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James Stewart was shocked when he first saw himself on screen in The Murder Man (1935), his film debut. "I was all arms and legs," he said. "I didn't seem to know what to do with them." However, at least one critic, from The New York Herald Tribune, noticed the talent and remembered Stewart from his stage work, writing, "That admirable stage juvenile, James Stewart, who was so fine in Yellow Jack, is wasted in a bit that he handles with characteristically engaging skill."
The Murder Man is a brisk B-movie, remembered not only as James Stewart's debut but as Spencer Tracy's first film under his MGM contract. A year earlier, Tracy had appeared in an MGM picture called The Show-Off on a loanout from Fox. MGM production chief Irving Thalberg liked what he saw and signed the 35-year-old actor to a new contract. Tracy's first MGM film was to be Riffraff (1936), opposite Jean Harlow. But when that picture was temporarily postponed, the studio put Tracy to work immediately on The Murder Man, a modest programmer shot in three weeks.
In it, Tracy plays a rugged, slap-happy newspaper reporter who specializes in homicide cases and is so good at his work that he routinely solves cases before the cops can. When two crooked financiers ruin Tracy's father and cause the suicide of his estranged wife, Tracy plans the perfect crime as his revenge. It was a solid beginning for Tracy at MGM - he would remain at the studio for 20 years.
As for Stewart, when he arrived from New York on the MGM lot, The Murder Man was already in production, though his role - a cub reporter named "Shorty" - had not yet been cast. Given Stewart's 6'3", 138-pound frame, the part was an obvious sight gag. Producer Harry Rapf first rejected the idea (he wanted a dwarf for the role), but eventually MGM casting director Bill Grady made Rapf see the humor of it. And so Stewart made his debut as a gangling, enthusiastic young newshound with an inappropriate nickname.
Stewart later recalled, "I signed a contract with MGM without even looking at it - it was impossible to read. The contract was for three months. I found out later that it was one of those contracts with an option for a further three months and so on. In other words, they got you for life. Mine was terminated by the war. Not that I wanted to get away. It was great fun." (Actually, the maximum length of the contract was for seven years.)
Stewart and Tracy began a lifelong friendship on this set, and Tracy offered Stewart his first film acting advice. "I told him to forget the camera was there," said Tracy. "That was all he needed. In his very first scene he showed he had all the good things."
It would be three months before Stewart was assigned another film at MGM. To fill the time, the studio had him hit the gym. But Stewart also found time to take flying lessons. He learned to fly solo and later used to fly to his home in Pennsylvania, following railroad tracks as navigation.
Producer: Harry Rapf
Director: Tim Whelan
Screenplay: Tim Whelan, Guy Bolton (story), John C. Higgins
Cinematography: Lester White
Film Editing: James E. Newcom
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: William Axt
Cast: Spencer Tracy (Steve Grey), Virginia Bruce (Mary Shannon), Lionel Atwill (Police Capt. Cole), Harvey Stephens (Henry Mander), Robert Barrat (Hal Robins).
BW-69m. Closed captioning.
by Jeremy Arnold