Lee Tracy would have been 121 at the moment. Imogen Smith’s profile appeared originally in the April 2009 difficulty of Brilliant Lights. We reprint it here as a tribute to this scorching actor who instantly enlivened many a pre-Code movie however was by no means lower than watchable.
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“Together with his impish grin, twinkling eyes, and boyish blond hair, he appears like Tom Sawyer crossed with a Tammany Corridor fixer.”
Ace reporter Scotty “Peanuts” Cornell explains to a persistent bill collector his technique of paying bills: “Once a month, I take all the bills I receive and put them within the wastebasket, stir them round, blindfold myself, and decide one. And that’s the one I pay. And I’ll inform you what I’m gonna do for those who don’t cease annoying me — I’m not even gonna put your invoice in the wastebasket!” Ambulance-chasing shyster J. Phineas Stevens wins acquittal for a streetcar driver caught with 450 nickels in his lunch-pail (“They usually arrested you?” the lawyer says incredulously. “They need to have thanked you for bringing back the streetcar!”) by proving that the representatives of the streetcar company can’t decide “their” nickels out of a handful recent from the bank. Press agent Max Kane convinces John Barrymore that a one-scene part is one of the best within the play because it should depart the audience wanting more. And Jimmy Bates, promoter of anything, not only persuades a Mexican hoochie-coochie dancer to impersonate a Turkish princess, however passes sidekick Eugene Palette off as her eunuch (“They’ve them in all Turkish harems,” he explains to a gaping lodge clerk.) These moments are thrives of virtuosity from a grasp of the advantageous art of chutzpah. His identify was Lee Tracy.
One of many lost treasures of the pre-Code period, Tracy was the definitive brash, wily, fast-talking, stop-at-nothing operator. He skated around in perpetual overdrive, jabbing the air together with his fingers, spitting out his strains like a machine-gun, wheedling and needling and swearing you possibly can take out his appendix without ether if he’s lying (he’s obtained you there — he had it out already.) He was homely and scrawny with a strident nasal voice, however you possibly can’t help rooting for his brazen, devious hucksters and reveling in his shameless moxie. He’s a jolt of pure caffeine; watching him in action is like gulping a few double espressos. Audiences within the early thirties beloved his snappy type and irrepressible irreverence; they beloved him because he was no one’s idiot.
He’s so simply definable it’s tempting to class Tracy with those actors who perfected one specialty — dithering Frank Morgan or flustered, prissy Franklin Pangborn. These actors have been like cooks who made just one dish, but made it so properly that it earned them a sinecure: Robert Grieg the definitive butler, Allen Jenkins the definitive dumb mug. One may peg Tracy as a personality actor who by means of drive of character, and the luck of embodying the zeitgeist, had a quick reign as a star. However he was by no means meant to be a supporting participant. He had too much charisma to remain within the background (“Without flicking a hand or raising his voice,” Whitney Bolton wrote, Tracy “might make different actors diminish”), and he was too full a man to be a one-dimensional caricature.
Born in 1898 in Atlanta, Georgia, Lee Tracy grew up in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, the son of a railroad superintendent. He attended a army academy, served in World Struggle I and performed semi-professional baseball in St. Louis before turning into an actor. He made a name for himself on Broadway in the 1920s, and in 1929 he created the position of Hildy Johnson within the unique Broadway production of The Entrance Page. Hecht and MacArthur’s play was not solely the pioneering newspaper drama however a template for the type of robust, breezy, slangy comedy that dominated the pre-Code years in Hollywood. It introduced the impolite, disreputable wise-guy heroes who elbowed aside the honorable gents of the previous. As a result of they understand the bottomless corruption of their world, these men find amusement and alternatives all over the place. Lee Tracy was current on the delivery of this fashion, for which he was ideally suited. Although he was changed in the first movie model of The Front Page by Pat O’Brien, for the rest of his career Tracy can be typed as the films’ quintessential newsman.
