3 May 2007 | imogensara_smith
If you want to know what "chutzpah" is, watch Lee Tracy in action
Lee Tracy is one of the lost joys of the pre-Code era. He mostly played newspapermen (he was Hildy Johnson in the original Broadway production of The Front Page) with a sideline in press agents, and whatever his racket he epitomized the brash, fast-talking, crafty, stop-at-nothing operator. He makes Cagney look bashful, skating around in perpetual, delirious overdrive, gesticulating and spitting out his lines like an articulate machine-gun, wheedling and needling and swearing on his mother's life as he lies through his teeth. He was homely and scrawny, with a raspy nasal voice, and he always played cocky, devious scoundrels, yet you find yourself rooting for him and reveling in his sheer energy and shameless moxie. Audiences of the early thirties loved his snappy style and irrepressible irreverence; they loved him because he was nobody's fool. He's a rare example of a character actorthat guy who always plays reporterswho through force of personality, and the luck of embodying the zeitgeist, had a brief reign as a star.
In BLESSED EVENT he plays Alvin Roberts, a character based so closely on Walter Winchell that Winchell could have sued--but he probably loved it. When we first meet Alvin, he's a lowly kid from the ad department who has been given a chance to sub for a gossip columnist and gotten in trouble for filling the column with dirtprimarily announcements of who is "anticipating a blessed event" without the proper matrimonial surroundings. Soon he's become an all-powerful celebrity and made scores of enemies, including a gangster willing to bump him off to shut him up. There's a subplot about Alvin's ongoing feud with a smarmy crooner, Bunny Harmon, played by Dick Powell. Anyone who finds Powell in his crooning days repellent will appreciate Tracy's merciless vendetta. Actually, I think Powell is being deliberately irritating hereeven in Busby Berkeley films he's not so egregiously perky and fey. He does sing one good song, "Too Many Tears" (a theme throughout the film), and a wonderfully witless radio jingle for "Shapiro's Shoes."
Alvin's standard greeting is, "What do you know that I don't?" The answer is nothingat least not for long. But he's surrounded by worthy foils. Ruth Donnelly is both tart and peppery as Alvin's harried secretary ("You want to see Mr. Roberts? Oh, you want to sue Mr. Roberts. The line forms on the left.") Allen Jenkins, who keeps saying he's from Chicago even though his Brooklyn accent could be cut with a steak knife, plays a mug sent by his gangster boss to threaten Roberts. In a mind-blowing scene, Alvin terrifies the tough guy with a graphic, horrifying description of death in the electric chair. Tracy plays this monologue with unholy gusto; if you're not opposed to the death penalty, you will be after this. There's a funny scene in which Jenkins has to pass time with Alvin's sweet, clueless mother, who is continually thwarted in her desire to listen to the Bunny Harmon Hour on the radio. The usual suspects fill out the cast, those character actors whose very predictability is their glory: Ned Sparks the perennial gloomy pickle-puss; Frank McHugh the perennial hapless nebbish; Jack La Rue the perennial menacing hoodlum. Director Roy Del Ruth (who also helmed the wildly entertaining BLONDE CRAZY) keeps BLESSED EVENT going like a popcorn-maker; the sly, outrageous zingers just keep coming.
Lee Tracy's career never recovered after he was fired from MGM for a drunken indiscretion committed in Mexico. But I doubt he could have lasted long as a star after the Code anyway, since his films are gleefully amoral, frequently demonstrating that crimeor at least lying, cheating and riding roughshod over other people's feelingspays. Every Lee Tracy vehicle contains a moment when he realizes he's gone too far, usually when the girl he fancies bursts into tears and tells him off. (Here he crosses the line in a big way when he betrays a desperate young woman who begs him not to reveal her pregnancy.) He looks suddenly abashed, protesting, "Gee, if I'd known you felt that way
I'd give anything not to have done that
Baby, sugar, listen
!" But two second later he's back to his old scheming ways. A reformed Lee Tracy would be like Fred Astaire with arthritis. Not that he isn't a good guy deep down
well, maybe. He has charm, anyway: an impish grin and twinkly eyes and boyish blond hair, like Tom Sawyer crossed with a Tammany Hall fixer. His reactions to sentimentalityto Dick Powell's cloying tenor or Franchot Tone in BOMBSHELL telling Jean Harlow he'd like to run barefoot through her hairare delicious. He's salt and vinegar, no sweetening. In BLESSED EVENT Alvin has a fit when an editorial calls him the "nadir" of American journalism. Lee Tracy, on the other hand, represents is the zenith of the American newspaper movie.