The talkies had been around for six years, but the movies had never seen a motor-mouthed monster quite like Lee Tracy when he exploded on the scene in 1932. That year the Georgia-born Tracy, who came to Hollywood via Broadway, costarred in a series of films (for Warner Bros.) as a fast-talking newspaperman who was as quick-witted as he was loquacious. If James Cagney delivered a torrent of words, Lee Tracy was a full-blown hurricane. He’s compelling and engaging without being exactly likable—at times, in fact, Tracy is downright loathsome.
Tracy’s breakout role was in Blessed Event, recently issued in an unremastered edition by Warner Archive. (It’s unrestored, too—some long missing jokes are still absent.) It’s a truer, arguably more trenchant look at a compulsive newspaper columnist than the more celebrated Sweet Smell of Success (and is a lot more fun). Tracy is Alvin Roberts, a thinly-disguised Walter Winchell-type obsessed with breaking something scandalous every day: “I’ve gotta have a punch line for today’s column” is his perpetual complaint.
What makes the film so enjoyable is the way Tracy uses his gift of gab to persuade, seduce, or terrify people into doing his bidding. The showstopper comes early on when he turns a threatening gangster into a frightened ally by describing, in gruesome detail, just what a trip to the electric chair entails—and bluffing the thug into believing the he holds the evidence that could send him there.
Blessed Event is one of the more celebrated pre-code movies that would have been perfect for one of Warner’s Forbidden Hollywood sets, if Warner (or anyone) was still making pressed DVDs of catalog titles. More obscure—and down-and-dirty even by pre-code standards—is director Tod Browning’s Fast Workers (also Warner Archive), which pairs John Gilbert with King Kong costar Robert Armstrong as a couple of high-iron rivet men. This was a glamorous profession circa 1933: Even in the depths of the Depression construction workers earned good money, and these fellows spend it fast, drinking and womanizing. Gilbert is Gunner Smith, the kind of hard-living guy who hops out of a rich dame’s car at a job site, changes out of his suit on the elevator to the top of a skyscraper, and is in harness, rivet gun at the ready, when the whistle blows. Armstrong is his best pal and work partner—and a dangerously dumb lug.
Setting aside Dracula, Browning seems to have been undone by the advent of talkies; too many fall flat. Fast Workers is a pleasing throwback to his sordid crime dramas of the silent era (like The Wicked Darling). When Gilbert takes a gal on a weekend spree, her joyous anticipation is brutally negated by the actual drunken squalor that follows. And when Armstrong’s lug nurses a murderous rage toward his pal, he plumbs chilling depths of hate.
Gilbert was a silent movie idol whose career crashed with the advent of talkies, much like the character in The Artist—only without the redemptive comeback. He’s terrific in Fast Workers: committed, mercurial, and totally believable. Unfortunately his career was essentially over, and in a few years he’d be dead.