Blessed Event Horizon

“What a character!” proclaimed one of my students at the end of the screening of Roy Del Ruth’s BLESSED EVENT. I was hoping it’d affect them that way. Lee Tracy is a hero of mine, and in his first film he’s a dynamite figure. I’m following this movie with a showing of THE BEST MAN, Tracy’s final film, in which he completes his gallery of hucksters, grifters, baloney-merchants and sizzle-salesmen by playing a former president of those there United States of America.

Jenkins sees his future, and it is Dibble.

Also on hand in the movie are long-suffering secretary Ruth Donnelly (always a pleasure); Dick Powell (“He did one thing right,” said a student, “because every time he appeared I really wanted to punch him.”) — I amazed the class by telling them of Powell’s ’40s transformation into a grizzled tough guy; Allen Jenkins, combining the rasping whine of Officer Dibble with the waddle and watery eyes of a doomed chimp; Isabel Jewell (LOST HORIZON) is the emotional heart of the film, but doesn’t even rate a credit; Ned Sparks, the nasal drawl made flesh; Jack La Rue is an incompetent hitman, initially terrifying and ultimately hilarious, a surprisingly adept physical comic (his last big scene mainly requires him to be smacked repeatedly in the face).

“Ya recognize him?” Ned Sparks is asked.

“I won’t if you keep that up.”

La Rue (left) scents blood.

But Tracy is practically the whole show.  A barnstorming comedy turn, swooping around the frame and double-taking nineteen to the dozen, forcing laughs from a startled audience just by soaring up a couple of octaves, or breaking up words by adding vowels to consonants, as in the construction “Puh-lenty!” As I said, it’s interesting that he has a voice like Jiminy Cricket, since his character has no conscience.

Roy Del Ruth directs with the required pace, and a peculiar sense of camera blocking — shot sizes change sometimes at random, sometimes for very clear dramatic reasons. Ned Sparks is shot frontally several times, talking straight at us, but nobody else is. One semi-circular track around Tracy as he does his business on the telephone plays like a hint as to how this kind of thing might get shot thirty or forty years later.

One of my students was startled by the abruption of the film’s ending, which could be seen as leaving a lot of unfinished business: true, the hero has promised to perform a noble deed, but we don’t stick around to see him do it. I explained that the closing clinch is a major Hollywood tradition: the movies exist solely to bring a couple together, so once that’s achieved, any other business gets filed under “Mission Accomplished.”

“Did Warner Brothers also deal in music?” asked one shrewd patron, observing the multiple appearances of Dick Powell in terpsichorean rapture, interrupting the plot and extending one scene until it takes on the aspect of an unending waking nightmare. Yes, they did indeed.

Recently I also ran Lewis Milestone’s film of THE FRONT PAGE. This ought to have been Lee Tracy’s debut movie, since he originated the part of Hildy Johnson on Broadway, but Pat O’Brien, already established in Ho’wood, snagged the role. He does OK with it, but one can’t shake the feeling he’s cribbing from an audio recording of Tracy’s perf, following the timing to the exact millisecond, mimicking all Tracy’s tics and devices. Adolph Menjou is more relaxed as Machiavellian news editor Walter Burns, more charming than Walter Matthau’s version, far less so than Cary Grant’s. (Howard Hawks, uninterested in social commentary, didn’t mind de-fanging the character, but he kept the outrageousness for entertainment’s sake.)

The script suffers from padding produced by a mistaken desire to “open out” the play and illustrate the scenes which are merely described as offstage action in the Hecht-MacArthur play, and having seen these scenes played better in other, slicker versions, I only laughed once, at a fresh bit extrapolated from the play but not seen in any other movie adaptation ~

The escape of Earl Williams. Almost certainly Gustaf Von Seyffertitz’s best comedy moment. For a guy named Seyffertitz, he was surprisingly solemn.

Milestone directs at rapid pace, originating a lot of the fast cutting and overlapping dialogue we tend to credit to Howard Hawks’s remake. And he swings the camera about like a pre-code Scorsese, seriously exceeding the technicians’ ability to maintain stability and fluidity, tracking and panning and circling and swooping — the very first shot is a fast track-back from a gallows that’s being tested with flour sacks — Milestone shoots the camera move at about 12fps so as to create a really startling surge of energy.

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17 Responses to “Blessed Event Horizon”

  1. You got me all excited about The Blessed Event . . . and it doesn’t appear to be available on DVD over here. I guess I’ll have to plug it into my DVR and hope it turns up on Turner Classics or AMC sometime. It sounds fantastic.

  2. Blessed Event is a TCM favourite — I think once a year on Lee Tracy’s birthday may be the formula. It’s one of the best Warner pre-codes and really ought to be out on their DVD-R label.

    The Front Page is public domain, so easy to get but only in wretched copies.