His peak years in Hollywood coincided with the golden age of the newspaper film. It was a pure style: like Hollywood films, newspapers of their glory days have been fashionable, unpretentious, not fairly respectable, but wielded monumental energy. Reporters in thirties movies are directly con males and truth-tellers; cynics who peddle sentimentality; uneducated regular guys who reside by their wits and look down on the suckers who read their stuff. They are aggressive, vulgar, unscrupulous hacks (“gents of the press,” as Rosalind Russell says disgustedly in His Woman Friday, Howard Hawks’ remake of The Entrance Web page), who sit round in shirtsleeves with their hats on the backs of their heads and their ft on their desks, who drink too much and insult ladies and mock all pieties. But they are additionally heroes who battle corrupt politicians and rise up for innocent residents. This ambivalence lies on the coronary heart of Lee Tracy’s persona: nevertheless scheming, insolent and abrasive he was, he was all the time the great man. He didn’t play gangsters or criminals, barring a really early position in Liliom; he by no means did not win the day and get the woman. He might twist ethics with out seeming really crooked; though typically deceitful, he was the enemy of sanctimony and hypocrisy. His elementary decency, nevertheless disguised, was dependable.
It’s inconceivable to conceive of a mute Lee Tracy, so it’s fitting that he arrived in Hollywood in 1929, the yr the films went “from dangerous to voice.” He made his debut enjoying one half of a husband-and-wife vaudeville staff in Huge Time. He first appears on display doing a passable soft-shoe with Mae Clarke (he had discovered to bop for his breakthrough stage position as a hoofer within the musical Broadway), wanting very younger and thin and loose-limbed. He’s right at residence in the setting; his vitality, his extroversion, his always-leave-’em-laughing shtick is the vaudevillian fashion. Massive Time is a standard story of a cocky, immature younger man who must study some exhausting classes. Tracy had played the identical sort in his first Broadway play, The Present-Off, and the theme of the big-headed younger braggart (“Proper now you would stage Ben Hur in his hat,” somebody says of Tracy’s character in Massive Time) being taken down a peg was ubiquitous within the 1920s and ’30s. In Tracy’s debut, the rapid-fire patter and overweening self-confidence are acquainted, but Eddie Burns is far dumber than the characters Tracy would play in his prime, and without the agile razor wit his self-infatuation is more durable to swallow.
Tracy took supporting roles in three more movies earlier than returning to Broadway in 1931. Again in Hollywood in 1932, he had his star-making part as a reporter within the crime drama The Unusual Love of Molly Louvain. An egotistical however irresistibly charming heel, he seduces Ann Dvorak by placing her down and promising to betray her. Although he doesn’t appear till halfway by way of the story, he instantly takes over the movie and toys with it nimbly, like the telephone he always juggles. (Lee Tracy with no telephone can be like John Wayne and not using a horse. His velocity was each a response and a problem to new applied sciences of immediate communication.) The other actors look abruptly out of date, left behind like pony carts within the wake of a racecar. Together with his depth and playful mannerisms, he “steals every thing but the cameras,” as George Raft stated of Mae West. He lacks Cagney’s grace, but has a lanky, angular, loose-jointed freedom of movement, like some jazzy New Yorker cartoon come to life. Although his performances are heightened and stylized, all the gimmicks have an air of untamed spontaneity.
He went on swiping scenes in his next movie, Love Is a Racket. As the hero’s greatest pal, Tracy is peripheral to the story, however he always snags consideration, giving every small second a riveting flourish: waking with a hangover; hamming up the agony as he climbs into a cold tub in his pajamas to win a $50 guess; body-checking another reporter to get to the telephone; declaring his love for Ann Dvorak via a mouthful of steak (“Say, in case you liked me half as a lot as you’re keen on that steak I’d surrender just out of pity,” she replies tartly); delivering strains like, “Nicely I’ll be a double-jointed son of a . . . Bulgarian acrobat!” The plot, in any case, takes a back seat to wisecracks and leg artwork, scorching jazz and artwork deco penthouses. Loath to waste time on exposition, the film plunges us straight right into a world of gangsters who run “milk rackets,” Broadway babies “with taxi meters on their hearts,” and reporters who rise up at 5 pm, go out on the town, and perform a little furious two-finger typing earlier than daybreak. A bubbly cocktail, Love Is a Racket can also be startlingly astringent. The hero (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) is a newspaperman who has not the slightest curiosity in tackling corrupt forces for the public good; it may be dangerous for his well being, or at the least his capability to get a superb table at Sardi’s. A chilly-blooded homicide is shrugged off — and gotten away with — because the sufferer deserved to die. The hero risks all the things to chivalrously rescue a lady who rewards him by marrying an previous moneybags, and he concludes the film with a speech explaining why “Love is just a psychological dysfunction.” Only pre-Code Hollywood — with the assistance of actors like Lee Tracy — might concoct a film directly so pessimistic and so amiably effervescent.
