Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Wednesday, August 20, 2014


Alongside Warren William, Lee Tracy is one of those guys who is largely forgotten by mainstream film lovers but revered by those in the pre-code know. Unlike Williams, the Big Bad Wolf of sneaky industry captains and unscrupulous womanizers, Tracy's doesn't ooze authority and charm, but he gives great amphetamine crackle to a coterie of wiry Hollywood press agents and snoopy reporters, gossip columnists, and crime beat morgue haunters. He takes some getting used to, even by seasoned campaigners, perhaps because the Lee Tracy 'type' led to several imitators, none of whom matched his mix of spooked nerve, rattled newsprint panache, and speed patter. So don't let the imitations turn you off --Tracy's the craziest, sharpest, most cynical actor of the code's all-too-brief era. Now he's on TCM - don't miss these!

1932 - ***1/2

Tracy's frequent Warner's co-star Ann Dvorak is one of those girls doomed to give up her sweet blonde child while tumbling down the social ladder, lower and lower, with the bad luck to be dating a two bit hood who shoots a cop while she's in his stolen car with a naive bellboy she wrangled. The crook is shot, Molly hides out in an apartment that shares a phone with Tracy as a fast-talking journalist. Soon he's stealing her from the kid, making plans and meanwhile trying to get Molly to come into the cops by playing up the sob sister angle, broadcasting her child is sick and needs her. It all ends with a dizzyingly amphetamine-fast police station-press room race around which makes the one in His Girl Friday seem like a Rohypnols commercial. Has Tracy ever been faster, better, sleeker, continually winding and unwinding? His 'knowing about women' spiels around his neck and heart and others until a final confessional monologue leaves us whirling, and other films paling.

1932 - **1/2

Here's Lee Tracy doing what he does best: motormouth speed-talking through long scenes of unscrupulous flim-flam: first he's a carny barker hawking Lupe Velez's uninhibited fan dancer; second, hawking a blonde hotel maid who partners with Eugene Palette as wild, untamed nudists. Or is it reverse? I fell asleep, but TCM's print was too washed out, or was that me? Palette as an ersatz wildman is enough of a consolation that this wasn't written was by Ben Hecht, but on the other hand it probably it lacks gallows wit, and what's Tracy without it? There's also Frank Morgan as a Broadway impresario who eventually winds up in bed with Velez, thus opening himself to Tracy's blackmail, I think.  Some rare moments of real connection exist, though, like the reunion of Pallette, Tracy, and a handful of sawdust which Tracy pours through his fingers asking "can you imagine this stuff running though your veins?" Tracy's own painful awareness of the cliches by which he's bound make me think he was far more than just an amphetamine-tongued con artist. He was also a drunk, and therefore a poet.

1932 - ***1/2

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. stars in this one as a columnist who tangles over Francis Dee with generic gangster Lyle Talbot; fellow scribes Tracy and Dvorak are hep enough to know their boy's getting taken to the cleaners by slumming Dee, but they keep their yaps shut like true pals. Dialogue is pitched at such a darkly cynical height that censors ears clearly weren't fast enough to catch it: "Looks like you been up at Sing Sing looking at a burning!" is a typically grim remark, and sex is everywhere, as when Tracy and Dvorak are out at a nightclub eating dinner and she says "if you loved me half as much as you love that steak I'd break down out of self-pity" (meaning throw him a sympathy fuck, yo!) Fairbanks describes Dee--to her face!--as having "a beautiful can." and that she's "as pretty as a little red wagon." Lots of phone calls are made and received. The TCM print looks real nice. There's nothing quite like this film's unambiguously cynical ending, the sort of loose-ended defiance of the crime-must-pay adage only possible in pre-code conditions. William Wellman directed it... like a punch to the gut.

1933 - ****

Playing a loose conglomerate of Clara Bow, Thelma Todd, and herself, Jean Harlow comes through in metatextual spades here as an overworked MGM starlet, earning her place at the top of the spitfire heap with rapid fire slang-filled dialogue pouring in satin torrents from her tongue as she goes zipping, 8 1/2-style, through a carnival of blustery studio heads, make-up artists, insurance fraud grifters, drunken joneser fathers (Frank Morgan), an accented gigolo lover, an infatuated director (Pat O'Brien), and Lee Tracy as, what else?, an unscrupulous publicity agent.

1932 - ***1/2

If you've been always a bit cold on Lee Tracy this is the film that will make you warm up. Here he's like Jimmy Cagney crossed with an adenoidal scarecrow as the quintessential fast-talking gossip columnist, ushering in a new low in journalism via the ratting out of 'blessed events' - i.e. children born less than nine months after the couple's been married, or outside of wedlock, or etc. Remember when that was a scandal? Me neither. Highlight: Tracy bluffs Allen Jenkins' mob hitman via a monologue about an electric chair execution he witnessed that brings Barrymore in TWENTIETH CENTURY-worthy manic pantomime to some balls-out ghastly places, such as his imitation of the wobbly walk to the chamber, his voice cracking with hysteria, body spazzing sharp and jerky like a Zulawski gangster as he describes the anguish of waiting in hopes of a reprieve, puking up the last meal, the rigor mortis and hair burning. It's the sort of thing that only the pre-codes could delve into, and this delves so deep you're quaking along with Jenkins by the end, and all traces of your dislike of Tracy have been obliterated.

