|Released by RKO | Directed By Gregory La Cava
Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- An enticement to see an exotic dancer that doesn’t work as well nowadays: “She makes the old grow young and the young grow gay.”
- “But he ain’t the kind of a guy who’d recognize talent if it came up and bit him on the ankle!”
- Part of Bates’ money making routine involves shaking down men who’ve slept with carnival women over the years.
- Lots of jokes where Bates implies that Achilles is a eunuch, getting close to saying the actual word on occasion. “They have them in all of the Turkish harems. He’s very sensitive about it.”
- There’s a side trip to a nudist colony. Not-so-shockingly for the time, no one is nude.
- “What hypothesis is your cult based on?” “Sir!”
- Fallow is cheating on his wife by seducing every starlet that comes along. He even manages a divorce by the end.
The Half-Naked Truth: A Carnival of Crap
“The day of the Depression has passed, the day of reconstruction is here! The bucolic gentry will no longer pay for the old faldaldo. You can no longer sell the fat lady for a dime! The day of the snake is over! The strong man shall weep! The world is greased with banana oil! BANANA OIL, PROFESSOR! The people want excitement, sensation, baloney, and we’ve got to give it to ’em, Colonel, I’m tellin’ ya, we’ve got to give it to ’em! […] And one more thing, you give them what they think they want, and they’ll want what they think you’ll give them. As we say in trigonometry, A, B, C, 1, 2, 3, two and two makes four!”
That is an obscenely long quote, and if I told you Lee Tracy manages to rattle it off in just a handful of seconds, I doubt you’ll be surprised. The Half-Naked Truth is yet another showcase for a man who dances with slang and blowhard nonsense like Gene Kelly gets off with umbrellas and lampposts.
Here he’s stuck with a script that’s both verbose and intense. The Half-Naked Truth is one of those movies where everything– and by everything I mean sanity, god, the universe, everything– is about to run off the rails into pure uninhibited madness at any second. It’s a Marx Brothers movie where they’re all one guy and that guy is pissed. While there’s no doubt this sort of maddening nihilism will be appealing to some, especially if its sense of brash humor hits the mark, it’s not for me. It’s too lonely.
El plotto: Bates (Lee Tracy) is a barker for exotic hoochie-coochie dancer Teresita (Lupe Velez) at a flailing carnival. A few tents over is Achilles (Eugene Pallette), an escape artist grump who just wants to eat, which isn’t such an easy thing to come by in a carnival at risk of going under. Bates is eager to make his mark in the world as a promoter, so he sets up a phony stunt involving a fake bullet wound on his part, a fake suicide attempt on Teresita’s part, and a big planned fake reveal of the man in the town who ‘disgraced’ Teresita’s mother so many years ago. The stunt seems to work until the police bust in, so it’s high time for the trio to skeedadle on the ‘this carnival is suddenly burning to the ground’ racket and head to New York.
The moment they arrive, Bates starts spreading a line of hooey for everyone to take in, claiming Teresita is the Turkish Princess Exotica, with Achilles as her trusted eunuch. His backstory for the Princess involves illicit dancing and daring escapes from harems, so it’s unsurprising that people eat it up. The stunt annoys Teresa, who wisely keeps quiet during most of the ballyhoo so that no one notices her rather thick Mexican accent.
After a stunt involving a lion named Sambouli, Tracy gets her signed up with a Broadway producer named Farrell (Frank Morgan), a bumbling buffoon whose stops and starts mask a genuine yearn for legitimate artistry that constantly exceeds his grasp. He enrolls her in his follies and puts her in an elaborate number that bombs. Bates, seeing a way to fix the situation, fakes a skirmish backstage and instead orders Teresita to play a hoochie dance to a song called “O Mr. Carpenter”, which contains such delightful lyrics like this (via Cliff):
My cupboard doesn’t swing,
My doorbell doesn’t ring,
My bed has no more spring,
You ought to know what to do.
Teserita becomes a star, but she almost immediately sees Bates as disposable and Farrell as a new romance. Bates decides to top his success with Teresita, and, out of spite, ruin her career. He picks out a dumb blonde that Achilles has had his eye on, Ella (Shirley Chambers), and uses a stunt involving a nudist colony that’s just a group of hairy men in furry shorts and Ella using her hair in the popular-Godiva style. The ploy works, and Bates tops it with a rather funny escalating attack on Farrell using an incriminating photo (him feeding Teserita an olive by way of his mouth) that appears in small places around his office and grows in size as the poor man keeps discovering them hidden around. So Ella is in, Teresita is on the street, and Bates is the new god-king of publicity.
There’s more that happens in the movie, though I’m not sure it’s necessary to explain since it makes about as much sense as what came before it. (Read: none.) The problem is that it’s a lot of hot air being blown with nothing much to say underneath. The ‘stick with your friends’ platitude is as old and pointless as a pet rock collection, and its insinuations that flashy advertising men are more important than self-proclaimed artistes in creating public interest is never really explored, just stuck on Frank Morgan’s back in parenthesis under the words “KICK ME”.
