Why you should care
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It’s easy to forget today (given that so few remember him), but in the 1930s, gangly, redheaded and adenoidal Lee Tracy was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, rivaling the likes of Clark Gable and James Cagney. Tracy’s lightning-fast delivery and sharp-edged wisecracks helped define what we think of when we think of ’30s screwball comedies.
He may have played an ambulance-chasing lawyer in The Nuisance, a sleazy ex-con in The Payoff, the president in The Best Man, and assorted other fast-talking charlatans during his 30-year career, but being the first actor to play Hildy Johnson in the original Broadway production of The Front Page assured Tracy would be typecast even before arriving in Hollywood in 1929. He quickly became the model of the bumbling, hard-drinking, smart-alecky reporter who, despite all the high jinks, in the end saves the day, gets the story and gets the girl — if accidentally.
No matter how much of a heel his characters could be, he was always charming and likable.
“I should have quit playing newspapermen after three or four parts in the movies,” he would later say. “But the money kept coming in and I liked it.”
Tracy would play smart-assed reporters in Doctor X, Advice to the Lovelorn, I’ll Tell the World and dozens of other movies, but most notably in 1932’s Blessed Event. Tracy played Alvin Roberts, a sleazy gossip columnist whose specialty is announcing the unplanned pregnancies of the rich and famous in print. This of course gets him in trouble with the rich and famous, and makes his column the most popular must-read in New York. The script, stuffed with snappy comebacks, insults, double entendres, wordplay and Depression jokes, is one of the sharpest of the era — and Tracy’s inimitable delivery and perfect timing nudges it to yet another level.
He had an innate sense of comic rhythms, and would occasionally drop in an extra syllable to stretch out a word in order to get the effect he was after. Yet no matter how much of a heel his characters could be, and no matter how awful the things that came out of his mouth, he was always charming and likable in a way few actors have been able to achieve. Even when he’s insulting someone, he seems so easygoing about it — as if there’s a friendly smirk hiding behind the barbs.
By all accounts, though, Tracy was a bit less easygoing off-camera. He was short-tempered, unreliable and could get a little out of hand once he started drinking.
In fact, his offscreen shenanigans nearly sideswiped his career for good at the height of his popularity. In 1934, Tracy was in Mexico City filming a movie with Wallace Beery. As a military parade passed beneath his hotel window, Tracy reportedly stepped onto his balcony, unzipped and pissed on the proceedings. He then allegedly got into a fight with a policeman, was arrested, and a major international hoo-ha erupted, prompting MGM to yank him off the film, cancel his contract and offer a very public apology to the people of Mexico.
But American audiences still loved Tracy; and after a brief vacation on Broadway to let things calm down, he continued working steadily in pictures (still playing mostly smart-assed newspapermen) until the early ’60s.
As a result, to this day most working reporters at heart don’t want to be Woodward, Bernstein or Edward R. Murrow — they want to be Lee Tracy, even if they’ve never heard of him.