By Ed Garea
As I’ve said before, TCM’s “Summer Under the Stars” is always a mixed bag, yet there are times when they knock it out of the park. August 21 is one such day, for the entire days is devoted to screening nothing by Lee Tracy. Tracy is one of the forgotten gems of the Pre-Code era. His wiseguy persona, impeccable timing, and rapid-fire delivery stood him well during a time noted for that sort of character, and he starred in 20 movies made between 1929 and 1933.
Born in Atlanta and christened William Lee Tracy on April 14, 1898, he was the son of a traveling railroad superintendent and a former schoolteacher. He studied engineering at Union College, but his interest in dramatics led to him joining a theatrical company upon graduation. World War I interrupted his budding dramatic career, and upon his discharge from the Army he abandoned the stage for a job as a U.S. Treasury Agent. But the lure of the theater proved too strong and after only two years, Tracy bid goodbye to the Treasury and split his time between vaudeville and touring stock companies.
He made his Broadway stage debut in The Showoff in 1924, and in 1926 he hit stardom in George Abbott’s production of Broadway, as a song-and-dance man, receiving the New York Drama Critics Award. In 1928, he played his most famous stage role, that of fast-talking newspaperman Hildy Johnson in Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht’s mammoth hit, The Front Page. (Unfortunately, when the film version was made in 1931, Tracy was overlooked in favor of Pat O’Brien.) Fox Studios signed him in 1929, and Tracy made his starring debut with Mae Clarke in Big Time. Directed by Kenneth Hawks, brother of Howard, the film was a take on the “A Star is Born” formula with Tracy as a self-centered vaudevillian comic, and Clarke as an upcoming singer-dancer.
He followed this with the gangster drama Born Reckless (1930), in which he played the first of his Walter Winchell-based, staccato-talking characters. In Liliom(1930) he was “the Buzzard,” the scheming friend to Charles Farrell’s titular carnival barker, and in the Tiffany Studios comedy She Got What She Wanted (1930), as Eddie, the unreliable vaudeville hoofer boyfriend of star Betty Compson.
Tracy then impulsively abandoned Hollywood to return to Broadway, appearing in Oh, Promise Me in 1930, and Louder Please in 1931. But Hollywood still wanted him, and when he returned in 1932, it was in the employ of Warner Bros. Once again he played a fast-talking newspaperman in his WB debut, The Strange Love of Molly Louvain, co-starring with Ann Dvorak. He followed it was another newspaperman role in William Wellman’s Love is a Racket, and again as a reporter in Michael Curtiz’s gothic horror opus, Doctor X. He rounded out 1932 for Warner’s as the cynical scandal-seeking columnist in Blessed Event.
Tracy then did a little freelancing, playing a freshman Congressman out to rid Washington of corruption in Washington Merry-Go-Round (1932) for Columbia, a seedy barker who transforms sideshow dancer Lupe Velez into a Broadway sensation in the ribald The Half Naked Truth, for RKO (1932), and Private Jones for Universal in 1933.
By this time Tracy had earned a reputation as an excellent actor, albeit one with a hair-trigger temper and a pronounced carousing and heavy drinking habit. Nevertheless, MGM signed him to a long-term contract with a substantial pay raise in 1933. He scored critical and profitable turns in such films as Clear All Wires! (1933), The Nuisance (1933), Turn Back the Clock (1933), Advice to the Lovelorn (1933), the MGM star-studded ensemble classic Dinner at Eight (1933), and the Jean Harlow vehicle Bombshell (1933). With each picture as popular or more so than the last, it seemed as if the sky was the limit for Tracy’s talent.
