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William A. Wellman
Douglas Fairbanks Jr.,
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One of over 700 Paramount Productions, filmed between 1929 and 1949, which were sold to MCA/Universal in 1958 for television distribution, and have been owned and controlled by Universal ever since. However, because of legal complications, this particular title was not included in the original television package and was not televised until many years later. See more »
This was released in September 1934, so even the announcement of pregnancy has to be done in inaudible whispers in the ear, but it still has the essential element of the pre-Code era, that open style and loose narrative structure that doesn't try to "lead" the viewer. This isn't a "comedy," a "romance," or a "drama." It has elements of all three but it's a film to be taken as a totality that goes from one moment to another in unexpected ways and doesn't have a predictable plot. At first we see Lee Tracy at the track, trading wisecracks with the law and fleecing suckers. When the cops are after him, he takes off with an aging drunk, Henry Walthall, to his home town. There Tracy meets Walthall's daughter Helen Mack, and they fall in love. Tracy settles down with a store job and things seem fine. Tracy good-naturedly chafes at the job, but this isn't one of those tales about the footloose guy who loves the gal but can't settle down. Tracy's a guy in charge of his life; he understands that Mack is worth settling down for, and does what's necessary without it clipping his breezy nature. But then she dies in childbirth. There's a an amazing scene after she dies that demonstrates the range of the Tracy persona, which always had depth of character under the wisecracks. He stands there in shock, alone with the baby, and muses, "What's it all about?" There's just so many great things about the film, starting with Frawley. Frawley was said to be acerbic and unpleasant in person, but it's hard to believe he was all that bad, his performances are so detailed, zesty, affectionate, and real. Here, he plays a race-track sharp, but with a stylish command of language that gets him through any scrape. At one point he sits at the piano and does a wonderful rendition of "Carolina in the Morning" for Baby LeRoy that brought applause from the Film Forum audience. (It's said that he claimed to have introduced the song in "The Passing Show of 1922" at the Winter Garden.) Minna Gombell, an underrated performer of the era, is fine as Frawley's girlfriend/wife, and the other supporting players are uniformly good. Tracy uses track slang throughout, and at one point uses classic rhyming slang, the very same heard in British working-class films of the sixties. There's another musical sequence when Tracy and Mack have a party to celebrate being married for six months. It's a large, happy, raucous party which is another indicator that Tracy has adjusted to married life but is still his spirited self. Eddie Peabody does a banjo solo, and then he and Tracy play a banjo duet, each strumming on one banjo and playing the chords on the other. The way they're sitting you barely notice that they're intertwined like that. Very high energy numbers. The film as a whole, though, is rather low key, not intent on proving anything, but just telling out its tale. The comedy, the romance, the drama are all done with a rare good nature. The closest thing to a nasty character is Clarence Wilson as the owner of the retail store where Tracy and Mack work, but it's a reflexive sort of nastiness that no one bothers about too much. Today's audiences might be puzzled by this film that never tells them what to think or to expect, but it's a fine little film.
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