Wednesday, July 17, 2013


World War II introduced a new breed of movie character: the unpatriotic gangster. Up 'til then, moviegoers watched Cagney, Bogart and their brothers-in-Tommy guns with a certain thrill. Sure, they were criminals -- but by and large they were just swindling and killing each other. And during Prohibition, they were selling the booze that everybody wanted. When you think about it, they were actually providing a public service far greater than today's hot-air politicians claim to be doing.

The Axis changed that equation. Everyone was expected to do their bit, and those that didn't were as bad as Adolf & company. By trafficking in rationed goods, hoodlums became really bad guys.

No joke, I swear I saw this same set
in another rubber racket movie.
Restrictions on rubber certainly provided an abundance of similarly-themed B-movies. The stories were all the same: criminals cash in on the shortage by manufacturing "new" tires out of old, worn-out ones. Fatal traffic accidents ensue. In Rubber Racketeers, the good guys are working stiffs from a munitions factory. This was another war-themed concept -- civilians putting their lives on the line instead of calling the cops. In fact, one newspaper headline in Rubber Racketeers screams FDR ASKS CITIZENS TO APPREHEND RACKETEERS! What the hell were we paying policemen to do, steal apples? 

If that were me, I'd apologize for getting
in his way, but that's the kind of a wimp
I am.
Don't try telling that to these Untouchables-wannabes. Now, say you were cut off in traffic by a guy who just got out of prison. And he's identified in the newspaper as FORMER PUBLIC ENEMY. Would you visit him to complain that his insurance company didn't offer enough of a payment on the damage your car incurred? I think not. Yet that's what Bill Barry does, thus setting off a chain of events that leads to his future brother-in-law getting killed in a car accident (those lousy tires again!), and his co-workers forming their own little vigilante group to bring down the rotten racket once and for all. Even when Bill's socked in the breadbasket by a couple of gunsels, he refuses to call the police, because, you know, this time it's personal. That's why I try not to take things personally. You never know when it might lead to a shootout at a makeshift tire factory.

Gilin, the titular rubber racketeer, is a first-class villain, but hits a real low near the climax. His Chinese-American servant, Tom (Tom?), had earlier joined the Army only to return on a 24-hour leave to serve him coffee. (I don't know about you, but if I were on leave, that wouldn't be the first thing I'd think of doing.) Now Tom was cool when Gilin was in the bathtub gin racket or hijacking other gangsters' goods -- that was business. But when he gets wind of Gilin's new operation, he tries playing to his boss' patriotism. In return, Gilin shoots him dead. That's right, an American citizen kills an American soldier. If you listen carefully, you can still hear 1942 audiences hissing. By then, even Gilin's moll Nikki starts waving the flag; at the fadeout, she's taken a job at the munitions factory where Bill works. Yup, another dame taking work away from a man. (I kid!)

"Stop! Or I'll shoot the ceiling!"
History lessons abound in Rubber Racketeers. We learn, for instance, that the only way you could get tires in waritme was to buy a whole damn car. Now that's a racket! (What do you think the odds were a cheapskate like Bob Hope couldn't get his hands on a couple of Goodyears on the QT?) You want slang? Rubber Racketeers is a veritable dictionary. "Don't let anyone get hep." "If anything goes wrong, I know from nothing." "What goes?" (The actor who spoke that last line might have misspoken, since in context of the conversation, what he means is, "What gives?" When you were shooting B-movies on tight budgets, retakes were necessary only when necessary.) Just to remind audiences what they were watching -- as if they didn't hear the word "rubber" in every line of dialogue -- radio announcers are forever reminding listeners of the shortage, and to drive under 40 MPH to make their tires last longer. You try telling that to commuters on the 405 today, see the look they give you.

As with many B-movies of the time, Rubber Racketeers makes use of location shots in downtown L.A., always a pleasure for a guy like me still waiting for that time-travel machine to become available at Costco. Minimal traffic, big mountains, tall palm trees, clear skies, no smog -- this was heaven, with or without ration cards. One scene takes place on the corner of Hazelhurst and Findlay -- two honest-to-gosh Los Angeles streets. Gilin and Nikki stop off for a nightcap at the Club Tally Ho, which appears to be authentic, and orders a round of French 75s. That's what I'm asking for the next time my moll and I bend elbows at our favorite watering hole. I just want to see how quickly we get thrown out. 

Rubber Racketeers showcases two actors on the way down, with two others biding their time before gaining TV immortality. For reasons unknown, Ricardo Cortez (the star of the original Maltese Falcon) had gone from starring in A's to coasting in B's by 1942. Still, his thin, sneering lips and dark eyes made him perfect for a hood like Gilin. Perhaps it's just my perception, but he seems to be fully aware he's better than the material he's given here, while giving it his all anyway. That's a pro.

As for Rochelle Hudson (Nikki), she should have gone on to big things after co-starring with W.C. Fields in Poppy six years earlier. Instead, movies with titles like She Had to Eat, Babies for Sale and The Stork Pays Off were in her future. Yet these are exactly the kind of pictures I'd watch anytime; in fact, I've seen Babies for Sale, so I know from whence I speak. I'm sure Ms. Hudson is looking down gratefully at me from that big soundstage in the sky.

Then there's Gilin's henchman Angel, played by Milburn Stone (left). Stone was just a journeyman actor until landing a 20 year-gig as Doc on Gunsmoke. Alan Hale, Jr., son of the great Warner Brothers character actor (both pictured right), and who plays Bill's friend Red, had a similar CV by the time he signed on to play the Skipper on Gilligan's Island. (Note to all aspiring actors: Stone and Hale had been making movies a combined total of 45 years before landing their hit series.)

But without doubt the most arresting supporting actor of the bunch is John Abbott as the, er, mentally-slow henchman who answers to the name Dumbo. Actually, he doesn't answer at all, since he seems incapable of speech. Looking like Pat Paulson's deranged great-uncle, Abbott spends most of the time twisting rubber around his fingers while his eyes appear to stare in two different directions simultaneously. Suffice it to say, he's a striking presence, although I don't know what good he'd be as a gangster's sidekick. And talk about bad luck -- the actor was blacklisted for a spell because fellow-blacklistee Dalton Trumbo used the name "John Abbott" as a pseudonym. Sorry 'bout that, John!

I'd been waiting for Rubber Racketeers to turn up since buying the poster back in my more carefree days. I can't say it lived up to my expectations, since I'm not sure I had any to begin with.  But from the clever opening credits, divided by rolling tires, to the finale when Nikki machineguns a V (for Victory) around a caricature of Hitler, Rubber Racketeers proved a fine hour's entertainment, and a reminder that when the rubber meets the road, it better be real. 

And the recipe for a French 75, according to Esquire magazine:
  • 2 ounces London dry gin
  • 1 teaspoon superfine sugar
  • 1/2 ounce lemon juice
  • 5 ounces Brut champagne
Shake well with cracked ice in a chilled cocktail shaker, then strain into a Collins glass half-full of cracked ice and top off with champagne. 

See you at the bar, Gilin -- and don't forget the tires!
For more about Ricardo Cortez and his original version of The Maltese Falcon, click here.
For more about my ridiculous movie poster collection, click here
For more B-movies, click the B-MOVIES label below. 

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