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Thursday, January 21, 2021

Bless This Precode Event

 We Need Columnists Like Lee Tracy

I have a question for broadcast authorities. Was anyone ever shot on live radio? It happens in Blessed Event and seems credible to me. Surely among hundreds of thousands of hours sent into ether orbit, blood was spilled. Certainly there were incidents on television, viewable at You Tube given stomach for them. Reporters/columnists of the roaring era were often mistook for skeet by a criminal element. They die regular in precode The Finger Points, Dance, Fools, Dance, others. To gather news was to assume risk, city streets dangerous as those of the frontier west. Audiences took much of precode for truth. I know I do, or at least want to. Blessed Event was hot, had 115 NY performances (2-12 to 5-21, 1932), was nakedly inspired by Walter Winchell. Roger Pryor as keyhole peeper “Alvin Roberts,” nee Winchell, intrigued latter enough to stop in with "a massive bodyguard" for his own peep. Any publicity was good publicity, so Winchell let the show alone, Hollywood meanwhile eager to adapt, that confirmed by five offers, Blessed Event ideal for on-lot dynamos. Paramount had the property in mind for Jack Oakie, Universal figured Lew Ayres to lead, and James Dunn was thought right by Fox. Most serious offers were floated by MGM and Warners, WB snatching the ball with $1,000 over Leo’s offer and getting Blessed Event for $66K.

Overworked and underpaid Jim Cagney was visiting New York and caught the play. Maybe he saw little to it, or was fed up at prospect of playing another go-getter, evermore ruction with Warners over money a factor as well. He'd come home, start Blessed Event, then pull out. Any player less potent would have been bounced offsite for such affront, but this was Cagney, urgency less to punish a star who ankled than find one who could fill in toot sweet. That would be Lee Tracy, late of The Front Page on NY stage, understudied by pre-star Cagney when Tracy starred in Broadway, Lee emerged as an East Coast doppelganger to West Coast Jim. He had been tried in pictures and figured for Cagney at faster clip. In fact, Tracy was quick enough with words to leave hinterlands at loss as to what this dervish was about. Too, he lacked romance, being smarmy to degree matched by demon scribes his stage/screen lot. Crowds doubted Tracy winning Fay Wray at the end of Doctor X or beauteous Mary Brian here. Still, it was raw energy Lee was selling, and at that, he was peerless.


The play supplied topper moments to spare. One where Tracy detail-describes electric chair ritual was morbid past what horror shows dealt, but crowds at urban caves lapped it like cats after cream (Blessed Event blessed both Warner Strands, Manhattan and Brooklyn), them hardened to what tabloids taught about reality of the streets. Such attitude seeped to states far afield and their hometown Bijous, caustic travelling fast. Columnist Tracy is a "heel" to extent of valuing success more than people, but viewers caught the drift, having come round to life as struggle if not an outright racket. Soft guys finishing last was understood as the way things were, Lee Tracy handy to confirm and invite emulation. Any notion of journalism as font of integrity was dashed by Blessed Event, but didn't every profession get its precode baptism in fire? (such as Wm. Powell/Warren William telling tough truth in Lawyer Man/The Mouthpiece).

How many “keyhole columnists” thrived in the 30’s? Winchell was a most noted, but had rivals (one to reckon with: Ed Sullivan). Did these men get death threats like Lee Tracy in the movie? If so, were any made good? I’m guessing that if Winchell took a beat-down, he kept it to himself. Not much image enhancement in having your head kicked in regular. Did Winchell really fear no one? Sampling I’ve seen of his columns make me wish there were anthologies of Winchell stuff. Of course it dates --- the whole point for me. He was what they called a “word-slinger.” Winchell began in vaudeville, knew how to entertain, his output gracious for that. Briefest squibs are his best, sort of like Dorothy Parker where once you get past her quotable quotes, there is same standard her stories and poetry had to meet, others in those crafts understood to be better, but she, Winchell, select few, carried sharpest rapiers.

