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Spencer Tracy was busy working at Fox Studio at this time, turning out
a succession of B film programmers that gave very little indication of
the star he would eventually become. Fox loaned him out occasionally
and they did here to MGM where he would really hit the big time.
Watching The Show-Off today I thought of two early television characters that Tracy reminded me of. A little bit of Phil Silvers as Sergeant Bilko and a whole lot of Jackie Gleason as Ralph Kramden.
The film is of course based on George Kelly's play of the same name and in doing a little research on Kelly I found there was a live production on television in the Fifties that starred none other than Jackie Gleason. Red Skelton did a remake of this as a feature film, but I hope that Gleason's performance is not lost and a kinescope of the performance exists and is preserved.
Tracy's a lovable mug with a gift for gab who like Ralph Kramden had every big scheme blow up in his face. And he's got his Alice here in the person of Madge Evans who Audrey Meadows could have played in a remake. Tracy's not a womanizer here, he really does love Madge and she him. But Madge is about at her wit's end with him.
During the course of things they have to move back with her mother. You remember Ralph's mother-in-law? Clara Blandick almost steals the film as Madge's mom who cannot stand her son-in-law. Like Bilko and Ralph he's always "on" all the time. I know I couldn't stand living with someone like that.
Tracy gives it a good try and the cast does well. But maybe the film needed a Norton character.
This is the kind of role Spencer Tracy played before he became a symbol
for honesty and respectability in the movies. He does a great job, but
it's strange to see him be the object of a morality tale - albeit a
comic one - about how not to succeed in life.
J. Aubrey Piper (Spencer Tracy) is an office clerk working for a railroad and out on an excursion boat when a man falls overboard. Piper jumps in and saves the man, winning the attention and interest of Amy Fisher (Madge Evans), the daughter in a respectable middle-class family. Aubrey is a bag of wind like the biggest hurricane you've ever seen, but Amy oddly seems blinded to all of this blustering. She doesn't seem to notice that although Aubrey always takes her out in the most fashionable of cars that it's always a different one every time - a "demonstration model". This was a custom years ago of letting people with no credit history drive new expensive cars around to see if they liked them enough to buy them. The problem is, the rest of Amy's family knows exactly what Aubrey is and they cringe every time he comes around, always with a big appetite and a tale overblowing his own importance.
Amy and Aubrey get married, and soon the problems begin. Amy's problem is not suddenly discovering that her husband is a liar, because he really isn't. He doesn't lie about his occupation or income, he just blows out of proportion his own importance in every event that occurs. Thus the death of their marriage is slow suffocation from a thousand disappointments - things bought on credit when Amy thought they were paid for, bills unpaid, wage attachments - all because Aubrey really believes his ship is about to come in although he has no plan as to how and why.
This one ends in a way that you wouldn't expect for an MGM movie in the 1930's that seems to be teaching a tale about the need for humility and realism, and maybe that was because in 1934 the last things Americans needed in the Great Depression was humility and realism in what is supposed to be a comedy.
I'd recommend this one as an opportunity to see Spencer Tracy early in his career in a very likable little film. In the hands of a lesser actor you'd probably just want to strangle Piper, but Tracy gives even this shallow fellow enough depth that you'll likely feel at least a little sympathy for him at points. I know I did.
Show Off, The (1934)
*** (out of 4)
J. Aubrey Piper (Spencer Tracy) is the ultimate blowhard, a man who never stops talking about everything great he's done yet he never realizes that he's never done a single worthwhile thing in his life. He eventually marries a girl (Madge Evans) but the two soon find themselves in debt with Aubrey losing more and more. He's eventually without a job and when his wife leaves him he must try and find someway to save face. This isn't the greatest comedy ever made as the direction is a bit sloppy and the screenplay has a few loose ends but what makes this thing so special is the performance by Tracy in his first role for MGM. This character is without question one of the biggest idiots in the history of cinema and if this person was involved in your real life even the most civil person would probably have to fight themselves in not punching him in the face. Aubrey is constantly telling lies, trying to make himself look better than he is and more often than not his lies end up costing other people their happiness. Apparently Lee Tracy was originally set to play this part but after his legendary incident in Mexico during the filming of VIVA VILLA! he was let go and Tracy got the part. This was certainly a great thing because I don't think there's another actor in the history of cinema that could have brought this character to life. Tracy's powerful attitude and strong voice brings this character to life and one can't help but overlook the character's flaws simply because of how magnificent the actor is. There's a running joke about the character being in one room but talking so loud that you could hear him a block away and even this is perfectly done by Tracy. The way he gives that powerful voice just takes over a room and you can't help but feel as if Tracy is this character. The mannerisms are perfect, the walk he gives and even the way he laughs at his own jokes. This certainly isn't Tracy's greatest work as an actor but I'd be willing to say it's one of the most memorable characters he has created. Evans is also extremely good as the suffering wife and we get strong supporting work from Grant Mitchell, Clara Blandick, Henry Wadsworth, Lois Wilson and Alan Edwards. I'm sure many will watch this film and just want to kill the Aubrey character and I'm sure many will hate the film simply because they hate this guy. I certainly understand this as there were times where I was hoping someone would do bodily harm to him. However, Tracy is just so terrific in bringing this character to life that I have no problem recommending the film.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Once again I find myself disagreeing with a film being placed in the
genre of comedy. In my view, this version of the old chestnut "The
Show-Off" has a definite slant toward drama. Yes, there is humor in it,
but it is primarily a rather sad story about a man who is well-meaning,
but comes off as being pompous and overbearing...due to his being
This film was additionally interesting to me because I am a tremendous admirer of both Spencer Tracy and Red Skelton, and Skelton made a new version of this film (also for MGM) in 1946. The difference, of course, being that Skelton's version is a comedy with serious overtones. Both films cover the same general territory, but there are enough differences that you can enjoy both versions from the two different perspectives.
