|Released by Warner Brothers | Directed By Roy Del Ruth
Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- The main plot of the movie involves an unscrupulous gossip columnist named Alvin Roberts who reports on pending pregnancies. Sometimes these pregnancies occur before their wedding dates or with none at all!
- Alvin has a rivalry with a smug bandleader and crooner named Bunny Harmon. Alvin loves to take digs at him, up to and including calling him a ‘pansy’. His mother suggests that the two bury their rivalry and make-up, and Alvin digs that Bunny is the one who needs the make-up.
- One woman on the receiving end of a blessed event is being paid by her mobster boyfriend to ‘go out into the country’ to take care of the baby.
- Singer Bunny Harmon sings a number of inconsequential musical numbers including “Honeymoon Express”, whose premise is: “How can you say no when the whole world is saying yes?”
- A hood named Frank brags about how he killed a Chinese man, though he doesn’t put it in such nice words. And because Alvin can use the information against him, he gets away with it!
- A police slaps a prisoner around plenty.
- There’s also a scene where its clear that several exclamations of Tracy’s got muted– I assume they were improvised, since I doubt they would have gotten past even a cursory review from the Hays’ Office. From my middling lip reading ability, this includes a “God!”and what appears to be a “Goddammit!”.
- The film’s closing line is definitely a howler.
Blessed Event: Motormouth Madness
“Got any news?”
“Well, Hoover’s president.”
“Yeah, but I’ve been told to keep that quiet.”
God help me, Lee Tracy is growing on me. The motormouth Warner Brothers star whose portrayals of unrepentant reporters, grandstanding publicity agents, and general nuisances were a staple of pre-Code fast talk has finally worn down my sensibilities. Second only to Jimmy Cagney in the ‘rattling off words at the speed of sound’ department, Tracy is a one man virtuoso of the tongue, leaping run-on sentences in a single bound.
Blessed Event is a showcase for this talent, casting Tracy as Alvin Roberts, a gossip columnist who finds that dirt sells. His coup de grace is that he invents a way of indicating a pregnancy– society women ‘anticipate a blessed event’– and then becoming utterly ruthless in his quest to outboast and outbrag every other writer out there. Each column has to end with a punchline– a final kicker that sends the column into infamy.
He spends a lot of time at the office dodging libel suits with his eternally bemused secretary Miss Stevens– Ruth Donnelly is the master of the reaction shot, and she gets some plum looks of exasperation and wonder here. Also among the newspaper staff is Ned Sparks as Moxley, the columnist Alvin replaced and sent to the pet section. Moxley is a cantankerous bastard but just enjoys being such a thing. Rounding out the newspaper crew is fellow society columnist Gladys, a beautiful gal who Alvin lusts for. Even if she denounces his actions, she can’t help but love his spirit.
Alvin’s columns bring him to the attention of mobster Sam Gobel who sends a hood named Frankie to zip Alvin’s lips. Alvin thinks fast, though, and manages to intimidate Frankie into working for him. This happens in the film’s virtuoso scene where Alvin, thinking he has a piece of evidence that could put Frankie on death row, recounts in great detail every moment of an electrocution. His words completely unnerve the hardened hood, and Jenkins and Tracy play this scene fast, furious, and surprisingly funny.
Alvin’s an all around piece of work. He grows incensed when a rival newspaper runs an editorial decrying him as a ‘nadir of American journalism’. He becomes obsessed with the word (after Miss Stevens looks it up in the dictionary for him) and hails it as a personal triumph when the paper later comes to him with a generous job offer.
I’d also be remiss not to mention Alvin’s rivalry with radio crooner Bunny Harmon who had gotten him fired from a previous job. The two trade gleeful barbs, and Alvin is all too happy to say that Bunny is a little purple under the collar– so much so that my wife, watching the movie with me, wondered aloud if the bitterness may not cover a certain level of attraction.
That implication wouldn’t be too surprising since the film is bursting with blue humor, with Alvin playfully digging up dirt from bribery and from tricking the unaware. He calls up a woman in a hotel room pretending to be a detective. He orders her to send the man in the room away and she nervously obliges. He hangs up the phone and chortles, “Miss Constance Connor is back in circulation!”
This all sounds pretty silly, but Blessed Event takes its major dramatic turn straight from the Five Star Finalplaybook: Alvin is given the opportunity to not print something that could potentially ruin a woman’s life. He opts to do so anyway, starting off a chain of betrayals that squarely put him in the sights of Gobel’s thugs.
