Don't go into this film expecting anything close to the 1951 comedy with Bob Hope, Marilyn Maxwell, William Frawley and Jane Darwell. The only thing it has in common is the lemon drop eating leading character and William Frawley, playing quite a different character than he did 17 years later. In that one, he was closer to Fred Mertz than he is here. There's no sweet old ladies home here and a group of gruff New Yorkers on the street singing "Silver Bells". This is a film seeking identity as either a comedy or drama, and it can't make up its mind. For the first quarter, its a very entertaining comedy, then switches to sappy drama that destroys the mood it earlier set up. As it followed "Lady For a Day" on the screen as a Damon Runyeon story, it had to have a mixture of both, but unfortunately, once the film switches geers, there is no comedy whatsoever until William Frawley pops up towards the end.
The story is this: Wally Brooks (Lee Tracy) is a character hanging around the racetrack who tries to con people into betting on losers. He is initially seen having bilked an old lady, and later does so with a crusty millionaire where the horse ironically wins. Brooks goes on the run, and ends up in a small town working for nasty Clarence Wilson, falling in love with pretty Helen Mack. When they marry, she gives birth to a baby boy (Baby LeRoy later in the film) and dies. Having robbed Wilson to help his wife get the medical attention she needs, Brooks must now go to prison. A compassionate warden sees beyond Brooks' negative attitude and introduces him to his infant son who is in an orphaned asylum. Brooks vows to turn his life around and is paroled. By this time, the child has been adopted (secretly by old pal Frawley and his new wife in order to later reunite papa and son) and Brooks is livid to find his son missing. Eventually, a happy ending is in order which will bring either tears or groans depending on the mood of the viewer.
Lee Tracy was the king of the double talk, playing reporters, agents, politicians and gamblers who could talk his way out of trouble in almost every situation. He gets some great comic lines here at the beginning, especially dealing with his wife's pal, small town phone operator Minna Gombell, the stereotypical depression era wisecracking blonde with the heart of gold. But there's little opportunity for their interactions to continue as the film goes from Damon Runyeon street reality to Fannie Hurst style soap opera. Only here, it's not Irene Dunne or Margaret Sullavan suffering over the loss of a lover or child, it's a supposedly hard-boiled male city slicker. Helen Mack suffers and dies nobly (as she did in several other films around this time), and Tracy must hide his emotions in order to save his macho pride. Frawley, as always, is amusing, and Clarence Wilson, probably the ugliest character actor in films, plays one of his typical smarmy businessmen with coal where his heart should be. Why Wilson never played Scrooge on screen is beyond me. There's also an amusing performance by Robert McWade as the ailing millionaire that Tracy gets $100 out of at the racetrack. Henry B. Walthall is present as Mack's dipsomaniac father whom Tracy befriends after going on the run. Kitty Kelly, unrelated to the infamous biographer of the Reagans and Frank Sinatra, is present as the woman whom Frawley marries in order to adopt Baby LeRoy. The tyke is seen here as a sweet young thing who for a change isn't getting kicked or fed alcohol by W.C. Fields. There is an amusing scene with Frawley singing to the boy that first amuses him then brings him to tears.
For the first 20 minutes of the film, I was sure I was getting into an overlooked comic gem, but as the film switched geers, so did my feelings towards it. It is like going up a huge hill on a roller-coaster only to find out that the first downward spiral is only a four-foot drop.
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