Whenever a repertory cinema like NYC’s Film Forum or a film archive like the George Eastman Museum programs a Pre-Code series you can bet that Lee Tracy is bound to be in a few of the famous titles such as The Strange Love of Molly Louvain, Love is a Racket, Doctor X, Blessed Event (all released in 1932) and Bombshell (1933). He’s also likely to be playing some kind of shady careerist such as a carnival barker, ambulance-chasing lawyer or tabloid newsman. That’s probably due to his legendary performance on Broadway in 1928 as reporter Hildy Johnson in The Front Page, written by Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht. Unfortunately, he didn’t get to play the role in the 1931 screen version – Pat O’Brien won that honor and Rosalind Russell played the female version in Howard Hawks’ 1940 remake, His Girl Friday – but Fox Pictures realized Tracy’s potential and brought him to Hollywood in 1929.
Almost from the beginning of his film career, Tracy was typecast as a brash go-getter type whose colorful slang vocabulary and speedy verbal delivery made him a natural for playing a wide variety of hucksters. He was certainly not the typical leading man type but he could more than hold his own opposite any major star through the sheer force of his showboat personality. He could be hilariously obnoxious or spellbinding in the way of a proselytizing preacher on a fire and brimstone roll. Often his signifying hand and body gestures suggest he might have made a great evangelist in the manner of an Elmer Gantry.
Today Tracy is probably best known for Bombshell (1933), in which he plays an abrasive studio publicist who is constantly feuding with superstar Lola Burns (Jean Harlow), and for his final film performance as a dying president in Gore Vidal’s political drama, The Best Man (1964); it earned him his only Oscar nomination (as Best Supporting Actor). But I want to point out a lesser known favorite that plays occasionally on Turner Classic Movies and still isn’t available on any format – Washington Merry-Go-Round (1932).
Directed by James Cruze (The Covered Wagon, 1923), this muckraking drama with occasional moments of comedy is one of the few films where Tracy is a bona fide hero. And the storyline is a worthy precursor to Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939): an idealistic young Congressman arrives in the nation’s capital and quickly discovers that the town is run by lobbyists and special interest groups who manipulate or “own” many of the lawmakers. Widespread corruption is rampant and the future looks grim for democracy. The big difference here is that Lee Tracy’s newly elected official, Button Gwinett Brown, is not nearly as naïve as James Stewart’s Jefferson Smith. Button is a wily son-of-a-gun with a quick learning curve and he soon proves to be a formidable adversary to the crooked power mongers in control. What starts out as lighthearted satire transitions into a serious political critique before the midpoint and builds to a suspenseful climax in which good triumphs over evil but in a highly questionable way [spoiler alert]. The chief villain, a murderous bootlegger named Edward T.J. Norton (Alan Dinehart), is finally toppled through vigilante action, which is just another form of fascism. Flawed though the film may be due to its often schizophrenic tonal shift, Washington Merry-Go-Round is still a fascinating curio with Tracy consistently compelling as an unlikely patriotic hero.
The screenplay by Jo Swerling was based on a story by Maxwell Anderson. Swerling, of course, had already worked numerous times with Frank Capra at this point (Ladies of Leisure , Rain or Shine , The Miracle Woman , Platinum Blonde ) so it’s no surprise that the screenplay reflects the dire economical and social realities of the Depression era as well as a Populist political slant not unsimilar to Capra’s films of the thirties.
According to notes on the AFI (American Film Institute) web site, “…Columbia bought the screen rights to only the title of the Robert Sharon Allen-Drew Pearson best seller [of the same name], and hired Maxwell Anderson to write a fictionalized story to accompany the title. Although a Hollywood Reporter production chart credits technical advisor Eugene Thackeray (and Anderson) with screenplay, Thackery’s contribution to the final script has not been confirmed. Drew Pearson was an influential columnist for the Baltimore Sun when he co-wrote the book Washington Merry-Go-Round, a controversial political expose. Subsequent to the book’s publication, Pearson was fired from the Sun. He went on to co-write with Allen a nationally syndicated column under the book’s title until 1942, and subsequently wrote it for many years alone or in collaboration with other writers.” In another interesting side note, Button Gwinnett was one of the signers of the original Declaration of Independence, the character Lee Tracy is named after in the movie. Gwinnett was from Georgia and Tracy was born in Atlanta, so there are serendipitous connections the average moviegoer would have missed. Yet, nobody who has seen Washington Merry-Go-Round can fail to take note of Lee Tracy’s powder keg performance, which proves he could be a riveting dramatic actor as well as a dazzling comedian in the same movie.