This film was made in 1934, and it has one thing missing that modern audiences like in a film -- background music...and it shows. My other criticism is about 16 minutes into the film where we sharply go from a first meeting between Tracy (the show-off) and his girl friend (Madge Evans), to a scene where Amy's mother (Clara Blandick) is talking about their many dates and his many visits to their home. It is so abrupt that it almost seemed as if a reel was missing.
The cast here is mostly pretty good. Tracy, as he almost always does, shines. Madge Evans, with whom I was not at all familiar, is quite good as the love interest. And Clara Blandick, as the disgusted mother, is priceless. I wish I could say the same for "Pa" (Grant Mitchell), who is very unimpressive here. Although his part is not big, it's always a pleasure to see Claude Gillingwater.
I guess I prefer the Skelton version. It's a little more sophisticated. But it's nice to see Tracy early in his MGM career.
I think if viewed as a culture clash - upper-middle-class Puritans who
are slipping economically - and desperately need some new blood -
having a head-on collision with Irish-Catholic culture - where
forgiveness always waiting around the corner.
As someone who grew up with that clash - though it was Puritan vs. Italian-Catholic, with the Irish as referrees, I loved this movie. The Puritans were so perfectly portrayed, and WHO CAN CRITICIZE Clara Blandick? If she isn't waving the "white" flag better than anyone for our culture going down in all its glory - as the WASP business class did in the 1930s, then I don't know who..
Clara is superb and her character pegs Tracy for the blowhard that he is. But he is more than a blowhard - he is genuinely tender with Madge, and his love for her - albeit the puppy love of a couple in their 20s - is real and sincere.
Clara reminded me of a maternal grandmother - granted, grandma, born Charlotte Evelyn Hemmings, was on the serious narcotic known as Roman Catholicsm by the time I knew her (having converted 20 years before I was born), and to a lesser extent, my dear mother, gone these three years, who not only was on Roman Catholicism, but also on real narcotics after having Irish triplets, courtesy of the Latino known as Daddio.
Anyway, I love these portrayals of Yankee/Puritan/WASP womanhood (don't all happy people love their mothers?) - both Clara and Madge are honest to the core - and like Kay Johnson in Passion Flower - they are willing to accept the "other" - in this case the new blood that is Spencer Tracy - daughter lovingly, mother grudgingly.
No coincidence that Kay Francis is the femme fatale in Passion Flower - like Tracy she was culturally Irish, right down to the convent schools (when Ma could afford them).
So watch this movie as a culture class and enjoy it. The Irish had a few things to teach the white people...
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
SPENCER TRACY does about as well as can be expected in the role of a
braggart who spends money that he doesn't have and marries the
prettiest girl in town, MADGE EVANS, who worships him before she learns
about his true nature.
He seems to be an impractical man but the script has him conjuring up a "get rich quick" scheme that actually works in time for a happy ending.
CLARA BLANDICK (Dorothy's Aunt 'Em in THE WIZARD OF OZ) does another one of her grumpy old lady impersonations, treating her son-in-law with disdain up until the very end. GRANT MITCHELL does well enough as the baffled father.
But it's hard to find anything offbeat or unusual enough to bring some creativity into this time-worn tale taken from a stage play. It is, however, a good character study of a man who makes himself pretty obnoxious throughout the story with his bragging ways and take charge personality when it comes to business matter. Tracy is convincing but fails to make the fellow likable enough for Evans to care so much about him.
