|Blessed Event (1932)
Run time: 80 min
Genres: Drama | Comedy
Director: Roy Del Ruth
Writers: Howard J. Green, Forrest Wilson
Stars: Lee Tracy, Mary Brian, Dick Powell
Great Fun! Lee Tracy’s reporter has him as a Walter Winchell prototype, whose spicy gossip column makes him famous but gets him in hot water! Dick Powell’s film debut, as a crooner.
Release Date: 10 September 1932 (USA)
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Lee Tracy is one of the lost joys of the pre-Code era. He mostly played newspapermen (he was Hildy Johnson in the original Broadway production of The Front Page) with a sideline in press agents, and whatever his racket he epitomized the brash, fast-talking, crafty, stop-at-nothing operator. He makes Cagney look bashful, skating around in perpetual, delirious overdrive, gesticulating and spitting out his lines like an articulate machine-gun, wheedling and needling and swearing on his mother's life as he lies through his teeth. He was homely and scrawny, with a raspy nasal voice, and he always played cocky, devious scoundrels, yet you find yourself rooting for him and reveling in his sheer energy and shameless moxie. Audiences of the early thirties loved his snappy style and irrepressible irreverence; they loved him because he was nobody's fool. He's a rare example of a character actorthat guy who always plays reporterswho through force of personality, and the luck of embodying the zeitgeist, had a brief reign as a star.
In BLESSED EVENT he plays Alvin Roberts, a character based so closely on Walter Winchell that Winchell could have sued–but he probably loved it. When we first meet Alvin, he's a lowly kid from the ad department who has been given a chance to sub for a gossip columnist and gotten in trouble for filling the column with dirtprimarily announcements of who is "anticipating a blessed event" without the proper matrimonial surroundings. Soon he's become an all-powerful celebrity and made scores of enemies, including a gangster willing to bump him off to shut him up. There's a subplot about Alvin's ongoing feud with a smarmy crooner, Bunny Harmon, played by Dick Powell. Anyone who finds Powell in his crooning days repellent will appreciate Tracy's merciless vendetta. Actually, I think Powell is being deliberately irritating hereeven in Busby Berkeley films he's not so egregiously perky and fey. He does sing one good song, "Too Many Tears" (a theme throughout the film), and a wonderfully witless radio jingle for "Shapiro's Shoes."
Alvin's standard greeting is, "What do you know that I don't?" The answer is nothingat least not for long. But he's surrounded by worthy foils. Ruth Donnelly is both tart and peppery as Alvin's harried secretary ("You want to see Mr. Roberts? Oh, you want to sue Mr. Roberts. The line forms on the left.") Allen Jenkins, who keeps saying he's from Chicago even though his Brooklyn accent could be cut with a steak knife, plays a mug sent by his gangster boss to threaten Roberts. In a mind-blowing scene, Alvin terrifies the tough guy with a graphic, horrifying description of death in the electric chair. Tracy plays this monologue with unholy gusto; if you're not opposed to the death penalty, you will be after this. There's a funny scene in which Jenkins has to pass time with Alvin's sweet, clueless mother, who is continually thwarted in her desire to listen to the Bunny Harmon Hour on the radio. The usual suspects fill out the cast, those character actors whose very predictability is their glory: Ned Sparks the perennial gloomy pickle-puss; Frank McHugh the perennial hapless nebbish; Jack La Rue the perennial menacing hoodlum. Director Roy Del Ruth (who also helmed the wildly entertaining BLONDE CRAZY) keeps BLESSED EVENT going like a popcorn-maker; the sly, outrageous zingers just keep coming.
Lee Tracy's career never recovered after he was fired from MGM for a drunken indiscretion committed in Mexico. But I doubt he could have lasted long as a star after the Code anyway, since his films are gleefully amoral, frequently demonstrating that crimeor at least lying, cheating and riding roughshod over other people's feelingspays. Every Lee Tracy vehicle contains a moment when he realizes he's gone too far, usually when the girl he fancies bursts into tears and tells him off. (Here he crosses the line in a big way when he betrays a desperate young woman who begs him not to reveal her pregnancy.) He looks suddenly abashed, protesting, "Gee, if I'd known you felt that way I'd give anything not to have done that Baby, sugar, listen !" But two second later he's back to his old scheming ways. A reformed Lee Tracy would be like Fred Astaire with arthritis. Not that he isn't a good guy deep down well, maybe. He has charm, anyway: an impish grin and twinkly eyes and boyish blond hair, like Tom Sawyer crossed with a Tammany Hall fixer. His reactions to sentimentalityto Dick Powell's cloying tenor or Franchot Tone in BOMBSHELL telling Jean Harlow he'd like to run barefoot through her hairare delicious. He's salt and vinegar, no sweetening. In BLESSED EVENT Alvin has a fit when an editorial calls him the "nadir" of American journalism. Lee Tracy, on the other hand, represents is the zenith of the American newspaper movie.
