Racy Tracy: Two Rare Pre-Codes from UCLA's 2015 Festival of Preservation
March 29, 2016
Last March (as in 2015), UCLA Film and Television Archive's Festival of Preservation presented a handful of films featuring young Spencer Tracy. Among those were two rarely screened Fox pre-Code titles: 1932's Disorderly Conduct and 1934's Now I'll Tell. Though I don't count myself among the biggest Tracy fans, I'm always down for a pre-Code, especially the seldom seen Fox ones. To my (non) surprise, I enjoyed both movies, and besides the shared Tracy factor, I discovered several similarities between the pictures as well.
Disorderly Conduct (1932)
Upright police officer Dick Fay (Spencer Tracy) efficiently patrols his small town from his motorcycle. He uses the little money he makes to provide for his mother and three young nieces and nephews while vowing to remain honest to make it to the top of the force. However, after he is demoted for (rightfully) issuing a ticket to Phyllis Crawford (Sally Eilers), whose corrupt father James (Ralph Morgan) basically runs the force, his mindset flips 180 degrees.
Dick's punishment comes in the form of a relocation to a force led by Captain "Honest Tom" Manning (Ralph Bellamy), Phyllis' latest boyfriend. Dick's new professional approach, mainly taking bribes and whatever else he can to provide his family with comfort, understandably conflicts with straightedge Tom's work ethic. After Dick crosses Tom one day, Dick is ordered to lead a raid on a gangster ring that he originally took money from in exchange for protection. There, Dick finds Phyllis with the body of a man who was killed moments before, right after he tried to take advantage of her. Tom books Phyllis for murder and blackmails James as payback for daughter and father ruining his career.
I love the line: "She Was Willing to Pay Any Price For A Thrill!" on the top right. Pre-Code advertising at its finest.
Meanwhile, the gangsters, pissed that Dick supposedly double-crossed them, seek revenge. They spray Dick's apartment building with bullets, and though Dick ducked out of the way in time, his nephew Jimmy (Dickie Moore) got caught in the line of fire. Now it's Dick's turn for retribution; he tracks the men down and brutally kills them all. Injured, Dick stumbles into the station and returns the blackmail money he received from James before passing out in Tom's arms. Impressed that Dick gave the money back, Tom arranges for Dick to be transferred back to his original unit - a step back up the ladder - after he recovers.
As UCLA's program notes pointed out, this was Tracy's 7th film with Fox, the first of those seven movies to succeed at the box office and the most complex role the actor had been handed yet. (His morally tormented officer in this picture countered the usual slew of con-men he portrayed previously at the studio). Despite the insanely spliced-up print that made it hard to capture what some characters were saying a good quarter of the time due to jump cuts, Disorderly Conduct provided a very intriguing portrait of the downfall of a man who tries his best to succeed but just can't win in such a corrupt world. The story's 180 turn in character for Dick, from crusading good guy to morally corrupt man on a mission, certainly reminds me of a modern day anti-hero. Even the brutality was (sort of) comparable: the stark violence Dick delivers at the end when he mows the gangsters down - terrifyingly without remorse or emotion of any kind - was rather surprising to see back then, even for a pre-Code picture.
Young Spencer Tracy (Dick) and young Ralph Bellamy (Tom) getting along very well.
Even so, I had a hard time understanding all of Dick's motivations. Yes, I get that he's extremely disheartened by the corruption he comes up against, but his sudden switch in ethics, especially after he so adamantly coaches his young nephew/cop-in-training to always stay straight, was jarring. Furthermore, I never really knew what to make of Tom. At first, I thought the "honest" act was just a guise, but that guess turned out to be wrong. Perhaps I never fully believed Tom was a straight man, because it seemed that Bellamy was conflicted in his characterization. For instance, in his scenes with Dick, Tom usually felt like he was on the edge of tipping into some dark area; I kept waiting for him to turn around and fleece someone, convinced he would topple over sooner or later, but he never did.
Also, can you get any more pre-Code than that ending? At first, the average viewer may have thought that the cops conveniently forgot that Dick just murdered a bunch of guys - bad dudes, but still - but in reality (and more tellingly), it appears his promotion was given for taking those troublesome gangsters out. Basically in cold-blooded vengeance mode, but tsk tsk. These are small details in pre-Code Hollywood.
Fabulous Swedish poster for Now I'll Tell.
Now I'll Tell (1934)
Murray Golden (Spencer Tracy) drifts in and out of various rackets. When he meets his future wife Virginia (Helen Twelvetrees) in 1909, he's broke and working the race tracks. Soon, though, Murray gallops up the (shady) ranks, acquiring ownership of a gambling hall and promising Virginia he'll quit once he makes enough dough.
Well, he makes the money - and then some - but can't stop, and while his wife waits at home for him each evening, Murray spends his nights out on the town with mistress Peggy Warren (Alice Faye). When Murray makes a move into the world of prizefighting, the stakes get considerably higher; he 're-fixes' a fight that his nemesis, gangster Al Mossiter (Robert Gleckler), set-up, and the result is tragic: one fighter gets killed shortly afterwards, and the other embarks on a dreadful downward spiral. Murray and Al continue their feud, both trying to outsmart the other once and for all.
Meanwhile, Virginia finally finds out about Peggy and leaves her husband. Apparently, that was the last straw, and it's all downhill from there for Murray: his business falters, and though he vows to go straight, when he finds out Virginia is coming home, he sets out to make one last deal to score a ton of money and make amends with his wife. Of course, this last ditch effort fails miserably and results in Virginia's kidnapping. Can Murray claw his way back to the top, or at least out of the hell hole he's dug for himself and his family?
