November 12, 2013
“It didn’t take those women at the stage door to convince me I was nobody’s hero. I’d looked into a mirror once or twice. These light eyes, these limp features, these scars all over my face!”
-Lee Tracy, Picture Play Magazine, 1933
Although his career lasted until 1965, the image of Lee Tracy will forever be of a chatterbox on the make, established during his prolific run of pre-codes in the early 1930s. Whether he plays a tabloid reporter or ambulance chasing lawyer, Tracy’s characters were always looking for an angle as sharp as the crease in his fedora. His catalytic personality, a shotgun blast of nasal putdowns, led him to leading man roles, overcoming the perceived shortcomings of his pockmarked face, thinning hair and bantamweight build. Audiences, though, liked to root for this ruthless underdog. The Warner Archive released three Tracy pre-codes on DVD last week: The Half Naked Truth (’32) , Turn Back The Clock (’33) and The Nuisance (’33). In The Half Naked Truth, Tracy is a con-man/publicist as he turns hoochie coochie dancer Lupe Velez into a Broadway star. A hidden gem directed by Gregory La Cava, I wrote about it last year. So today I’ll focus on the latter two. He is cast against type in Turn Black the Clock, a proto It’s A Wonderful Life where his meek tobacconist is granted a time-traveling chance to re-live his life for money instead of love. The Nuisance, though, is a prime rat-a-tat Tracy, in which he hammers the local train company with phony injury claims, with the aid of his drunken doctor pal Frank Morgan. Cinematographer Gregg Toland and director Jack Conway make sure the camera moves with as much agility as Tracy’s tongue.
Tracy was born in Atlanta on April 14th, 1898, but moved from town to town because of his father’s job as a railroad superintendent. He graduated from the Western Military Academy in 1918, and served as an officer in WWI. Despite his training in electrical engineering, he was drawn to the stage, and got his first job in a vaudeville skit for $35 a week. He gained notoreity on Broadway with his fast-paced performance in the aptly titled 1924 production of The Showoff. He was also the first to play Hildy Johnson on stage in Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s smash hit The Front Page (1928). He was passed over for Pat O’Brien for the film version, but he had caught the eye of Hollywood casting directors and began his film career in earnest in 1929, with the fortuitous coming of sound.
His adenoidal patter, which he modulated into a high-pitched whinny when agitated, was ideal for the early days of sound, in which cameras were often static. When Tracy talked, the whole film seemed to move along with it. Turn Back the Clock (’33) needed his assistance. Shot in unvarying static two shots, it’s boring to look at, but Tracy always manages to keep things interesting, with his active hands punctuating his anxieties. The story taps into Depression-era traumas, of the second-guessing that gutted those millions have families who lost their nest egg. Tracy plays a struggling tobacconist who bemoans dumping his rich high school girlfriend for his poor, loving wife. After a conk on the head, he gets his wish, waking up a decade earlier when the fateful decision was made. Now he gets to live his whole life over – and opts for easy money over love. This past also includes an early appearance by The Three Stooges, so maybe all that time-travel was worth it. It is a romantic film, and pushes Tracy into moments of rare vulnerability. Where his most famous work puts him on the attack, here he is a defensive second-guesser, utilizing his motormouth comebacks to squabble with his wife rather than swindle capitalists. Re-framed in this context, Tracy’s whole schtick becomes small and petty – and the film’s conclusion builds to the stripping away of his arrogant veneer.
But that sneering veneer is why I love him, so I gained far more pleasure from The Nuisance, in which Tracy is back in motormouth conman mode. As shady lawyer J. Phineas Stevens, he’s not an ambulance chaser, but more of a sprinter. He has his own ambulance to cut through traffic in order to beat the real ones to the scene, to kindly drop his business card into the prone victims’ hands. Tracy’s publicists were clearly trying to pump up Tracy’s sex appeal through “dangerous” roles like this one. In a 1933 Picture Play, the writer Helen Klumph recounts this inconceivable anecdote of neighborhood girls with a crush on Tracy:
“I thought Clark Gable and Roman Novarro and Robert Montgomery were your type.” “Mamma likes them”, one girl spoke up as the others nodded in agreement. “I do sometimes, but they’re sticky”, another added. “Too intense”, another chimed in. “They talk like crooners. We like jazz.” In other words…they adore Lee Tracy because their parents don’t approve.
Klumph’s article is accompanied with this photo of a beaming Tracy – not exactly James Dean material here. Although a world in which Lee Tracy is a heartthrob is one I want to live in:
I digress. In The Nuisance Tracy’s main target is the city’s train company, whom he’s soaked for millions in phony personal injury claims. His dipsomaniac doctor, played with brittle brilliance by Frank Morgan, fakes x-rays for every injury in the book, though his favorite is spinal thrombosis.Further aided in his crimes by Floppy (Charles Butterworth), an expert at taking dives in front of cars, Stevens can practically write his own check after any fender bender in town. That’s until Dorothy (Madge Evans) is sicced on him by the District Attorney to smell out his schemes. And with her gams he gives up the trade secrets quick.
The Nuisance is aided by the highly mobile camerawork of Gregg Toland, who snakes through Stevens’ office to capture Tracy speaking in unbroken takes. Toland and director Jack Arnold also build a simple but compelling arc out of Stevens bending over his prone victims. In the beginning it is pure business, forcing dazed commuters into his schemes. In the next composition it is personal, with Stevens looming over Dorothy’s body, hoping to score a date. But in the third variation, he and Dorothy tilt over the Doctor’s prone frame after a car accident. It’s the same basic setup, but Tracy inches closer towards the victim each time, conveying the increasing emotional cost of his lifestyle. After the usual madcap series of twists and revelations, Stevens and Dorothy end up in each other’s arms – as he promises her he’ll go straight. But then Floppy takes a dive, Lee Tracy’s eyes light up, and he says that this will be his last scam – an unbelievable lie. But Dorothy has to shrug and accept it, and his audience hopes his new swindle will hit screens soon.