|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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