Lee Tracy

Turn Back the Clock (1933)

Turn Back the Clock 1933

Joe Gimlet (Lee Tracy) is a middle-aged man who runs a store with his wife Mary (Mae Clarke). Times are tough and they’re barely eking out a living when one day, their old friend Ted Wright (Otto Kruger) comes into the shop and they agree to get together. Ted has been faring a bit better than Joe and Mary; he went on to become a very successful bank president and is married to Elvina (Peggy Shannon), another old friend of theirs. They agree to get together and spend an evening together.

Growing up, Ted was infatuated with Mary and Joe is still kicking himself for turning down a business proposition from Elvina’s father when he was younger that would have made him a millionaire. Despite everything he has, Ted admits to being jealous of everything Joe and Mary have and offers Joe the chance to get in on an investment. Joe really wants to take him up on the investment opportunity, but it would wipe out their savings and Mary doesn’t think it’s a good idea. She and Joe get into a big argument about it that night and Joe gets very drunk, leaves the house, and gets hit by a car.

Joe is taken to a hospital where he’s put under ether and dreams that he’s a young man once again. Now he has a chance to undo all the mistakes he made so many years ago. Not only does he take Elvina’s father up on that business offer, he marries her and uses his knowledge of the future to make some very wise investments and ends up being offered a very important consultant position with the government regarding World War I. Mary, on the other hand, married Ted and the two of them live a modest life running a shop together. But there’s the age-old question of whether or not money truly makes a person happier.

Movies about a person having a fantasy about either going back in time, into the future are hardly, or otherwise experiencing an alternate reality are hardly anything unique, but Turn Back the Clock somehow manages to not feel clichéd. I can’t quite put my finger on what prevents it from feeling trite, but it manages to pull it off. It may be because it does have a touch of sentimentality to it, but not in a heavy-handed way. It’s a slow build to Joe’s epiphany that maybe wealth and power isn’t quite what it’s cracked up to be and never heads into being overly dramatic. The cast is great, it’s a particularly great Lee Tracy vehicle. It’s certainly interesting to see them try to make young Mae Clarke into a drab middle-aged woman. And hey, it’s even got a special guest appearance by the Three Stooges as an added bonus. All in all, I’d say it’s a movie that deserves to be a bit more well-known than it currently seems to be.

Crashing Hollywood (1938)

Crashing HollywoodAfter getting out of prison, former gangster Herman Tibbets (Paul Guilfoyle) and his wife Goldie (Lee Patrick) hop a train headed for California, where they’re planning to start a duck farm. Along the way, they meet screenwriter Michael Winston (Lee Tracy) and aspiring actress Barbara Lang (Joan Woodbury). Michael has been working on writing gangster movies, but realizes that having Herman’s input could be great for his next movie. Together, they write a movie called “The Hawk”, which bears a striking similarity to a bank heist pulled off by Herman’s former associate, also named The Hawk (Bradley Page). When the movie hits theaters, it’s a huge hit! Everybody loves it…except for the real Hawk, who goes to Hollywood to find Herman. When the bank president sees the movie, he also sees the similarities and suspects Michael of being involved with the heist.

Crashing Hollywood is a B-movie and that’s all it was ever meant to be. It’s fast paced, the story is paper thin, and the cast isn’t particularly remarkable. Lee Tracy is the only noteworthy cast member, and even he isn’t used to his full potential. There are far worse ways you could spend about an hour, but if you’re really in the mood for a movie about a gangster who turns to the film industry, go for Lady Killer with James Cagney instead. It’s far superior to Crashing Hollywood in every way.

The Strange Love of Molly Louvain (1932)

For all her life, Molly Louvain (Ann Dvorak) has been treated like a second class citizen.  Her mother abandoned her when she was a baby and everyone in town assumes she’s nothing but a good-for-nothing tramp just like her mother was.  But Molly is determined to rise above it all and at last, she thinks she’s found what she’s been looking for in Ralph Rogers (Don Dillaway).  Ralph comes from a wealthy family and been having an affair with Molly and he’s in love with her and wants to introduce her to his family.  However, Molly’s happiness is shattered when he suddenly leaves town and leaves her behind expecting a child.

Molly works by selling cigars in a hotel, which is where she meets a young bellhop named Jimmy Cook (Richard Cromwell).  Jimmy absolutely adores Molly, but she only sees him as a friend.  When Molly decides to leave town, she runs off with Nicky Grant (Leslie Fenton), a traveling salesman and thief.  Three years pass and Molly now has a daughter she adores, but she can’t deal with Nicky’s shady dealings anymore and leaves him.  She gets a job as a dance hostess at a local club, and one night, in walks Jimmy Cook.

She and Jimmy leave the club to catch up with each other, but Nicky sees them and makes them get into a car, which it turns out, has been stolen and used in a robbery.  The police catch up with them when Nicky stops at a store and Molly is left to drive away.  Nicky is arrested, but now the police are after Molly, too.  She dyes her hair and she and Jimmy get out of town and they end up living in a boarding house along with reporter Scotty Cornell (Lee Tracy).  It just so happens that Scotty’s pet story is the police’s search for Molly Louvain.

Even though Scotty is extremely attracted to Molly, he fails to realize who she really is.  He also isn’t as serious about her as Jimmy is, who plans to marry her.  When Scotty hears this, he tells Molly that being with Jimmy would only mean unhappiness for them both, and she backs out of her marriage plans.  But then Scotty works with the police on a plan to catch Molly by announcing that her daughter was very sick.  Sure enough, the plan works and Molly turns herself in.  Scotty is shocked to find out who Molly is, but when he sees just how much Molly loves her daughter, he vows to help clear her name and give her the life she’s always dreamed of.

