8 April 2010 | rick_7
Flawed Tracy vehicle with typically lively lead turn
Following his sacking from MGM in 1934, motormouth comedian Lee Tracy struck a three-picture deal with Columbia, before making a heap of low-budget star vehicles over at RKO. Though the RKO movies vary in quality, they do acknowledge Tracy's standing as a uniquely gifted, fast-talking leading man near the peak of his powers, and are largely tailored to his talents.
One such RKO film is Criminal Lawyer (Christy Cabanne, 1937). It's in many ways a standard Tracy film and, as such, an absolute riot. Taking the basic set-up of The Nuisance - Tracy is a shyster whose success in the courtroom is based more on theatrics and tricks than conventional legal practice - the writers also toss in the gangster subplots familiar from Blessed Event and Advice to the Lovelorn. The result is very similar to the William Powell movie Lawyer Man, though bizarrely that 1932 film chose not to show any of the courtroom sequences to which it frequently referred.
The plot here has Tracy's barrister-come-showman becoming DA and trying to shake off his nefarious former sponsor. Hilariously, the tagline of the film gives away its entire storyline. What does the poster think it is - Halliwell's? Without telling you exactly what happens, I'll just say that as Tracy spars with hateful hood Eduardo Ciannelli, a woman (Margot Grahame) enters the picture, becoming Tracy's cook, secretary and confidante. That makes his sometime girlfriend (Betty Lawford) very jealous, setting up a slightly melodramatic final third that isn't as strong as the rest of the picture.
Erik Rhodes provides plenty of comic support playing his patented amorous Italian (as seen in The Gay Divorcée, Top Hat and The Smartest Girl in the World), but as usual it's Tracy's show. Just seeing him on screen makes me happy, since he's never tired, or lacklustre, or sub-par. He's always just magnificently, spectacularly Tracy-ish. When the script is sharp, he's impossibly good, but he also elevates so-so sequences. His interrogation of a woman accused of murder recalls his pyrotechnics in Blessed Event, talking Allen Jenkins through a trip to the electric chair, and he imbues the climactic scene with an improbable credibility as well as a compulsive watchability. My 21st Tracy film is flawed, certainly, but yet another must for fans of the actor.