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Lee Tracy is one of the lost joys of the pre-Code era. He mostly played
newspapermen (he was Hildy Johnson in the original Broadway production
of The Front Page) with a sideline in press agents, and whatever his
racket he epitomized the brash, fast-talking, crafty, stop-at-nothing
operator. He makes Cagney look bashful, skating around in perpetual,
delirious overdrive, gesticulating and spitting out his lines like an
articulate machine-gun, wheedling and needling and swearing on his
mother's life as he lies through his teeth. He was homely and scrawny,
with a raspy nasal voice, and he always played cocky, devious
scoundrels, yet you find yourself rooting for him and reveling in his
sheer energy and shameless moxie. Audiences of the early thirties loved
his snappy style and irrepressible irreverence; they loved him because
he was nobody's fool. He's a rare example of a character actorthat guy
who always plays reporterswho through force of personality, and the
luck of embodying the zeitgeist, had a brief reign as a star.
In BLESSED EVENT he plays Alvin Roberts, a character based so closely on Walter Winchell that Winchell could have sued--but he probably loved it. When we first meet Alvin, he's a lowly kid from the ad department who has been given a chance to sub for a gossip columnist and gotten in trouble for filling the column with dirtprimarily announcements of who is "anticipating a blessed event" without the proper matrimonial surroundings. Soon he's become an all-powerful celebrity and made scores of enemies, including a gangster willing to bump him off to shut him up. There's a subplot about Alvin's ongoing feud with a smarmy crooner, Bunny Harmon, played by Dick Powell. Anyone who finds Powell in his crooning days repellent will appreciate Tracy's merciless vendetta. Actually, I think Powell is being deliberately irritating hereeven in Busby Berkeley films he's not so egregiously perky and fey. He does sing one good song, "Too Many Tears" (a theme throughout the film), and a wonderfully witless radio jingle for "Shapiro's Shoes."
Alvin's standard greeting is, "What do you know that I don't?" The answer is nothingat least not for long. But he's surrounded by worthy foils. Ruth Donnelly is both tart and peppery as Alvin's harried secretary ("You want to see Mr. Roberts? Oh, you want to sue Mr. Roberts. The line forms on the left.") Allen Jenkins, who keeps saying he's from Chicago even though his Brooklyn accent could be cut with a steak knife, plays a mug sent by his gangster boss to threaten Roberts. In a mind-blowing scene, Alvin terrifies the tough guy with a graphic, horrifying description of death in the electric chair. Tracy plays this monologue with unholy gusto; if you're not opposed to the death penalty, you will be after this. There's a funny scene in which Jenkins has to pass time with Alvin's sweet, clueless mother, who is continually thwarted in her desire to listen to the Bunny Harmon Hour on the radio. The usual suspects fill out the cast, those character actors whose very predictability is their glory: Ned Sparks the perennial gloomy pickle-puss; Frank McHugh the perennial hapless nebbish; Jack La Rue the perennial menacing hoodlum. Director Roy Del Ruth (who also helmed the wildly entertaining BLONDE CRAZY) keeps BLESSED EVENT going like a popcorn-maker; the sly, outrageous zingers just keep coming.
Lee Tracy's career never recovered after he was fired from MGM for a drunken indiscretion committed in Mexico. But I doubt he could have lasted long as a star after the Code anyway, since his films are gleefully amoral, frequently demonstrating that crimeor at least lying, cheating and riding roughshod over other people's feelingspays. Every Lee Tracy vehicle contains a moment when he realizes he's gone too far, usually when the girl he fancies bursts into tears and tells him off. (Here he crosses the line in a big way when he betrays a desperate young woman who begs him not to reveal her pregnancy.) He looks suddenly abashed, protesting, "Gee, if I'd known you felt that way I'd give anything not to have done that Baby, sugar, listen !" But two second later he's back to his old scheming ways. A reformed Lee Tracy would be like Fred Astaire with arthritis. Not that he isn't a good guy deep down well, maybe. He has charm, anyway: an impish grin and twinkly eyes and boyish blond hair, like Tom Sawyer crossed with a Tammany Hall fixer. His reactions to sentimentalityto Dick Powell's cloying tenor or Franchot Tone in BOMBSHELL telling Jean Harlow he'd like to run barefoot through her hairare delicious. He's salt and vinegar, no sweetening. In BLESSED EVENT Alvin has a fit when an editorial calls him the "nadir" of American journalism. Lee Tracy, on the other hand, represents is the zenith of the American newspaper movie.
