|J. Phineas Stevens
|Released by Metro Goldwyn Mayer | Directed By Jack Conway
Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- “Since you refuse to share my humble dwellings for the evening, there’s only one thing left for me to do. Share yours.”
- A big German woman’s been cheating on her husband for 10 years with a man named Willy. This probably speaks to my infantile sense of humor, but she spends much of the picture professing her love of the man. Like when she says, “I got my man! I got my Willy!” And then later she gets frustrated when her lawyer tries to keep them apart: “Give me back my Willy!” she cries. And more, naturally.
- To try and dodge the marriage, the lawyer puts Willy through a fake physical examination. This includes a line that’s been muted while Charles Butterworth is clearly checking out the man’s junk. What’s he saying? Wish I could read lips…
- Eugenics gets a namedrop, as does one of the 1930s most famous practitioners:
“All good doctors is German!”
“I understand all of that’s been changed since Hitler was elected!”
- Madge Evans is put through a thorough physical examination by doctors, and their delight in doing it is absolutely perverse.
- A mother tells her son as they’re stuck on a streetcar, “You’ll just have to wait!” and he replies, “I can’t!”
- Shyster lawyers are good, honest heroes. Uh, wait, ditch the ‘honest’ part.
The Nuisance: Money Doesn’t Come From Fountain Pens
“Yeah, that’s me. Fresh from law school. […] And green, too. I believed everything in the law books. I even believed in justice.”
Lee Tracy is Joe Stevens, a shyster lawyer who knows how to cook a crime scene like the best of them. He has an associate in Dr. Prescott (Frank Morgan) who can doctor the x-rays to keep things in the clear, and Floppy (Charles Butterworth), whose favorite past time involves taking dives in front of hapless motorists and collecting insurance checks. Their racket involves beating ambulances to the scene of an accident, picking up people who may not have any serious injuries, and convincing them to sue. Stevens’ main target of ire is the local rail car company who routinely, through accident or miscalculation, ends up mauling a wide range of patrons. So, for Joe, business is good, even if Prescott is a little too fond of the drink.
The rail car company, on the other hand, has seen their bottom line injured by nearly $500,000 in the last year– no small feat for originating from a single lawyer, let alone one who conducts himself in a way that projects about as much honesty as your average politician. The rail car lawyers realize they have to fight back, and figure the best way is to put a pretty tidy case of deceit on Joe’s plate and call him out on it in a court of law– and that pretty case is embodied by Dorothy Mason (Madge Evans).
That’s the main thoroughfare, though the movie is very much a showcase of Joe’s ability to outfib and outsmart anyone who comes along. The movie wisely has a heart, too, though, giving Tracy’s character an uncommonly sympathetic background. His first case, fresh faced from law school, involved losing on a technicality to the street car company. So now he hurts the company back the only way he knows how: in the pocketbooks.
The concept is probably even more relevant nowadays as the American Dream has evolved and as corporations with lots of money look to protect themselves legally before outrageous cases of gross negligence come to light. The blunt lesson of the movie is that corporations have no consideration for human life besides how it affects the bottom line. While Stevens sinks to deceit and trickery to get his verdicts, whatever the street car company ends up paying to these people for their own negligence still isn’t enough to satisfy him– or to teach the company a lesson.
The Nuisance is stylishly made, and the movie leads off with an impressive tracking shot of Tracy making his way through his office. Scenes of mayhem are appropriately dirty and hectic, such as the train accident scene and the many mob scenes involving people in a post-accident panic. It’s a very lively looking film, which matches perfectly with Tracy’s motormouth bravura– one imagines with a different actor in the lead role, the movie would have taken twice as long.
But besides Tracy, the supporting cast is excellent. The romance between Dorothy and Joe, which runs the usual path from deceit to pain to finally love, works incredibly well considering how many cliches come in. Part of it comes from Madge Evans’ ability to play smart and seductive with such flair, but a lot comes from a screenplay that makes it easy for the audience to see the situation as she does at first (this guy’s an asshole making a mockery of justice) to what she finally understands (both sides are cheats, and Tracy, in some cases, is at least helping something other than the corporate bottom line).
There’s also Frank Morgan– and I say this as a person who usually winces at the phrase ‘the comedic stylings of Frank Morgan’– whose role as Prescott is that of a doddering drunk but also an adviser to Joe. There’s a very paternal relationship there, and it feels very lived in. Charles Butterworth can sometimes be too much, but he’s just right here; something about Butterworth’s comedic persona fits in well with someone constantly hit by cars.
The Nuisance is a solid comedy, a triumphant story of using American cunning to repudiate corporate greed with wits and verve– and very pre-Code in just how far it goes to show such an anti-hero succeed so admirably. It’s very funny and brash, and if any of this sounds like fun, you’re in for a treat.
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Trivia & Links
- Glenn Erickson rates this one as ‘Excellent’, and explains the film’s strength is in how it develops its central relationship:
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.
- Besides the many then-timely references, at one point Floppy gets a bus driver arrested for not being up on his vaccinations.
- I really love the simple but saucy poster for the movie:
Awards, Accolades & Availability
- This film is available on Amazon and Warner Archive.
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brianpaige · May 15, 2015 at 7:45 am
The Nuisance is awesome. One of Tracy’s best vehicles. I think Tracy might be the best ever at switching seamlessly from comedy to drama at the drop of a hat. I think this one is now out on Warner Archive, so everyone can check it out.
Danny · May 25, 2015 at 2:51 pm
I believe so, too, and I love it. Definitely one of my favorite discoveries of the year so far.
Jack J Mass · July 23, 2016 at 8:29 am
The nuisance was The Fortune Cookie of its day. Only more scabrously funny. And Lee Tracy remains one of my all-time favorite character actors-comedians and all-round pre-code wonders. And that wonderfully rat-ta-tat voice! Caught him in The Best Man the other evening on TCM. It might have been his last role, but he was at his duplicitous and devilish best. He hadn’t lost a bit of his , even in his declining years. The Half-Naked Truth, with Lupe Velez, is one screwball comedy with acid on its tongue that is deliciously malicious. A laugh-out-loud side-splitter that still does it for me. Yep, Lee Tracy. A natural in every movie he made.
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