Considering the level of risque barbs that fly around the movie, it’s not too surprising that the film ends condoning Alvin’s rumor mongering rather than condemning it. The girl whose reputation Alvin destroyed, Dorothy, decides to take the law into her own hands and kill Sam Gobels. Alvin vows to use his column to paint Sam as such a rat that she’ll be seen as a hero, which is encouraged even by the moral Gladys. Even though he misused the public trust in exploiting Dorothy for a story, his determination to use his column to set things right wins her over. The moral of the story turns out to be that if you do something crappy, make sure you do something nice to make up for it!
Alvin never has to choose between Gladys and his fame, and the only thing he loses through his adventures is a small amount of respect. He’s a self made man of gumption, and once he’s learned a lesson in helping out the little guy, he’s back on his feet. It’s a Depression Era Horatio Alger story with the added bonus that the gangsters and the rich end up groveling at Alvin’s feet. That, my friends, ain’t a bad deal at all.
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Trivia & Links
- Blessed Event is based on a stage play of the same name and was based loosely on the career of gossip columnist Walter Winchell. Here’s his bio over on Wikipedia.
- The Ruth Snyder story that Tracy recounts in the movie is a true one, and was also dramatized in the James Cagney movie Picture Snatcher. The tabloid photograph of the moment of execution scandalized the nation. The executioner, Robert Elliott, recounts the story over at the Crime Library site.
- This movie is the film debut of Dick Powell. He looks a little made up, but much of his peppy personality is intact. And, of course, he gets a few numbers to sing.
- Laura over at Laura’s Misc. Musings really enjoyed this one, calling the film, “Still relevant.”
- Glenn Erickson, the DVD Savant, talks about Tracy’s turn in this film and how its very setup would be shunned just a few short years later:
Later movies curbed by the Code office might introduce a supposedly heartless or corrupt hero, only to reveal that he was a sentimental softie all along: James Cagney’s Angels with Dirty Faces derives its hypocritical appeal by playing up this dichotomy. But Al Roberts in Blessed Event is never really contrite. Besides weathering the disapproval of Mary Price, Al can also slough off the protests of a young female journalism major disillusioned by his corrupt way of doing business. And he never tells his mother (the mother he lives with) what he’s up to; she thinks he’s a beloved figure.
- Home Media Magazine compares this film generously to The Sweet Smell of Success, a notably less rosy skewing of Winchell.
- Shadowplay compares the film to 1931’s The Front Page and talks about how Tracy’s fast talking wiseguy that he originated on Broadway was missing from that adaptation.
- One discussion in the film about Alvin’s media presence, he remarks, “Television? I tell you now, it’ll never prove a popular method.” That certainly may have looked like a possibility in the early 30s, but it’s pretty funny in retrospect.
- Here’s the film’s trailer:
Awards, Accolades & Availability
- This film appeared in the Wikipedia List of Pre-Code Films.
- This film is available on Amazon and Warner Archive. As of this writing, it’s available on Warner Archive Instant, where these screenshots are sourced from.
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Erich Kuersten · May 2, 2014 at 2:10 am
Yeah man, I didn’t like Lee Tracy before seeing this either. That death row pantomime really put the hook in me. And I liked that he was ruthless even to ruine the life of a helpless woman if it means meat for the grinder.
Danny · May 2, 2014 at 9:52 am
Oh, hey! I love your blog! even when I don’t agree with you 100%, you’re a great read. And you’re right, that scene between Tracy and Jenkins is a wonder. Thanks for coming by!
Cliff Aliperti · May 2, 2014 at 2:36 am
“God help me, Lee Tracy is growing on me” – Aha!
This is the Tracy that usually gets all the attention and maybe I’ve watched it a few too many times because of that, but I am really hoping to see you get to Washington Merry-Go-Round, The Half-Naked Truth and The Nuisance, all of which I’ve come to prefer to Blessed Event (The Nuisance, I mean c’mon, whatta perfect title for a Lee Tracy movie!). Clear All Wires! can be tedious, but it’s growing on me as well.
Danny · May 2, 2014 at 9:53 am
I blame like 90% of my ‘to watch’ queue on you Cliff, no fair adding more. >:(
Andrew Gilmore · May 2, 2014 at 6:59 am
See? I told you you’d come around on Lee Tracy. This was the first picture I saw him in, and I was an instant fan. Glad to hear you enjoyed it, and I enjoyed your review. Now go watch “Clear All Wires” and “The Half-Naked Truth” and you’ll be even more hooked.
By the way, just in case you didn’t know- not only is Alvin Roberts based on Winchell, but Alvin Roberts’ feud with Bunny Harmon is based on Winchell’s good-natured feud with a radio bandleader of the time named Ben Bernie.