Tracy stayed within the newsroom for Doctor X, Clear all Wires!, and Advice to the Lovelorn (proper, with Sterling Holloway), but saw how the opposite half lives when he played politicians in Night time Mayor and Washington Merry-Go-Spherical. Within the latter, a pre-Code Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, he is an idealistic junior congressman battling government corruption, making patriotic speeches in entrance of the Declaration of Independence, and visiting the Lincoln Memorial for inspiration. He’s no wide-eyed Jimmy Stewart, although. He’s nicely aware that he owes his victory to a crooked political machine, and when the identical machine gets him tossed out of Congress, he takes the regulation into his own palms with the assistance of the Bonus Army, kidnaps the chief villain, and suggests the man may need to kill himself. He could possibly be as conniving and cruel in the cause of justice as in the reason for making a quick buck. Tracy’s character in Night time Mayor was based mostly on New York’s notorious playboy mayor Jimmy Walker. Lee, who was recognized to breakfast at Sardi’s around cocktail hour, undoubtedly concurred with Walker’s pronouncement, “It’s a sin to go to bed on the same day you bought up.”
In Blessed Occasion, arguably his masterpiece, Tracy plays Alvin Roberts, a personality based mostly so intently on Walter Winchell that the columnist might have sued, however he in all probability beloved it. (It has been advised that Winchell copied his personal radio method from Tracy’s.) Once we first meet Alvin, he’s a lowly kid from the advert division who has been given a chance to sub for a gossip columnist and gotten in hassle for filling the column with scandal — for example, which couple is “anticipating a blessed occasion” 4 months after their wedding ceremony. Quickly Alvin has turn out to be an all-powerful superstar and made scores of enemies, including a gangster prepared to bump him off to close him up. Roy Del Ruth, who also directed the wildly entertaining Cagney car Blonde Crazy, retains Blessed Event going like a popcorn-maker, churning out sly, outrageous zingers. Like the perfect pre-Code films, it by no means loses its nerve or its sense of humor.
Alvin’s normal greeting is, “What have you learnt that I don’t?” The reply is nothing, at the very least not for long, but he’s surrounded by worthy foils, and he performs off them like a tennis champ relishing good partners. Ruth Donnelly is both tart and peppery as Alvin’s harried secretary (“You need to see Mr. Roberts? Oh, you need to sue Mr. Roberts. The road varieties on the left.”) Allen Jenkins, who keeps saying he’s from Chicago despite the fact that his Brooklyn accent might be reduce with a steak knife, plays a goon sent by his gangster boss to threaten Roberts. In a staggering scene, Alvin terrifies the robust man with a graphic, horrifying description of demise within the electrical chair. Tracy delivers this monologue with unholy gusto, his voice rising and throbbing like a siren. For those who’re not opposed to the dying penalty, you may be after seeing this. There’s also a subplot about Alvin’s ongoing feud with a smarmy crooner, Bunny Harmon, performed by Dick Powell. (Anybody who finds Powell in his crooning days repellent will respect Tracy’s vendetta. Brilliant-eyed, chipmunk-cheeked and egregiously perky, Powell in his film debut is mild years from Philip Marlowe. I feel he’s doing it on objective.) Lee Tracy’s reactions to treacle — to Powell’s cloying tenor or Franchot Tone in Bombshell telling Jean Harlow he’d wish to run barefoot via her hair — are delicious. He’s all salt and vinegar, allergic to sweetness.
Blessed Event doesn’t soft-pedal the sleaziness of Alvin’s column, which is titled, with disarming honesty, “Spilling the Filth.” In contrast to J. J. Hunsecker in Candy Odor of Success, Alvin has few illusions about himself — however he revels in his job and his superstar, and the film forces us to take pleasure in him so much that we will’t look down on those who would devour “Spilling the Dust” over breakfast. Tracy’s characters embrace vulgarity as their bread and butter; they’re men of the individuals who both cheat and champion the Great Unwashed, glorifying the widespread man while choosing his pocket. In The Nuisance his glib, ambulance-chasing jackal makes use of accident victims — actual or feigning — to bilk cash from “soulless firms.” He fakes x-rays, grandstands in courtroom, and groups up with knowledgeable car-accident victim named Floppy Phil. In The Half-Bare Fact, a delirious ballet of ballyhoo, he’s a carnival barker who promotes a Mexican dancer (her specialty is a risqué quantity referred to as “Hey, Mr. Carpenter”) as a visiting Turkish princess and a brainless nudist as the new Woman Godiva. Within the acutely self-referential Bombshell, he’s a Hollywood studio publicist who entangles a sweet-natured, hard-working film star (Jean Harlow) in a wild collection of scandals as a result of that’s what the public needs to listen to.
