7 February 2009 | wmorrow59
A cute musical satire on the movie business, starring . . . Spencer Tracy?!?
During the war years in the early 1940s Spencer Tracy was one of the many Hollywood stars who joined traveling U.S.O. shows to entertain American troops. According to contemporary reports, his act consisted of going out on stage in an ill-fitting cowboy suit and belting out the popular novelty hit of the era, "Pistol-Packin' Mama." The punchline is that Spence was tone-deaf and couldn't sing worth a damn, but the guys in uniform would roar with laughter. The worse he sang, the better they liked it.
Knowing this, it's surprising to learn that Tracy actually starred in a 1934 musical comedy called Bottoms Up, made towards the end of his five-year hitch at the Fox studio. James Cagney, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart sang on rare occasions in their films, but Tracy? How could that be? As it turns out, the top-billed star of the show is not required to sing or dance at any time in the course of the movie; instead, Tracy is on hand to provide a comic version of the cocky sharpster he often played in his Fox films. He drives the plot and delivers his wisecracks with requisite skill, but otherwise steers clear of the musical numbers. Second male lead John Boles handles a lot of the singing, but the spotlight is mostly focused on Pat Paterson, a pretty ingénue from England who married Charles Boyer shortly after she appeared in this film.
Paterson plays Madge, a disappointed beauty contest winner from Canada who arrived in Hollywood expecting stardom; only a couple of bit parts have come her way. She's discovered sitting alone in an all-night diner by Smoothie King (Tracy) and his sidekick, pint-sized Limey Brook (played by Herbert Mundin, ubiquitous character actor of the '30s who had a face resembling a sad English bulldog). Smoothie, befitting his name, is a fast-talking con man. He feels genuinely sorry for the girl and takes an interest, but warns her not to fall in love with him because he's "not the marryin' kind." The guy is smug, but with Tracy in the role he's more likable than he would have been otherwise. Smoothie & Limey rescue the girl and give her a place to stay with their pal Spud (Sid Silvers), a sheet music salesman who lives at an abandoned miniature golf course. (Now there's an interesting twist!) As soon as the guys hear Madge sing they know she's got star quality, so Smoothie, well aware that Hollywood snobs kowtow to aristocracy, cooks up a scheme to pass off Madge as visiting nobility from England. She quickly lands a contract with the 4-Star Studio and gets the chance to work with her idol, the hard-drinking matinée idol Hal Ried (John Boles). Complications result when Madge falls in love with Hal, while Smoothie belatedly realizes that he's fallen for the girl himself.
As this plot outline suggests Bottoms Up is a lightweight confection, one of those cheery satires Hollywood liked to aim at itself now and then. It's fun for buffs and generally plays like a cartoon: there's the neurotic producer who surrounds himself with Yes Men, the haughty actress who fires off mean wisecracks at rivals, and the comic figures – Smoothie's sidekicks – who invade sets and accidentally ruin takes. Some of this shtick must have been familiar to audiences when the movie was new, but the quips are generally pretty funny, and the players punch the material across with sass and pizazz. A few interesting faces turn up in the supporting roles, such as Dell Henderson, a movie veteran from Biograph days. It's always a treat to see Thelma Todd, though her role is frustratingly brief. And if you watch closely you'll catch young Lucille Ball, sitting with Boles during a party sequence. Lucy turns up again later in the film's most memorable musical number, a Busby Berkeley-style extravaganza with an 1890s setting. The song is "Waitin' at the Gate for Katie," and like the film's other tunes it never became a standard, but it's pleasant enough.
Like all too many Fox films from this period Bottom Up has practically fallen off the radar screen, but with the recent releases of DVD box sets devoted to the work of Ford, Borzage, and Murnau at Fox there's hope that more of the studio's obscure releases from Pre-Code days will make their way back into circulation. Despite an unexpectedly downbeat ending Bottoms Up is an engaging treat with much to recommend it. It's especially fun to see Spencer Tracy enjoy himself in a comic role – and don't worry, he doesn't sing!