Watching this film, you can't help but wonder where Raymond Burr was hiding.
This somewhat dull courtroom drama feels like an hour-long Perry Mason episode, with Linda Hayes in the inevitable "Della Street" role to provide a modicum of romantic interest for the aging leading man, Lee Tracy. The plot is not worth describing; what I did find interesting that immediately after a series of amusing second features in which Tracy played youthful wise-acre roles similar to those in his Pre-Code heyday (such as "Crashing Hollywood" and "Wanted: Jane Turner"), Tracy has abruptly aged into a staid middle-aged character actor. (Interestingly he made this movie right after his return to Hollywood and his honeymoon in pre-war Europe with his bride, Helen Thomas, a former insurance agent.) In any case, he turns in a great performance- suiting the role, it's more mature and nuanced than usual, and it transcends the mediocre script. It's also intriguing to see Mr. Tracy playing a father, which was not something he did that often.
For the first five minutes of this Lee Tracy vehicle it looks like we're in for The Nuisance Part II, which would be a thing of unquestionable greatness. Cast familiarly as a shifty lawyer, the great man is running rings around his rivals in the courtroom, with the aid of a bunch of actors posing as his client's desperate family. Then Patric Knowles (memorable as a would-be media mogul in Four's a Crowd) turns up in Tracy's office and the film suddenly shifts into soap opera. Telling us that he's about to snuff out his auditor, Knowles blackmails Tracy into fashioning his defence, then starts sniffing around the shyster's daughter. What a rotter.
Tracy could make anything look good and while he's some way off his irresistible peak here – occasionally looking uncomfortable spouting the kind of piousness his characters usually spent their time puncturing – he's never less than compelling. Unfortunately the material is at once predictable and contrived, with a climactic shift into melodrama that seems to have been conceived by Jean-Jacques Rousseau's little brother. Agreeably, if not credibly, the uncertain narrative does allow for some lurches back into comedy which, while at odds with the main story, are generally much more entertaining. Tracy's scene with his "guardian" is very funny and Chester Clute offers amusing support as the world's worst prosecution witness.
The film is notable amongst Tracy's films in casting him as a father, just the second of 22 I've seen where he played a dad, and the first giving him a (possibly) grown-up kid. Barbara Read, who was one of the Three Smart Girls in the classic musical-comedy, is of indeterminate age as the daughter. In his desk photo she looks 25; at school she looks about 14, but since she then shacks up with Knowles, I'm guessing she's not. The actress herself was a fresh-faced, faintly cross-eyed 22. If you're a Tracy fan worried about his lesser performance here, rest assured: he was probably just cross to be back at work after his European honeymoon. The star returned to his whizz-bang comic showboating soon afterwards in the super crime comedy The Payoff.
The appeal of this movie will depend on your response to the matching up of decent production values with a B script. Lee Tracy is a defense counsel who is so effective in summing up his client's innocence that the client himself is lost in a flood of genuine tears. Add to that, the impact of the sweet old wife and the seven children and, well, who could resist a plea of "not guilty," without knowing that the loving wife was well paid and the seven children were gathered at random from the sidewalks and who, before leaving Tracey's office after the trial, snarl that they're not being paid enough.
But if Tracy is smarmy, one of his clients, the murderer (Patrick Knowles, Will Scarlet in "The Adventures of Robin Hood") is even smarmier. Knowles arranges the situation so that it looks as if he's paid the unwitting Tracey to defend him, even before the murder. That would make Tracey guilty of aiding and abetting, duplicity in the crime, and being a tall, gangly person. On top of that, Knowles has the effrontery to court and marry the daughter that Tracey loves dearly.
I admit to not getting all the dynamics in the plot. How can Knowles cut a check for thousands of dollars made out to Tracey, walk into Tracey's bank, and deposit the money? Wouldn't Tracey notice the slight increase in his account? And I still don't get the motive behind Knowles' pretending to love Tracy's daughter and then marrying her. What kind of added protection does that give him? If Tracey spills the beans, his career is ruined, but does that seriously affect his beloved daughter? I don't think I want to give away the ending. Let's just say that it requires all of Tracy's skills as a trial lawyer to get him out of hot water and into water that's just a bit too warm to be entirely comfortable.
It's not a bad story, despite those holes. Lee Tracy is an interesting actor, not so much because of his thespian skills. He sounds like any number of 30s second-tier actors, his voice a nasal growl. It's his physical presence. He flips and whirls. He gestures idiosyncratically, but not to command the screen. It seems to emerge naturally from his God-given, graceful, kinesic DNA. Cary Grant could do the same sort of thing in a comic role. And Ray Bolger.
"The Spellbinder" is a short film starring Lee Tracy and Patric Knowles. Tracy plays Jed Marlowe, a clever attorney who is expert at getting guilty people found not guilty. One of his clients, Dixon (Patric Knowles), comes to him and says that he has to kill his accountant, who knows too much about his shady bookkeeping. Tracy wants no part of it. When the accountant dies, it appears to be an accident, but the man was tripped by Knowles and fell.
When Tracy's daughter (Barbara Read) comes home for a visit from school, she starts to date Dixon without her father's knowledge. When he finds out, it's too late. They're getting married.
It's always bad when a short film seems like Lawrence of Arabia, and this is one. It's not very exciting. The acting, though, is okay.