This isn’t the first time I’ve raved about Roy del Ruth’s Warners work prior to the emergence of the Hays Office, but it needs to be restated: few directors had as sure a hand with fast-paced, cynical comedy as Del Ruth. And, when teamed with the equally forgotten (and equally inspired) comedian Lee Tracy, what results is one of the best comedies of the 30s, as funny and audacious today as then. Tracy (who came West to Hollywood after originating the Hildy Johnson role in THE FRONT PAGE on Broadway) was the wisecrack-slinger all others are measured against; here he’s so good, so inspired at mixing verbal and physical comedy, you’ll be wondering how it’s possible his career didn’t soar for 25 years. (Besides his heavy drinking, which couldn’t have helped him, he earned the wrath of Louis B Mayer during the shooting of VIVA VILLA by urinating on the Mexican army from his hotel balcony, effectively ending his career as a leading man. Or so the legend has it.) This is probably his best film, playing a Winchell-like columnist named Alvin Roberts, and Tracy plays him with such cheerful unscrupulousness you might almost forgot what a rat the real Winchell was. But this is pre-Code Warners, where even an unprincipled cur could be a hero so long as he scraped bottom with zest and pluck; don’t be surprised at the many one-liners and situations that would become taboo in three years time: abortions, adultery, homosexuality and ethnicity are all fair game for BLESSED EVENT’s satirical arrows, and only an insufferable prude would stifle his laughter. Not until Preston Sturges played chicken with the Hays Office in the early 40s would such darkly funny farce be allowed on the screen again. Keep an eye out for this one and prepare to become a Lee Tracy fan for life. As usual, Del Ruth’s direction is dead on the money, while never calling attention to itself.
A brash tabloid columnist turns his BLESSED EVENT style of gossip mongering into a sensation, but creates many enemies along the way.
This is the film that made Lee Tracy an authentic movie star – the role and the actor were perfect for each other. For the next couple of years Tracy would specialize in fast talking shyster lawyers, agents, reporters & flimflam men. In the process, he became one of the most enjoyable performers of the era, always fresh & entertaining. However, after misbehaving in Mexico while under contract to MGM, he would be banished to the Poverty Row studios to continue acting in minor films. Today, regrettably, he is almost forgotten.
But in pre-Code BLESSED EVENT Tracy is at the top of his form: exasperating, maddeningly irritating & wonderfully funny. Warner Brothers gives him an excellent supporting cast to bounce off of – acerbic Ned Sparks as a disgruntled tabloid reporter; peppy Frank McHugh as an overeager publicity agent; porcine Edwin Maxwell as a nasty gangster; and Allen Jenkins as a softhearted criminal (his electric chair’ scene with Tracy is a classic).
Boyish Dick Powell, in his film debut, seems an odd choice to play Tracy’s nemesis, but there’s no doubt about his charm & fine singing style, both of which would soon make him a major movie star.
Mary Brian is lovely as Tracy’s girlfriend & Emma Dunn is sweet as his mother, but each tends to be a bit smothered by Tracy’s oversized personality. His true co-star is tart-tongued Ruth Donnelly as his secretary. No slacker in slinging the dialogue around, she’s able to match Tracy line for line.
Movie mavens will recognize Charles Lane as a reporter; Isabel Jewell, terrific as a much-abused showgirl; and hilarious Herman Bing as a chef – all of them uncredited.
Fast paced and very clever Lee Tracy vehicle playing a Walter W. type gossip columnist with a grudge against "crooners"generally and one in particular played by Dick Powell. Definitely precode with dialogue and subject matter that would have been totally rejected just a few years later. One scene culminates in a phrase spoken by Tracy’s"mother" containg a word that rocked the film world at the end of Gone With the Wind. Among other wonderful sequences watch for Tracy’s evocation of a trip to the "hot seat", and Dick Powell’s rendition of a singing commercial extolling the qualities of"Shapiro’s Shoes". With Shapiro himeself beaming at his side. Do catch this film also a similar effort also with Tracey "The Half Naked Truth".