However, Tracy had forged a solid reputation with his heavy drinking and unrestrained nightlife, which led to increased absences from the set. It all came to a head in 1933 with an incident that derailed Tracy’s career. During the filming of MGM’s Viva Villa in Mexico City, Tracy was arrested for allegedly urinating on a group of Mexican soldiers and getting into fisticuffs with the arresting officers. Tracy claimed the he was urinating into a steel grate, and several members of the film crew stated that the incident didn’t unfold as the Mexican authorities claimed. Nevertheless, MGM felt compelled to issue an apology to the Mexican government. They also canceled his five-year contract, citing the morals clause. As Tracy was a heavy drinker offstage, the studio had weight on their side.
With no other studio bidding for his exclusive services, Tracy turned to freelancing, but as the years went on, the quality of his films declined. It was the coming of television that revived his career and Tracy made the most of it, starring in two series during the ‘50s. He also returned to the stage and won notice for his role as ex-President Art Hockstader (based on Harry Truman) in Gore Vidal’s The Best Man. He reprised the role in film in 1964, and was nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor. He passed away in 1968 from liver cancer, and was survived by his wife of 30 years, Helen Thomas Wyse.
Here is a complete rundown of Tracy’s day:
6:00 am - FIXER DUGAN (RKO, 1939): Lee Tracy, Virginia Weidler, & Peggy Shannon. This is a heart tugger about a young girl (Wiedler) who is orphaned when her mother, a circus aerialist, is killed in a fall. A rival circus notifies the sheriff and the young girl is placed in an orphanage. Circus manager Tracy, known as “the Fixer,” is determined to help the young lady and punish the rival circus, which also made off with two of Tracy’s lions. The cast is far better than the story in this one.
7:15 am - CRASHING HOLLYWOOD (RKO, 1938): Lee Tracy, Joan Woodbury, & Paul Guilfoyle. A solid comedy about screenwriter Tracy collaborating with ex-con Guilfoyle on a script based on his last bank robbery. Things get really sticky when the real gangsters show up and want to know how Hollywood knows so much about them.
8:30 am - CRIMINAL LAWYER (RKO, 1937): Lee Tracy, Margot Grahame, & Eduardo Ciannelli. Tracy is a wily defense attorney who falls in love with a penniless client he defended, and who has to change his tune when he is appointed as district attorney.
9:45 am - THE SPELLBINDER (RKO, 1939): Lee Tracy, Barbara Read, Patric Knowles, Allen Lane, Linda Hayes, & Morgan Conway. Tracy is yet another morally dubious, silver-tongued defense lawyer. He revels in getting acquittals for his obviously guilty clients, until his daughter (Read) falls for one (Knowles). Tracy shines, but the film is strictly on the routine side.
11:00 am - WANTED: JANE TURNER (RKO, 1936): Lee Tracy, Gloria Stuart, Ann Preston, John McGuire, & Irene Franklin. Postal Investigators Tom Mallory (Tracy) and Doris Martin (Stuart) follow a trail from a mail robbery on the East Coast to Los Angeles by using a letter sent General Delivery to "Jane Turner." When the letter (which is full of cash) is picked up by a woman whose name is also Jane Turner, both the cops and robbers pick up her trail. All in all, a decent thriller whose greatest asset is that it’s only 66 minutes long.
12:15 pm - MILLIONAIRES IN PRISON (RKO, 1940): Lee Tracy, Morgan Conway, Linda Hayes, Raymond Walburn, Truman Bradley, Virginia Vale, Chester Clute, Cliff Edwards, Thurston Hall, Shemp Howard, & Paul Guilfoyle. Enjoyable, if farfetched B about four millionaires sent to the big house for financial shenanigans. Once there, they fall under the supervision of Nick (Tracy), the “humanitarian” czar of the convicts. His influence is used to allow Dr. William Collins (Bradley), locked up for reckless driving, to continue with his experiments in curing Malta fever. Nick convinces two of the millionaires (Hall and Walburn), jailed for income tax evasion, to finance the Doc’s experiments, while stopping the other two millionaires (Conway and Clute) from selling phony stock to the other inmates. Everything comes out nice and gift-wrapped at the end, as the Doc finds a cure and gets his medical license back. For those unfamiliar with Bradley, he later went onto fame as the host/narrator of the popular ‘50s syndicated television series, Science Fiction Theatre.
