Parachute Jumper (1933) spotlights Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Frank McHugh as Bill Keller and Toodles Cooper, a pair of Marine Corps flyers who’ve finished their commitment to Uncle Sam and soon hope to be gainfully employed with a company that has promised to hire them as commercial pilots. Sadly, they arrive at the business’ main office in the Big Apple…and learn that their employer has gone out of business. It’s the Depression, kiddies, and our heroes are soon pounding the pavements in search of work.
Keller decides he doesn’t like her name and decides to tab her “Alabama”…something I’m sure would go over big in real life, by the way. (“No, I don’t like your name, Brittani with an ‘i’—from now on I’m calling you ‘North Dakota.’”) Bill invites ‘Bama to move in with him and Toodles (there’s a bit of risqué business when Bill enters his lady’s boudoir one evening and Alabama makes it clear there’ll be none of that, thank-you-very-much) and soon the three of them are on the unemployment line.
That leads to Bill’s working for Kurt Weber, a bootlegger (Leo Carrillo), and a bit of trouble with the Border Patrol; Keller shoots two of their planes down believing them to be hijackers. Realizing that it’s just a matter of time before he gets into real trouble, Alabama convinces Bill to resign…but not before Weber plans on framing Keller by hiding narcotics (dope!) into the booze contraband.
But I’ll say this for Davis: she gives her all even when she’s having to wallow through slop like this, and she, Fairbanks and McHugh make a nice trio. The ubiquitous Harold Huber plays Carrillo’s goon, and I got a chuckle out of seeing Walter Brennan as a counterman and Nat Pendleton as a cop who pulls Fairbanks over for speeding. (There are quick bits from Leon Ames, Stanley Blystone, George Chandler and Dewey Robinson, too.)
So the two lovebirds do the rice-and-old-shoes thing, and no sooner are they back from their honeymoon when Raymond gets word that his business isn’t doing well, and that starts to put a strain on the marriage. (Well, that and his dalliance with one of Bette’s dearest friends, played by Kay Strozzi.) In an attempt to save their union, Bette proposes (well, that might be a poor choice of words) that the two of them live separately but still see one another; that just makes matters worse, with Bette spending time in the company of an oily gigolo (Monroe Owsley). The two of them finally agree that though their marriage isn’t perfect, love will help them through the rough patches.
But Ex-Lady has an entry on the debit side of the ledger: I prefer Illicit’s Charles Butterworth and Joan Blondell to their Lady counterparts, Frank McHugh and Claire Dodd (I believe there was a federal law in the 1930s that either McHugh or Allen Jenkins had to be in every WB film under penalty of imprisonment—but don’t quote me on that) and Ricardo Cortez is far more convincing a homewrecker than Monroe Owsley, who looked like a guy who’d be doing my taxes. Bette and Babs are neck-and-neck as far as the female lead goes; Davis is more convincing as a woman who can’t figure out why society dictates she should be married…but Stanwyck looks mighty fetching in that clingy kimono.
Ex-Lady was Davis’ first starring feature for Warner Brothers, and she must have had the same affinity for it that she did Parachute Jumper because director Robert Aldrich used clips from both movies in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) to demonstrate how horrible a film actress Baby Jane Hudson (Davis) really was. You and I know, of course, an artist has to have the freedom to be bad before they’re good…and while both Davis features hardly represent her at the peak of her powers they’ll certainly entertain you if you’re in the right mood. Jumper is available as a MOD disc from the Warner Archive...but Lady is part of a four-film set, Forbidden Hollywood: Volume 7, that's worth the purchase for Skyscraper Souls (1932) and Employees' Entrance (1933).