An extra folded into Film Forum’s all-35mm, month-long celebration of “The Newspaper Picture” (April 9 through May 6) celebrates the brashest, cleverest motor-mouth newshound to ever slang a source or elbow his way through the urban jungle: Lee Tracy (1898–1968).
A skinny, feral actor with slicked back hair, a shamelessly self-satisfied smirk and a foghorn bray, Tracy was born to pound on a typewriter and brandish a candlestick telephone. He was the original Hildy Johnson in the 1928 Broadway production of The Front Page; denied that role in Hollywood, he made an indelible impression as the conceited sob-sister (“a reporter with an agent”) who appears in the midst of the 1932 Warner Bros. melodrama, The Strange Love of Molly Louvain, and, thanks to his spectacularly cynical banter with seduced and abandoned “tinsel girl” Ann Dvorak, takes over the picture.
Tracy was cast as a similarly wisecracking, quick-thinking, face-pulling journalist in another Michael Curtiz production, Doctor X, and as an assistant to nightlife scribe Douglas Fairbanks in William Wellman’s Love Is a Racket before hitting the number with Roy Del Ruth’s Blessed Event. Milking the role of a newly minted, fantastically manic radio gossip columnist (a role turned down by Tracy’s onetime understudy James Cagney), he wheedles, whines, and manipulates his way through an assortment of scoops and scrapes, at one point intimidating a killer by extravagantly dramatizing his death in the electric chair.
Tracy was a quintessential talkie star. With a voice prone to break like an overexcited adolescent’s and trademark added syllables (“That’s puh-lenty!”), his rapid-fire delivery was unique. He could talk a hole in your head—not that the hyperkinetic performer was all talk and no action. As the critic Donald Phelps once wrote, Tracy attacked onscreen space “as though it were a rock formation and his body a pneumatic drill.” Once seen and heard, this squawky, insinuating dynamo is impossible to forget—in part because he is almost always the best thing in the movie.
In addition to newsmen, Tracy appeared as an assortment of shills, smart guys, and ambulance-chasing shysters. Things were so bad in 1932 that Columbia even cast him as a politician. While Washington Merry-Go-Round presents him as an unlikely Congressional reformer, albeit one sufficiently cynical to understand the system, Night Mayor gave him another career role (plus the opportunity to show off his Charleston moves) as a ward-heeling bon vivant modeled on hizzoner “Gentleman Jimmy” Walker—so convincing that decades after his Hollywood career petered out, Tracy returned for one last hurrah in The Best Man (1964), as the President.