Lee Tracy in 1940, photographed by George Hurrell
1898 – 1968
Actor, unapologetic bad boy, notorious drunk, tax evader, resolute bachelor, academy award nominee, (The Best Man) and uncontested master of indiscretion.
One of the lost treasures of the pre-Code era, Lee Tracy was the definitive brash, wily, fast-talking, stop-at-nothing operator. He skated around in perpetual overdrive, jabbing the air with his fingers, spitting out his lines like a machine-gun, wheedling and needling and swearing you can take out his appendix without ether if he’s lying (he’s got you there — he had it out already.) He was homely and scrawny with a strident nasal voice, but you can’t help rooting for his brazen, devious hucksters and reveling in his shameless moxie. He’s a jolt of pure caffeine; watching him in action is like gulping a couple of double espressos. Audiences in the early thirties loved his snappy style and irrepressible irreverence; they loved him because he was nobody’s fool.
Audiences during the Depression reveled in the exploits of con men, chiselers, racketeers, and gangsters; they enjoyed watching these rough-edged, self-made men outwit the rich and powerful. You would never catch Lee Tracy standing in a breadline; he’d find a way to scam a three-course meal and stick some stuffed shirt with the price, plus a few choice wise-cracks. The pleasure of watching him lies in the fantasy of always having a come-back; always having a plan up your sleeve and another up the other sleeve in case the first one doesn’t work; always getting the last laugh — and doing it all with style, a fizz that never goes flat, the sizzling tempo of a hot jazz band. “I’m acting,” Tracy himself admitted, “The way I’ve always wanted to be.”
In Bombshell, for example, he’s almost helplessly dishonest: he adores Jean Harlow yet can’t stop thwarting and humiliating her, destroying her dreams of a normal family life. The way Gene Kelly’s gotta dance, the way fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly, Tracy’s gotta cheat and lie and manipulate. But he could woo and woo her he did.
For more on this endearing scoundrel: