals it displays, and some of the acting– Bette, I’m looking at you– is beyond clunky. This is getting tossed into the ‘more fun to dissect than watch’ pile with Call Me Savage, and fits into the old Hollywood mold of throwing a lot of stuff at the screen to see what sticks. Nothing does.