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A mostly forgotten star of the pre-Code era, actor Lee Tracy was a smart-mouthed, fast-talking sharpie who made his reputation on Broadway, notably in the hit comedy lampooning journalistic ethics, The Front Page. Tracy was cheated out of a role in the film version but made quite a screen name playing con men, crooked reporters, circus hucksters and sleazy lawyers of every description. The common denominator for most Lee Tracy films is his staccato delivery of dialogue. The man rattles off sharp-tongued lines like a machine gun. James Cagney always seemed ready to explode when approaching a role this way and Pat O'Brien did fairly well imitating the style, but there's nobody like Tracy. Mouthfuls of tongue twisters mean nothing to him, and while talking smart he also manages to convey a broad range of emotions, from gleeful mischief to sympathetic glooml, like a dog that didn't get its bone.
Tracy appeared in a couple of MGM 'classics' like Dinner at Eight but he really shines in the pictures Blessed Event, The Strange Love of Molly Louvain, Doctor X and The Half Naked Truth. The Warner Archive Collection's new disc of 1933's The Nuisance once again reveals Tracy in top form, as an ambulance-chasing lawyer.
Attorney Joseph Phineas Stevens (Tracy) cheerfully presides over a wild set of legal rip-offs. He's paid off ambulance clerks and even policemen to tip him off to every traffic accident that occurs. Literally beating the ambulance to the scene, his salaried professional 'witnesses' make any fender bender go on the books as malicious manslaughter. Joe routinely latches onto anybody remotely connected to the crash and puts his own doctor on the case to invent non-existent injuries. Doc Prescott (Frank Morgan) is a barely functioning alcoholic who falsifies X-rays and makes healthy people think they're sick. Joe also likes breach of promise suits, like the one that slinks in the door with shapely Miss Rutherford (Virginia Cherrill of Chaplin's City Lights). If this isn't enough, Joe also employs 'flop' experts like Phil Montague (Charles Butterworth), who throws himself in front of cars and then claims to be injured. Joe's mission in life seems to be to torment the city's streetcar company, as he's continually filing claims against them, just to prove he's more powerful than they. The streetcar people sic lawyer John Calhoun (John Miljan) on Joe, but our shyster's slick courtroom tricks win every time. The desperate Calhoun and his operative Kelley (David Landau) lay a legal trap for Joe by buying off one of his fake accident victims, shapely Dorothy Mason (Madge Evans). They also ply Doc Prescott with booze to get to the bottom of Joe's fake X-ray scheme. Meanwhile, Dorothy and Joe have fallen in love. Unfortunately, love requires trust, a concept Joe has never fully understood. While bilking practically everyone he meets, he still expects loyalty from his close associates -- and Dorothy's undercover mission slips past his defenses.
Director Jack Conway keeps The Nuisance hopping and popping for its entire running time, with Lee Tracy front and center in almost every scene. Audiences love a clever crook, especially the kind that enjoys mischief as much as does Tracy's Joe. Informed that a streetcar driver (Nat Pendleton) has filched 450 nickels from riders, Joe takes the job of defending him, wins in court by humiliating Calhoun before the jury, and then picks his client's pockets clean collecting his fee. Bowled over in the street by the sight of Dorothy Mason's legs, Joe doesn't know whether to set her up as one of his clients, or to ask her for a date. The scenes of Phil 'flopping' in front of moving cars are done with a good double and are fairly convincing. They're also interesting in light of recent news reports telling us that the practice is alive and well in places like Japan, where parents train their children to fake being hit by automobiles.
Tracy's shyster Joe would remain a nuisance if it were not for his change of heart in the last act. Bella & Sam Spewack's screenplay takes a familiar theme -- one lover must admit they're investigating the other -- and resists any maudlin developments. Tracy and Madge Evans' characters suddenly acquire an extra dimension as the issue of trust enters what was previously little more than a greedy free-for-all. Let a little ethics in, and pretty soon a whole lifestyle erodes away. We have to credit Lee Tracy's unique charm with making this transition work so well. When a Tracy character reforms even a little, it's time for rejoicing.
This being a pre-Code picture, the general image imparted of municipal corruption is almost breathtaking. Joe explains that he was an idealist upon graduation from law school, but soon learned that the only way to function was to be absolutely cynical about everything. In reality, the streetcar company is the injured party, even if the film wickedly makes Calhoun and his operatives appear to be bad guys. There's no excuse for Joe Stevens' crooked games, but we still love him.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Nuisance is a snappy remastering of a movie that I'm guessing probably didn't play very well on old 16mm prints with fuzzy soundtracks. The clear audio on this disc is essential to enjoying Lee Tracy's verbal acrobatics. Yeah, the man is surely an acquired taste, but he soon becomes a favorite.
The camerawork is by the famed Gregg Toland, and even though 1933 film stocks make deep focus and sets with ceilings tough to pull off, the movie is beautifully filmed. The good remastering job seen here was probably necessary for us to appreciate the film's visual qualities as well.
The WAC includes an original trailer. Warners trailers from 1933 were pretty sad affairs, and this MGM example is fairly crude too, with plenty of lame promo text that completely hides what the picture is about!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Nuisance rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.