If any one actor is emblematic of the early years of talking pictures, it's Lee Tracy. As one of the fastest mouths in the West, he helped usher in sound with a dazzling cascade of words, many of them the product of writers quickly imported from the worlds of theatre, radio and burlesque to fill the new medium's need for spoken dialogue. All that dialogue required experienced actors to bring it to life, making stage-trained performers like Tracy a necessity. But these writers also brought a tougher viewpoint than had been seen in the more romantic silent era. And Tracy had the hard edge, even in comedy, to capture their more cynical, hard-nosed view of life and the stronger subject matter on display in the years before strict Production Code enforcement.
The Atlanta native was born in 1898 and relocated to New York with his family at an early age, studying engineering at Union College. He was about to give that up to join a theatre company when the U.S. entered World War I, and he joined the Army. In the post-war period, he went to work for the Treasury Department, but the lure of the stage was too strong and he started appearing in vaudeville and working on tour. Then he had the good fortune to make his Broadway bow in a hit, George Kelly's The Show Off, in which he played the leading man's inventor brother. Tracy quickly made a name for himself on stage with back-to-back successes as a song-and-dance man mixed up with gangsters in Phillip Dunning and George Abbott's Broadway and as Hildy Johnson, the fast-talking reporter in Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's The Front Page. But he was also developing a reputation of another kind -- for heavy drinking and temperamental outbursts.
Nonetheless, he was among the flood of stage talent imported to Hollywood with the dawn of the talking picture era. He first signed with Fox, where he made an unbilled debut as a radio announcer in the football drama Salute (1929), starring George O'Brien and Helen Chandler. Then he moved to top billing for his first credited film, the vaudeville drama Big Time (1929). His best role at Fox was the gangster who gets Charles Farrell killed in Liliom (1930), the non-musical version of the play that would become Carousel. After a year, however, Tracy had tired of Fox and moved on to Warner Bros.
Warner Bros. was the perfect setting for Tracy, with its realistic, timely stories and rat-a-tat dialogue. He made seven films there in 1932, starting with The Strange Love of Molly Louvain. Although he got to play a reporter, the real focus of the film is Ann Dvorak, a fallen woman if ever there was one. Made in the confessional style so popular in the pre-Code days, the film follows Dvorak through a youthful indiscretion, illegitimate pregnancy and marriage to a small-time hood who tricks her into a life of crime. Tracy got behind the news desk again in Love Is a Racket, but only in a supporting role as Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.'s fellow reporter, with both caught up in the murder of gangster Lyle Talbot. In Doctor X he was the wisecracking reporter who cracks the case of a cannibalistic serial killer. Made to cash in on the success of Universal's horror classics Dracula and Frankenstein (both 1931), the film combined their sense of lurking, gothic menace with a more American setting, with Tracy's performance an essential part of that mix. Perhaps his best vehicle there was Blessed Event (1932), as a Broadway gossip columnist based on Walter Winchell. Among the victims of his barbed pen are crooner Dick Powell, in his big-screen debut, gangster Edwin Maxwell and pregnant nightclub singer Isabel Jewell.
After leaving Warner's, Tracy freelanced briefly, landing at RKO for The Half Naked Truth (1932), which gave him his other great on-screen profession -- publicity man. His job is to turn sideshow dancer Lupe Velez into a Broadway star, as long as he can keep all of his lies straight. Then, Tracy moved to MGM, surprisingly finding some pretty strong roles at Hollywood's House of Glamour. His first MGM film cast him as, what else, a reporter. Clear All Wires! (1933) proved the studio could match any other in Hollywood in producing a fast-paced newspaper yarn. This time Tracy's an international correspondent whose unscrupulous methods put him out of a job and land him in a Moscow prison.
Seeking to re-capture the all-star magic of Grand Hotel (1932), producer David O. Selznick cast Tracy alongside John Barrymore, Jean Harlow, Wallace Beery, Lionel Barrymore and Marie Dressler in an adaptation of the hit stage comedy Dinner at Eight (1933), directed by George Cukor. Tracy was ideally cast as Max Kane, the theatrical agent of faded star Larry Renault (John Barrymore), who ultimately turns on his star after one-too-many insults and disappointments. Even with a star-making turn by Jean Harlow, Dressler's irrepressible scene stealing and Barrymore's moving suicide scene, Tracy held his own.
