Tuesday, February 11, 2020


Re-watching this film (I’ve seen it 3-4 times over the last 20 years), I’m reminded about the things an hour-long B-crime/action programmer has in common with a rock’n’roll 45—it’s all about the spirit, the tone of the performance, the pace, the mood, the overall effect. Nail those elements, and any number of defects can be forgiven….or actually become irrelevant. The piece itself carries you along….for 2 minutes 30 seconds on a 45 rpm singles, or for 56 minutes with a film like RUBBER RACKETEERS. And like some grungy 1962 R&B cover by a frat-rock band from Washington state, this film delivers the goods (Monogram films usually do) you paid for when you bought a ticket.

This was an early production by the King Brothers, whose story sounds like it came out of the kind of film they would produce. Evidently, they began selling newspapers and shining shoes, and then branched into slot machines and horse racing. They loved movies, though, and knew a number of producers and directors from the racetrack! They had the genius idea to try and make films to be shown on their slot machines, and actually attempted to contact Cecil B. DeMille to see if he’d like to produce a film for their slot machines!!!! Not surprisingly, that did not work out.

They did manage to make a low-budget film for PRC called PAPER BULLETS, famous for being a pre-stardom role for Alan Ladd. The great B-movie gangster actor JACK LA RUE starred in that, as they knew him from the racetrack and he was happy to do “the boys” a favor. They did wind up later making some crime classics, including DILLINGER, GUN CRAZY, SOUTHSIDE 1-1000, and THE GANGSTER.

RUBBER RACKETEERS was released in June 1942, just six months after the beginning of WWII, and the first scene sets the over-the-top wartime tone….we see star BILL HENRY shooting a machine gun into targets with the faces of Mussolini, Hitler, and Tojo (can you imagine how well that would have gone over with audiences in mid-1942….these King Brothers knew what they were doing!). Henry, in case you’ve forgotten, later starred in the 1953 Republic serial CANADIAN MOUNTIES VS ATOMIC INVADERS, and he was also the comedic heavy in the post-Gorcey Bowery Boys film SPOOK CHASERS, where the Huntz Hall/Stanley Clements version of the Boys help their older pal Mike Clancy (who is filling the slot that would have been filled by Bernard Gorcey as Louie Dumbrowski of Louie’s Sweet Shop fame) when seedy real estate agent Henry sells Mike a “haunted” house that’s actually full of cash from a missing gangster. Henry’s character in RR, a young defense worker devoted to the patriotic cause, has just the right combination of boyish charm and naïve toughness, but the real star here—as happens so often in B-movies and serials—is the villain, a gangster named Tony Gilin, played by the great RICARDO CORTEZ, just out of jail, and now head of a tire-bootlegging operation. What’s that, you might ask? During WWII, rubber was needed for the war effort, so new tires could not be had easily, and even retreads became a scarce commodity. People would even buy a cheap used car just to get the tires (there’s a scene with just that happening here). What Cortez’s crooked crew would do is take bald tires, put a kind of ribbed wrap around them, and cover them with a new black sealant. They looked shiny and new from a distance, but were dangerous to drive on, which unfortunately is proven when Bill Henry’s girlfriend’s brother is killed in an accident due to the bad tires blowing out. This gets Henry and his gal (played by Rochelle Hudson) on the warpath, and they decide to track down who was responsible for making these tires, and the plot follows their steps in the investigation, eventually narrowing down to seedy used car lots owned by Gilin.

It’s a joy to watch Ricardo Cortez in action. A major star during the silent era (he was impressive in D.W. Griffith’s 1926 THE SORROWS OF SATAN), he continued as a leading man in the early sound era, and was Sam Spade in the original 1931 version of THE MALTESE FALCON. In the late 1930’s he directed a number of programmers, and then, as a number of silent leading men had done before him, re-invented himself as a character actor, specializing in heels and crooks (Chris reviewed the 1950 BUNCO SQUAD a while back, where he shined as the murderous head of a phony psychic racket, conning rich widows out of their money). As an ex-boxer, Cortez never lost his tough-guy edge, though as he’d also worked as a stockbroker before his acting career (and he eventually returned to Wall Street after retiring from acting), he knew how to project a classy image. That combination served him well in his post-leading man period as a villain.

The writer of RUBBER RACKETEERS certainly knew what gold he had in Cortez, and thus gives him many great lines and set-ups which surely would have gotten a laugh out of the wartime audiences. For instance, in the first part of the film, where Cortez’s Asian-American butler announces that he is enlisting in the Army, Cortez flashes an oily smile, congratulates him, slaps him on the back, and says, “everybody’s got to do their bit….and you’ll do mine!” The film is full of that kind of thing, as it should be when the top-billed actor is the bad guy….it’s Cortez people were paying to see. The skimpy Monogram Pictures sets usually work to the films’ advantage in crime films and mysteries, as they have a lived-in look to them, and that’s true here, as Cortez barks orders and makes under-handed deals all the while wearing a tailored suit in a way that makes me green with envy (when I wear a suit, it’s either too baggy, or too tight a la Oliver Hardy) and smokes cigarettes in a classy way, with curling smoke trails, that makes me want to go out and buy a pack of Camels and start the habit again (almost). Although Cortez’s demise near the film’s climax happens quickly, it echoes the way he killed someone else about 30 seconds before, and was surely satisfying to audiences. The film ends with the young couple on the front page of the newspaper after Cortez is killed, and we see a munitions factory with its smokestacks belching, no doubt working three shifts a day toward the war effort.

RUBBER RACKETEERS is in the public domain and can be found easily online. Like a great rock and roll record or crime comic book or YOURS TRULY, JOHNNY DOLLAR radio show, it hits all the right bases, has exactly the right tone and attitude, gets done quickly and efficiently what it needs to do, and leaves you wanting more.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

lol rubber racketeers? lol how about condom crooks?! lol somehow i managed to miss this one lol