Lee Tracy would have been 117 today. Imogen Smith’s profile appeared originally in the April 2009 issue of Bright Lights. We reprint it here as a tribute to this sizzling actor who instantly enlivened many a pre-Code film but was never less than watchable.
* * *
“With his impish grin, twinkling eyes, and boyish blond hair, he looks like Tom Sawyer crossed with a Tammany Hall fixer.”
Ace reporter Scotty “Peanuts” Cornell explains to a persistent bill collector his method of paying bills: “Once a month, I take all the bills I receive and put them in the wastebasket, stir them around, blindfold myself, and pick one. And that’s the one I pay. And I’ll tell you what I’m gonna do if you don’t stop annoying me — I’m not even gonna put your bill in the wastebasket!” Ambulance-chasing shyster J. Phineas Stevens wins acquittal for a streetcar driver caught with 450 nickels in his lunch-pail (“And they arrested you?” the lawyer says incredulously. “They should have thanked you for bringing back the streetcar!”) by proving that the representatives of the streetcar company can’t pick “their” nickels out of a handful fresh from the bank. Press agent Max Kane convinces John Barrymore that a one-scene part is the best in the play because it will leave the audience wanting more. And Jimmy Bates, promoter of anything, not only persuades a Mexican hoochie-coochie dancer to impersonate a Turkish princess, but passes sidekick Eugene Palette off as her eunuch (“They have them in all Turkish harems,” he explains to a gaping hotel clerk.)1 These moments are flourishes of virtuosity from a master of the fine art of chutzpah. His name was Lee Tracy.
One of the lost treasures of the pre-Code era, Tracy was the definitive brash, wily, fast-talking, stop-at-nothing operator. He skated around in perpetual overdrive, jabbing the air with his fingers, spitting out his lines like a machine-gun, wheedling and needling and swearing you can take out his appendix without ether if he’s lying (he’s got you there — he had it out already.) He was homely and scrawny with a strident nasal voice, but you can’t help rooting for his brazen, devious hucksters and reveling in his shameless moxie. He’s a jolt of pure caffeine; watching him in action is like gulping a couple of double espressos. Audiences in the early thirties loved his snappy style and irrepressible irreverence; they loved him because he was nobody’s fool.
He’s so easily definable it’s tempting to class Tracy with those actors who perfected one specialty — dithering Frank Morgan or flustered, prissy Franklin Pangborn. These actors were like chefs who made only one dish, but made it so well that it earned them a sinecure: Robert Grieg the definitive butler, Allen Jenkins the definitive dumb mug. One might peg Tracy as a character actor who through force of personality, and the luck of embodying the zeitgeist, had a brief reign as a star. But he was never meant to be a supporting player. He had too much charisma to stay in the background (“Without flicking a hand or raising his voice,” Whitney Bolton wrote, Tracy “could make other actors diminish”), and he was too complete a man to be a one-dimensional caricature.
Born in 1898 in Atlanta, Georgia, Lee Tracy grew up in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, the son of a railroad superintendent. He attended a military academy, served in World War I and played semi-professional baseball in St. Louis before becoming an actor. He made a name for himself on Broadway in the 1920s, and in 1929 he created the role of Hildy Johnson in the original Broadway production of The Front Page. Hecht and MacArthur’s play was not only the pioneering newspaper drama but a template for the style of tough, breezy, slangy comedy that dominated the pre-Code years in Hollywood. It introduced the rude, disreputable wise-guy heroes who elbowed aside the honorable gentlemen of the past. Because they understand the bottomless corruption of their world, these men find amusement and opportunities everywhere. Lee Tracy was present at the birth of this style, for which he was ideally suited. Though he was replaced in the first movie version of The Front Page by Pat O’Brien, for the rest of his career Tracy would be typed as the movies’ quintessential newsman.
His peak years in Hollywood coincided with the golden age of the newspaper movie. It was a natural genre: like Hollywood movies, newspapers in their glory days were popular, unpretentious, not quite respectable, yet wielded enormous power. Reporters in thirties films are at once con men and truth-tellers; cynics who peddle sentimentality; uneducated regular guys who live by their wits and look down on the suckers who read their stuff. They are aggressive, vulgar, unscrupulous hacks (“gentlemen of the press,” as Rosalind Russell says disgustedly in His Girl Friday, Howard Hawks’ remake of The Front Page), who sit around in shirtsleeves with their hats on the backs of their heads and their feet on their desks, who drink too much and insult women and mock all pieties. Yet they are also heroes who battle corrupt politicians and stand up for innocent citizens. This ambivalence lies at the heart of Lee Tracy’s persona: however scheming, insolent and abrasive he was, he was always the good guy. He didn’t play gangsters or criminals, barring a very early role in Liliom; he never failed to win the day and get the girl. He could twist ethics without seeming truly crooked; though often deceitful, he was the enemy of sanctimony and hypocrisy. His fundamental decency, however disguised, was dependable.