Tracy is almost the entire show in Turn Back the Clock (1933), as a humble shop owner who gets the chance to do it all over again when he goes back in time to the moment when he could have married into money. Then he got his other great MGM role, as a studio publicity man who courts blonde Bombshell (1933) Harlow by circulating scandalous rumors about her and getting in the middle of her romances with other men. Under Victor Fleming's direction, the two stars seem to be competing to see who can spit out the John Lee Mahin-Jules Furthman screenplay faster, which makes for a rollicking good time.
The good times started getting in the way of Tracy's career at that point. His reputation for hard drinking and bad temper had grown significantly over the years. He was cast as a reporter covering Pancho Villa's escapades in Viva Villa! (1934), but during location shooting his behavior triggered an international scandal. Whether, as some sources report, he became drunk and urinated on a military parade, or, as others suggest, he was simply involved in an exchange of obscene gestures he did not initiate, he was fired from the film along with director Howard Hawks, who took his side in the matter (they were replaced by actor Stu Erwin and director Jack Conway). In addition, the studio canceled Tracy's contract. The one beneficiary of the event was Spencer Tracy, whose heavy drinking had just cost him his contract at Fox. MGM hired him to fill the spot left vacant by Tracy's absence, setting the stage for his rise to major stardom.
Tracy worked without a studio contract from then on, though the quality of his films began to slide. In the first of several pictures for RKO, he with Gloria Stuart played a pair of postal investigators in Wanted: Jane Turner (1936). The studio then cast him as a Criminal Lawyer (1937) who tries to break free of his past associates to become district attorney. They sent him Behind the Headlines (1937) as a radio reporter out to save his former girlfriend from kidnappers. As a screenwriter in Crashing Hollywood (1938), he hires ex-con Paul Guilfoyle to help him write authentic gangster films, which brings the mob down on their heads. He got at least a bit of MGM when RKO borrowed their child star Virginia Weidler to play a circus orphan he helps out as Fixer Dugan (1939). It was back to court for The Spellbinder (1939) as an unscrupulous criminal lawyer whose daughter marries the killer he's just gotten off. And he finished his tenure at RKO as a convict who takes four Millionaires in Prison (1940) under his wing.
Pretty much finished with Hollywood, Tracy returned to the stage, scoring a personal hit in the London company of Robert E. Sherwood's Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy-drama Idiot's Delight, in the role originally played by Alfred Lunt. He also managed to clean up his act and make a go of his marriage to Helen Thomas Wyse, a young woman outside the worlds of film and theatre. During this period, he only made sporadic returns to the screen, mostly in low-budget films like RKO's Betrayal from the East (1945) in which he plays a double agent before World War II, torn between his Japanese handler, Philip Ahn, and beautiful woman of mystery Nancy Kelly. After a visit to Monogram for High Tide (1947), he dropped out of the movies for 17 years.
That was hardly idle time for Tracy. He continued active on stage, starring in revivals of The Show Off, this time in the leading role, and Idiot's Delight. But television was his real bread and butter. He guested in numerous series and even starred in three of his own, as a sophisticated criminal lawyer in The Amazing Mr. Malone, as the famous private eye in Martin Kane and as a crusading reporter in New York Confidential.
There was one more great role waiting for him. When Gore Vidal put his thoughts about presidential politics into his play The Best Man, Tracy won the role of former present Arthur Hockstader, loosely based on Harry S. Truman. He was a natural as the plain-talking liberal leader and won a Tony nomination for his performance. When the play was filmed in 1964, he was the only original cast member in the film, alongside Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson. He earned an Oscar® nomination for Best Supporting actor, but lost to Peter Ustinov in Topkapi.
Tracy finished his career with a trio of TV guest shots, bowing out after appearing on an episode of the medical drama Ben Casey. He passed away from liver cancer in 1968 at the age of 70, leaving the world a drabber, somewhat slower place.
TCM's Summer Under the Stars pays tribute to Lee Tracy with 17 films -- Blessed Event (1932), Doctor X (1932), Love Is a Racket (1932), The Strange Love of Molly Louvain (1932), Bombshell (1933), Clear All Wires! (1933), Dinner at Eight (1933), The Half Naked Truth (1932), Turn Back the Clock (1933), Wanted: Jane Turner (1936), Behind the Headlines (1937), Criminal Lawyer (1937), Crashing Hollywood (1938), Fixer Dugan (1939), The Spellbinder (1939), Millionaires in Prison (1940) and Betrayal from the East (1945).
Cast (Feature Film)
Broadway debut in "The Show Off"
Film debut, "Big Time"