This isn't the first time I've raved about Roy del Ruth's Warners work prior to the emergence of the Hays Office, but it needs to be restated: few directors had as sure a hand with fast-paced, cynical comedy as Del Ruth. And, when teamed with the equally forgotten (and equally inspired) comedian Lee Tracy, what results is one of the best comedies of the 30s, as funny and audacious today as then. Tracy (who came West to Hollywood after originating the Hildy Johnson role in THE FRONT PAGE on Broadway) was the wisecrack-slinger all others are measured against; here he's so good, so inspired at mixing verbal and physical comedy, you'll be wondering how it's possible his career didn't soar for 25 years. (Besides his heavy drinking, which couldn't have helped him, he earned the wrath of Louis B Mayer during the shooting of VIVA VILLA by urinating on the Mexican army from his hotel balcony, effectively ending his career as a leading man. Or so the legend has it.) This is probably his best film, playing a Winchell-like columnist named Alvin Roberts, and Tracy plays him with such cheerful unscrupulousness you might almost forgot what a rat the real Winchell was. But this is pre-Code Warners, where even an unprincipled cur could be a hero so long as he scraped bottom with zest and pluck; don't be surprised at the many one-liners and situations that would become taboo in three years time: abortions, adultery, homosexuality and ethnicity are all fair game for BLESSED EVENT's satirical arrows, and only an insufferable prude would stifle his laughter. Not until Preston Sturges played chicken with the Hays Office in the early 40s would such darkly funny farce be allowed on the screen again. Keep an eye out for this one and prepare to become a Lee Tracy fan for life. As usual, Del Ruth's direction is dead on the money, while never calling attention to itself.
A brash tabloid columnist turns his BLESSED EVENT style
gossip mongering into a sensation, but creates many enemies
along the way.
This is the film that made Lee Tracy an authentic movie star - the role and the actor were perfect for each other. For the next couple of years Tracy would specialize in fast talking shyster lawyers, agents, reporters & flimflam men. In the process, he became one of the most enjoyable performers of the era, always fresh & entertaining. However, after misbehaving in Mexico while under contract to MGM, he would be banished to the Poverty Row studios to continue acting in minor films. Today, regrettably, he is almost forgotten.
But in pre-Code BLESSED EVENT Tracy is at the top of his form: exasperating, maddeningly irritating & wonderfully funny. Warner Brothers gives him an excellent supporting cast to bounce off of - acerbic Ned Sparks as a disgruntled tabloid reporter; peppy Frank McHugh as an overeager publicity agent; porcine Edwin Maxwell as a nasty gangster; and Allen Jenkins as a softhearted criminal (his electric chair' scene with Tracy is a classic).
Boyish Dick Powell, in his film debut, seems an odd choice to play Tracy's nemesis, but there's no doubt about his charm & fine singing style, both of which would soon make him a major movie star.
Mary Brian is lovely as Tracy's girlfriend & Emma Dunn is sweet as his mother, but each tends to be a bit smothered by Tracy's oversized personality. His true co-star is tart-tongued Ruth Donnelly as his secretary. No slacker in slinging the dialogue around, she's able to match Tracy line for line.
Movie mavens will recognize Charles Lane as a reporter; Isabel Jewell, terrific as a much-abused showgirl; and hilarious Herman Bing as a chef - all of them uncredited.
Fast paced and very clever Lee Tracy vehicle playing a Walter W. type gossip columnist with a grudge against "crooners"generally and one in particular played by Dick Powell. Definitely precode with dialogue and subject matter that would have been totally rejected just a few years later. One scene culminates in a phrase spoken by Tracy's"mother" containg a word that rocked the film world at the end of Gone With the Wind. Among other wonderful sequences watch for Tracy's evocation of a trip to the "hot seat", and Dick Powell's rendition of a singing commercial extolling the qualities of"Shapiro's Shoes". With Shapiro himeself beaming at his side. Do catch this film also a similar effort also with Tracey "The Half Naked Truth".
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
At the start of BLESSED EVENT, Ned Sparks is returning from a vacation.
He is the columnist who writes the society/gossip column at the
newspaper. He left the column in the hands of his assistant, figuring
that there was nothing outlandish that could happen. Sparks is soon
sputtering, as he is asked by the newspaper editor to accept a new
assignment writing obituaries. It seems that the assistant, Lee Tracy,
has redesigned the column. Instead of the staid, boring columns giving
the comings and goings of polite society (what boats they took to
Europe, who is vacationing in Florida or the West Coast), he is telling
of all the naughty things these people are up to. In particular, if he
hears of a rumor that some prominent people are having a little baby
out of wedlock, he prints the rumor (carefully mentioning it as a rumor
- to avoid libel suits) as a "Blessed Event". Hence the film's title.