These films share an anarchic, frenetic tone, accelerating to the border of hysteria. Tracy himself drives the blistering tempo, uncontrollable and in full control. (Even MGM, which put him underneath contract in 1933, didn’t try to tame or soften his persona.) There’s a tough edge underneath his ebullient allure, a narrow-eyed, sharp-elbowed ruthlessness and caustic fury at something that stands in his means. In The Nuisance, he brings metropolis visitors to a standstill by having bus and street-car drivers arrested for violating obscure 19th-century laws. In The Half-Naked Fact, he punishes Frank Morgan’s theatrical producer Merle Farrell by plastering his office with compromising pictures of Farrell and a chorus woman. In Blessed Occasion, he turns into apoplectic when an editorial labels him the “nadir” of American journalism, furiously vowing to punish the writer in his column (“A nadir never forgets!”). Tracy is as scrappy as Cagney, however he never uses guns or his fists; words are the one weapons wanted by the quickest mouth within the West. In Dinner at Eight, when Tracy’s long-suffering press agent tells his shopper John Barrymore that he’s all washed up, he twists the knife, then twists it some more. “You’re by means of,” he says, drawing the word out and rolling it on his tongue like wine.
He was not afraid to seem callous and even cruel, but he never alienates his audience for lengthy. He might be concurrently despicable and likable — even loveable. Together with his impish grin, twinkling eyes, and boyish blond hair, he seems to be like Tom Sawyer crossed with a Tammany Hall fixer. His voice may be harsh and penetrating, however it’s gloriously expressive: there’s the triumphant cackle that goes up a full octave (“ha-HAH!”), the endearing cracks within the upper registers during moments of real or pretended ardour, and the little throaty, crooning sound he makes as he strikes in to kiss his main woman. His zest and dynamism are inexhaustible, his body lunging and skidding, his palms dancing with exasperation and glee.
In Bombshell, he’s virtually helplessly dishonest: he adores Jean Harlow yet can’t stop thwarting and humiliating her, destroying her goals of a traditional family life. The best way Gene Kelly’s gotta dance, the best way fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly, Tracy’s gotta cheat and lie and manipulate. But we consider he loves her — Tracy was surprisingly believable as a lover, keen and honest in his wooing. (“Imagine how I really feel,” he pleads in Blessed Event, “Seein’ ya each day, talkin’ to ya, lovin’ ya on a regular basis, and never even gettin’ to first base!”) Even with male co-stars he could possibly be unexpectedly touching, as in his affection for Frank Morgan’s pathetic, drunken doctor in The Nuisance, who lets him down however loves him like a son.
Some of Tracy’s films clarify that he was once naïve and idealistic before turning into disillusioned by the world’s treachery. Though he’s an urban sort, one thinks of him as coming from a small town, as having an expensive previous mother stashed behind a picket fence somewhere (when she isn’t dwelling in his house, sweetly clueless, as in Blessed Event). There’s heat and kindness in him, combined up together with his aggression and cynicism so that even he seems not all the time to know which can come out. He embodies an American fashion that James Harvey (discussing The Front Web page) summed up in his ebook Romantic Comedy: “the mixture of an absolute cynicism about public and social life with a type of innocence and even hopefulness.”
Every Lee Tracy car accommodates a second when he realizes he’s gone too far, often when the woman he fancies tells him off. He seems to be all of the sudden aghast, protesting, “Gee, if I’d recognized you felt that approach . . . I’d give something to not have completed that . . . Baby, sugar, pay attention . . . !” He doesn’t need to harm individuals, he simply will get carried away by enjoyment of his personal power and unstoppable craftiness. In Blessed Event, he crosses the road when he betrays a desperate younger lady who begs him to not reveal her pregnancy. In The Nuisance, he brushes off the spouse who beforehand betrayed him, solely to seek out out she has gone to jail to protect him. In The Strange Love of Molly Louvain, he concocts a unclean trick to capture an unwed mother on the lam from the regulation, then discovers that she is the girlfriend with whom he was about to run off to Paris. For as soon as he appears genuinely stricken with remorse, sickened by his own rotten cleverness, and in a uncommon moment of unabashed sincerity vows to make the lady he derided as a “tinsel woman” study to “love me and respect me in an honest means.” However although he typically promises to reform, only a idiot would consider him, and who would need to? A reformed Lee Tracy can be like Fred Astaire with arthritis.