It’s impossible to conceive of a mute Lee Tracy, so it’s fitting that he arrived in Hollywood in 1929, the year the movies went “from bad to voice.” He made his debut playing one half of a husband-and-wife vaudeville team in Big Time. He first appears on screen doing a passable soft-shoe with Mae Clarke (he had learned to dance for his breakthrough stage role as a hoofer in the musical Broadway), looking very young and skinny and loose-limbed. He is right at home in the setting; his vitality, his extroversion, his always-leave-‘em-laughing shtick is the vaudevillian style. Big Time is a conventional story of a cocky, immature young man who needs to learn some hard lessons. Tracy had played the same type in his first Broadway play, The Show-Off, and the theme of the big-headed young braggart (“Right now you could stage Ben Hur in his hat,” someone says of Tracy’s character in Big Time) being taken down a peg was ubiquitous in the 1920s and ’30s. In Tracy’s debut, the rapid-fire patter and overweening self-confidence are familiar, but Eddie Burns is much dumber than the characters Tracy would play in his prime, and without the agile razor wit his self-infatuation is harder to swallow.
Tracy took supporting roles in three more films before returning to Broadway in 1931. Back in Hollywood in 1932, he had his star-making part as a reporter in the crime drama The Strange Love of Molly Louvain. An egotistical but irresistibly charming heel, he seduces Ann Dvorak by putting her down and promising to betray her. Though he doesn’t appear until halfway through the story, he instantly takes over the movie and toys with it nimbly, like the telephone he constantly juggles. (Lee Tracy without a telephone would be like John Wayne without a horse. His speed was both a response and a challenge to new technologies of instant communication.) The other actors look suddenly obsolete, left behind like pony carts in the wake of a racecar. With his intensity and playful mannerisms, he “steals everything but the cameras,” as George Raft said of Mae West. He lacks Cagney’s grace, but has a lanky, angular, loose-jointed freedom of movement, like some jazzy New Yorker cartoon come to life. Though his performances are heightened and stylized, all the gimmicks have an air of wild spontaneity.
He went on swiping scenes in his next film, Love Is a Racket. As the hero’s best pal, Tracy is peripheral to the story, but he constantly snags attention, giving each small moment a riveting flourish: waking with a hangover; hamming up the agony as he climbs into a cold bath in his pajamas to win a $50 bet; body-checking another reporter to get to the phone; declaring his love for Ann Dvorak through a mouthful of steak (“Say, if you loved me half as much as you love that steak I’d surrender just out of pity,” she replies tartly); delivering lines like, “Well I’ll be a double-jointed son of a . . . Bulgarian acrobat!” The plot, in any case, takes a back seat to wisecracks and leg art, hot jazz and art deco penthouses. Loath to waste time on exposition, the movie plunges us straight into a world of gangsters who run “milk rackets,” Broadway babies “with taxi meters on their hearts,” and reporters who get up at 5 pm, go out on the town, and do a little furious two-finger typing before dawn. A bubbly cocktail, Love Is a Racket is also startlingly astringent. The hero (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) is a newspaperman who has not the slightest interest in tackling corrupt forces for the public good; it might be bad for his health, or at least his ability to get a good table at Sardi’s. A cold-blooded murder is shrugged off — and gotten away with — because the victim deserved to die. The hero risks everything to chivalrously rescue a woman who rewards him by marrying an old moneybags, and he concludes the film with a speech explaining why “Love is just a mental disorder.” Only pre-Code Hollywood — with the help of actors like Lee Tracy — could concoct a movie at once so pessimistic and so amiably effervescent.
