United States Marine Corps Lieutenants and pilots Bill Keller (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) and "Toodles" Cooper (Frank McHugh) are shot down in the skies over Nicaragua. When they are found drunk and unharmed in a cantina, they and the Marine Corps go their separate ways. They are offered jobs as commercial pilots, but when they arrive in New York City, they find their would-be employer has gone bankrupt.
Unemployed and almost out of money, they meet blonde Southerner Patricia "Alabama" Brent (Bette Davis). Keller convinces her to share their apartment to save on expenses.
Keller narrowly escapes death when he parachute jumps for some money. Next, he becomes the chauffeur for Mrs. Newberry (Claire Dodd), the mistress of gangster Kurt Weber (Leo Carrillo). She makes it clear that she expects more than just being driven around by him. Weber comes in and finds Mrs. Newberry kissing Keller. He kicks her out, but is impressed by the cool way Keller handles himself when threatened with a gun. Weber hires him as his bodyguard. By chance, Alabama gets hired by Weber as a secretary.
Later, Keller and Cooper become entangled in Weber's smuggling schemes, flying in contraband from Canada. On the return trip, Keller shoots down two airplanes who intercept and fire upon him, thinking they are hijackers when they are really part of the Border Patrol. Fortunately, there are no fatalities.
Weber and his henchman Steve Donovan (Harold Huber) set a trap for two disgruntled, unpaid ex-employees; Donovan guns them down in cold blood, intending to frame Keller, but Alabama overhears and calls Keller away from the scene. As a result, Keller hands in his resignation, but Weber persuades him and Cooper to make one more delivery for him. After Cooper leaves, Keller learns that they have been smuggling not liquor, but narcotics. The authorities close in on Weber's office; Weber and Keller get away, but Weber leaves Donovan behind to get shot down.
Weber has Keller fly him away. The Border Patrol catches up and shoots them down. Keller has time to arrange it to look like Weber was the pilot and he was a kidnap victim.
Unable to find work, Cooper decides to rejoin the Marines. Keller finally finds Alabama and asks her to marry him, saying that he can support her if he too reenlists in the Corps.Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. as Bill Keller
Bette Davis as Alabama
Frank McHugh as Toodles
Claire Dodd as Mrs. Newberry
Leo Carrillo as Weber
Harold Huber as Steve
Thomas E. Jackson as Coffey
Unbilled (in order of appearance)
Frank Hagney as Marine officer in Nicaragua who tells Bill and Toodles, "this binge of yours has cost the government a small fortune — consider yourselves under arrest"
Walter Brennan as counterman at The Jewel Quick Lunch
Pat Harmon as man eating at Jewel Quick Lunch
Walter Miller as one of the pilots at Roosevelt Field assisting Bill Keller in parachute jumping
Pat O'Malley as one of the pilots at Roosevelt Field assisting Bill Keller in parachute jumping
Leon Waycoff as pilot at Roosevelt Field who tells Alabama, "he'll be all right, lady — if he's half as good as he says he is"
George Chandler as one of two chauffeurs discussing Mrs. Newberry
Russ Powell as counterman at diner where Toodles tries to get a meal in exchange for a small "art" statuette
Nat Pendleton as one of four motorcycle policemen chasing Bill Keller for speeding
Stanley Blystone as cop who tells Alabama and Toodles to "get a move on or you'll be coolin' your heels in a can"
G. Pat Collins as Tom Crowley, a henchman who comes to Weber's office (with another henchman named Phil Wilson) demanding payment
Sheila Terry as Weber's office manager who interviews Alabama for a secretarial job
Dewey Robinson as heavyset smuggling contact met by Bill and Toodles at Canadian airport
Paul Panzer as second smuggling contact met by Bill and Toodles at Canadian airport
Ed Brady as Capt. J. C. Mason, U.S. Border Patrol, assigned to "land and search all Buhl planes crossing your territory"
William Stack as Maitre D' at Fifty-One Club where Crowley and Wilson are waiting for Weber
Tom Wilson as Marine recruiter who accepts Toodles' re-enlistment
Franklin Pangborn as male secretary who says "what is it you want?" when Bill enters the office where he is taking dictation from a standing woman
Harry C. Bradley as man who is surprised in the midst of taking a drink in Society for Enforcement of Prohibition office when Bill enters looking for Alabama
Of the many films she had made, Bette Davis rated Parachute Jumper "dead last". More than problems with the screenplay, she saw her character as another in a long line of insignificant roles that were not furthering her career, and complained strenuously to Jack L. Warner.
With aviation as the theme, Hollywood movie pilot Paul Mantz was successful in obtaining the contract to provide the flying sequences. The aircraft used were the Buhl CA-6 Airsedan, Curtiss Fledgling, Fairchild 71 and Stearman C3R.
Mordaunt Hall, reviewer for The New York Times, called it "a fast-moving tale of adventure in the air and on earth ..." That review summed up the format of crime and adventure in the air that had been explored in a number of other films of the period. In a later review, Leonard Maltin called it a "Fast-moving, enjoyable Warner Bros. programmer."
Clips of Parachute Jumper are featured in the prologue of the first film version of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) as an example of the supposedly poor quality of the film work of Jane Hudson (Bette Davis) as an adult.
"It was awful," said Fairbanks Jr.