Passes the time, but nothing special. Remade and shaped into a Red Skelton comedy by MGM in 1946 with Marilyn Maxwell as the blonde girlfriend and faring only slightly better.
Spencer Tracy went on to a career of more intense roles. Yes, he was in
comedies with Katharine Hepburn. But he was the straight man.
Here he is a know-it-all who absolutely cannot keep his mouth shut and himself out of other people's business.
I have never seen the Pulitzer Prize winning play on which it's based. I'd guess he is very true to George Kelly's version, though.
Madge Evans is fine as his love interest. Her performance style has not dated well, though. Clara Blandick, on the other hand, is delightful as her shrewish mother.
Every time he has determined to toe the straight and narrow and overhears something he just must comment on, we cringe. It moves along at a fast clip. And it holds up very well.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This film is about an obnoxious blow-hard played by Spencer Tracy. This
guy absolutely can't talk for more than a couple sentences without
lying to make himself seem big and important and it's obvious to most
people that he is a complete jerk. However, a young woman inexplicably
falls for him despite the fact that he's a walking windbag. Her family
hates him, but they know there's nothing they can do to stop the
At first, life seems good for the newlyweds. However, since Spencer is so full of crap, he tries to look big in his wife's eyes by compulsively buying her lots of stuff--so much that he bankrupts them despite her trying to reform him. He also loses his job because of his obnoxious ways. His wife is forced to move back with her parents and Spencer is ultimately asked to leave--much to the delight of her parents! However, at this point I was very happy to see this guy's life fall apart. After all, he was FAR from likable. BUT, some nitwits at the studio liked the idea of him making it big and winning back his wife. This just didn't make any sense at all. Instead of a clichéd and ridiculous "happy ending" I wanted to see him dying in the gutter--he was THAT obnoxious and unlikable!
By the way, this film was based on a play and was previously filmed in 1926 and 1930 as well as later with Red Skelton in 1946. The 1926 version is actually pretty good--probably because although the leading man is a jerk, they managed to tone him down a bit and making him less of a loud-mouth. Perhaps most of this was due to it being a silent film! This is one case where it's better when you can't hear the leading man!!
Today Spencer Tracy is looked upon as a sage contemplative man of
wisdom in regards to his film persona as husband, father and priest
over the decades. In the Show -Off Tracy becomes one of the many
characters that would try his calm patience in the years to come.
J. Aubrey Piper is a lowly railroad office employee who freely gives vent to all who will listen or are in ear shot to his delusions of grandeur. After inadvertently becoming a hero by falling off a boat to save a drowning man he hooks up with Amy Fisher (Madge Evans) who believes in him even if her family (and you can't blame them) doesn't. J. Aubrey continues to make a mess of things though and loses his job and Amy leaves him while J A is now reduced to wearing a sandwich board advertising turkey dinners.
Tracy's Piper possesses a huge ego that fails to see the error of his ways in the most glaring of circumstances. He's so abrasive, annoying and audacious at times that you just want someone to slap some sense into him. Spence goes a little over the top at times but it's when chastened and free of mania that we see the performer that would go on to be as respected as any film actor of his era bring the audience to his side. The prolific Clara Blandick (she'd appear in 10 films in 1934) as the disapproving mother provides a perfect foil for Piper with cutting one liners and withering facial expressions.
Overall The Show-Off is a mild comedy with a thin story line but it does offer an energetic performance from Spencer Tracy seldom seen in a man with the cinema gravitas of Mount Rushmore.
Studio hacks didn't come any hackier than Charles Reisner, and his inept editing, mise-en-scene (how many useless reaction shots can one programmer contain?), and pacing almost sink this adaptation of a hit stage comedy-drama by George Kelly, uncle of Grace. A prosaic screenplay, surprisingly by Herman Mankiewicz, doesn't help. And the title character, a tediously lying blowhard, wouldn't be interesting to watch if Spencer Tracy, at the beginning of a long and profitable association with MGM, weren't playing him. Tracy brings some variety and emotional ballast to this one-note braggart, whom you might expect to be played by that other MGM Tracy of the day, Lee. Spence even makes him--almost--sympathetic by the rather rushed fadeout. Madge Evans, near the end of her too-brief career, is a lovely and womanly leading lady--you buy the devotion between her and Tracy, though nothing about him seems to warrant it--and Clara Blandick gets lots of footage entertainingly grumping about. And it's hardly the finest moment for the great cinematographer James Wong Howe, but he does come up with a couple of arresting compositions, as well as some expert fakery of New York locations in the first reel.
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