Fans of pre-code raciness, get your hands on a remote and press some 'record' buttons as you scroll ahead on the channel guide. One of the key actors of pre-code is getting his own full day on TCM. Alongside Warren William, Tracy is one of those guys who is largely forgotten by mainstream film lovers but revered by those in the pre-code know. Unlike Williams' whose like the Big Bad Wolf personified, Tracy takes some getting used to by the casual observer, perhaps because the Lee Tracy 'type' led to several imitators none of whom matched his mix of spooked nerve, newsprint panache, constant jiving, and cackling rapid patter. So don't let the imitations turn you off --Tracy's the craziest, sharpest, most cynical actor of the code's all-too-brief era:
THURSDAY - August 21st. 2014
2:30 PM -
THE STRANGE LOVE OF MOLLY LOUVAIN
1932 - N/AI haven't seen this but I heard its ducky, or as the pundits say 'pre-code racy'- Tracy's frequent Warner's co-star Ann Dvorak is one of those girls who rises and falls (like Suzy Lenox or Blond Venus) on the social ladder while Tracy probably journalizes her or tries to stab her with a pen. Can't wait to see them both bleed newsprint even if Dvorak was never meant to be a platinum blonde. Flash! Directed by Michael Curtiz!
THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH
1932 - **1/2Here's Lee Tracy doing what he does best: motormouth speed-talking through long scenes of unscrupulous flim-flam: first, as a carny barker hawking Lupe Velez's uninhibited fan dancer from the tropics; second, hawking a blonde hotel maid who partners with Eugene Palette as wild, untamed nudists. Or is it reverse? I fell asleep, but TCM's print was too washed out, or was that me? Palette as an ersatz wildman is enough of a consolation that this wasn't written was by Ben Hecht, so probably lacks gallow's wit. There's also Frank Morgan as a Broadway impresario who eventually winds up in bed with Velez, who by then has let fame go to her harridan head, thus opening himself to Tracy's blackmail, i think, and the dialogue is great (Sample: secretary: "Imagine anyone daring to question your veracity." / Tracy: "Such language!"). Some rare moments of real connection exist, though, like at the end, like the cool bro-to-bro reunion of Pallette, Tracy, and a handful of sawdust which Tracy pours through his fingers asking "can you imagine this stuff running though your veins?" Tracy's own painful awareness of the cliches by which he's bound make me think he was far more than just an amphetamine-tongued con artist, he was also a drunk, and therefore a poet.
1932 - ***1/2Douglas Fairbanks Jr. stars in this one as a columnist who tangles over Francis Dee with generic gangster Lyle Talbot; fellow scribes Tracy and Dvorak are hep enough to know their boy's getting taken to the cleaners by slumming Dee, but they keep their yaps shut like true pals. Dialogue is pitched at such a darkly cynical height that censors ears clearly weren't fast enough to catch it: "Looks like you been up at Sing Sing looking at a burning!" is a typically grim remark, and sex is everywhere, as when Tracy and Dvorak are out at a nightclub eating dinner and she says "if you loved me half as much as you love that steak I'd break down out of self-pity" (meaning throw him a sympathy fuck, yo!) Fairbanks describes Dee--to her face!--as having "a beautiful can." and that she's "as pretty as a little red wagon." Lots of phone calls are made and received. The TCM print looks real nice. There's nothing quite like this film's unambiguously cynical ending, the sort of loose-ended defiance of the crime-must-pay adage only possible in pre-code conditions. William Wellman directed it like a punch to the gut.
TURN BACK THE CLOCK
1933 - N/AAnother one I haven't seen, but it's from my favorite movie year, 1933 and one of my favorite screenwriters, Ben Hecht. Lee Tracy imagines what his life would be like if he made different choices, got to avoid the mistakes etc. etc. Don't we all fantasize about that? But seldom do we do it during the Great Depression when our tobacco shop is failing on us. Even if it is MGM, man, it's Hecht!
1933 - ****
1932 - ***1/2If you've been always a bit cold on Lee Tracy this is the film that will make you warm up. Here he's like Jimmy Cagney crossed with an adenoidal scarecrow as the quintessential fast-talking gossip columnist, ushering in a new low in journalism via the ratting out of 'blessed events' - i.e. children born less than nine months after the couple's been married, or outside of wedlock, or etc. Remember when that was a scandal? Me neither. Highlight: Tracy bluffs Allen Jenkins' mob hitman via a monologue about an electric chair execution he witnessed that brings Barrymore in TWENTIETH CENTURY-worthy manic pantomime to some balls-out ghastly places, such as his imitation of the wobbly walk to the chamber, his voice cracking with hysteria, body spazzing sharp and jerky like a Zulawski gangster as he describes the anguish of waiting in hopes of a reprieve, puking up the last meal, the rigor mortis and hair burning. It's the sort of thing that only the pre-codes could delve into, and this delves so deep you're quaking along with Jenkins by the end, and all traces of your dislike of Tracy have been obliterated.
