Alvin Roberts (Tracy) is working in the advertising department at a failing newspaper when he's assigned to cover the society column while the writer (Ned Sparks) is on vacation. He turns it into a down-and-dirty gossip column filled with innuendo, personal attacks and the occasional hard-hitting crime item. It also becomes the paper's new cash cow, so when Sparks comes back, he's shunted to writing pet news, while Tracy inherits his job and his secretary (Ruth Donnelly, who almost matches him for spitting out wisecracks). Tracy's feud with boy singer Dick Powell, in his film debut, is more good copy. But when he takes on a mob leader and then reveals one Blessed Event too many, it sets the stage for the film's climax.
This kind of film -- with its cynical view of American institutions, freewheeling approach to sexuality and jokes about ethnic groups and even homosexuality -- was typical of the early talking pictures made before the arrival of strict Production Code enforcement in 1935. With the Depression and the growing popularity of radio cutting into film attendance, one way the studios drew audiences back to theatres was by presenting more adult materials. Tracy was the perfect star for such films. His comic timing, honed through years of stage work, could make any joke funny, while his fast-talking, tough-guy persona was ideal for the cynicism of these pre-Code features. Most notable in Blessed Event is the scene in which he first blackmails and then browbeats mob hit man Allen Jenkins into becoming his bodyguard. He whips through a speech on the horrors of the electric chair, even showing the bootleg image of Ruth Snyder's execution, material that would have been verboten after Production Code enforcement. But then, the Code would not have allowed a charmingly amoral character like Tracy's Alvin to make it to the final fade out without changing his ways. It's little wonder Tracy has become the male star most closely associated with that period.
Del Ruth was also a fixture of pre-Code films, though his career would continue until 1960. He cut his teeth as a writer and director for Mack Sennett, giving him a sure sense of how to time a gag and a quick-paced style that fit Warner Bros. perfectly. After scoring hits with the studio's first two-color Technicolor features, including The Desert Song and Gold Diggers of Broadway (both 1929), he directed some of the films that set the Warner's house style in the '30s. His approach was perfect for actors like Tracy and James Cagney, whom he directed in Blonde Crazy (1931), Taxi! (1932) and Lady Killer (1933). He had a deft hand at couching adult materials within his fast-paced films, as in the first screen adaptation of The Maltese Falcon (1931).
The stage version of Blessed Event had enjoyed a three-month run on Broadway with Roger Pryor as Alvin, Lee Patrick as his girlfriend and Jenkins and Isabel Jewell in the parts they would play on screen. Jenkins, in his first credited feature role as the mob hit man blackmailed into becoming Tracy's bodyguard, would go on to become a mainstay at Warner Bros. with a tough but amiable personality that fit into gangster films, comedies and even musicals (he was one of the stagehands in 1933's 42nd Street). Other members of the Warner Bros. stock company featured include boy tenor Powell, just a year before reaching stardom in 42nd Street, Donnelly, perfect as tart-tongued secretaries and nagging wives, Sparks, the ultimate cigar-chomping sour face and Frank McHugh, usually cast as good-natured, lower-class bumblers.
Though not credited, Jewell made her feature debut with a memorable performance as the heartbroken but emotionally volatile nightclub singer. The legacy of the film was a longtime relationship with Tracy. They even announced their engagement at one point, though the relationship eventually fell apart. MGM was Jewell's home studio for a while, and they paid her very well even though she was mostly assigned to supporting roles, typed as a tough-talking blonde. Her most memorable roles included the manipulator upsetting Gladys George's happy family in Valiant Is the Word for Carrie (1936), the prostitute in Lost Horizon (1937), Emmy Slattery in Gone With the Wind (1939) the fortune teller in The Leopard Man (1943) and, in a change-of-pace, the doomed seamstress in A Tale of Two Cities (1935).
Director: Roy Del Ruth
Screenplay: Howard Green
Based on the play by Forrest Wilson, Manuel Seff Cinematography: Sol Polito
Score: Frank Marsales
Cast: Lee Tracy (Alvin Roberts), Mary Brian (Gladys Price), Dick Powell (Bunny Harmon), Allen Jenkins (Frankie Wells), Ruth Donnelly (Miss Stevens), Emma Dunn (Mrs. Roberts), Edwin Maxwell (Sam Gobel), Ned Sparks (George Moxley), Frank McHugh (Reilly), Herman Bing (Emil - The Head Chef), George Chandler (Henson), Isabel Jewell (Dorothy Lane), Jack La Rue (Louis De Marco), Charles Lane (Kane)
By Frank Miller