Gotta love a good Ann Dvorak pre-code.  She gives it her all in Molly Louvain and makes a  movie with an average story one worth seeing.  As great as Dvorak is in it, I’ve got to give credit to Lee Tracy for being able to keep up with her.  Even though I wasn’t a huge fan of the ending and thought Molly would be better off with Jimmy, it was hard for me to fault Molly for choosing Scotty when Lee Tracy brought so much charisma to the character.  Jimmy may have had the best intentions, but compared to Scotty, he’s about as interesting as a piece of plain white bread.

The Half Naked Truth (1932)

While working as the publicity man for a two-bit carnival, Jimmy Bates (Lee Tracy) decides that the best way to drum up some business is through a little good old fashioned speculation and controversy. When he announces that dancer Teresita(Lupe Velez) will name the man in town who fathered her and left her mother years ago during one of her performances, not only do people show up to get the dirt, a few men also slip him some money to keep their names out of it.

The police also take an interest in the story, but when they find out the whole stunt is a sham, they shut down the whole carnival and Bates, Teresita, and their friend Achilles (Eugene Pallette) jump in a car and head to New York.  Bates has promised Teresita that he’s going to turn her into a big star, so as soon as they make it to the city, he hits the ground running building hype for Teresita.  He brings them to the Ritz and convinces them that she’s a Turkish princess and they are given a nice suite.

Bates resorts to all sorts of crazy publicity stunts to get the newspapers talking about this mysterious princess. Merle Farrell (Frank Morgan) is the big Broadway producer in town and he’s flabbergasted when Bates tells the press that the princess will be starring in Farrell’s new show.  But when ticket sales increase, Farrell decides to go along with it. On opening night, Teresita’s dance is not a hit with the audience, so Bates stops the show, telling the crowd the dance was too sacred to be performed in public. He has Teresita sing a song instead and she becomes an overnight sensation. She’s now a star and Bates has a new gig as Farrell’s publicity man.

Even though Bates is in love with Teresita, she loses interest in him and starts setting her sights on Farrell instead. When Bates finds out about it, he takes some incriminating pictures of them together, and uses them to blackmail Farrell into giving a spot in his show to another girl he’s determined to turn into a big star.  With the public losing interest in Teresita, she and Achilles lose interest in New York so when he decides to buy the carnival they had worked at before, she leaves with him.  But New York just isn’t the same without those two and it isn’t long before Bates finds himself back at the carnival right where he started.

The Half Naked Truth is amusing, but not great. It’s the kind of movie I’m glad I saw once, but it’s not the sort of thing I’d go out of my way to watch again.  I got some laughs out of it, I liked the cast, but there wasn’t anything about it that impressed me so much that it became one of my favorites.

Love is a Racket (1932)

It’s never a good idea to give too much of yourself in a relationship, and that’s a lesson newspaper columnist Jimmy Russell (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) is about to find out the hard way.  He’s in love with aspiring actress Mary Wodehouse (Frances Dee), and since he writes the Broadway gossip column, he uses that to help influence her career.  His friend Sally (Ann Dvorak) has been in love with him, but he’s too blind to see that Mary will take him for everything she can get.  Even though Mary has also been seeing a Broadway producer, when Mary writes a bunch of bad checks, of course Jimmy wants to jump in and pay them off for her.  But it turns out someone has beaten him to the punch.  Gangster Eddie Shaw (Lyle Talbot) isn’t too happy with Jimmy or his newspaper since he found out they were planning to break a story about a racket he’s involved in.  Even though Jimmy agreed to kill the story, Eddie went ahead and bought up all of Mary’s bad checks.  Eddie tells Jimmy that he’s headed off to Atlantic City for a few days and Jimmy follows them, but when Jimmy arrives, he finds out it’s a trap and is held captive by one of Eddie’s cronies.

Meanwhile, in New York, Eddie takes this opportunity to start winning Mary over.  He sends her a bracelet and a telegram telling her to come over to his place.  Mary is scared and with Jimmy out of town, doesn’t know what to do.  Finally, her Aunt Hattie decides she can’t sit idly by and watch Mary fall in with a guy like Eddie, so she decides to settle the score herself.  By now, Jimmy has gotten away from Eddie’s cronies and makes it back to Eddie’s apartment just in time to see Jimmy dead and Hattie ditching the evidence.  Still wanting to protect Mary, he destroys all the evidence and makes it look like Eddie killed himself.  But in yet another crazy twist of fate, Jimmy’s friend Stanley (Lee Tracy) also comes by just in time to see Jimmy shove Eddie’s body off the building and assumes that Jimmy was the one who killed him.

Everyone believes that Eddie committed suicide, but Stanley doesn’t know the real story.  To protect his friend, he took some incriminating evidence from the scene of the crime and hands them over to Jimmy.  He has no intention of ratting his friend out, he just doesn’t want them falling into the wrong hands.  Later, they head back to Jimmy’s apartment and get a telegram from Mary announcing her sudden marriage to that Broadway producer.  Finally, Jimmy realizes what a sap he’s been.  He sends Aunt Hattie a little wedding present — the gun she used to kill Eddie — and declares that he will never fall in love again.  But the way he looks at Sally lets us know that won’t last long.

I think Love is a Racket is something of an underrated pre-code.  The story is pretty convoluted, but its sharp script and strong cast make it pretty enjoyable.  Doug Fairbanks, Jr., Frances Dee, Lyle Talbot, and Lee Tracy are all great, although it’s too bad that there wasn’t more to Ann Dvorak’s character.  She gets some witty lines to say, but other than that, there’s just not a whole lot of substance to her part.  Give this one a shot next time it’s on TCM.  With a runtime of just over an hour, what have you got to lose?