Roy Del Ruth directed and the rapid patter pace is awesome except when Dick Powell's lame songs slow things down. Edwin Maxwell, Ned Sparks, Frank McHugh, Allen Jenkins, Ruth Donnelly, Jack La Rue, and Rita Cunningham all come over to the table, adding plenty of moxy. Add un-PC dialogue ("Do you know many Jews there are in New York?" - "Oh, dozens!") and a wild-eyed girl 'in trouble' played with deranged ferocity and desperation by a ragged-looking creature named Isabell Jewell (above), and you have a whipsmack pre-code that makes your scalp stand on end. PS - You will also come out of this film learning what 'nadir' means.
DINNER AT EIGHT
1933 - ****
I watched this film a lot when I was really, really, really beginning to descend into the round-the-clock drinking abyss, and I'm glad it was there to sink into the mire with me. If you drink along with the Depression era-sorrow and small triumphs and wallow in your own self-pity like the swine you are the film glows like a lamp in a flop house doorway, especially if the girl you're pining for happens to be named Paula and look a lot like Madge Evans (above), who plays a Paula pining for John Barrymore, near end... a swell funhouse mirror reversal! I watched this every night, drinking and retching along in sympathy as Barrymore's shakes continually threaten to rear up and destroy him... until finally he beats them to the punch.
First though, you can nod out during the long, drawn-out conversations with an ill shipping magnate Lionel Barrymore asking former siren of the stage Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler) to not sell her stocks to a corporate raider (bullish Wallace Beery). The raider's wife meanwhile is a hot-to-trot bimbo (Jean Harlow in some truly shiny sleepwear), with a yen for her doctor (Edmund Lowe), who'd rather not but likes the promptness of payment. And, oblivious to all the suffering and real time issues going on around her, Lionel's chirpy wife Billie Burke freaks out because she "got the Ferncliffs" and the aspic isn't just right and all the other stuff that bourgeois pretension-suffering dinner guest scribes like Herman J. Mankiewicz and Frances Marion wrote for her to say until you just want to punch her and shout "your shrill pettiness is killing your husband and your daughter Paula's chasing after a drunk former rock star named Erich, I mean John, I mean, Larry Renault!!" By then of course, there will be one less at the table.
1933 - ***1/2Time and digital re-colorization has been kind to the early 2-strip Technicolor hues of DR. X. What used to look blurry and muddy and depressing now glitters with glowing emeralds, murky pinks and streaks of deep red that make it like a candy fountain of shadowy death. Fay Wray is the daughter of Lionel Atwill, who gets lots of ham time as the titular Dr. Xavier, out to trap the "full moon killer" amongst his atmospherically-lighted collection of scientific colleagues: Dr. Welles has made a 'study' of cannibalism and keeps a heart alive in an 'electrolysis solution' but his missing arm preempts further suspicion; Dr. Haines on the other hand was shipwrecked for years on a desert island and his tasty, plump colleague was never found; Dr. Rowen studies lunar rays' effects on criminal minds but notes that "the lunar rays will never effect you and me, sir, because we are 'normal' people." Mmm...hm.
And dig the post-modern self-reflexivity of the the climax, with the doctors all chained to their chairs, their pulses linked to vials of blood that overflow like a buzzer at the top of a Coney Island strength tester when they're aroused by the murder tableaux staged before them, just like you in the audience! Scream ladies and gentlemen! The Tingler is in this theater! In the subtext, the duality inherent in language gets a lot of subliminal attention too: Xavier's outrage over each of the new accusations of his colleague belies its antithesis: "Dr. Rowen could never never be the guilty one," means the opposite, while Lee Tracy regularly promises not to do something while then turning around and doing it, as expected by the morgue attendants and security guards he bribes to look the other way. Meanwhile, Xavier's grave pronouncements include: "There can be no doubt about it, gentlemen - this is cannibalism!" And now that you're not annoyed by Lee Tracy anymore (see BLESSED EVENT) maybe you wont want to tear his picture apart with your bare hands when you learn he gets Fay Wray in the end. Chained for your own amusement, indeed.
(Betrayal from the East - can be skipped) - Not Pre-code
Tracy's a journalist! The magic year of 1933!
"Chasing headlines and waistlines!" - Never seen it, but what a cast!
So SET THE DVR!
"Chasing headlines and waistlines!" - Never seen it, but what a cast!
So SET THE DVR!