Late in 1932 the Hollywood gossip columnist Louella Parsons reported that M-G-M had replaced Clark Gable in the lead role of Clear All Wires with Lee Tracy. "Now we know Clear All Wires will rate at the box office," Parsons wrote. That's because Tracy, "in spite of his many sick lapses, is the man of the hour [and] has never given a single inferior performance." His casting in Gable's place put the George Hill picture on a "flying start." If you're wondering what alternate reality Parsons was writing from -- other than Hollywood -- bear in mind that Gable in 1932 was just breaking out as a leading man, while Tracy was coming off a big hit in Warners' Blessed Event and certainly had made a strong impression with RKO's Half-Naked Truth. Still, compare your instant mental images of Gable and Tracy -- if you have one for the latter -- and you have to imagine two very different pictures. You actually don't have to think very hard, since Gable eventually got his chance in 1940, when M-G-M very freely remade Clear All Wires as King Vidor's Comrade X. That was such a free remake that it got an Oscar nomination for Best Original Story, but contemporary reviewers noted its origins in the older film, itself an adaptation of a hit 1932 stage farce. All that remains of Clear All Wires in Comrade X, however, is the core idea of a cocky American reporter making mischief in the Soviet Union. The mischief is very different, however, and the remake is more overtly hostile toward the USSR than the original. A minor aspect of Pre-Code cinema is a relatively ambivalent attitude toward Communism -- the Code itself, I think, didn't require a harder or more critical stance but Hollywood did seem to take a harder line following Upton Sinclair's 1934 gubernatorial campaign, when M-G-M's Irving Thalberg -- who made the casting switch for Clear All Wires -- infamously produced fake newsreels warning of a hobo takeover of California should Sinclair win. Before that crisis, Hollywood seemed to regard the USSR as simply another exotic country with strange customs and eccentric politics. If the films of the period seem insufficiently outraged by Stalin -- well, it was a kind of amoral period. That's what the Code Enforcers were griping about.
Naturally, the abrasively loquacious Tracy plays an amoral star reporter. Buckley Joyce Thomas is the foreign correspondent for a major Chicago newspaper, and as the story opens he's reported missing among the Rif tribesmen, the notorious enemies of the French Foreign Legion. As a military force combs the desert for him, we find Buck enjoying the hospitality of a Rif chieftain, promising him favorable coverage in the global press. His liberation takes him quite by surprise, but he responds promptly, filing a dispatch reporting his narrow escape from captivity and death to the disgust of his main rival, the English journalist Pettingwaite. For his next trick, Buck intends to cover the 15th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, determined to interview representative Russians, the head of the GPU (precursor to the KGB) and possibly Stalin himself. He won't take no for an answer. "The Kaiser never gave interviews! The Pope never gave interviews! Gandhi never gave interviews!" he reminds skeptics, "But they all talked to me!" With his trusty and helpfully named flunky Lefty (James Gleason) in tow, Buck invades Russia and tricks Pettingwaite out of his Moscow hotel suite, as well as his press pass for Lenin's Tomb for the big parade. In fact, we see Buck light Stalin's pipe in what may be Hollywood's first portrayal of the dictator.
Despite Buck's aggressive tactics, his interpreter is unable to secure an interview with the GPU boss, and their visit to the Lubyanka ends quickly -- though not without the chilling sight of an execution in progress -- with the reporter directed to the egress, po-russki. Also complicating Buck's plans are his new girlfriend (Una Merkel), who happens to be his publisher's regular mistress, and a lunatic dissident (John Melvin Bleifer) who wants him to publicize his anti-Stalin campaign. "Stalinism is not Leninism!" Sozanov raves, "Stalinism is not Bolshevism! Bolshevism is not Communism! And Leninism is not Marxism!" Buck can only share our own confusion. Despite the man's boast of attacking a radio station, Buck insists that he isn't worth covering unless he does more than talk. He shows Sozanov an American newspaper for examples of what he means. One woman dominates the headlines because "She did something worthwhile, murdered her husband."
Buck's ambitions fall apart as the publisher learns of his affair and fires him, leaving him and Lefty without funds in a strange country. Our hero rages against his former employer: "What did he ever do besides inherit a newspaper? Predatory wealth!...I'm telling you, Lefty, there's something to this communism...." The farce plot kicks in as Buck decides he has to make news in order to regain his job. After rejecting the idea of stealing Lenin's body ("Too gruesome, too macabre.") he exploits his acquaintance with a Prince Tomofsky, allegedly the last surviving Romanov in Russia, setting the hapless aristocrat up for an assassination attempt, with Lefty poised to shoot to wound. Just then, the interpreter arrives at Buck's suite in triumph: he has brought the GPU commissar (the usually vile C. Henry Gordon in one of his most strangely amiable performances) for an exclusive interview. Of course, Buck has ordered Lefty to shoot at a man in a chair at an exact moment, when in fact the commissar occupies the fatal seat. Now Buck is unable to end the interview soon enough, as the commissar is happy to ramble on about the Five Year Plan. Ultimately Buck has no choice but to take the bullet, making the most of it by filing a dispatch crediting himself with saving the commissar's life. Unfortunately, when Pettingwaite arrives on the scene, he finds the dispatch Buck had prepared in advance reporting the shooting of Tomofsky. He goes to the commissar and gets Buck and Lefty thrown in prison, where in an adjoining cell they find Sozanov, who had taken Buck's advice with no success. Now everything clicks, and in a darkly ironic finish, when you take Russia's near future into account, Buck rescues himself by convincing an innocent man to confess to a crime and conspiracy in which he didn't take part. But it's a happy ending after all after Buck convinces the commissar to spare the obviously insane Sozanov's life. There's also a happy ending to the romantic complications, but I admit losing track of the women in Buck's life, and the happiness of it all may be compromised by the closing newspaper headline indicating that he's set his new wife up to be kidnapped for the usual publicity.
Clear All Wires is more interesting than entertaining. Tracy is about as obnoxious here as he ever would be, displaying no redeeming qualities whatsoever, and the farce aspect of the victim in the chair is laboriously anti-cinematic. For Pre-Code buffs it might even escalate to fascinating for its exceptionally whimsical attitude toward the Bolsheviks and its overall, almost overwhelming cynicism. Without much of a sex angle -- though Merkel gets to show off some lingerie -- Clear All Wires stands out as a distinctive Pre-Code film because it's the sort of movie, for many reasons, that you can't imagine Hollywood making just a short time later. And for some, it might be proof for the argument that Hollywood was better off stopping.