Wednesday, November 13, 2013

RELIGIOUS RACKETEERS (1938)

Well, it looks like all those saps who didn't believe the warnings put forth by Sucker Money -- tu wit, paranormal activities are a bunch of egregious hooey -- needed another lesson five years later. The more blatantly-titled Religious Racketeers goes down the same finger-wagging road, only with a lower budget and more outlandish storyline. Oh, and an appearance by the 61 year-old widow of Harry Houdini, the only person in the cast with a name that was familiar even in 1938. Considering this was her only movie role, it does no good to her reputation that it had to be in what would be described by scientists as "claptrap." On the other hand, she's the only thing outside of the title that would get anyone interested in Religious Racketeers today. (The headline on the left gets not only gets the title slightly wrong, but makes it seem like Mrs. Houdini herself is the racketeer in question.)

Like his fellow charlatan in Sucker Money, Religious Racketeers' Louis LaGagge
LaGagge surrenders to the ridiculous
script (and costume).
specializes in fleecing gullible women out of their money by preying on their emotional distress. (Today, he'd be a shoe designer.) With his sidekick Harvey Wilson, LaGagge zeroes in on millionaire steel heiress Martha Morgan as his next big payday. When he seductively promises her, "Tonight, we contact the great beyond," you expect him to add slyly, "If you know what I mean, heh heh."

Aware that reporter Elliot Cole is on his trail, LaGagge persuades Martha into going to Egypt to meet another swami -- LaGagge in disguise. That is, if you can call his atrocious black beard a disguise. It's more of a distraction, as you sit there wondering, How many voles did they have to kill to make that thing?  

"This Christmas, sweetie,
you give me something -- starting
with all your money."
Cole tracks them down, forcing LeGagge to scram to India, where Martha is to meet another mystic (you-know-who with a Santa Claus beard). I was hoping that LaGagge would eventually flee to China just to see what racially-insulting outfit he'd come up with next. Instead, he takes the logical step of freezing Cole in a block of ice and throwing him in the Ganges to drown. (Why use a gun when you can drag around someone ensconced inside a six-foot square ice cube?)  Cole survives -- we never learn how -- and returns to save Martha. By now, LaGagge has fallen in love with her, and wants to return her money. But Wilson, who oxymoronically warned LaGagge to run the scam "on the level," kills him and absconds with the dough, only to be captured when returning to America. If only he went to Pakistan dressed as a guru, he'd have made a clean break.   
Why make good money running the lights
of a Broadway show when you can work for
a fly-by-night scam artist?
For a guy who's in need of money, LaGagge certainly has no trouble traveling to exotic lands. Whether in a tent in Egypt or a makeshift temple in India, this guy has enough props to supply a movie studio. Even more baffling is Cole's knack for finding LaGagge halfway around the world. Not only is he blessed with a nose for news, he must have a hell of an expense account.



Too bad Religious Racketeers' set designer didn't have a tenth of the money flowing through the movie. A scene in a graveyard is represented by plaster-of-Paris tombstones in front of an oversize picture of a cemetery. In Egypt, LaGagge's tent is pitched in front of a photograph of the Sphinx. (A live camel gives the best performance.) By the time they got to India, I was looking forward to seeing a snapshot of the Taj Mahal to set the mood, but had to settle for flimsy set of downtown New Delhi, represented by a couple of storefronts and a streetlamp. If it wasn't for the extras with tablecloths around their waists, it could pass for Kansas City.

"Why, sure I'm Arab! I'm in
Arabia, ain't I?"
How low is Religious Racketeers' budget? The director didn't even bother providing  sand in the Egyptian scenes, allowing the cast walk on the noisy stage floor instead. And anyone who'd fall for the cheesy disguises LaGagge pulls out of his trunk deserves to get fleeced. Wilson, in particular, looks as Arab as Leo Gorcey.

Martha swoons at the way Ada
handles such hamfisted dialogue.


The budget woes appear to have affected the number of takes the director could shoot as well. Informed that Cole has found Martha's hotel,  LaGagge asks Wilson, "Did he see her -- I mean, talk to her?" It's rather shocking that he could screw up that line, when the woman playing Martha's friend Ada (Betty Compson) perfectly recites tongue-twisters like, "You should see him in the temple, when he surrenders himself to spiritual communication." I couldn't even memorize that. A decade earlier, Ms. Compson was pulling down $5,000 a week at Paramount. She was now reduced to Poverty Row ventures like Religious Racketeers thanks to her former husband's financial shenanigans -- none of which included gazing into crystal balls or pretending to gab with the dead. Where was Hollywood Racketeers when you needed it?

For a movie that's supposed to be a warning against spiritual shams, Religious Racketeers sure gives a terrific crash course on how to play the game. Every few minutes, LaGagge carefully explains to Wilson how to reel in the suckers, get them to fall in love with you, then persuade them to hand over all their cash. I wonder how many people considered this an instructional movie.

"Harry, you never talk to me!"
If so, it would have been a special irony for Bess Houdini. Her husband being a well-known skeptic of all things occult, the Widow Houdini's role as herself was something of an imprimatur for the movie's message. Early on, having failed for a decade to contact her late husband, Bess intones, "This proves he was right, for if it was possible, I would have had some sign from him in the past ten years." Yeah, a sign that read DON'T MAKE THAT CHEESY MOVIE! Billed in Religious Racketeers' credits as "Mme. Harry Houdini" like some kind of royalty, she has only two brief scenes, one of which is unfortunately edited to almost nothing in current video versions -- a disappearing act that her husband would not have approved of. 
"Call me Fanch."

Religious Racketeers' producer, Fanchon Royer, released a dozen other bottom-of-the-bill movies during the '30s, with captivating titles including Neighbors' Wives, Trapped in Tia Juana and Alimony Madness, making her ripe for another go-round on this blog. Moving to Mexico in the 1940s, Ms. Royer remade herself as an author of religious biographies. One of her subjects, Padre Pio, is said to have possessed a trunkful of mystical skills, including talking to angels, physically combating Satan and being in two places at once. That Ms. Royer could accept all this unhesitatingly while having produced a movie called Religious Racketeers would be amusing to many.

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 To read about Sucker Money, go here.

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