Stars of Vaudeville #886: Lee Tracy
Today is the birthday of stage and screen actor Lee Tracy (1898-1968), best-known for a niche he carved out all for himself in Hollywood’s pre-code years, which was fast-talking and urban, but also goofy, awkward and shrill. He was usually cast as ambitious reporters, ambulance chasing lawyers, and pushy agents.
We unavoidably associate Tracy and his heedless rapid rhythms with New York, but the surprising fact is that he was originally from Atlanta, Georgia. After some time in college studying electrical engineering, followed by service in World War One, Tracy spent several years in vaudeville and acting with stock companies. His Broadway debut came in the original production of George Kelly’s The Show Off (1924), although surprisingly he didn’t portray the titular blow-hard Aubrey Piper, but his brother-in-law Joe. Broadway would continue to be a home to him for the rest of his career; he would appear in 15 productions over the next 40 years. His break-out role was as the original Hildy Johnson in the stage version of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page (1928-1929).
The fast-talking reporter role led to Hollywood (although ironically he was not cast in any of the screen versions of his most famous stage part). He was an odd duck by any measure, and it’s amazing he was ever as successful as he was, with his bad skin, doughy face, leering, rat-like eyes and squeaky voice. His first film was the quintessential vaudeville story Big Time (1929), in which he played a jerky comedian on his way down just as the career of his singer wife (Mae Clarke) starts to ignite. In 1930 he appeared in the husband-swapping comedy She Got What She Wanted with Betty Compson. In the horror film Doctor X (1930), he assumed a role peculiar to the pre-code years, somewhere in between “hero” and “comic relief”, a function he was uniquely suited to play (read the Mad Marchioness’s disdainful appraisal here. It was one of our first dates). He was perfectly cast in a part based on New York’s party-loving mayor Jimmy Walker in 1932’s The Night Mayor. The first starring role I ever saw him in was The Nuisance (1933), in which he played a personal injury lawyer who LITERALLY chases ambulances and hands out business cards at the scenes of accidents. He had a smaller supporting role in a much better known film as John Barrymore’s exasperated agent in Dinner at Eight (1933). And let’s not forget Jean Harlow’s publicist in Bombshell (1933).
After the mid 30s there was a cooling-off and work was much less frequent (an average of one or two films a year as opposed to several). This is attributable to changing tastes, although there is lore that Tracy was frequently in trouble with his studios for his irresponsible ways (according to one story he had insulted a crowd in Mexico during filming for Viva Villa in late 1933, resulting in a brief suspension and the interruption of his career momentum.) The most-oft repeated story is that he drunkenly urinated on a bunch of Mexican soldiers from a balcony during a parade, although that was understandably disputed.
TV was a frequent platform for him in the 1950s, and he starred in several series, The Amazing Mr. Malone (1951-1952), Martin Kane (1952-1953), and New York Confidential (1959). In his later years he was more heavy set and his rhythms were slower, more typical of his native Georgia. This transformation characterized his last big triumph, that of the Eisenhower-esque outgoing President in both the Broadway and Hollywood versions of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man (1960-61 and 1964, respectively). His last roles, both stage and screen, were in 1965.
For more on early film history see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
For more on show biz history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.