Lee Tracy was unique. No one talked as fast as he did, and certainly no one ever backed that talk up with such eloquent and fascinating hand gestures. The experience of watching a Lee Tracy performance is like witnessing a strangely graceful machine gun going off. He specialized in playing wisecracking newspaper men, which was only natural since he originated the role of reporter Hildy Johnson in the quintessential newspaper comedy The Front Page on Broadway in 1928. He was also the movies’ first reporter-hero in a horror picture, 1932’s Doctor X.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Tracy is that he is one of the very few people who transitioned to working for MGM without losing his identity in the process. His MGM films (before he ruined himself with the studio in 1934 for offscreen behavior on location for Viva Villa) are just as fast and brash as those he made for other studios. The Nuisance (1933) is no exception. In this one, Tracy isn’t a reporter. Instead, he plays an ambulance-chasing lawyer, Joseph Phineas Stevens, who — with the help of his venal and perpetually soused doctor friend (Frank Morgan) — specializes in winning large settlements for his clients. He has become so adept at his work — and so brazen in his unethical and even dishonest methods — that the district attorney’s office decides to set him up and end his career — with the aid of a pretty “client” (Madge Evans). Whether it works out that way, you’ll have to see for yourself. Remember the film was made prior to the enforcement of the Production Code in 1934, so all bets for morality winning are off.
The film — I suspect because of its lackluster title — isn’t one of Tracy’s better-known movies, but it’s still one of his best. The blend of outlandish comedy (there’s a surprisingly dark scene with a dying man) and effective drama is surprisingly adroit. It’s mostly Tracy’s show — and its cheekiness leans pretty heavily on his Blessed Event (1932) — but there are some very good supporting turns in the film. Frank Morgan’s perpetually pickled medico manages to be both funny and tragic -— and his fate is actually disturbing. The great Charles Butterworth has a nice role as a man who specializes in faking accidents. Even the underrated Madge Evans — who usually appeared in fairly bland roles — stands out here where she’s given something worthwhile to do. It may not be quite a great film, but it’s pretty close. And it’s a lot more fun than many films that are great.
The Asheville Film Society will screen The Nuisance Tuesday, Jan. 21, at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.