Lee Tracy - The Guy with all the Angles
Updated: Jul 11, 2021
America in the early 1930’s required a different mindset to survive and thrive than the generation before. 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.
Lee Tracy as Hildy Johnson in the stage play The Front Page, 1929 - later retitled His Girl Friday for the 1940 film version with Rosalind Russell as female reporter, Hildy Johnson.
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 liber 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.
Lee Tracy plays another nosy reporter in the horror film, Doctor X 1932, with Fay Wray.
In Blessed Event, 1932, he plays cocky, brash, fast talking Alvin Roberts who starts out in the mail room, 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, and accosts people with the line, "What do you know that I don't." He's created his own lucrative job, one that feels uniquely American. 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 kind of 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.
With Ruth Donnelly in Blessed Event, 1933.
In Blessed Event, 1933. Note the set was also used briefly in Jewel Robbery with Kay Francis in 1932.
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.
With Jean Harlow in Bombshell, 1933.
Harlow plays a version of herself and Tracy is her publicist in the meta movie Bombshell, 1933.
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.
Tracy and Harlow spar in Bombshell, 1933.
There are times when it feels like James Stewart, whose star was on the assent as Tracy's was on the decline, borrowed a lot from Lee Tracy's speech patterns and physicality, although slightly slowed down. That's just a personal observation. What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.