Off-screen, Lee Tracy was an unapologetic dangerous boy, notorious for consuming, missing work, and being flippant to interviewers. He introduced that he didn’t need a residence or youngsters but most popular to reside transiently in lodge rooms,) and claimed that in New York he cheered himself up by watching Long Island commuters with “that strained and anxious husband look of their eyes.” He tried to get out of paying taxes by claiming his residence was “Trucksville, Pennsylvania” and writing off money spent in Hollywood as enterprise bills, including ideas he paid the studio to let him sleep late within the morning. Arrested in 1935 for firing a gun by means of his neighbor’s window whereas drunk, he defined that his actual target was an ashtray he had never appreciated.
Tragically for his followers, Tracy’s best-known drunken indiscretion torpedoed his film career. In 1934, while in Mexico Metropolis filming Viva Villa, he allegedly stepped out on the balcony of his lodge room and urinated on a passing army parade. Tracy claimed it was a window-grate, not a balcony, and that the whole thing was an accident blown out of proportion. Arriving again in the States after this escapade, he greeted his girlfriend (Isabel Jewell, hilarious as a squawking floozy in Bombshell) with the phrases, “Holy cats, honey, however it’s been a dizzy week!” Audiences have been able to forgive him, as they might later forgive Robert Mitchum for the pot bust, but MGM sternly invoked the morals clause and fired him. It’s questionable whether he might have lasted long as a star beneath the Code anyway, since his movies are gleefully amoral, demonstrating that crime — or at the least lying, dishonest, and driving roughshod over other individuals’s feelings — pays.
We’ll by no means know what would have occurred if Tracy had missed that Mexican parade. Would he have overcome typecasting and branched out to show the complete vary of his skills, or would repetition and changing occasions have doomed him anyway? Not that he ever stopped working: he stayed busy in B-movies, on stage, and in tv. Prudent investments left him a real property millionaire, so he might afford to work solely as a lot as he needed to; his different great love was sailing. In 1938, he married Helen Thomas Wyze, whom he met when she referred to as to sell him an insurance coverage on his yacht, and stunned everybody by staying fortunately married. Messy and alcoholic as his personal life might have been, he was a dedicated and impressive actor. On stage he performed every thing from Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny Courtroom Martial to a parish priest (with a weak spot for racehorses) in A Minor Miracle.
In 1964, he made a triumphant return to Hollywood in The Greatest Man, based mostly on a play by Gore Vidal. In both stage and display variations, Tracy performed a Trumanesque former president who is being courted by two presidential candidates vying for his or her celebration’s nomination. In a more complicated and nuanced position than any he had tackled on display in his heyday, he is sly and folksy, shrewd and anti-intellectual, trustworthy but prepared handy out pretend sentiment, honorable however able to struggle dirty. Over all this hangs the pathos of mortality — he’s dying of a most cancers, as Tracy himself would in 1968 — yet he nonetheless brings a crackle of electricity right into a room.
There’s no better time than the present to resurrect Lee Tracy. It’s not simply that his talent as a performer deserves to be higher recognized, however that his hustling spirit and resilient power ought to be notably welcome in our troubled financial system. He may be brief on scruples, however he’s by no means cold or smug like his enemies; he has a manic, scalding ardour for fulfillment. Audiences in the course of the Melancholy reveled within the exploits of con men, chiselers, racketeers, and gangsters; they loved watching these rough-edged, self-made men outwit the rich and powerful. You’d never catch Lee Tracy standing in a breadline; he’d discover a approach to scam a three-course meal and stick some stuffed shirt with the worth, plus a couple of selection wise-cracks. The pleasure of watching him lies in the fantasy of all the time having a come-back; all the time having a plan up your sleeve and another up the other sleeve in case the primary one doesn’t work; all the time getting the last snigger — and doing all of it with fashion, a fizz that never goes flat, the sizzling tempo of a scorching jazz band. “I’m appearing,” Tracy himself admitted, “The best way I’ve all the time needed to be.”