Tracy stayed in the newsroom for Doctor X, Clear all Wires!, and Advice to the Lovelorn (right, with Sterling Holloway), but saw how the other half lives when he played politicians in Night Mayor and Washington Merry-Go-Round. In the latter, a pre-Code Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, he is an idealistic junior congressman battling government corruption, making patriotic speeches in front of the Declaration of Independence, and visiting the Lincoln Memorial for inspiration. He’s no wide-eyed Jimmy Stewart, though. He’s well aware that he owes his victory to a crooked political machine, and when the same machine gets him tossed out of Congress, he takes the law into his own hands with the help of the Bonus Army, kidnaps the chief villain, and suggests the man might want to kill himself. He could be as conniving and merciless in the cause of justice as in the cause of making a fast buck. Tracy’s character in Night Mayor was based on New York’s notorious playboy mayor Jimmy Walker. Lee, who was known to breakfast at Sardi’s around cocktail hour, undoubtedly concurred with Walker’s pronouncement, “It’s a sin to go to bed on the same day you got up.”
In Blessed Event, arguably his masterpiece, Tracy plays Alvin Roberts, a character based so closely on Walter Winchell that the columnist could have sued, but he probably loved it. (It has been suggested that Winchell copied his own radio manner from Tracy’s.) 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 scandal — for instance, which couple is “anticipating a blessed event” four months after their wedding.2 Soon Alvin has become an all-powerful celebrity and made scores of enemies, including a gangster willing to bump him off to shut him up. Roy Del Ruth, who also directed the wildly entertaining Cagney vehicle Blonde Crazy, keeps Blessed Event going like a popcorn-maker, churning out sly, outrageous zingers.3 Like the best pre-Code films, it never loses its nerve or its sense of humor.
Alvin’s standard greeting is, “What do you know that I don’t?” The answer is nothing, at least not for long, but he’s surrounded by worthy foils, and he plays off them like a tennis champ relishing good partners. 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 goon sent by his gangster boss to threaten Roberts. In a staggering scene, Alvin terrifies the tough guy with a graphic, horrifying description of death in the electric chair. Tracy delivers this monologue with unholy gusto, his voice rising and throbbing like a siren. If you’re not opposed to the death penalty, you will be after seeing this. There’s also 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 vendetta. Bright-eyed, chipmunk-cheeked and egregiously perky, Powell in his film debut is light years from Philip Marlowe. I think he’s doing it on purpose.) Lee Tracy’s reactions to treacle — to Powell’s cloying tenor or Franchot Tone in Bombshell telling Jean Harlow he’d like to run barefoot through her hair — are delicious. He’s all salt and vinegar, allergic to sweetness.
Blessed Event doesn’t soft-pedal the sleaziness of Alvin’s column, which is titled, with disarming honesty, “Spilling the Dirt.” Unlike J. J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success, Alvin has few illusions about himself — but he revels in his job and his celebrity, and the movie forces us to enjoy him so much that we can’t look down on those who would devour “Spilling the Dirt” over breakfast. Tracy’s characters embrace vulgarity as their bread and butter; they are men of the people who both cheat and champion the Great Unwashed, glorifying the common man while picking his pocket. In The Nuisance his glib, ambulance-chasing jackal uses accident victims — real or feigning — to bilk money from “soulless corporations.” He fakes x-rays, grandstands in court, and teams up with a professional car-accident victim named Floppy Phil. In The Half-Naked Truth, a delirious ballet of ballyhoo, he’s a carnival barker who promotes a Mexican dancer (her specialty is a risqué number called “Hey, Mr. Carpenter”) as a visiting Turkish princess and a brainless nudist as the new Lady Godiva. In the acutely self-referential Bombshell, he’s a Hollywood studio publicist who entangles a sweet-natured, hard-working movie star (Jean Harlow) in a wild series of scandals because that’s what the public wants to hear.
These films share an anarchic, frenetic tone, accelerating to the border of hysteria. Tracy himself drives the blistering pace, uncontrollable and in full control. (Even MGM, which put him under contract in 1933, didn’t try to tame or soften his persona.) There’s a hard edge under his ebullient charm, a narrow-eyed, sharp-elbowed ruthlessness and caustic fury at anything that stands in his way. In The Nuisance, he brings city traffic to a standstill by having bus and street-car drivers arrested for violating obscure 19th-century laws. In The Half-Naked Truth, he punishes Frank Morgan’s theatrical producer Merle Farrell by plastering his office with compromising photos of Farrell and a chorus girl. In Blessed Event, he becomes apoplectic when an editorial labels him the “nadir” of American journalism, furiously vowing to punish the writer in his column (“A nadir never forgets!”). Tracy is as scrappy as Cagney, but he never uses guns or his fists; words are the only weapons needed by the fastest mouth in the West. In Dinner at Eight, when Tracy’s long-suffering press agent tells his client John Barrymore that he’s all washed up, he twists the knife, then twists it some more. “You’re through,” he says, drawing the word out and rolling it on his tongue like wine.