Roy Del Ruth directed and the rapid patter pace is awesome except when Dick Powell's lame songs slow things down. Edwin Maxwell, Ned Sparks, Frank McHugh, Allen Jenkins, Ruth Donnelly, Jack La Rue, and Rita Cunningham all come over to the table, adding plenty of moxy. Add un-PC dialogue ("Do you know many Jews there are in New York?" - "Oh, dozens!") and a wild-eyed girl 'in trouble' played with deranged ferocity and desperation by a ragged-looking creature named Isabell Jewell (above), and you have a whipsmack pre-code that makes your scalp stand on end. PS - You will also come out of this film learning what 'nadir' means.

1933 - ****

I watched this film a lot when I was really, really, really beginning to descend into the round-the-clock drinking abyss, and I'm glad it was there to sink into the mire with me. If you drink along with the Depression era-sorrow and small triumphs and wallow in your own self-pity like the swine you are the film glows like a lamp in a flop house doorway, especially if the girl you're pining for happens to be named Paula and look a lot like Madge Evans (above), who plays a Paula pining for John Barrymore, near end... a swell funhouse mirror reversal! I watched this every night, drinking and retching along in sympathy as Barrymore's shakes continually threaten to rear up and destroy him... until finally he beats them to the punch.

First though, you can nod out during the long, drawn-out conversations with an ill shipping magnate Lionel Barrymore asking former siren of the stage Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler) to not sell her stocks to a corporate raider (bullish Wallace Beery). The raider's wife meanwhile is a hot-to-trot bimbo (Jean Harlow in some truly shiny sleepwear), with a yen for her doctor (Edmund Lowe), who'd rather not but likes the promptness of payment. And, oblivious to all the suffering and real time issues going on around her, Lionel's chirpy wife Billie Burke freaks out because she "got the Ferncliffs" and the aspic isn't just right and all the other stuff that bourgeois pretension-suffering dinner guest scribes like Herman J. Mankiewicz and Frances Marion wrote for her to say until you just want to punch her and shout "your shrill pettiness is killing your husband and your daughter Paula's chasing after a drunk former rock star named Erich, I mean John, I mean, Larry Renault!!" By then of course, there will be one less at the table.

1933 - ***1/2

Time and digital re-colorization has been kind to the early 2-strip Technicolor hues of DR. X. What used to look blurry and muddy and depressing now glitters with glowing emeralds, murky pinks and streaks of deep red that make it like a candy fountain of shadowy death. Fay Wray is the daughter of Lionel Atwill, who gets lots of ham time as the titular Dr. Xavier, out to trap the "full moon killer" amongst his atmospherically-lighted collection of scientific colleagues: Dr. Welles has made a 'study' of cannibalism and keeps a heart alive in an 'electrolysis solution' but his missing arm preempts further suspicion; Dr. Haines on the other hand was shipwrecked for years on a desert island and his tasty, plump colleague was never found; Dr. Rowen studies lunar rays' effects on criminal minds but notes that "the lunar rays will never effect you and me, sir, because we are 'normal' people."

And dig the post-modern self-reflexivity of the the climax, with the doctors all chained to their chairs, their pulses linked to vials of blood that overflow like a buzzer at the top of a Coney Island strength tester when they're aroused by the murder tableaux staged before them, just like you in the audience! Scream ladies and gentlemen! The Tingler is in this theater! In the subtext, the duality inherent in language gets a lot of subliminal attention too: Xavier's outrage over each of the new accusations of his colleague belies its antithesis: "Dr. Rowen could never never be the guilty one," means the opposite, while Lee Tracy regularly promises not to do something while then turning around and doing it, as expected by the morgue attendants and security guards he bribes to look the other way. Meanwhile, Xavier's grave pronouncements include: "There can be no doubt about it, gentlemen - this is cannibalism!" And now that you're not annoyed by Lee Tracy anymore (see BLESSED EVENT) maybe you wont want to tear his picture apart with your bare hands when you learn he gets Fay Wray in the end. Chained for your own amusement, indeed.

1933 - ***

Tracy's a journalist! The magic year of 1933! He's the kind of dirt digger who travels the world worming his way into the dens of the most dangerous men and angering the snobby New York Times journalist who's always too late for the big story because he's too busy trying to arrange Tracy's downfall. It's kind of silly but there are typically big-budget MGM scenes as Tracy and entourage head to Russia to report on the 15th Anniversary of the Communist Revolution. Una Merkel as a flighty baby-talking mistress who follows Tracy around at hotels across the street is very reminiscent of both Susan Alexander Kane and Marcello's mistress in 8 1/2. Benita Hume is a fellow reporter who had an off-on affair with Tracy. After awhile you'll wonder how he ever survived so long by making so many self-defeating choices, i.e. when in a dangerous country, don't antagonize a fellow reporter just for fun, especially if he's aces manipulating governments into throwing you into jail, and if you must cart around a baby-talking Merkel, make sure she's not your boss's. 

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