1:30 pm - BEHIND THE HEADLINES (RKO, 1937): Lee Tracy, Diana Gibson, Donald Meek, & Paul Guilfoyle. Tracy is Eddie Haines, a radio reporter with Station KBC, and a guy known for getting the scoops, which infuriates his rivals at the newspaper, The New York Star, which happen to employ his ex-girlfriend, Mary Bradley (Gibson). But when Mary is kidnapped while thinking she’s getting the scoop on a big story, Eddie and Mary must work together to free her.
2:30 pm - THE STRANGE LOVE OF MOLLY LOUVAIN (WB, 1932): Ann Dvorak, Lee Tracy, Leslie Fenton, Richard Cromwell, Don Dillaway, Guy Kibbee, & Frank McHugh. Dvorak is a woman with incredibly bad taste in men. She’s impregnated by rich momma’s boy Dillaway, and then left flat when he and his mother abscond to Europe. Thereafter she takes up with salesman and gangster wanna-be Fenton. Tiring of him, she switches to bellboy Cromwell, but the pair are forced to take it on the lam when the car they’re in is spotted as stolen by the police. She disguises herself and runs into reporter Tracy, who, despite being a hard-boiled cynic, falls for her anyway, and wants to marry her and make a new life for her and her daughter. Critic Leonard Maltin calls this a typical Warner Bros. Pre-Code yarn, although more unpleasant than most. To us, though, that’s like catnip, meaning that we just have to see it.
3:45 pm - THE HALF NAKED TRUTH (MGM, 1932): Lee Tracy, Lupe Velez, Eugene Pallette, Frank Morgan, Shirley Chambers, & Franklin Pangborn. A lively comedy directed by Gregory LaCava with Tracy at his wisecracking best as Bates, a barker in a down-at-the heels carnival who takes his girlfriend, temperamental hootchie-cootchie dancer Teresita (Velez) and bills her as “Princess Exotica” from Turkey, bowling over Broadway in the process. Morgan is great as confused and lustful impresario Merle Ferrell, and Pallette is at the top of his game as Bates’ loyal friend, Achilles. This is a film that never lets the audience rest for a minute and keeps the comedy steady and lively. Watch for composer Max Steiner, in his only movie appearance, as a bandleader.
5:15 pm - LOVE IS A RACKET (WB, 1932): Ann Dvorak, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Lee Tracy, Frances Dee, Lyle Talbot, & Warren Hymer. Fairbanks is Jimmy Russell, who writes the “Up and Down Broadway” column for the New York Globe. He’s head over heels for Mary (Dee), but Mary is more interested in her career and looking to star on Broadway. However, Mary has a problem: she’s been writing her checks on rubber and they’ve been bouncing all over, so she asks Jimmy to bail her out. He discovers, to his dismay, that gangster Eddie Shaw (Talbot) has picked them up and he wants a little appreciation from Mary in return. When Jimmy finds Shaw dead, he picks up the checks and attempts to make the scene look like a suicide, unaware that fellow reporter Stanley Fiske (Tracy) has been watching. Dvorak, who is second-billed behind Fairbanks, plays Sally Condon, a fellow reporter.
6:30 pm - TURN BACK THE CLOCK (MGM, 1933): Lee Tracy, Mae Clarke, Otto Kruger, George Barbier, & Peggy Shannon. Edgar Selwyn and Ben Hecht wrote this wonderful Depression-era fantasy starring Tracy and Clarke as Joe and Mary, a married couple just getting by running a tobacco store. One day Joe’s old friend Ted comes into the store and they renew their friendship. We learn that Ted is now wealthy and married to the rich Elvira (Shannon), whom Joe could have married himself. After a squabble with Mary, Joe goes out for a walk and is hit by a streetcar. When he awakes he is 20 years younger. Seeing now that he can correct his mistake he marries Elvira and relives his life as a wealthy man. But he still remembers his “other” life and what happened during those years. In the end, he comes to realize that he isn’t as happy as he thought he’d be, and things happen when his old life catches up to his new one. Watch for the Three Stooges as wedding singers.
