LEE TRACY: A WELCOME NUISANCE

November 12, 2013

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“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. 

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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:

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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.

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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.

VIVA LA CAVA: THE HALF NAKED TRUTH AND BED OF ROSES

November 27, 2012

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One of the advantages of being home for the holidays are the huge gaps of time that open up when work and other daily annoyances fade from view. In the lazy hours surrounding Thanksgiving I hunkered down in front of my family’s DVR and monolithic tube TV, searching the TCM schedule for something to while away the hours with. One particular item caught my eye, an early morning screening of Gregory La Cava’s Bed of Roses (1933). The description mentioned steamboats and female con-artistry, two of my favored subjects, so I clicked record in sweaty anticipation. The film turned out to be far more than an amiable time-killer, but an astoundingly subversive pre-code with some of La Cava’s finest lowdown dialogue. Wondering what other gems lay hidden in early 1930s La Cava, I also tracked down The Half Naked Truth (1932), which was a looser but still uproarious bit of scam artist screwball.

The Half Naked Truth was the fifth film Gregory La Cava directed for RKO, and the third straight produced by David O. Selznick. Following two dramas on which he didn’t receive a screenwriting credit (Symphony of Six Million and Age of Consent), La Cava was handed The Anatomy of Ballyhoo, the 1931 memoir of press agent Harry Reichenbach. Filled with outrageous incident, La Cava and Corey Ford’s script is a marvel of escalatingly elaborate scams, testing the limits of American gullibility, although much was probably re-written on the set. In a 1937 letter proposing La Cava be hired as a director-producer, Selznick wrote: “La Cava would drive me crazy as a director with the rewriting he does on set, for as you know I don’t like any projection-room surprises or shocks, but if he were his own producer we could take chance that he would shock himself.” Selznick never made him producer, but conveyed the kind of on-set improvisation that led to La Cava’s freest movies, which crackle with possibility.

Changing the name to The Half Naked Truth, the movie follows Jimmy Bates (Lee Tracy) on his rise from carnival barker to Broadway impresario. Eager to prove that not only is there a sucker born every minute, but probably every second, Bates invents outrageous backstories for his gal Teresita (Lupe Velez) and pal Achilles (Eugene Pallette) at every stop, from scorned orphan to Turkish Princess, and it makes him money every time. He states his position to the carnival owner: “the world wants excitement, sensation, baloney!”. Part of a spate of comic con man movies that flowered during the Depression, including Hard to Handle (’33, with James Cagney) and The Mind Reader (’33, starring Warren William), The Half Naked Truth made light of the fact that the only possible way to make a living was to lie, cheat or steal.

Lee Tracy is ideal casting as the motormouth promoter (despite later being sued by Selznick for repeatedly showing up late to the set). He spits out hilariously ridiculous lines with a mix of bravado and self-absorption, as when he tells Lupe Velez to, “stick with me baby, the next stop is Broadway”, as the fair burns down behind him due to his previous scheme’s spectacular failure. By the time he brings a lion into a hotel room or invents a nudist colony that parades through NYC, it becomes clear he can sell anything to anyone.

After directing the bizarre liberal fascist fantasy Gabriel Over the White House (1933, read J. Hoberman’s An Army of Phantoms on that one), La Cava was assigned another scamming Depression-era character in Bed of Roses (1933), this time a cynical prostitute hustler played by Constance Bennett. The original script by Wanda Tuchock was spruced up by La Cava and Eugene Thackrey (both receive “dialogue” credits), and is a boozy dip into the world of drunk-rolling Johns and blackmailing rich patrons. Lorry Evans (Bennett) is a jaw-droppingly amoral character who uses her formidable sexual allure to rob a boll weevil exterminator and cotton barge captain (Joel McCrea), before having herself installed in high-rise luxury by publisher Stephen Paige (John Halliday).

While Jimmy Bates bent the law to climb the ladder of success, Lorry is an out and out criminal, and Constance Bennett’s buzzed, almost slow-motion performance makes it seem positively alluring. The strengthening Production Code had just begun, and some were concerned about the film’s tone. In April of ’33,  Studio Relations Committee head Dr. James Wingate urged the film’s producer Merian C. Cooper to, “show some positive qualities of retribution and regeneration that will counter-balance this apparent glorifying of an unscrupulous adventuress.” It is unknown what changes were made to the original script, although later scenes of Lorry living an ascetic lifestyle to “prove” she could go straight were likely added due to urgings such as these.

The role of “unscrupulous adventuress” was a departure for Bennett, with The Motion Picture Herald describing it as, “quite different from Connie’s usual society stuff”, and Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times wrote in his review that it was, “disconcerting to see her emerging from a reformatory”. But Bennett seems to relish the opportunity to go slumming, with a shoulder raised and back arched, as if a bow pulled taut before flinging itself at its target. Bennett is aided in her tawdry crimes by Pert Kelton, who plays the even seamier Minnie with a spot-on imitation of Mae West, her suggestive nasal drawl and thunderous hip swagger enough to bring a few middle-western rubes to their knees.

What gives Bed of Roses an emotional kick, however, is the no-nonsense romance between Lorry and the cotton barge captain, Dan. Their meet-cute has Dan fish Lorry out of the bay after she escapes from the cops, with Lorry then tossing him into the drink for impugning her virtue. The romantic climax is no top of the Empire State Building affair, but a charged exchange of sharpened words in a shabby tenement.

The mix of McCrea’s open-hearted sweetness and Bennett’s world-weary resignation elicits not sparks but genuine warmth, and their courtship is without illusions. Neither care for past improprieties – Dan brushes off the revelation of Lorry’s whoring past with a shrug – both are only concerned for what the present may bring. It’s a tough and loving and uproarious work, and should be placed alongside My Man Godfrey (1936) as Gregory La Cava’s best. And after forcing my parents to watch it the day before Thanksgiving, my mother would agree. She said it was her new favorite movie.