Tracy keeps Ruth Donelly, Sparks secretary, as his own. He makes the column a really successful one, just as Walter Winchell did in real life in the 1920s. Winchell, who was one of the top gossip columnists of the 1920s - 1950s (his leading rivals were probably Hedda Hopper, Louella Parsons, and Sheila Graham - but they were basically connected with Hollywood personalities only, while Winchell included politicians, writers, artists, Broadway figures, socialites, and gangsters). Winchell knew many people - he even got involved in criminal history, when he was instrumental in the surrender of Louis Lepke Buchalter (head of "Murder, Inc.") to the authorities in 1939. Winchell's reputation is not very clean these days - he could be vicious if he did not like the politics or personality of one of his subjects. He would be ferociously anti-Communist in the 1940s and 1950s, although he also was anti-Nazi in the war years as well. The character of the unscrupulous Hunsekker in SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (the Burt Lancaster role) is based on Winchell.
This film was made in his early years as a columnist, so Tracy plays him for laughs, and even makes him a bit of a crusader. He does pursue Dick Powell, a popular radio crooner, rather extremely. This is because he knows Powell is a phony, and Tracy does not like crooners. Later, though, it turns out that Tracy's mother does like Powell, and one wonders if that is the key to Tracy's feelings. On the other hand, he is leading a public spirited crusade against a crooked mobster and construction company head, Edwin Maxwell. That does raise our estimation of Tracy a bit.
But his methods are always questionable. Maxwell tries to frighten Tracy into silence, sending his henchman Allan Jenkins to threaten him. Tracy makes a cylinder copy of a confession by Jenkins to a murder, and after making sure the cylinder has been taken away to safety, frightens Jenkins by telling him what he has on him, and reminding him of the death of Ruth Snyder in the electric chair in 1928. His morality is also tested, when Isobel Elsom comes to him with some personally shameful information, and Tracy has to decide if he should keep quiet or use it in his column.
The speed of the film, the pungency of the dialog and its humor make it worth an "8" out of a possible "10". Tracy's performance reminds us of how wonderful an actor he was, and makes his odd career misfortune all the sadder to think about for what could have been a great career rather than a fine one.
Obscure and almost forgotten, this is a gem of the type of picture Warner Brothers did best in the 30s. Earthy, moving at a breakneck pace, packed with dialogue that snaps, crackles and pops, it is super entertainment. The Warners look and feel are everywhere, along with several key members of the studio's stock company. The humor (and there is lots of it) has a sardonic edge, much in keeping with the overall tone of the story. Lee Tracy's vivid description of life and death in the electric chair is a grisly, repulsive comedy turn. In an excellent cast, special attention to poor uncredited Isabel Jewell - perhaps just a bit more strident than the role required, but delivering an on-edge performance you will not soon forget.
The main reason people I know won't watch classic movies is because
they "move too slow". Everyone I know this all old films are
super-long, slow moving affairs with no action. I can't wait to show
them Blessed Event.
Blessed Event (1932) is a terrifically fast, hilarious pre-code comedy with it's main character based on 30's tabloid writer Walter Winchell. Lee Tracy plays Alvin Roberts, the main character, who runs the "dirtiest" gossip column in New York, but events ensue that may have to cause him to give up his column.
If you have an opportunity to watch this amazing movie, do so. If you are already a fan of classics you will love it, and even if you've never watched an old movie, this is a great movie for anyone, if you thought all old movies were squeaky clean, slow, boring, and innocent, you're in for a surprise.
I was a bit torn on this one--I wasn't sure whether to give it a 7 or
an 8. Either way, it's a very good little film. Apparently, James
Cagney was supposed to originally star in the movie but Lee Tracy
eventually got the role. This film is a very good fit for Tracy, as he
was the only guy at Warner Brothers who could talk as fast as
Cagney---or even faster! Tracy plays a Walter Winchell-like muckraking
journalist. His scruples are minimal and he seems very willing to
stretch the truth in order to tell a good story---even if it means
hurting a few people in the process. Because of this, his fiancé isn't
sure whether she should marry him and she begs Tracy to find another
line of work. But, it's obvious Tracy LOVES the work--he lives, eats
and breathes this sort of scandal. Along the way, there are a few juicy
stories you see in the film--including a funny one with Allen Jenkins
as a mobster and a distraught pregnant lady who is at her wits end.
The film works well because of its style and fast-paced script. A few very choice scenes also spice things up. The best is Tracy as he's giving a VERY vivid account of what it's like to be electrocuted--as Jenkins recoils in horror. My favorite was the cop at the end after he caught a shooter--seeing him slap the guy around was very funny (even if it does violate the crook's Constitutional rights). Plus, I saw one scene where Ned Sparks actually looked like he was about to smile! All in all, an incredibly breezy and enjoyable little film.
By the way, although the ending and overall message is very different, another great film about muckraking journalism is "Five Star Final" (1931) and it sure appears as if Warner Brothers was strongly inspired by this previous film to make "Blessed Event".
