When people think of fast-talking, hard-boiled, no-nonsense reporters they think of Hildy Johnson and Walter Burns in His Girl Friday; the charming Bill Chandler in Libeled Lady; Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in All The President’s Men.
But for this film fan, the ultimate fast-talking, no-price-is-too-high (or cheap) reporter ever brought to screen are the incarnations of Lee Tracy.
Lee Tracy forged his footprint in film as the quintessential hard-nosed newspaperman. He’s the original Hildy Johnson (portraying the newsman in His Girl Friday‘s initial run on Broadway) and is the press agent who scandalized Jean Harlow’s sex life in the marvelous Bombshell. But for me, Tracy’s definitive role is as the gossip rag wunderkind Alvin Roberts in Roy Del Ruth’s snappy 1932 comedy Blessed Event.
Roberts is a send-up of gossip columnist Walter Winchell, but in actuality he is the Harvey Levin of 1932. On cocaine. TMZ ain’t got nothin’ on this guy. And I mean nothin‘. Wisecracking, hard-nosed, and thoroughly unimpressed by celebrity, Roberts hijacks a column at his newspaper in the absence of its vacationing author (the wonderful Ned Sparks) and commences a reign of terror on the Manhattan upper crust with a salacious gossip column that specializes in announcing so-called “blessed events.” The supposedly expectant mothers are either unmarried, mistresses, or philandering cougars … no one in New York is safe with Alvin Roberts at the dictaphone.
It’s a dirty line of work which has earned him plenty of enemies from the underworld–a hitman from which (Allen Jenkins) is put on assignment to case Roberts’ every move, only to become the the masterfully manipulative Jenkins’ personal stoolie. New York’s most popular radio star, Bunny Harmon (Dick Powell) is also a powerful nemesis; Roberts uses his column to relentlessly poke fun at the crooner. Dick Powell, fresh faced in his film debut, is a marvelous composite of his future self: he is at once the charming crooner of the Gold Digger variety, as well as the hard-boiled film noir bad boy of his later career: Bunny Harmon sounds sweet, but is far from safe.
But the absolute star of the show is Lee Tracy. In a deliriously manic performance that goes from zero to 60 and never loses speed, Tracy is the perfect actor for Del Ruth’s rapid-fire direction. In one sequence, he delivers a three minute speech to Allen Jenkins, and slowly blackmails him by describing the gruesome details of death by the electric chair, warning him that it will be his fate unless the hapless hit man plays on his side. It’s a magnetic moment, and the viewer is just as swallowed up by the act as Jenkins. Tracy’s Alvin Roberts stands out from other heartless newspapermen in films of the era (and there were plenty–Five Star Final, Front Page Girl, and, of course, The Front Page) because this guy truly doesn’t have a heart. He’s crude, rude, calculating and opportunistic. When one of his victims pleads for him not to print the gossip that has been circulating about her, as the news of her unwanted pregnancy will destroy her career, Tracy swears to her that he will keep mum…and promptly phones in the story. There is a brief moment when he pauses, as if to listen to a nagging angel on his shoulder, but he immediately shrugs it off, pleased as punch with himself.
Alvin Roberts is probably the least likable person one can possibly imagine, and yet Lee Tracy turns this shameless headhunter into a vastly entertaining character; an indefatigable whirlwind who fires off sharp, cutting, often hilarious one-liners like a charging locomotive. He is a selfish bastard…and somehow we love him for it. Even Tracy’s inevitable reformation is selfish. Quitting the rag game is the only way to get the girl of his dreams– played by a very pretty and very boring Mary Brian. She is a yawn-inducing prude, and her stilted, wooden delivery slows down every scene she’s in. (Sassy, sexy Jean Harlow would make a much worthier opponent for Lee Tracy’s slimy press agent in 1933’s Bombshell.) Fortunately, Lee Tracy’s “girl Friday” is none other than ace character actress Ruth Donnelly, a dame every bit as acerbic as Tracy, and their scenes together are always a hoot.
The plot of the film may be predictable, but its execution is not. Roy Del Ruth directed some of the sexiest, tautest pre-codes (Employees Entrance, Blonde Crazy), and Blessed Event is yet another delicious treat. With its vigorous, whip-smart script, and Lee Tracy’s virtuosic performace, this is a must-see for pre-code film fans…and then some.
Blessed Event is available on DVD from the Warner Archive as well on Warner Archive Instant.