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Blessed Event (DVD Review)

2 Apr, 2012 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$19.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Lee Tracy, Mary Brian, Dick Powell.

With the possible exception of onetime CBS radio/TV powerhouse Arthur Godfrey, there is probably no mean-spirited (or at least destructive) public personality who took a bigger fall from media grace into future obscurity (watch your back, Rush) than New York Daily Mirror gossip columnist Walter Winchell. But until the classic Sweet Smell of Success took the first splashy swipe at a fictional WW, he had the ability to make the powerful quake if they had skeletons in their closets — or if he even thought they did.

Winchell also ended up in a few movies, usually playing himself or doing voiceover narration (think of his bang-up job on TV’s “The Untouchables”). Blessed Event, though, is a play-to-film from 1932 that was fashioned on him, and if I were still the professional film programmer I once was for eight years, I’d immediately pair it with Sweet Smell in a double bill that would shoot audiences out of the theater (and with smiles on their faces) in about three hours, bam! Cast as this transparent variation (a columnist named Alvin Roberts) is Lee Tracy, who had few peers in playing irreverent wisecrackers in the 1930s. In fact, Tracy’s career got curtailed in real life when, in a famous incident during the location shooting of MGM’s Viva Villa! and in some disputed fashion, he either did or didn’t urinate on a Mexican parade from a balcony. But whatever he did, which may have been just a verbal insult, it got him fired from the production (and here you thought today’s Republican candidates were having a tough time with Hispanics.)

Tracy was one of the era’s foremost “brash” performers in a screen era full of them, and Event is probably the premier vehicle from his youth or relative youth (he never looked young) — though the following year’s Bombshell with Jean Harlow would also be up there. Event is also one of the definitive newspaper movies from that same ink-stained era, though it is so contemporary in its attitude — in its heart, it’s a love song to the TMZ.com kind of ambush — it could probably be remade today (but, please … don’t). Tracy/Roberts takes over a New York rag’s column when its regular writer is on vacation, soon filling it with coy allusions to “blessed events”  — which are those cute little bundles that either come along without benefit of clergy or at least too soon after shotgun ceremonies involving celebrities or the otherwise well-heeled. The movie’s amusement at all this anti-Santorum sexual behavior pervades the zippy narrative and is one reason the film has a distinctly pre-Production Code flavor (or more accurately, pre-enforced Code flavor).

There are also one or two mild racial references plus the characterization of a singing band leader and regular Roberts target played by Dick Powell as a “pansy” — something that, say, the non-florally-voiced Jack Teagarden probably didn’t have to endure. This was Powell’s screen debut before becoming (for a while) Jack Warner’s favorite tenor, and if someone had ever claimed from the evidence here that Powell would become one of the greatest hard-boiled noir stars in screen history just a dozen years later, that person would have been called a name or two himself.

Though Event is a personal favorite from the primitive Warner school, I have to be reminded each time I see it that, yes, it was originally a play and that Tracy sometimes plays a bit to the third balcony, though not to any serious detriment. Despite its laughs, the studio wouldn’t have had to move the dial a whole lot to make Event very close to the more emotionally brutal Five Star Final from the previous year — a best picture Oscar nominee at the time and still a movie with power if you can filter out a few supporting cast histrionics. As with Tracy here, Final’s big-city editor Edward G. Robinson will lob a press grenade even into the lives of relative innocents if he thinks it’ll improve circulation. In both films, the protagonists come to change their ways but in different fashion, which means …  hmmm … that Final and Event would make a great double bill, too. (Old programmers never die; they just fade away like Douglas MacArthur’s generals.)

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