Mrs. Arnold Rothstein's name seems to be larger than Tracy's! Who is she? Read on...
I'm not educated on the real tale of Arnold Rothstein, so I don't know how accurate some of the events in this film are, even though it's partly based on his widow's story (who was contacted by Fox five years after his death to write a tell-all book). According to UCLA's notes, a few significant alterations took place during the jump from page to screen: the names were changed, as was the betting sport (from baseball to boxing), and various other Rothstein hobbies, like murder and bootlegging, vanished as well. All those revisions aside, since the events surrounding his life and death were quite recent, the similarity and recognition was certainly still evident to 1930s audiences.
Tracy's Murray is one curious character. His motto: "You're only wrong when you fail." Well, Murray crashes and burns a number of times throughout the picture and makes plenty of dumb and/or questionable decisions. For instance, he admits that his wife is the best woman in the world - that 20 Peggy clones couldn't hold a candle to Virginia - yet, he runs around aimlessly with only 1/20th of his wife, all the while said revered marital partner sits at home.
You say Peggy (Alice Faye) can't hold a candle to your wife, Murray? Did the beach breeze blow the candle out?
As for the film itself, several holes exist in the plot. Title cards indicating the year, usually at the start of a new 'business' venture for Murray, helped propel the story along; however, in between those, what Murray is up to is pure conjecture - though we naturally guess it's certainly no good. For example, how did he get the gambling hall off the ground so quickly, and what exactly happened to make him lose his money and fall so fast after Virginia leaves him?
In addition to the natural drama Rothstein's tale provided, the production of Now I'll Tell also fell during a rather climactic point in the film industry. The movie debuted in early June 1934, the same month the Production Code was re-adopted, though it wouldn't go into effect until July. I wonder if that mounting moral pressure during the months prior precipitated the character of Tommy Doran (Henry O'Neill), an old chum of Murray's-turned lawyer, who provides a healthy dose of reality and morality that drives Murray to finally do one self-sacrificing thing in his life before he visits Al one last time. It's a final act of love that's all Murray: a little messed up, a tad illegal, a modest amount bittersweet. And in an interesting twist, the one who relies on lies at the end isn't Murray after all: it's Virginia.
Ah, here's Murray's lovely wife, Virginia (Helen Twelvetrees). Clearly, Murray doesn't seem too enthused about her, which is a shame.
Delightful pre-Code-ness: Now I'll Tell boasts some great pre-Code lines. My personal favorite is when Murray asks Peggy where she's from, and she tells him the Virgin Islands. His reply is something to the effect of: "You must have left there when you were very young." Looks like it...
Interesting note: In Mark A. Vieira's Sin in Soft Focus, a footnote revealed that no print of this film was known to exist with the current copyright owner, making Now I'll Tell one of the very few pre-Code movies Vieira listed that fell into the category of seemingly 'lost' at that point (the book was published in 1999). Since then, a print has not only turned up, but it has been preserved and currently sits in UCLA's archive. The story of how and when Now I'll Tell was un/recovered is one I'd definitely like to hear more about!
Murray doesn't seem too keen on Virginia, once again! But to be fair, she's not smiling either.
I was rather surprised to find that both films shared several connections. At first, I thought Disorderly Conduct would be the complete opposite of Now I'll Tell: whereas Spencer Tracy starts off as a racketeer in Now I'll Tell, he's a clean, honest man at the beginning of Disorderly Conduct, and he vows to stay that way; of course, that plan turns sour pretty quickly in the latter film. Only after he gets punished for doing his job correctly does he turn to the dark side in Disorderly Conduct, wheeling and dealing to support his family just as he does in Now I'll Tell. Given the change of heart in Disorderly Conduct, I thought I'd be watching comparable endings too, which wasn't the case, though it almost was. As far as the finales go, the conclusion of Disorderly Conduct surprised me, though being a pre-Code, it shouldn't have, as in standard pre-Code fashion, Tracy wasn't reprimanded for his crimes; in fact, he gets his job back AND is granted the equivalent of a promotion. Talk about letting a killer - one tasked with protecting the public - get away scot free!
In both pictures, morality certainly plays a big role, even if the respective conclusion doesn't fully admonish the immoral actions, as shown above in Disorderly Conduct. For instance, in Now I'll Tell, Murray's voice of reason manifests in the guise of old friend Tommy, who is the first to refuse to bend to him. That move, coupled with the fact that Virginia walks out on him, finally makes Murray realize he's wrong; however, he's in so deep that even when he finally understands what's right, he can't untangle himself from vice. On the other hand, Disorderly Conduct starts with an upstanding character, and even finds another in Tom, but by the end, both have tarnishes on their records - Dick for murder and Tom for standing by while Dick blackmails James. Ironically, when Dick, an enforcer of the law, arrests Phyllis in the beginning, he gets punished for following the law solely because he messed with the wrong family. Only when he refuses to accept the blackmail money HE HIMSELF demanded from James AND he murders three men, does he get rewarded. Pretty backwards and messed up, if you ask me.
Also, who could forget those adorable kids in both films? Here's some incredibly charming pictures of them.
Tracy with Dickie Moore in Disorderly Conduct, above, and with Shirley Temple in Now I'll Tell, below.
How to get down and dirty, pre-Code style, with young Spencer Tracy:
As for possible home viewings of Disorderly Conduct and Now I'll Tell, sadly the prospect is (currently) slim. It seems that both rarely show publicly, but perhaps since the titles were recently restored by UCLA, there exists hope that future screenings may be scheduled (or maybe that's just my personal wish). So, if you come across any theater playing either of these movies, please spread the word and of course, attend the screening(s) to behold pre-Code Tracy in all his morally complicated glory.