Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: BLESSED EVENT (1932)

Although it's billed as a comedy, Roy Del Ruth's Pre-Code picture, Blessed Event (1932), actually gets into some pretty dark territory, thanks to an amoral protagonist who earns fame and fortune by airing other people's secrets in a sleazy tabloid column. Like Red-Headed Woman (1932) and Baby Face (1933), it's the kind of story that can only come from the Pre-Code era, replete with Prohibition drinking, sex scandals, and mobster violence. In this instance, the familiar theme of the social climber's willingness to use other people in order to get to the top is exemplified by Lee Tracy, who presents a masculine take on the street smart persona we often associate with Harlow and Stanwyck. Fans of the wisecracking star will appreciate his performance in Blessed Event, while those who favor the Busby Berkeley musicals of the period will enjoy seeing the big screen debut of Dick Powell as Tracy's chief target and social rival.

Tracy plays the ambitious Alvin Roberts, who gets his big break in the newspaper business by running short gossip pieces about the city's expectant mothers. He pens particularly juicy quips about the wealthy and the unwed, which earns the paper thousands of new readers and attracts death threats and lawsuits for Roberts. Alvin's girlfriend, Gladys (Mary Brian), has misgivings about the unethical nature of his work, but Alvin persists until a desperate pregnant woman (Isabel Jewell) embroils him in a dangerous situation with a mob boss (Edwin Maxwell) wants to murder Alvin to keep his name out of the affair.

The movie never pretends that Alvin's column isn't salacious, vicious, and under-handed, but it does offer us glimpses of Alvin's better nature. He supports and lives with his doting mother (Emma Dunn), whom he loves so much that he lets her listen to his nemesis, Bunny Harmon (Dick Powell), on the radio. He's smart, funny, and gifted with a cheerful disposition, even when confronted with gangsters who want to shut him up. One of Tracy's best scenes comes when tough guy Frankie Wells (Allen Jenkins) arrives to lean on Alvin but ends up being horrified into submission by Alvin's vivid recreation of a death row execution. The gossip columnist is presented to us as a 1930s version of the immortal trickster figure, a yellow press descendant of Coyote, Ananzi, and Brer Rabbit. He's not necessarily a good guy, but he's a lot of fun to watch.

Alvin steps over a line, though, when he prints the "blessed event" piece about Dorothy Lane, the pitiful little singer who begs him not to report her condition in the paper. Isabel Jewell gives a heartbreaking - although uncredited - performance as the pregnant girl. She's so pale and despairing that we expect any minute to hear that she has thrown herself out of a window after Alvin runs the tidbit in spite of her pleas. The story teeters on the edge of tragedy once she is introduced, and the ending can only ameliorate the damage that Alvin causes her. Once printed, his words can never be taken back, a fact that he doesn't appreciate until the very end of the film. Although most of the story makes light of scandalous pregnancies and quick marriages, this plot suggests the more serious plight of young women suffering Dorothy's fate; she loses her job, her home, her reputation, and even the support of her married lover in the wake of Alvin's disclosure.

Be sure to appreciate Ruth Donnelly as Alvin's assistant, Ned Sparks as a sour-faced colleague, and, of course, Dick Powell as the handsome radio crooner, Bunny Harmon. See more of Lee Tracy in Doctor X (1932), Dinner at Eight (1933), and Bombshell (1933). Roy Del Ruth also directed Blonde Crazy (1931), Born to Dance (1936), and Topper Returns (1941). Look for Mary Brian in The Front Page (1931), and don't miss Isabel Jewell in her best-known role as Emmy Slattery in Gone with the Wind (1939).

Blessed Event is currently available for streaming on Warner Archive Instant.