Sure, he wasn’t handsome or suave or subtle but his crazy-like-a-fox charisma made him the sort of person you’d want on your side in a fight against “the bad guys.” And the on-again, off-again flirtation/romance between Gwinnett and Alice Wylie (Constance Cummings), the daughter of a Congressman Walter Connolly), was just one of Tracy’s many on-screen romantic pairings proving that studio executives saw him as a leading man.
More than 85 years later, Washington Merry-Go-Round remains topical as a sort of timeless political parable where you can perceive current politicians in the roles of the movie’s crooked and ineffectual politicians and lobbyists. There is something strangely prescient and familiar about Norton’s plot to eventually control all news media in the U.S. and to force through a bill that will have taxpayers contributing to a bogus patriot named General Digger. In reality, the latter is a crook who stole land from Native Americans and is getting four million dollars as a reward.
The film’s dialogue often crackles with wit and wisdom and Tracy has his share of rabble rousing speeches such as the one he makes to a crowd of angry war veterans referred to as “The Bonus Army,” who have set up a squatters camp in Washington: “Let me tell you this: This nation is in trouble, great trouble, plagued with a thousand problems. This isn’t just a depression; this is a crisis! You’ve got a Senate and a House of Representatives, filled mostly with honest, patriotic men. . . . And they’re all striving to bring this nation back to its place in the sun. But they’re handicapped–hamstrung by a hidden government–an evil, marauding crew that has turned the Constitution of the United States into a bill of sale.”
He also doesn’t pull any punches with his socialite girlfriend when he realizes she is oblivious to her senator father’s complicit involvement in Norton’s schemes: “You think you know your Washington. Your Washington is just a Vassar daisy chain. To you, it’s all a merry-go-round: embassies, parties, teas, dances. Why, if you got into a covered wagon, you’d ask for a chauffeur. You’re like all the rest of the people around here: soft and dizzy and useless.”
Washington Merry-Go-Round is representative of Tracy in his prime but his career begin to falter in the mid-thirties and he drifted into B-pictures and supporting roles. According to most sources, he could be just as rude, offensive and irrepressible offscreen as some of the characters he played and it earned him a reputation of being difficult. As a result, he didn’t stay with any studio for long. After starting with Fox, he quickly moved over to Warner Bros. and then got into mischief at RKO where he created problems for executive producer David O. Selznick during the filming of The Half-Naked Truth (1932), directed by Gregory La Cava. According to AFI notes, “…actor Lee Tracy provoked the ire of Selznick because of his repeated late arrivals and absences from the set. In a “strictly confidential” 8 Oct 1932 inter-office memo, Selznick recommended that, “for the good of the company and the industry,” a legal suit be brought against Tracy for the total amount of monies he had cost the studio. Selznick suggested serving Tracy with the lawsuit “on the set as soon as the last scene has been finished, and in front of the entire company.”
As threatened, RKO withheld $3,500 from Tracy’s final paycheck and then filed a $10,000 “conciliation” suit against him through the Conciliation Committee of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences on 14 Oct 1932. Dr. Frederic Bergstrom, speaking to the press on behalf of Tracy, stated that Tracy was suffering from a nervous breakdown and that his set absences had been the result of stomach disorders. In spite of Selznick’s stated desire to run Tracy “out of the industry,” RKO finally settled the suit out of court. By agreement, RKO paid Tracy $1,500, half of his withheld salary, and promised that, if he behaved himself during production, he would be rewarded with the other half as a bonus upon completion of his next RKO movie.” After RKO, Tracy seemed to be on a winning streak at MGM with The Nuisance, Dinner at Eight and Bombshell, but then he got fired for his outrageous behavior on the set of Viva Villa! in Mexico; he was said to have urinated in public on a passing military parade below his balcony. As a result, he was replaced in the film by Stuart Erwin.
Eventually Tracy’s only option was to freelance and the quality of his films began to decline as he went from top billed star to supporting roles. He was probably his own worst enemy when it came to sabotaging his film career. But considering his short shelf life as a movie actor, he left us some gems to savor – a nosy reporter in Doctor X (1932), his gossip columnist modeled on Walter Winchell in Blessed Event (1932), the movie agent representing a washed-up silent film star (John Barrymore) in Dinner at Eight (1934) and many other Pre-Code and Post-Code delights that are still waiting to be discovered. Tracy may have been a pain in the ass to his co-workers but his talent is undeniable and he’s one of the iconic actors of the Pre-Code era. I’d love to see TCM select him as “Star of the Month” someday.
*This is a revised and updated version of an article that first appeared on Movie Morlocks, the official blog for Turner Classic Movies (it is now called Streamline).
Other websites of interest: