If You Met Lee Tracy (1933) 🇺🇸
... It takes a darned good writer to do justice to Lee — to catch the change of mood, the swift pace of his deft mind, the many sides of his personality. But Faith Baldwin succeeds perfectly in the task.
by Faith Baldwin
When Lee Tracy was in his third year high, he had a romance. But the object of it, doubtless an opportunist, took to running around with a rich man’s son. Lee told her she shouldn’t, really. And she asked him if he cared whether she did or not. Of course, said Lee, haughtily, he didn’t care. So, being a practical girl she called his bluff and continued to run around with the r.m.s.... “And so,” said Lee Tracy to me, gloomily, a good many years afterward, “I was through with all women. I’d make ‘em suffer, I thought... love ‘em, and leave ‘em....” We laughed, looking at the photograph taken of him during that period... an austere and disillusioned face, and a very young one. Long pants; a definite check in the suit material; a collar about ‘steen inches high; a cravat with a lot of extra material in it; and on his knee held prominently in one hand, a very large hat.
“What on earth’s that?” I wanted to know, pointing to the hat, and Mr. Tracy looked at me reproachfully. “That,” said he, “was a mighty fine panama, and the band on it cost a quarter extra!”
Lee Tracy has a sense of humor and a sense of direction, but I’m thinking that he slipped up on both in his third year high... this is a period when both humor and direction fail.
He was born in Georgia, although all trace of it has been effaced from his rapid speech. He left there at six; his father being a railroad man, the Tracys moved often. So he has lived in Kansas City and Louisville.
During his junior year at high, the same year in which he decided women were all alike, he lost enthusiasm for study. He wanted to go to work. So his father, a wise man, put him to work in the railroad yards.
He had six months there, with a hard job and a tough crew. But he liked it. After that, he entered a military academy, and after his graduation had a summer in California, without going near Hollywood. Then came a period of trying to enlist in the RFC and not succeeding, and finally Union College, where he made up his mind to become an actor after considering and rejecting several other professions.
When Tracy was twenty-one, however, he entered the officers’ training school at Camp Lee, and shortly after his commission was signed the Armistice was signed, too. So that was that.
HE then went back home, which, by then, was in Sayre, Pennsylvania. After a time he informed his parents that he had selected the stage as a career, with the upshot that a sensible and comprehending family agreed to back him for a year providing that at the end of the time he would return to school and study engineering if he had not succeeded. But he did succeed.
His sense of direction told him that there wasn’t much chance for the amateur along Broadway, that street of so many unknown soldiers. So he looked as experienced as possible and talked vaguely of this and that, with the upshot that he got a part finally, a few lines with a vaudeville act. When that folded he got another, touring the country, playing a full season, and then enlisted with a repertoire company. Bluff carried him through everything, the bluff of being a veteran and not a youngster whose heart must have thumped more than once and who must have often been shaking in his boots.
But he put it over in spite of his extreme youth.
Closing, he was again jobless, but he had had experience and after weeks of making the rounds he got a juvenile job with a stock company in Elmira. There he made his first comedy hit and realized that light comedy was to be his forte, from then on.
More vaudeville. More stock. His first road show and then, after a period of waiting, Broadway... beginning with “The Show Off” which ran a year, going on through several good small parts in other shows, and eventually that great hit, “Broadway,” in which Jimmy Cagney was his understudy.
After that came “The Front Page,” and Hollywood, where, after a period in which nothing much happened, Lee Tracy became an established and successful personality in pictures.
There’s his sense of direction running through it all... his selection, not impulsive, of his professions; his realization of the pitfalls and obstacles facing the beginner in that profession. His avoidance of them, part bluff and part his astonishing energy and the rest hard work.
It so happens that short of a railway accident, I never miss a Tracy picture. So I wouldn’t miss meeting Mr. Tracy in the not-too-solid flesh, would I? I sat on a very elegant but not too comfortable green divan in the offices of M-G-M in New York and regarded him.
He has hair which is slightly sandy and just escapes being red. He has blue eyes.
He is lean. He wears his hat pushed to the back of his bean, as it were. He talks a lot, and fast, in a low voice. He has a one-sided grin. He uses his hands when he talks. He is utterly natural. I bet he freckles easily. He is an elegant listener, which is the greatest compliment one can pay an interviewer. He decries superstition and then admits that he once almost broke a leg getting away from a black cat.
He can’t go black cats, he says.
He is a good business man. He has an excellent knowledge of himself. He has enough energy for six men and he eats up work. He is generous in praise of people who have helped him along the way and of other players. He talked for ten minutes on the kindness and assistance shown to him by John Barrymore during the making of Dinner at Eight.
He has a slightly ribald and cockeyed sense of humor. He is, I should say, without petty vanity of any sort but he has plenty of self-respect. He wouldn’t double-cross anyone, I believe. But I’d hate like thunder to be the person who double-crossed him. He’s considerate of other people and he’s shrewd. He knows his box office. He knows his audience. He knows good publicity and bad. He plays the game, straight, and for all its worth.
Because, you see, he knows that once on the crest, the wave may break; once at the tip of the ladder it’s a long, easy and slippery way down. Once you’ve made your strike, work it with all that’s in you, because it won’t last forever. He ‘doesn’t kid himself.
I listened while he talked of proper publicity to the publicity department. I watched while he dated some of his childhood pictures which were to be used in a story and while he insisted six times over that they were to be returned to him as his mother wanted them and had no other copies of several and we wrangled over the age he must have been when he was photographed, a baby with a bang, in the arms of a colored nurse.
The colored nurse has probably long since gone to her reward but I am here to state that in the language of 1933 Lee Tracy is still — a baby with a bang!
He has played reporters so much and so often that he sometimes has a notion he is one. A brother — perhaps two brothers, I’m not sure — is in the newspaper business. Recently Lee was talking to the motion picture critic of a great metropolitan daily and the critic asked him, “Hey, Tracy, did you get a load of the story on so and so — “ and then broke off to comment, “Lord, I always forget you aren’t a newspaper man.”
Lee Tracy had thought about that profession while he was deciding between medicine, engineering, law and the stage. In college it might then have occurred to him he could have made that grade too.
I saw a photograph of him at twelve in a baseball suit and a wide grin. Looked to me as if a couple of teeth were missing. I’ll bet he was a great youngster, full of the devil. A holy terror, but a good sport and a straight shooter every minute of his life.
What his parents had to cope with, curbing and directing all that wild energy, beggars the imagination. But I’m sure he liked Indians and read adventure stories and led a gang and broke a lot of windows....
But curb and direct it they did; as did the discipline of military school and later of his officers training. But it’s all still there, at the drop of the hat.
I checked up on his pictures. “Big Time,’’ “Born Reckless,” Liliom, Night Mayor, Blessed Event, “Washington Merry-Go-Round,” “Half Naked Truth,” “Private Jones,” “Clear All Wires,” “The Nuisance,” and most recently Dinner at Eight.
Remember that scene with his mother in “Private Jones” and a shot or two in the “Nuisance” and the other pictures? Pictures in which he’s hard boiled, energetic, go-getting, making you like rascals so much that I told him he was positively immoral, that I never wanted him to reform on the screen. I always wanted him to get away with whatever his screen racket might be. But remembering those other shots, I had a glimpse of another Lee Tracy cropping out through the part he played, and at the right moment. A very nice streak... entirely lovable.
And he has courage. There was a time playing in repertory when he was operated on for an accident which, occurring during his military training, had left a piece of steel in his anatomy. One night after the show he collapsed and the next morning the operation took place. He went on playing... but he couldn’t dress himself and he couldn’t sit down. He was a trouper, even then, as early as that.
If Lee Tracy gets hard knocks he’ll stand up to ‘em, whether he can sit down or not. And he’ll grin. It won’t be a resigned grin, however, it will be a fighting grin.
He’s a grand person. I like him. I told him so without any further preliminary and I’ll tell him so again, now, in cold print. You’d like him, too. You couldn’t help yourself, and you wouldn’t want to help yourself. You can apply the adjective swell to him about everything but his sandy head.
He smokes a lot. Much of that energy of his is nervous. He wears very elegant trousers pleated at the waist. Gray, the day I saw him. And a very blue shirt. We parted on a street corner, Mr. Tracy en route to buy tickets, as he was leaving for the West the next day. His mother was going with him and they were stopping off to have themselves a time at the Chicago World’s Fair. I’ll bet they’re enjoying it this minute.
That’s Lee Tracy, a great guy with no illusions about himself or this bubble called popularity. With plenty of ideas of his own and a swell sense of direction. He knows where he is going. He isn’t stopping to sit down on a park bench surrounded by his laurels. He’s on his way and he has his route all mapped out. He’ll get there. More power to him, is what I say.
(Left) Georgia was Lee’s home at the time this was taken.
(Right) Lee with Madge Evans and John Barrymore. Lee is ever generous in praise of people who have helped him. For instance, of John Barrymore who gave him some fine pointers for “Dinner at Eight.”
Source: Modern Screen, September 1933