This post is in conjunction with the Journalism in Classic Film Blogathon hosted by two of my favorite people in the blogosphere: Jessica Pickens of Comet Over Hollywood and Lindsay Affleck of Lindsay’s Movie Musings. Head on over and check out the terrific entries from a great roster of contributors.
When people think of fast-talking, hard-boiled reporters they think of Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant in His Girl Friday; William Powell and Spencer Tracy in Libeled Lady; Barbara Stanwyck in Meet John Doe.
But my ultimate fast-talking reporter is Lee Tracy.
Tracy forged his footprint in film as the quintessential hard-nosed newspaperman. He’s the original Hildy Johnson (portraying the newsman in the play’s initial run) and is the press agent who scandalized Jean Harlow’s sex life in Bombshell. But for me, Tracy’s definitive role is as the gossip rag wunderkind Alvin Roberts in Roy Del Ruth’s sassy 1932 comedy Blessed Event.
Roberts is a send-up of gossip columnist Walter Winchell, but in actuality he is the Harvey Levin of 1932. TMZ ain’t got nothin’ on Roberts. Wisecracking, hard-nosed, and thoroughly unimpressed by celebrity, Roberts has hijacked a column at the paper in absence of its vacationing author (the wonderful Ned Sparks) and has commenced a reign of terror on the Manhattan upper crust with a salacious gossip column that specializes in announcing so-called “blessed events.” With the help of Miss Stevens (Ruth Donnelly), queen of the one-liner, the column’s supposedly expectant mothers are either unmarried, secret mistresses, or philandering cougars … no one in New York is safe with Alvin Roberts at the dictaphone.
It’s a dirty line of work which has earned him plenty of enemies from the underworld–a hitman from which (Allen Jenkins) is put on assignment to case Roberts’ every move. In an impressive monologue that showcases Robert’s wickedly masterful talent of manipulation, Tracy appears to scarcely take a breath as he demonstrates for Jenkins’ exactly what happens when a con is ‘cooked’ by the electric chair.
Jenkins quickly becomes Robert’s personal stooge.
New York’s most popular radio star, Bunny Harmon (Dick Powell) is also a powerful nemesis. Roberts uses his column to relentlessly heckle the crooner after the two had a falling out, and Harmon uses his radio program to needle Roberts. Dick Powell, wonderfully young and fresh-faced his screen debut, is a marvelous composite of his future self: he is at once the charming crooner of the Gold Digger variety, as well as the hard boiled film noir darling of his later career. Powell’s voice is sweet and his dimpled smile is adorable, but he is far from safe.
The love interest, because there’s gotta be love interest, is Mary Brian. The weakest link in this otherwise crackling cast, she acts as sort of very boring Jiminy Cricket who forces Roberts to chose between marriage to her or his sordid column. This leads to the climax of the film which, to be honest, feels to rather fizzle out– an all too easy wrapped up happy ending to what had, hitherto, been a film full of nothing but gusto.
Roberts promises to give it up his column for Mary, but only after he makes one last headline: Bunmy Harmon has opened a nightclub where he pledges Roberts will never be admitted as a haven to all New Yorkers who wish to behave without being spied on. He’s got a gang of mobsters all too happy to keep him out. The cocksure Roberts of course finds his way in, and after a slightly creaky showdown and a misdirected bullet, Roberts emerges victorious.
There’s only so much you can do in an 80 minute film, and I wish we has more time to spend developing Roberts a bit more, as well as the tawdry world he inhabits, but I’ll take what I can get. Director Roy Del Ruth had a knack for sass (Blonde Crazy) and this film has more than its fair share of attitude. The dialogue shoots like gunfire, forcing modern audiences who lack the patience of listening, to lean in and pay attention to each word. Some of the words are cringe-worthy (callous race jokes abound) but Lee Tracy sells every last syllable.
This is the actor’s tour de force performance.
A tight, tenacious little hidden gem, Blessed Event proves just how far the media hasn’t come over the last 70 years.