  3. The other great Lee Tracy film is The Half-Naked Truth. Directed by Gregory LaCava, Tracy stars as a carnival barker who passes off a cooch dancer — Lupe Velez — as some sort of visiting royalty to a credulous, sensation-besotted press.

    Any resemblance between this film and late-breaking coverage of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, et. al. is ourely non-coincidental.

  4. Yes, THNT shows Tracy at his most aggressive (while he was gloriously typecast, he modifies his style somewhat for each role). I also like him in The Strange Love of Molly Louvain (entering halfway and hijacking both the movie and Ann Dvorak) and of course Dr X, both for Michael Curtiz.

  5. I wish I had the quote at hand but Gore Vidal was deeply moved by Tracy’s perfromance in The Best Man. He knew it was to be his last as he was on the verge of death, but executed it with such grace and wit.

  6. david wingrove Says:

    To my shame, I don’t recall Lee Tracy in THE BEST MAN…but Ann Sothern was sensational!

  7. One thing that struck me is how this is one of the longer Warner films of the era outside the Berkeley musicals, and yet it never plays slow. Tracy’s character is very aware he’s a skunk, but he’s also willing to pay for it (“Whatever she pulls, I got it coming”), which is rather novel in this day and age. As far as truncated endings, I notice a lot of Warner films weren’t much for long codas. Girl Missing was exactly the same: solution, quickie coda, the end.

  8. What’s surprising here is that the ending is only promised, never delivered. We have to take Tracy’s word for it that he’s now going to magic up a happy ending, and given his past record maybe the startled student didn’t feel quite ready to trust.

    Quick codas are GOOD: all codas should be speedy. If you need a long one, it just proves you didn’t wrap up your plot nicely enough.

    The Best Man:

    Ann Sothern was clearly enjoyed by the class. Her cool appraisal of Margaret Leighton was award-worthy. And Fonda’s “Oh my God — oh, Mrs Gammage!” was very nicely written/delivered.

    Lots of good older actors in the film (one thing politics is good for): Richard Arlen and Gene Raymond also.

  9. Hollywood never knew what it had in Ann Sothern. Yes the Maisies were wonderful (especially the Red Dust remake Congo Maisie) but she could sing too. And her touch with both comedy and drama is truly special.

  10. Yay, BLESSED EVENT! So many questions:

    Did Lee Tracy inspire Bugs Bunny? That loping pace, those gestures developing through enormous, almost independent hands, those pyjamas?

    I love that Dick Powell’s first role was a parody of an annoying Dick Powell type. Did any other actor begin his career that way?

    Does anyone see Edwin Maxwell and Jack La Rue in this as Sydney Greenstreet and Elisha Cook avant la lettre?

    Incidentally, it’s surprising how often pre-Code Jack La Rue characters turn out to be hopelessly inept. Whether involving a gun, a blackjack (as in THREE ON A MATCH), or a backhand (as in VIRTUE), every action has a corresponding reaction, generally an apologetic wince or a despairing whimper. Which makes Edwin Maxwell’s gentle “This time, it’s important you don’t miss” retrospectively hilarious.

  11. I always felt that the way Tracy brainwashes Jenkins with fast-talk was equivalent to Bus Bunny leaping on Elmer’s back and Elmer immediately believing he’s a donkey. (Hanna-Barbera eventually realized Jankins was a cartoon in human form and emplyed him.) I guess I always believed them when they said Bugs’ lope came from Groucho, and it does seem to be a deliberate reference in early toons.

    Tracy seems to be genuinely as bandy-legged as Jimmy Stewart, so it’s just possible HE influenced Groucho (Groucho is putting it on somewhat, Tracy is just THERE) who influenced Bugs.

    Maybe that’s why La Rue never became huge: he evoked incompetence too well?

  12. La Rue is hilarious when Robert Emmet O’Connor smacks him around, staggering just enough and looking affronted. I was also amused to find Tom Dugan as the most sarcastic of the other reporters.

  13. Tony Williams Says:

    I’ve only seen THE BEST MAN once decades ago but Tracy’s performance still remains in my mind.

    Who could forget this line?

    “Mr. President, meeting you is the greatest day in my life.”
    “Well, for you, it must be!” (or words to that effect)

  14. Oh, Shelley Berman is fabulous too. Surprising he can get away with being so broadly comedic in the presence of Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson, but I think it works.

  15. Tracy’s character is of course based on a young Walter Winchell. I’ve always thought Blessed Event would make a great double feature with Sweet Smell of Success. That’s your real ending to Event.

  16. Can’t quite picture Alvin Roberts turning into JJ Hunsecker, although in some respects he’s already a bit of a monster. I guess we’d speculate that he stayed with his column to try and do good, and the power got to him. Thirty years later he’s hopelessly corrupt…

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