[28 February 2014]
Now forgotten, Lee Tracy was a comic star of the early talkies, and did he talk! Although slim and baby-faced, he epitomized a cynical, brash, motormouthed, unscrupulous flim-flam artist who was on the make, on the go, and on the lam. He was a bantam who got in your face, waving a hand in front of your nose and barking sentences with “Say, listen!” He made a splash on Broadway as Hildy Johnson in the original The Front Page and smoothly transitioned to Hollywood, always more or less in the same role. His highlights include the gossip columnist in Blessed Event and the Hollywood press agent who hounds Jean Harlow in Bombshell. Two more saucy pre-Code rambunctions are freshly available on demand from Warner Archive.
In Gregory LaCava’s The Half-Naked Truth, Tracy’s a barker at a two-bit carnival with perpetually half-naked Lupe Velez, a former silent-era bombshell who later starred in the Mexican Spitfire series. To generate publicity and a little blackmail, he announces that she’s about to name some gentleman of their current podunk town as her illegitimate daddy. This propels them to New York where, with a series of outrageous stunts, he catches the attention of befuddled Broadway producer Ralph Morgan, who has a weakness for his leading ladies. Large, hoarse-voiced Eugene Pallette tags along with jokes at his expense about being a eunuch (though they never quite say the word). Tracy and Velez are supposedly an item, although they only touch each other by slapping. The ending implies he’s about to hit her, which I suppose was a cynical compromise instead of the standard sentimental clinch for what is, after all, a highly unlikely resolution.
You’d think this kind of fast-moving contemporary satire would be a Warner Brothers product, but it’s from David O. Selznick’s RKO, and the next item is from MGM. That’s The Nuisance, where Tracy is literally an ambulance-chasing shyster. “Shyster lawyer, shyster lover, shyster husband” goes a line of dialogue used in the trailer. Once again, the sleight-of-tongue dialogue (by the classic team of Bella and Samuel Spewack) creates sparks as he juggles any number of seat-of-the-pants tricks that should get him disbarred. He sees himself as a scrappy fighter for “the little guy” against “big corporations”—that’s the populist Depression angle, and it hasn’t dated. He doesn’t know that the honey he’s hitting on (Madge Evans) is setting him up for a fall. Ralph Morgan is around again as an alcoholic doctor, wringing pathos out of his mixed-up, hopelessly compromised souse. “I love you, Joseph,” he says twice as his world falls apart.