Tracy is fine in the movie, making a great deal of chaos seem like something. The movie’s best gags rely on him for either motor mouthing insanity or sly insinuation, and he never fails to deliver. Eugene Pallette is good, too, playing that gruff, charming fellow with the same tenacity as he would later in The Adventures of Robin Hood, though there he at least didn’t have Robin spreading rumors about his testicles around.
But that’s where my niceties stop. Velez only has two gears: manic, and depressing the shit out of me. Her comedic sensibilities are nonexistent– she has the most measured, artificial responses to everything that happens to her, like there’s a few seconds reaction before the ‘acting’ button clicks and she finally puts together something resembling bemusement or shock. This happens with other comedic straight women of the time, like Dorothy Lee or Thelma Todd where they’ve been ‘thrown out of the moment’ by the wordplay and get a little off from the comedic timing. But for them, it’s an exception and not the same damn thing for every interaction. Velez’s persona is so artificial, and so completely reliant on ineffective temper tantrums, that I constantly find it grating.
To make matters worse, Frank Morgan (yes, ‘the Wizard of Oz’) is back playing his ‘befuddled’ schtick, which involves a lot of pausing to reconsider what he’s saying, and then a pause to reconsider the reconsideration. If Tracy is in high gear, Morgan is stuck between neutral and off.
A good comparison point to The Half-Naked Truth probably comes in the form of Blonde Crazy from Warner Brothers, which also involves a bigmouth who believes they’ve left the age of chivalry and entered the ‘age of chiselry’. Both are about wise guys who cheat and steal their way up the social ladder, though James Cagney’s Bert goes through tribulations including a humbling from a fellow con and losing out on a romantic pursuit due to his own immaturity. There’s none of that here, just a straight line from Tracy at the beginning to the end, with no growth. Merely barely-perceptible speed bumps to the mandatory happy ending.
Half-Naked Truth has its cachet of fans, including several people I respect greatly. Personally, I think they’re nuts this time, but, hey, at least that matches up with the tone of the film.
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Trivia & Links
- Several times in the picture Lee Tracy calls something cheesy, “the old faldaldo”, and I have no idea what it means. I tried “foul daldo”, “foal dalto” and a few other variants and got nothing. If I’m missing something a bit more obvious, please share it in the comments!
- As hard as it is to believe, there’s some half truth to the title. The movie is based on the book Phantom Fame by Harry Reichenbach, an autobiography about his days as a press agent. While the events are modified for the film, there are a few unbelievably close to real life (as Reichenbach tells it). If you only read one Wikipedia page today, make it his. An excerpt:
In other publicity stunts, Reichenbach would stage fake kidnappings of actresses set to appear in his films. One attempt involved crossing the border [for a fake raid against fake kidnappers] into Mexico, which resulted in United States president Woodrow Wilson writing an angry letter to Reichenbach asking him to stop.
- The New York Times is glowing, but wishes that the movie had stayed closer to Reichenbach’s real life shenanigans.
Although the narrative moves rapidly and Lee Tracy as James Bates, a publicity marvel, gives a lively and imaginative portrayal, the film might have been even better had the producers seen fit to adhere a trifle closer to fact. The edge is taken off some of the ideas by the extravagant fashion in which they come to the screen.
- John DiLeo wrote about the movie in his book Screen Savers, and you can purchase the chapter on this film separately.
It’s a sustained joyride to watch Tracy perform Jimmy’s pitches because he’s just about the most confident confidence man you’re likely to come across, and victory is invariably his. These are the “arias” of comic manipulation, full of flash and spit, neighs and whinnies. Nothing gets him more aroused than a crowd forming– a group of people to badger and cajole– and his biggest high is in knowing that he has put something over. There may have been a sucker born every minute, but Jimmy says, “The day I was born the clocks weren’t running.” […] When the press descends upon their New York hotel room, he feigns woe, then resignation, very grandly. Not since Jolson had anyone gestured so flamboyantly to make a point. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Tracy’s screen heyday was brief; how long could this guy keep up?
- Cliff at Immortal Ephemera has a vastly different opinion of this one than I do, and he goes into a lot more detail on it. Check it out if you’re interested.
Lupe Velez is a visual delight in The Half Naked Truth and I’m talking about more than her midriff baring outfits worn throughout. She can flip a switch on the expressions she wears in a way that’s bound to make you smile and never more charming in doing so than she is in her final rendition of “O! Mister Carpenter,” which is filled with stops and starts of emotion.
And that song, the only one in The Half Naked Truth, is just as catchy as it need be. Far from the old carny tune that Bates touts it to be, “O! Mister Carpenter” was written in 1931 by songwriters Edward Eliscu and Harry Akst. By the time it gets in Lee Tracy’s head and begins to lure his Bates away from New York it has become familiar enough for us to hum along to.
Awards, Accolades & Availability
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