Blessed Event
as a play had Roger Pryor for the lead. I see him onscreen as a stiff, first exposure being where Karloff put Pryor and others in deep freeze for Columbia in 1940. On him, hot or cold didn’t much matter, but who’s to say he was anything other than a dynamo on stage? Some could conquer movies, others live performing. Not so many mastered both. Also from Blessed stage cast came Allen Jenkins, Isabel Jewell, and Lee Patrick, each to become familiars at Warners and type-casting elsewhere. Was legit a better source for character talent than fresh stars? Potential drafted from Pittsburgh of all places was Dick Powell, favorite of locals for three years he spent emceeing at presentation houses, his said to be razor repartee twixt bands and film (he sang, played instruments, too). Powell stole Blessed Event, said at least insiders with vested interest. His mile-high tenor is chucklesome to us --- he’d poke fun at it years later on television, long after tough guy Powell was accepted fact. Cheerful oddities Blessedly abounding: Ruth Donnelly as Tracy/Alvin secretary refers to “Tennyson’s brook,” we and he expected to pick up reference to nineteenth-century British poetry (Cagney dropped a same line to “President Roosevelt” in Yankee Doodle Dandy). Proof again that writing, watchers, the lot, were more cultivated than our sad lot now.

Lee Reminds Me of Bill Fields In This Capture

What precode gave was keyhole view of the news game. Since daily scribes wrote most tales of their trade, it was a cinch they’d flatter themselves, and each other. Winchell was happy as a clam with Blessed Event, handing it orchids wherever run, letting Warner use squibs at will. A tough game was reporting, but Alvin Roberts has a heart, if late-emerging. Score up Blessed Event for bounce unlike weighty lift of decades-later Ace In The Hole, where we’re invited not to enjoy Kirk Douglas as Chuck Tatum, but instead wait for just dessert he'll be served. For such “brave” statement on media abuses, it seems to me Ace In The Hole chickens out at the end the way Blessed Event does not. Precode was the goods --- think the PCA would have let Blessed Event happen in 1951? Kirk Douglas driving all that way to tell Mr. Boot “you can have me for nothing,” before dropping headlong dead at his editor’s feet. Do please show me the door.

To save for last, then: Lee Tracy (pre-Hollywood, on stage, at left). I found fan mag profiles attacking drink rumors and aver of unreliability on Lee’s part, seemingly from a moment he detrained in California. He called it a crock framed by enemies afraid to show their face. Is it possible Lee had too much talent and energy for his own good? Cagney was as wired, but on screen only, being otherwise bookish and retiring. One could be jaunty and say Lee pi—ed away his standing, but that would require buy into accounts brought back from Mexico and Viva Villa location. I would have sent the naughty boy upstairs without supper, then had him back at work the next day. Besides, reliable sources say the thing never happened, or happened very different, and milder, than what was reported (mild version an obscene gesture from the street below, which Tracy returned). Enough of Lee --- his legacy is safe so long as Blessed Event unspools. Note above Schine’s Palace ad (Lockport, NY) where Blessed Event is featured with a one act comedy performed by the “High School Dramatic Class,” and there’s a six-person cast list, plus a director credited. Suppose College Bred was as funny as Blessed Event?


Blogger DBenson said...

One of the last of the three-dot breed was Herb Caen in the San Francisco Chronicle. He was considerably more benign than Winchell, and when I stumbled onto his column as a teen he was a beloved institution, tightly focused on San Francisco. The Wiki biography gives a pretty good picture. He was less gossip than witticisms and slices of life. A plug from Caen was valued, but while he'd offer a dig now and again I got the impression they weren't nearly so deadly as Winchell's. A few times he wrote about Winchell, not flatteringly. Caen freely admitted Winchell was the model for his machine-gun style, but saw Winchell as an SOB.

Unlike Winchell, he stayed popular until his death. "Herb Caen Day" was essentially a huge festive wake with Caen in attendance.

In one column he described high rollers and their arm candy in a pricy nightspot, noting that photos of such scenes eventually ran in the paper with the caption "In Happier Times". That stuck with me.

2:55 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

I love Tracy unreservedly and this picture endlessly. When I see The Front Page, I mourn that Hughes didn't see fit to bring Tracy west to do the part. O'Brien has the range of a fire hydrant and invariably mistakes barking his lines in a monotone for acting.

Something that always amazes me about Cagney is that, off-screen, he looks like an entirely different person. It's not just the complexion and eyebrows; it's the whole shape of his face, like he's the real Cagney's Billy West.

7:47 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Lee Tracy! One of my very favorites. His delivery is like Cagney on speed with the nasal whine of WC Fields. What a loss that he wasn't in the movie version of "The Front Page." You should hunt for "Washington Merry-Go-Round", one of the few times he didn't play a reporter or PR guy. It's an obvious influence on "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington", only grittier and more cynical. And it's nice to see his comeback performance in "The Best Man"; he was the only actor from the Broadway show asked to recreate his part for the movie. He really should be better known than he is.