He was not afraid to appear callous or even cruel, but he never alienates his audience for long. He can be simultaneously despicable and likable — even loveable. With his impish grin, twinkling eyes, and boyish blond hair, he looks like Tom Sawyer crossed with a Tammany Hall fixer. His voice may be harsh and penetrating, but it’s gloriously expressive: there’s the triumphant cackle that goes up a full octave (“ha-HAH!”), the endearing cracks in the upper registers during moments of real or pretended passion, and the little throaty, crooning sound he makes as he moves in to kiss his leading lady. His zest and dynamism are inexhaustible, his body lunging and skidding, his hands dancing with exasperation and glee.
In Bombshell, he’s almost helplessly dishonest: he adores Jean Harlow yet can’t stop thwarting and humiliating her, destroying her dreams of a normal family life. The way Gene Kelly’s gotta dance, the way fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly, Tracy’s gotta cheat and lie and manipulate. Yet we believe he loves her — Tracy was surprisingly plausible as a lover, eager and sincere in his wooing. (“Imagine how I feel,” he pleads in Blessed Event, “Seein’ ya every day, talkin’ to ya, lovin’ ya all the time, and never even gettin’ to first base!”) Even with male co-stars he could be unexpectedly touching, as in his affection for Frank Morgan’s pathetic, drunken doctor in The Nuisance, who lets him down but loves him like a son.
Some of Tracy’s movies explain that he was once naïve and idealistic before becoming disillusioned by the world’s treachery. Though he’s an urban type, one thinks of him as coming from a small town, as having a dear old mother stashed behind a picket fence somewhere (when she isn’t living in his apartment, sweetly clueless, as in Blessed Event). There is warmth and kindness in him, mixed up with his aggression and cynicism so that even he seems not always to know which will come out. He embodies an American style that James Harvey (discussing The Front Page) summed up in his book Romantic Comedy: “the combination of an absolute cynicism about public and social life with a kind of innocence and even hopefulness.”
Every Lee Tracy vehicle contains a moment when he realizes he’s gone too far, usually when the girl he fancies tells him off. He looks suddenly aghast, protesting, “Gee, if I’d known you felt that way . . . I’d give anything not to have done that . . . Baby, sugar, listen . . . !” He doesn’t want to hurt people, he just gets carried away by delight in his own power and unstoppable craftiness. In Blessed Event, he crosses the line when he betrays a desperate young woman who begs him not to reveal her pregnancy. In The Nuisance, he brushes off the wife who previously betrayed him, only to find out she has gone to jail to protect him. In The Strange Love of Molly Louvain, he concocts a dirty trick to capture an unwed mother on the lam from the law, then discovers that she is the girlfriend with whom he was about to run off to Paris. For once he seems genuinely stricken with remorse, sickened by his own rotten cleverness, and in a rare moment of unabashed sincerity vows to make the woman he derided as a “tinsel girl” learn to “love me and respect me in a decent way.” But though he often promises to reform, only a fool would believe him, and who would want to? A reformed Lee Tracy would be like Fred Astaire with arthritis.
Off-screen, Lee Tracy was an unapologetic bad boy, notorious for drinking, missing work, and being flippant to interviewers. He announced that he didn’t want a home or children but preferred to live transiently in hotel rooms,4) and claimed that in New York he cheered himself up by watching Long Island commuters with “that strained and anxious husband look in their eyes.” He tried to get out of paying taxes by claiming his residence was “Trucksville, Pennsylvania” and writing off money spent in Hollywood as business expenses, including tips he paid the studio to let him sleep late in the morning. Arrested in 1935 for firing a gun through his neighbor’s window while drunk, he explained that his real target was an ashtray he had never liked.5
Tragically for his fans, Tracy’s best-known drunken indiscretion torpedoed his movie career. In 1934, while in Mexico City filming Viva Villa, he allegedly stepped out on the balcony of his hotel room and urinated on a passing military parade. Tracy claimed it was a window-grate, not a balcony, and that the whole thing was an accident blown out of proportion.6 Arriving back in the States after this escapade, he greeted his girlfriend (Isabel Jewell, hilarious as a squawking floozy in Bombshell) with the words, “Holy cats, honey, but it’s been a dizzy week!” Audiences were ready to forgive him, as they would later forgive Robert Mitchum for the pot bust, but MGM sternly invoked the morals clause and fired him. It’s questionable whether he could have lasted long as a star under the Code anyway, since his films are gleefully amoral, demonstrating that crime — or at least lying, cheating, and riding roughshod over other people’s feelings — pays.
