–by Jennifer Kellow-Fiorini
America in the early 1930s required a different mindset to survive and thrive than the generation before had. Young men lamented that their fathers had no useful life advice to offer due to enormous social changes between the two generations. America was coming of age, in a business sense, and the qualities men needed to succeed were mental agility, problem solving and ideas. During the Depression people worried about financial ruin and how to avoid it. Movie audiences wanted their characters served up shrewd and confident, with a touch of larceny and cynicism on the side. These were the kind of roles Lee Tracy excelled at, and this was the climate that briefly made him a star.
Born in Georgia in 1898, he went to New York after serving in WW1 and, like the characters he ultimately played, tried to bluff his way into a stage career. It didn’t work, but he did get some acting training and in 1926 starred in a show called “Broadway” with James Cagney as his understudy. On stage, Tracy originated the role of reporter Hildy Johnson in “The Front Page”— the basis for the movie “His Girl Friday,” which established the reporter types he would play in films.
His first big film role was as a reporter in “The Strange Love of Molly Louvain,” 1932. Tracy went on to play media men, reporters, and publicists who could sell snow to Eskimos. Like Robin Williams, he was a genius ad libber and talked at the speed of sound. As a fast talker with a wonky moral compass, audiences needed to know that beneath his verbal smokescreen was a decent guy who loved his mother. And Tracy could play that too.
In “Blessed Event,” 1932, he plays cocky, brash, fast-talking, Alvin Roberts who starts out in the mailroom, but has an idea for a column – reporting on the pregnancies of the rich and famous. The column becomes wildly successful and divisive, and the titular movie term, “Blessed Event,” is still used today. Tracy’s character trades information for a living. He creates his own lucrative job, one that feels uniquely American. He accosts people with the line, “What do you know that I don’t?” When in desperate need of a story, he finds one in the form of a young, unmarried, pregnant singer. It’s a hot story, but she begs him not to run it, saying her mother would die of shame and she would be ruined. He promises, but reports it anyway, insinuating that reporting and success have become a drug for him. Like Warren William’s money-hungry businessmen, Tracy’s films deal with the morality of his job. There is moral tension between the hero’s drive and his humanity.
Unlike Cagney and Warren William, Tracy was as outrageous in his personal life as the characters he played on screen. After the success of “Blessed Event,” Warner Brothers didn’t renew his contract. He was unreliable and unpredictable, outspoken in interviews and had an alcohol problem, causing him to be fined ten thousand dollars by one studio for lateness and missed workdays. In interviews, he badmouthed Hollywood and portrayed himself as a free spirit who shunned marriage and fatherhood. He told reporter Gladys Hall that when he was depressed, he’d go to the train stations and watch the commuting husbands “…with that strained and anxious husband look in their eyes.” Then he would feel better.
Still, he was signed by MGM in 1933 and had a string of hit films — “The Nuisance,” “Dinner at Eight,” “Bombshell” with Jean Harlow, and “Turn Back the Clock.” While shooting his next film, “Viva Villa,” in Mexico, Tracy got very drunk and, from his balcony, relieved himself on the head of a Mexican soldier. He was arrested, resulting in an international scandal. Though most Americans found the story amusing, MGM did not. He was fired from the film and his contract terminated.
Tracy continued to freelance in smaller film roles and worked in 1950s TV, but he battled alcoholism throughout his life and his career was never quite as big again. Film historian Bruce Goldstein, who coined the term pre-Code, said that Lee Tracy created the definitive on-screen reporter and helped modernize our speech— creating some of the modern slang still used today.
Tracy enjoyed one last big-screen role in 1964’s “The Best Man,” garnering a supporting actor Oscar nomination. He passed away in 1968 of liver cancer at the age of 70.
For more Reel Cinema articles, resources, and photos, check out the Reel Cin blog at jenfior.com/blog-1
Jennifer Fiorini holds a bachelor degree in advertising from The Fashion Institute of Technology where she minored in film studies, Italian film and language. Originally from Toledo, Ohio, she divides her time between New York City and Torino, Italy. She is part of Creative Oxygen’s New York team, writes for eCurrent Magazine, and contributed to Troy Howarth’s book, Murder By Design – The Unsane Films of Dario Argento.