Feature Article Actor Biography

LEE TRACY

Born: 1898, Atlanta, GA

Died: 1968, Santa Monica, CA

Notable Films: Doctor X (1932), Blessed Event (1932), Dinner at Eight (1933), Bombshell (1933), Power of the Press (1943), The Best Man (1964)

EARLY YEARS & STAGE CAREER

On April 14, 1898, one of the most unique actors in American history was born in Atlanta, Georgia. His father's job as a traveling railroad superintendent kept his family moving all the time, until he entered Western Military Academy. After graduating, he went to Union College and studied electrical engineering. When World War I broke out, he left college to enlist and served as a second lieutenant.

At the end of the war, Tracy returned to America and began his career as an actor. He started in vaudeville, traveling road shows and bit parts. In 1924, he received his first big break in George Kelly's Broadway play, The Showoff, as the lead character, Joe. However, he did not achieve real stardom until the 1926 production, Broadway, for which he received a NY Drama Critic's award for his portrayal of the lead character, Joe Lane. In 1928, Lee Tracy began his run in the part which would define his persona for years to come — Hildy Johnson in The Front Page. However, he also developed a reputation as a carouser and heavy drinker.

HOLLYWOOD

Despite his personal life, Hollywood was eager to sign Tracy to a contract. He started on the screen in 1929 at Fox Studio, for whom he made Big Time (1929), Born Reckless (1930), Liliom (1930), and She Got What She Wanted (1930), for which, interestingly, he also received part of the screenwriting credit. Despite time back on Broadway for the plays Oh Promise Me and Louder, Please, Tracy devoted the majority of his career to Hollywood.

Lee Tracy made his best movies for Warner Brothers, starting in 1931. During his tenure with the studio, he starred in Doctor X (1932), Blessed Event (1932), and The Half Naked Truth (1932). However, by 1933, he switched to Columbia and then MGM in rapid order.

DINNER AT EIGHT & BOMBSHELL

During his short tenure at MGM, he appeared in the best-known film of his career: Dinner At Eight (1933), as John Barrymore's agent. His role is relatively small, but memorable, particularly his tirade against the ungrateful, self-destructive Barrymore, which ultimately leads to his suicide. Ironic, considering Tracy's own downfall, which was soon to come.

Additionally, and also in 1933, Tracy got to play alongside the most glamorous co-star of his career, Jean Harlow, in the hilarious, but darkly cynical, movie about Hollywood, Bombshell (1933). There has seldom been a less-likely yet well-matched pair than Harlow and Tracy, although Tracy's publicity agent gets rather the better of the harassed Harlow. Still, she puts up a good fight against his fast-talking, double-dealing ways.

DOWNFALL

In 1934, Tracy's lifestyle caught up with him. During the filming of Howard Hawks' Viva Villa! in Mexico, an inebriated Tracy allegedly urinated on a passing parade of Mexican soldiers. MGM, forced to apologize to the Mexican government, removed him from the film and terminated his contract.

During the years between the end of his MGM contract and the outbreak of WWII, Tracy freelanced, making a series of undistinguished programmers, most of which wasted his unique talents. He also returned to the stage for two plays - Bright Stars and Idiot's Delight - before returning to uniform during the Second World War. During this time, he also married Helen Wyse (in 1938), with whom he remained married until his death.

RESURGENCE & DEATH

Tracy turned his attention to TV after the war. He starred in the title roles of The Amazing Dr. Malone from 1951-2, and then as Martin Kane from 1952-3. He was also in 39 episodes of New York Confidential in 1959. In all, he appeared in hundreds of episodes on eighteen different television programs between 1949 and 1965.

In the mid-1960s, Lee Tracy nabbed the supporting role of dying US President Art Hockstader in Gore Vidal's play The Best Man (1964). He later appeared in the same role on the screen version. He was nominated for a Tony and an Academy Award in 1964 for his portrayal of President Hockstader.

After his appearance in The Best Man, Lee Tracy appeared in only three more TV programs (all in 1965). Perhaps his hard lifestyle had caught up with him or perhaps he was just tired. Whatever the reason, Lee Tracy ceased appearing in films, TV shows or plays after 1965. He died of cancer in Santa Monica in 1968, at the age of seventy.

CAREER CONSIDERATION

Lee Tracy's career cannot be easily summed up, especially since some of his best work (particularly as Hildy Johnson in the stage version of The Front Page) shall never be seen by modern eyes. From the late 1920s to the mid 1930s, he made a succession of successful plays and films, until his career derailed, due to his own wild personal life. But late in his career, he rallied and returned to critical and personal success with his role in The Best Man.

His appeal to the public also eludes easy description. His looks cannot be described as anything nicer than 'normal', nor does he exude smooth charm or elegant manners. In fact, his characters are often amoral, using the gift of mach-speed double-speak to talk people into doing or believing whatever he wants. Yet in each of his characters there lurks a streak of humanity that made audiences sympathetic to them, even at their worst. And Tracy dominates the screen with the sheer force of his personality, rapid fire talk, and constant motion of his hands and body. Even against co-stars like Jean Harlow, Lionel Atwill and John Barrymore, your eyes focus on Tracy and stay there.

If his offscreen actions had not interfered, his career might have been even more interesting. The string of fast-talking newspapermen, shysters and tricksters from the early Thirties would have changed with the times and Production Code, but nobody can predict how. His turn as the jaded, sad-eyed, dying president in The Best Man provides the best hint to what might have been.

But even so, Lee Tracy left behind a series of screen performances that are well worth seeing today. His best movie is perhaps Bombshell, which features a strong story - a witty, cynical take on Hollywood - and the expert performances of Tracy, Jean Harlow, Frank Morgan, Pat O'Brien, Una Merkel and Franchot Tone, amongst other key character actors. An argument can also be made for Blessed Event, in which Tracy carries the movie, steamrolling everyone out of his manic way with rapid-fire, hilarious dialogue, but nonetheless bringing a touch of the dramatic, as well.

My favorite, however, is the the most offbeat movie of his career, Doctor X, which found a way to put the Lee Tracy character into the world of horror. With an atmosphere dominated by a very early color process and foggy, moonlit streets, clever screenwriting, chilling moments and the support of Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, and Preston Foster, Doctor X proves itself an original horror film that deserves to be much better known.

As does Lee Tracy himself.