We’ll never know what would have happened if Tracy had missed that Mexican parade. Would he have overcome typecasting and branched out to demonstrate the full range of his talents, or would repetition and changing times have doomed him anyway? Not that he ever stopped working: he stayed busy in B-movies, on stage, and in television. Prudent investments left him a real estate millionaire, so he could afford to work only as much as he wanted to; his other great love was sailing. In 1938, he married Helen Thomas Wyze, whom he met when she called to sell him an insurance policy on his yacht, and surprised everyone by staying happily married. Messy and alcoholic as his private life may have been, he was a dedicated and ambitious actor. On stage he played everything from Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny Court Martial to a parish priest (with a weakness for racehorses) in A Minor Miracle.
In 1964, he made a triumphant return to Hollywood in The Best Man, based on a play by Gore Vidal. In both stage and screen versions, Tracy played a Trumanesque former president who is being courted by two presidential candidates vying for their party’s nomination. In a more complex and nuanced role than any he had tackled on screen in his heyday, he is sly and folksy, shrewd and anti-intellectual, honest but willing to hand out fake sentiment, honorable but ready to fight dirty. Over all this hangs the pathos of mortality — he is dying of a cancer, as Tracy himself would in 1968 — yet he still brings a crackle of electricity into a room.
There’s no better time than the present to resurrect Lee Tracy. It’s not just that his talent as a performer deserves to be better known, but that his hustling spirit and resilient energy should be particularly welcome in our troubled economy. He may be short on scruples, but he’s never cold or smug like his enemies; he has a manic, scalding passion for success. Audiences during the Depression reveled in the exploits of con men, chiselers, racketeers, and gangsters; they enjoyed watching these rough-edged, self-made men outwit the rich and powerful. You would never catch Lee Tracy standing in a breadline; he’d find a way to scam a three-course meal and stick some stuffed shirt with the price, plus a few choice wise-cracks. The pleasure of watching him lies in the fantasy of always having a come-back; always having a plan up your sleeve and another up the other sleeve in case the first one doesn’t work; always getting the last laugh — and doing it all with style, a fizz that never goes flat, the sizzling tempo of a hot jazz band. “I’m acting,” Tracy himself admitted, “The way I’ve always wanted to be.”
- In, respectively, The Strange Love of Molly Louvain, The Nuisance, Dinner at Eight, and The Half-Naked Truth. [↩]
- Winchell was famous for predicting births: the song “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” from 42nd Street includes the verse, “Someday we may be selected / To buy a lot of baby clothes. / We don’t know when to expect it / But it’s a cinch that Winchell knows.” [↩]
- Blessed Event was originally planned for James Cagney, and Tracy was cast after Cagney walked off the lot in one of his periodic spats with Warner Brothers. Back in 1926, Tracy had taken Cagney’s place as the lead in the musical comedy Broadway after the producers decided Cagney was too inexperienced to bank on.” [↩]
- Always unconventional in his living habits, Tracy once spent an entire year confined to the block of W. 45th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, which held his hotel, the theater where he was performing, and all that he needed in the way of restaurants, laundries, drugstores, etc. “The block has everything,” he told a friend, “I may never leave it.” (Whitney Bolton, “Tracy Obituaries Didn’t Tell All,” 1968. Bolton does not specify the year this occurred, but another article claimed it was during the run of The Front Page. [↩]
- These anecdotes are recounted by Mick LaSalle in Dangerous Men (New York: Thomas Donne Books, 2002), pp. 113-121. [↩]
- At the time, MGM and news reports claimed Tracy had gone out on the balcony naked and shouted lewd epithets at the cadets; Tracy said he’d only waved at them and that he’d been wearing pajama bottoms. Whatever happened, it was serious enough that MGM apologized to the nation of Mexico, and Tracy bailed himself out of jail and hired a private plane to leave the country. [↩]