Every month, my friend Karen of Shadows & Satin and I go Pre-Code Crazy and pick one gem from this era that’s showing on TCM. This month, instead of recommending one I already know, I took the opportunity to see a Lee Tracy dramedy I’ve been curious about and really enjoyed it.
Motor-mouthed ambulance-chasing crooked lawyer Joe Stevens (Tracy) has a great racket going. He stages accidents and wins large settlements with the help of his friends and colleagues, alcoholic doctor Prescott (Frank Morgan) who fakes x-rays and diagnoses, and Floppy (Charles Butterworth), who walks into traffic, poses as the injured party, and helps round up victims and “witnesses” when he’s not on a stretcher. The streetcar company Joe’s been pestering resolves to beat him at his own game and sends in Dorothy (Madge Evans) as an accident scene plant. She becomes one of Joe’s fakes and gathers enough evidence to expose his scams and get him disbarred. Trouble is, Dorothy falls hard for Joe, decides her “employers” (John Miljan and David Landau) are just as crooked and tries to get out of the deal, even if it means jail time for perjury.
Tracy is great fun to watch as he smoothly, expertly bends truth into pretzels, and gracefully improvises his way around every scheme, obstacle and trap. Instant attraction makes him more brazen and pushy than usual with Dorothy. He’s baffled when he doesn’t get his way with her and impressed that he might have met his match in this elusive, defiant and ultimately devoted woman. Their relationship is a great through line in what could otherwise have been an overly cynical story, with their push-pull, genuine attachment, moral dilemmas and reversals of affection bring about surprises in court and adjustments in Joe’s priorities.
Tracy, like the movie itself, does a nice job mixing light and dark. Dorothy’s informing leads to a devastated and rejected Prescott killing himself after drunkenly revealing Joe’s secrets. It’s a tragic and poignant turn in an otherwise breezy story and allows Tracy to reveal his guilt and disappointment at how far he’s strayed from that idealistic young law student in the picture frame. Nice companion scene for the darkly funny part where Tracy and Landau negotiate a settlement over a dying man, adjusting their amounts as he fades, rallies and expires. It all works to make this shyster likable despite his slimy practices, and has you rooting for him and Dorothy to squeak out of the legal and romantic mess they wind up in.
Nat Pendleton has a fun little bit in jail trying to figure out how Joe’s services end up costing 5 times the fine he owes. “Technocracy” is Joe’s incomprehensible explanation, but thanks to Tracy’s charm, you can buy it.
See The Nuisance on TCM, July 22 and now visit Karen at Shadows & Satin to see what her TCM pre-code pick is for this month.