Monday, October 8, 2012

PRE-CODE PARADE: A Spencer Tracy trilogy

Just about a year ago I read James Curtis's massive biography of Spencer Tracy. It was fascinating not just for its harrowing accounts of Tracy's midlife alcoholic binges and the ways that Hollywood stardom spoiled him but for its wealth of detail of the actor's dues-paying years from repertory theater to his largely thankless years as a contract player for Fox Film. For most classic movie fans, Tracy may as well have sprung full-grown from the head of Louis B. Mayer around 1936, but he had been toiling for Fox since 1930, and the results were long hard to see. Certain films were highly touted by historians, but those films were seen only by a lucky few at festivals and retrospectives. Practically the only evidence of Tracy's Pre-Code career was his loan-out appearance for Warner Bros. in 20,000 Years at Sing Sing, though Fox Movie Channel still occasionally shows his actual film debut -- and Humphrey Bogart's --  John Ford's rotten prison comedy Up the River. It wasn't Fox Movie but Turner Classic Movies that dug up some key early Tracy pictures for broadcast last October 1.  Three of those films, two Fox releases and a loaner for Columbia, have acquired reputations as early highlights for the actor, and I saw all three of them for the first time last week.

The first of them chronologically was Raoul Walsh's waterfront cop comedy Me and My Gal. It's an irreverently hard-boiled romance with Tracy as a cop turned plainclothes detective courting Joan Bennett as a hash and insult-slinging waitress. The future Father and Mother of the Bride are a low-rent Pre-Code Beatrice and Benedick whose courtship consists of busing one another's chops constantly. But in this picture everybody busts each other's chops. Everyone's a smartass except for Henry B. Walthall's paralyzed uncle of the heroine. There's a purportedly dramatic storyline involving Bennett's sister and her former boyfriend, an escaped convict out to silence her, but the tone of the film is such that it and nothing else can really be taken seriously. I enjoy the hard-boiled style but I can see how this one may have laid it on too thick even for Pre-Code audiences. According to Wikipedia it was a historic flop and an irreverence bordering on the cartoonish may have alienated people. Fourth-wall breaking moments like J. Farrell McDonald (as Bennett's belligerent dad) addressing the camera (and usually inviting it for drinks) and Tracy and Bennett doing a voiceover parody of Eugene O'Neil's Strange Interlude (also targeted by Groucho Marx in Animal Crackers) probably didn't help then but make it more interesting now. Tracy is good but I can see why he wasn't becoming a star. Even when he became a star he was admired for underplaying, and you can see that in his Pre-Code work, but there's something beyond underplaying, almost introverted in his work that may have left people cold who weren't connoisseurs of acting. M-G-M solved that problem by mostly casting him as goody-good types (his cold avenger in Fritz Lang's Fury notwithstanding). As it did with the Marx Bros., the studio made him likable by having him help people. Before Metro, it was easy to cast him as essentially self-centered people, as in the two following films.

For William K. Howard's The Power and the Glory, Tracy starred but ranked second in the promotion to Fox's promotion of a new cinematic storytelling technique. This was "Naratage," which boils down to having someone narrate a story told in flashback vignettes. It may have been one of the earliest films with substantial voiceover narration, but its claim to history is that it's also one of the earliest non-linear narratives. Written by future comedy specialist Preston Sturges, it's now seen as a prototype for Citizen Kane because it uses its flashbacks, jumping back and forth in time, in an attempt to solve a mystery: why did railroad tycoon Tom Garner (Tracy) kill himself? Unlike Kane, we only see Garner's life from one vantage point, that of his childhood friend and later business partner (Ralph Morgan), who defends his friend's memory against his wife's denunciations of Garner as a cruel boss and an unfaithful husband who drove his own wife (silent superstar Colleen Moore) to suicide. Unfortunately, the childhood scenes don't really do much to illuminate Garner's adult misdeeds. We see an ill-educated but energetic man who rises through force of will and asserts his prerogatives against his workers (facing down a gang of strikers and forcing a labor war in which hundreds are said to have died) and the long-suffering wife who first fell in love with him while tutoring him in math. Tracy is convincing but not compelling as the coldly dominant Garner, lacking Charles Foster Kane's narcissist charisma, while Sturges's vaunted innovations feel like little more than gimmicks that get in the way of a more forceful narrative. The would-be avant-garde structure sabotages any effort Tracy may have made to act out the character's evolution and keeps the audience at a fatal distance from the character we ought to identify with. It only reinforces that remoteness that kept Tracy from catching fire for so long.

Fox was a troubled studio, kept afloat by Will Rogers, Charlie Chan and Shirley Temple, that let other studios try to figure out what to do with Tracy. Columbia paired him with Loretta Young, igniting a short-lived but intense affair, for Frank Borzage's Man's Castle. The title is ironic for a tale of life in a "Hooverville" shantytown. It has a clever opening with Tracy, decked in top hat and tails, feeding popcorn to pigeons from a park bench as Young looks on hungrily. Tracy decides to take her to a fancy restaurant and after dessert brazenly informs the manager that neither she nor he has any money. In classic Pre-Code style, he manages to get away without paying by threatening to make a speech denouncing the restaurant's selfishness in the middle of a Depression. Turns out that a coffee company hires him to walk the streets in the formal wear -- his dickey lights up with the company name -- for $2 a day. That's just one of the odd jobs this "bindlestiff" takes to get by. He's content to do just enough to survive and is ready to move on at a moment's notice, but Young yearns for stability and a real home, or at least a real stove. Tracy scrambles from job to job, jumping onstage to serve singer Glenda Farrell with a summons and walking the streets in stilts, where he encounters Farrell again through a second-story window. He beats that temptation, but when Young announces her pregnancy he feels a stronger temptation to hop a freight and get as far away as possible. He actually boards the train but has second thoughts and returns to marry the girl. Pre-Code means you can acknowledge that folks will have sex (and kids) before marriage. But providing for a family means taking more drastic steps, including robbing the toy store where the lay minister who performed your marriage ceremony (Walter Connolly) works as a night watchman. After some melodramatic complications and the elimination of a rival, the film ends with both Tracy and Young in a boxcar, on the run together. Pre-Codes that actually address the Depression and the struggles of poor people get bonus points from me, and the obvious chemistry between Tracy and Young is a bonus. Borzage and screenwriter Jo Swerling come closest to solving the Tracy problem by making the actor's seeming aloofness a problem within the film that the character has to overcome. He's the same sort of self-satisfied smart aleck he was in Me and My Gal, but while the Walsh film was perhaps too breezy for its own good, at least from a box office standpoint, but a more serious romance that challenges Tracy's affable complacency makes Man's Castle easily the best of these films. All three are worth seeing, even Power and the Glory for history's sake, but it's still safe to say that Spencer Tracy's best work was yet to come.

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