Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The Downfall of Lee Tracy

Lee Tracy, like Warren William, is a sadly lost Pre-Code gem for all but the most devoted classic movie fans today.  At one time, he was the essence of Pre-Code films - - a fast talking, slick wiseguy with the ever-present telephone in his hand.  He was full of energy; he never stopped moving, a showcase of nervousness and nerve, wired and wiry.

Lee was not conventionally handsome.  In fact, he was almost homely with a nasally voice to match; he was certainly no Gable, Flynn or even Barrymore.  Yet, movie audiences of the early 1930s loved him and his portrayals. Nobody ever got the best of him and when he's on screen, he is utterly impossible to ignore.

He had attended military academy, served in World War I and played semi-professional baseball in St. Louis, all before turning an eye toward acting.  He hit Broadway in the 1920s and in 1929, appeared as the irrepressible Hildy Johnson in The Front Page (a role that Rosalind Russell would take over as the script was flipped to make Hildy a woman, opposite Cary Grant's Walter Burns in the 1940 His Girl Friday).  This role would lead him to film stardom; The Front Page was everything that the Pre-Codes stood for . . . fast talking, witty repartee, and rude heroes.  Lee Tracy had it all in spades.

That same year, he arrived in Hollywood. It was a time of great transition for films, as talking came in.  Lee Tracy never had a problem speaking and being heard.  He would return to Broadway, in between films, before journeying back to Hollywood in 1932 - - the year that Lee Tracy was made.

The film that put him over was The Strange Love of Molly Louvain, in which Lee played a heel who seduced the sweet and innocent Ann Dvorak.  He did this by (get ready for it) putting her down and actually promising to betray her.  Only Lee Tracy, folks. He wasn't the star of the movie but he managed to steal the picture.

In Blessed Event
His next several films - Love is a Racket, Doctor X, Clear All the Wires! and Advice to the Lovelorn - would put him in the newsroom (a popular destination in Pre-Code films) before moving him into the political arena with Night Mayor and Washington Merry Go Round.  He would hit his stride and deliver what is possibly his greatest performance with Blessed Event, in which he played a very, very thinly veiled version of columnist Walter Winchell.  Heck, he out-Winchelled Winchell.  Blessed Event is full of zingers and stingers and never loses steam.  It's absolutely what every sharp movie hopes and should be.

Lee also appeared in two of 1933's biggest hits - - Dinner at Eight and Bombshell, both with Jean Harlow.  The first film was an ensemble of MGM heavies and, playing a desperate agent, he held his ground against the likes of John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Marie Dressler and Wallace Beery; the second was a Harlow showpiece in which the lovely Jean played a Harlowesque movie star with Lee portraying her publicist.  In both he demonstrates range and the future that should have been assured to him as a movie star.

Unfortunately for Lee Tracy, he was a notorious hell raiser off-screen.  He liked to drink, which would sometimes cause him to miss work, and that same drinking would lead him to be standoffish and rude to interviewers, something he often did.  He said in one interview that he had no desire for a home or children but preferred to be transient, living in hotel rooms. Compare this to Clark Gable, who didn't necessarily want the home and wife, despite having both, but who played by studio rules.  By the way, Keanu Reeves would make this same type of comment decades later and be lauded for it but this statement was anathema in the early 1930s. He attempted to get out of paying his taxes and tried to write off money he spent in Hollywood as a business expense. (He maintained a home in Pennsylvania.)  He paid MGM monetary tips in order to let him sleep late in the morning, as he was often sleeping off events from the night before.  In 1935, he was arrested after drunkenly firing his gun through a neighbor's window.  His excuse?  He was aiming at an ashtray he never cared for.

Through it all, Lee managed to maintain both his career and his fans. It's possible - - heck, even likely - - that his missteps and bad behaviors became sport to movie audiences.  Maybe even to his studio, until events that transpired (or did not) in Mexico City in 1934.

Lee was filming Viva Villa!, a fictionalized biography of Pancho Villa, with Wallace Beery and Lupe Velez.  As the legend goes, he stepped out of his hotel room, onto the balcony, and urinated on a passing military parade below. Desi Arnaz would later support this accounting of events in his autobiography.  However, other crew members gave differing versions of events.  The cinematographer on the film, Charles G. Clarke, said that he was standing outside during the parade and the urinating incident did not occur.  He said that Tracy was standing on his balcony watching the parade when a Mexican below made an obscene gesture at him.  Tracy returned the favor and the papers the next day reported that he had insulted Mexico, Mexicans and their flag. Lee Tracy himself said that there was no balcony outside his hotel room, but a window grate and the incident was an accident blown out of proportion.

Regardless, MGM decided it had had enough, invoking the morals clause on Tracy and fired him. Because the story had caused an uproar in Mexico and MGM wanted to maintain good relations with the country in order to continue filming there (and having its films released there), they sacrificed Tracy.

Lee Tracy wasn't the only person to be fired from Viva Villa! on account of what may or may not have happened during this parade.  The film's original director, Howard Hawks, was also fired after he refused to testify against Lee.  Jack Conway took Hawks' place and Stuart Erwin took Tracy's.  The film went on to great reception and profit.

Lee Tracy did not stop working, even though he had been given a pink slip by the creme de la creme of Hollywood studios. He took roles in B movies and on the stage.  He returned to military service during World War II and his career post-War would consist primarily of television appearances.  He even married in 1938, to a woman looking to sell him an insurance policy on his yacht; surprisingly, the marriage would stick for the remainder of his life.

Tracy may have been combative and a drinker - - and definitely a combative drunk - - but he had also been a wise real estate investor that had left him extremely wealthy.  (Hence, the aforementioned yacht.) While other discarded actors and actresses may have wound up living in poverty post-career or even giving in to drinking and drugging, he kept on keeping on.

Joyful in The Best Man, his final appearance
He made a triumphant return to Hollywood in 1964 with The Best Man, in a role in which he would garner the only Academy Award nomination of his career.  Only four years later, at the age of seventy, Lee Tracy would succumb to cancer.

He is an interesting enigma.  On the one hand, his story is very narrowly a cautionary tale; what may happen if you blow a good thing to excess.  His career was on the upswing, he was insanely popular and yet his studio still canned him after one too many straws on the proverbial camel's back. On the other, Tracy managed to survive just fine, thank you very much, without Hollywood and MGM.  He was fortunate enough, thanks to his investments, to work when he wanted and only when he wanted. Could we all be so lucky . . .

Here's the rub in the whole thing though, regardless of what really did or did not happen in Mexico City.  No one knew it, obviously, but the Pre-Code era was quickly coming to an end.  By 1935, Will Hays would step into his ironclad role of monitoring and judging the morality of Hollywood (something that would remain in effect until the 1960s.)  The Pre-Codes would be dead and along with them, those roles that Lee Tracy specialized in.  The death of the Pre-Codes impacted the career of his contemporary Warren William, who also played characters that would no longer be acceptable once Hays instituted his policy.  (William would continue to act, mostly in B films and supporting roles until his premature death but never regained his Pre-Code star status.) The same could have happened to Tracy but thanks, or due unfortunately, to an accident, an intentional act or a rumor, Lee Tracy's contract was cancelled and we would never find out.

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