Danny · May 2, 2014 at 10:07 am
I have no idea how it happened, especially since I wasn’t too fond of this movie the first time I watched it. I think watching more of Tracy’s stuff helped me appreciate this more, though I still don’t think I could give Bombshell another shot. Like I said to Cliff, I’ll catch more Tracy when I have time (maybe later this year?). And thanks for the tidbit about Bernie– it makes me wonder how the principals felt about being so blatantly portrayed in this film…
Michael Abrams · November 25, 2021 at 7:16 pm
Winchell and Bernie would do a film several years later show casing their good natured feud.
brianpaige · May 2, 2014 at 7:54 am
You had the exact reaction I did to this film. I saw a few other Tracy outings and was more or less baffled by the guy. Frankly I thought he sucked the first time I saw Dr. X. Then I finally got this on VHS from a Saturday Matinee in Evansville, IN circa 1996. It all clicked. I understood exactly what the deal was with Tracy and from that point was hooked on any of his movies that popped up on TV.
I still don’t know how he never played in any film version of The Front Page. The odd thing is that he was Hildy Johnson on stage, yet he seems totally like Walter Burns if you ask me.
Danny · May 2, 2014 at 10:09 am
He was Hildy?! I won’t lie, I definitely did not expect that. Thanks for coming by, Brian. Hopefully I’ll get to doing more Tracy soon, as I’m now looking forward to his stuff!
Grand Old Movies · May 3, 2014 at 7:01 am
This film is so gloriously pre-Code. One moment I treasure out of it (out of so many) is sweet Emma Dunn looking at the camera and saying, “I’ll be damned.” (She says the line so blandly that audiences in revival theaters where I’ve seen the film always laugh). Interesting point there, about a perhaps-repressed attraction between Powell and Tracy’s characters; there IS something a little fey about Tracy here. I like how slimy Powell comes across in this film (a quality which seemed tamped down in his later musicals); my guess is that he drew on that characteristic when he started making noirs in the 1940s.
Danny · May 7, 2014 at 9:37 pm
I must have missed Dunn’s curse (I was too busy reading Tracy’s lips, which probably isn’t saying the best things about me either). And I agree with you on Powell’s sliminess, though I think sometimes he had trouble turning it off– some of his later comedies like The Reformer and the Redhead seem less like comedies with him as the lead.
Judy · May 6, 2014 at 6:37 am
I really want to see this – I’ve read that Cagney was originally supposed to play the lead and it sparked one of his walkouts from Warner’s because he hated the script, but it sounds as if Tracy does a great job anyway. Hope to catch up with it soon. I wasn’t too keen on ‘Bombshell’ either, but liked Tracy in ‘Love Is a Racket’.
Danny · May 7, 2014 at 9:39 pm
It’s a lot of fun, and I hope you get a chance to track it down!
carol · August 22, 2014 at 12:46 pm
just saw this movie tonight, have also been watching the tcm marathon for lee tracy what an actor. you want to love him and punch him in the nose . he is great.
Danny · August 27, 2014 at 3:12 pm
Oh yeah. It took me quite a while to warm up to him, but this is the film that did it.
Ellen Asleson · May 8, 2015 at 11:19 pm
I love this movie, too! The first time I saw it, the “electric chair” scene had my jaw on the floor. This movie is the perfect melding of star and role. And Powell is a hoot, with his eye-rolling and bouncing.
Danny · May 25, 2015 at 2:37 pm
Very true. It definitely grew on me.
Terence · February 14, 2016 at 2:22 am
You have to see Lee Tracy at his best in The Half-Naked Truth (1932) and Clear All Wires (1933). The first is an early, pre-code screwball directed by Gregory LaCava where he plays a nutty press agent. And Clear All Wires, he is a Reuters or AP type wire reporter. He was at his best in Bombshell. I can’t get enough of Lee Tracy although I will say that he ruins Dr. X for me. (Warners couldn’t resist tarting up a potentially good horror movie with wisecracking reporters for some reason.) I first saw Blessed Event on Cinema Club 9, a local (Washington D.C.) program around 1972 or 1973. It blows my mind how many of the movies you’ve reviewed were screened there — Blood Money, Born To Be Bad, Walking Down Broadway, Me and My Gal, Hell’s Highway, The Love Parade, Love Me Tonight — and several were touted as ‘first time on television.’ They ran a print of The Power and the Glory (1933) with French intertitles. The show used to mail out program notes (!) by Stephen Zito of the AFI and film stills to those who signed up to be members and somewhere, I still have mine buried away somewhere. It’s worth noting the Walter Winchell was also the prototype for Burt Lancaster’s character in The Sweet Smell of Success and that Lee Tracy made a beautiful, final comeback as a Harry Truman-like president in The Best Man (1964).
Danny · February 16, 2016 at 8:38 pm
All good points. I’ve seen a few other Tracy flicks, but I really need to head into them hard soon. Thanks for sharing all that stuff– you saw a few back then that I still need to catch now!
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