9:30 AM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

I wonder which was better as the second feature - "Bring "Em Back Alive" or "Bring 'Em Back Sober"?

1:09 PM  
Blogger Jim Cobb said...

Tracy is also great in BOMBSHELL with Jean Harlow.

2:54 PM  
Blogger Maltydog said...

"The Half Naked Truth" is another great Tracy film.

11:12 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

I join in the applause for Lee Tracy, and I humbly submit THE PAYOFF for your consideration. Made for tiny PRC Pictures in 1942 (and thus perhaps Tracy's lowest point professionally), but efficiently made with a cast of pros: Evelyn Brent, Jack LaRue, Ian Keith, Robert Middlemass, etc. Tracy gives it his usual panache. You can check it out here:

6:23 PM  
Blogger Ken said...

Not usually a Lee Tracy fan but I certainly agree he's expert at what he does. Thanks to Mr. MacGillivray for providing the youtube link to "The Payoff". Just finished watching it and it's a winner. Sharp dialogue, good pace, story definitely goes in some interesting directions. Evelyn Brent (who should have had a much bigger career in talkies)and Jack LaRue stand out in a fine supporting cast. I'm always delighted when I find a PRC that manages to deliver quality despite all the budget constraints. And "The Payoff"'s among the best I've seen from the little company that sometimes couldn't but this time definitely could - and did.

9:40 AM  
Blogger MikeD said...

I always wonder how actors who were big in the 30's, kind of slow down in the 40's, and then show up on television in guest bits made ends meet throughout their lives. Many actresses, according to IMDB, seem to ditch their careers after marrying.

10:52 AM  
Blogger James Abbott said...

Lee Tracy is the actor that, I think, captures the spirit of the 30s best. That mixture of cynicism and sentiment that was a hallmark of the decade is found in all his performances.

I don't think he would've have been as successful in the 40s, even if his personal life did not take so many downward spirals. The zietgiest had changed, and that hard-bitten rat-a-tat individualism had little place in a nation that had to come together to beat Hitler and Tojo. We had gone from dangerous men, like Lee Tracy, to good men, like Spencer Tracy.

10:01 AM  
Blogger tmwctd said...

To MikeD: The wonderful "The Entertainer" by Margaret Talbot deals with a career like you mentioned, that of her father Lyle Talbot

7:25 AM  
Blogger antoniod said...

Looking at Lee Tracy's filmography, it appears that his descent into B pictures didn't happen immediately after being kicked off VIVA VILLA, but was a gradual process.

5:19 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

The usual feature picture up to 1935 was the "program picture," usually about 70 minutes long and intended to be the main attraction in single-feature theaters, supported by shorts. This is what Lee Tracy had been making in the early '30s -- those in which he starred. It wasn't until 1936, when the studios adopted "B picture" production for double features, that the program picture of seven reels became the secondary feature, and the main "A" feature was now 75 minutes or longer.

So there wasn't really a descent for Lee Tracy; he kept making six- and seven-reel features as he always had, but they were now sold as Bs. Jack Holt, Jack Oakie, George O'Brien, and Gene Raymond were some of the leading men who shared the same circumstance.

10:53 PM  
Blogger tmwctd said...

Wouldn´t Lee Tracy even have made a more logical Walter Burns than Hildy in "The Front Page"? See him more as a guy who pushes people around than being pushed around...

4:31 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

You summed up "program" and B pictures perfectly, Scott. Thanks.

4:44 AM  
Blogger stinky fitzwizzle said...

Stinky does not think Ace In the Hole chickens out. Chuck Tatum, like Joe Gillis in Sunset Blvd., is punished because he does the right thing. And the final shot is perhaps even more audacious.

8:33 AM  
Blogger MikeD said...

tmwctd: Believe it or not, I bought "The Entertainer" as soon as it was released but for whatever reason I haven't read it yet. Lyle Talbot is a favorite, most likely for his role in Ozzie and Harriet but also just because he's always showing up in stuff I watch. I was just howling the other day at his role of Lyle Talbot, Governor in Green Acres "Hey ,if George and Ronnie can do it". I should crack open that book!

9:06 AM  

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