23 January 2009

"Everybody thought I was Jackie Cooper until Greta Garbo took me on her lap one day." - Or - Why Bombshell is Such a Terrific Film

You take a decent picture with a decent cast and decent director then toss in Jean Harlow and by God you've got yourself a winner. Now, let's say to this very same film you add Lee Tracy to co-star, and now you're talking about something special. Get a little greedy and top off this all off with Frank Morgan in a key supporting role, and ladies and gentleman you've created a classic.

Was such a thing ever done, you ask with bated breath?

What, you've never heard of Bombshell (1933) directed by Victor Fleming?

It's a riot.

Few movies are funnier or more fun. It may well be Harlow's best, which is saying a lot considering the astounding number of terrific films she appeared in during her brief lifetime.

(Here's the fly in the soup: Bombshell, like another Harlow classic, Red Dust (1932) is not yet available on DVD. Someone needs to get on this pronto.)

Bombshell is a take off on Hollywood in general and the vagaries of super stardom in particular. Harlow plays Lola Barnes, a character who, according to TCM's sage Robert Osborne, was not-so-loosely based on Clara Bow (she's even, like Bow, called the 'It Girl') and greatly resembles Harlow herself.

Lovely Lola is a HUGE starlet in Hollywood's constellation who shares a mansion with a perpetually drunken dad (Morgan) a deadbeat brother (Ted Healy) and various hangers-on, staff, assistants and sheepdogs.

Everybody wants a taste of the action and one and all are constantly around to annoy, pester and bug the heck out of poor Lola.

Meanwhile, she's being courted by a Marquis who has run afoul of her director who is played by Pat O'Brien in one of his more interesting performances.

But the man behind the screen who seems to operate all the levers of her life is studio publicist, 'Space' Hanlon (Tracy). Lee Tracy is only the second most famous actor with that surname but I'll subject myself to extreme ridicule by claiming that he was every bit the talent of that Spencer fellow. I've probably not seen enough of Tracy to legitimately make this claim but make it I will: this is his best role. I mean, he kills in this movie, positively kills.

Tracy may at first seem to be all wise cracking staccato delivery but he brings a lot more to any film, particularly to Bombshell. He is all big fingers and sinewy movements and sly glances and affected language. He gives a whirling dervish of a performance contained within an often deadpan expression. Then there's that voice. It should be as annoying as hell but dad gum if that screechy thing doesn't grow on you, especially in scenes when it is coupled with Harlow and her amazing pipes.

Why didn't Tracy become a bigger star? Film historian and critic Mick LaSalle offered a likely explanation in the San Francisco Chronicle recently: He'd be a household name today, except that he was a rowdy drunk, and in 1934 he was released from his MGM contract after a crazy incident in Mexico: He woke up in the morning, thought the balcony of his room was a urinal, and relieved himself on the heads of some cadets who were passing by on parade. This created a scandal.

One should be appalled by such behavior. Not me.

Anyway, we were taking about Bombshell....Lola Burns is growing increasingly frustrated with the moochers, suitors, back stabbers and bigwigs who so complicate her life. She's beginning to edge towards wanting out of the whole business. Our publicist friend is both a major cause of this season of her discontent and the driving force that may keep her in the fold.

Would you believe that this is a love story?

It is. It's also wonderful satire and some of its humor must have been even funnier to contemporary audiences which can only mean the actual sight in 1933 of patrons quite literally rolling in the aisles of movie theaters. C. Aubrey Smith (this picture was so stacked with talent that it could afford to save him and Franchot Tone until the last reel) has a great line about real-life fellow actor Lewis Stone, just before Tracy delivers the line in this post's title.

I wish I could make the rather obvious suggestion that you rent this immediately. But as I already sadly noted this is currently not possible. TCM showed it a fortnight ago and it's scheduled to run again on April 14. I'm no expert on calendars or anything but I believe that's in the neighborhood of three months away. Rats!

Meanwhile, maybe we should try to find a power that be (is?) and demand that Bombshell be released on DVD. I'll buy the first damn copy.

1 comment:

R. D. Finch said...

I absolutely agree that this is one terrific and terrifically funny movie. It's been awhile since I saw it, but I second your advice to get hold of it immediately. This is easily my favorite Harlow performance that I've seen. Some of her movies make me wonder what all the fuss was about (aside from her apparent aversion to wearing a bra) but not this one. Years ago Pauline Kael used to quote her favorite line in it. TONE to HARLOW: "Your hair reminds me of a field of daisies. I'd like to run barefoot through your hair." Who wouldn't want to see a movie with dialogue like that it it? And Tracy is great too. He and Harlow make wonderful adversaries.