8:00 pm - BOMBSHELL (MGM, 1933): Jean Harlow, Lee Tracy, Frank Morgan, & Franchot Tone. John Lee Mahin and Jules Furthman scripted this hilarious satire of 1930s Hollywood, with Tracy as a totally unscrupulous publicity director who makes the life of his client, the glamorous Harlow, a living hell.
10:00 pm - BLESSED EVENT (WB, 1932): Lee Tracy, Mary Brian, Allen Jenkins, & Ruth Donnelly. This fast-paced, acerbic view of celebrity journalism still rings true today. Tracy is a Walter Winchell-type columnist who will write anything about anyone and everyone as long as he gets the credit, no matter what distress it causes.
11:30 pm - DINNER AT EIGHT (MGM, 1933): Wallace Beery, Jean Harlow, John Barrymore, Marie Dressler, Lionel Barrymore, Lee Tracy, Billie Burke, & Edmund Lowe. David O. Selznick produced this marvelous ensemble drama about the behind-the-scenes goings on at a high society dinner party. Tracy is the harried agent for dipso matinee idol John Barrymore. Dressler’s performance steals the picture, with Harlow close behind.
1:30 am - DOCTOR X (WB, 1932): Lee Tracy, Lionel Atwill, & Fay Wray. Tracy is fast-talking, wisecracking New York reporter Lee Taylor, hot on the trail of the day’s biggest story: the “Moon Killer” murders. All the victims were strangled, cannibalized, and surgically cut open under the light of the full moon. The trail leads to a medical academy near the waterfront of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, presided over by the mysterious Dr. Xavier (Atwill). When the mounting evidence points to one of the employees of the institute, Dr. Xavier moves his staff to his Cliffside estate on Long Island, where he arranges an elaborate reenactment of the murder. Wray is Dr. Xavier’s daughter, and Tracy’s love interest. Watch this not only for the Grand Guignol, but the sets created by art director Anton Grot, the make up by Max Factor, and the innovative use of the two-strip Technicolor process by director Michael Curtiz.
3:00 am - BETRAYAL FROM THE EAST (RKO, 1945): Lee Tracy, Nancy Kelly, Richard Loo, Regis Toomey, & Philip Ahn. Set in the years right before World War II, Japan has a spy ring operating in California. Seeking the secrets of the Panama Canal, the Japanese recruit carnival barker Eddie Carter (Tracy) who served there while in the Army. But Eddie’s a true blue patriot, and with the help of secret agents Kelly and Toomey, foils the Japanese plans to destroy the canal. This is probably the worst of Tracy’s many films, and real MST3K material, with a cardboard script, racist overtones, and bad direction. For those who love bad movies, this is a must see.
4:30 am - CLEAR ALL WIRES (MGM, 1933): Lee Tracy, Benita Hume, Una Merkel, James Gleason, & Guy Usher. Tracy is Buckley Joyce Thomas, an unethical reporter who probably creates as much news as he reports. While in Paris to receive a medal for being rescued from his alleged kidnappers, he discovers his boss, Stevens (Usher), at the Chicago Globe, is canoodling with his old girlfriend Dolly (Merkel). When it comes to Stevens’ attention that Dolly is staying with Buckley in Moscow, he fires Buckley. To get his job back, Buckley and his devoted assistant, Lefty (Gleason), concoct a news story about the shooting of the last Romanoff. Unfortunately, their plan backfires and they are in line to be shot by the Commissar. A little trivia: Usher would later co-star in one of my favorite psychotronic films, The Devil Bat (1940), starring Bela Lugosi.