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Movies don't come much better than this. Photoplay called it a "pippin"
and "what talkie movies do best". Reporter George Moxley (Ned Sparks -
"I feel like a stranded dogfish on the Barnegat shore" and no, he
doesn't say that in this movie) comes back from holidays to find his
column replacement Alvin Roberts (Tracy at his smart alecky best) is
putting the newspaper back in circulation due to his muck raking column
which predicts "blessed events" before they even happen!!! Almost one
step ahead of him is his secretary (I just love Ruth Donnelly) whose
job is largely taken up with diverting callers who are out for his
blood and smoothing over libel suits ("we had two this week")!!!
Roberts keeps his column and Moxley is given "Pets" - "if your pooch
ever needs a midwife - call on me"!!!
Mary Brian, who had the title of the "sweetest girl in pictures" proved that she was as she portrayed Alvin's long suffering girl, Gladys. In real life she was romantically linked with Dick Powell, who made his debut in this movie as the ego driven crooner, Bunny Harmon - similar to his real personality as Brian commented "he liked the ladies"!!
Alvin comes unstuck (as Gladys always predicted) when a high profile singer, Dorothy Lane (Isabel Jewel from the original Broadway play) comes to plead with him not to print the story of her upcoming "blessed event" - she is not married but the man is. Alvin promises not to but speedily forgets as his inflated ego dreams of nationwide syndication. Jewel has a couple of big scenes and she plays them for all she is emotionally worth - you won't forget her pleadings. Of course Gladys is disgusted at his callous behaviour and calls their romance off.
Allen Jenkins also plays one of the callers with murder on his mind but is persuaded to put his gun away in a stunning scene where Alvin holds centre stage in describing exactly what it is like to go to the electric chair. It sounds off putting but Tracy just dazzles!! Jenkins is a hired goon of sleazy Sam Gobell (Edwin Maxwell) who, as the movie comes to an end, just happens to be revealed as Dorothy's lover. Add to the mix Emma Dunn as Alvin's sweet mother, who loves nothing better than listening to the Bunny Harmon radio hour. Alvin, on the other hand, hates crooners and is over the moon when he can finally expose him as Herman Bunn!!!
I can't understand why Isabel Jewel (who in real life was desperately in love with Lee Tracy) never became a star. Maybe she was just too versatile. "Blessed Event" was one of her first films and you just knew, when she entered the newsroom with a gun, there was going to be an intensely dramatic scene. Another memorable part she had was as the frightened "B" girl in "Marked Woman" and again as the almost inarticulate little seamstress riding to the guillotine in "A Tale of Two Cities".
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Blessed Event (Roy Del Ruth, 1932) is arguably the greatest comedy film
of all time, with "that kid from advertising" Alvin Roberts (Lee Tracy)
commandeering his newspaper's society section, and turning it into the
filthiest gossip column in America. But his take-no-prisoners
journalism and brilliantly abrasive persona makes him a couple of
powerful enemies: crooner Bunny Harmon (a hilariously peppy Dick Powell
in his screen debut) and gangster Sam Gobel (Edwin Maxwell). Tracy was
the crystallisation of everything great about Pre-Code movies those
fast- paced, scurrilous, say-anything films made before the censorship
crackdown of 1934 and this is his definitive vehicle. He's just
hysterically funny, spewing a constant stream of wisecracks and
epithets, before a second half that demands every ounce of talent he
had: Roberts throbbing with ebullience, self-loathing and finally
righteous anger, as he tries to atone for the one time he took it too
far. The script does everything right, circumventing a potential slip
into melodrama with dismissive ease, and the supporting cast is truly
spectacular, with each and every character from Ruth Donnelly's
acerbic secretary to Ned Sparks' pet correspondent and Frank McHugh's
ineffective press agent given something memorable to do. Really it's
just one great scene after another, but there are several that are
The centrepiece is the terrifying, perilously dark set-piece in which Tracy talks mobster Allen Jenkins through a trip to the chair. He shoves a picture of Ruth Snyder in Jenkins' face, before navigating the henchman through a florid, impossibly graphic description of state- sanctioned death, every part of his body seeming to contort as he dominates the screen. You would die with one finger twitching upwards, Tracy concludes with a shaking voice, "to where you're not going". It doesn't sound like much fun, but somehow it's exhilarating, because I've never seen anyone act like that before: it's neither conventional, nor stagy, nor necessarily naturalistic, it's just dynamic. There's also Tracy being called a "nadir" a shoo-in for any "top ten funniest scenes" list his conversation with his mum about Bunny Harmon (she's a big fan), a blistering showdown with Gobel in a café, and a bit in a hospital where a policeman keeps slapping a gunman in the face. Director Del Ruth has a cult following nowadays, on the strength of these breakneck early pictures he specialised in at Warner, and his handling couldn't be better. But it's Tracy's show all the way, this 78-minute jolt of comic genius spotlighting his superb timing and singular style of acting his high-pitched delivery, gesticulating fingers, monstrous self-confidence and gaggle of outrageous vocal trills combining to exalting effect. He's astonishing, and so is Blessed Event.
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