Me and My Gal (1932) Directed by Raoul Walsh.  Spencer Tracy, Joan Bennett, Marion Burns, George Walsh (79 min)

Beat cop Danny Dolan, a remarkably relaxed Spencer Tracy, tries to keep the dockside chaos at bay, while romancing wise-cracking waitress Joan Bennett.  Her sister is married, but hasn’t cut her romantic ties to a gangster, who plans a Rififi-like heist while hiding out in her attic.  Filled with smart talk and a very racy wrestle on the couch, this Pre-Code rediscovery from Fox is a treat “a crackling comedy-drama-romance-gangster film from director Raoul Walsh starring Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett …Everything about the picture works: it’s funny, romantic, suspenseful, and sentimental in the good sense, the dialog is sharp and sassy, and the two leads are terrific (DVD Talk).

Director Raoul Walsh was one of the rollicking characters who populated early motion pictures.  Surely, he directed one of your favorite movies, Douglas Fairbanks’ Thief of Bagdad, The Roaring Twenties, White Heat, High Sierra, many Errol Flynn movies of the 1940s, like Gentleman Jim and They Died With Their Boots On.  He was born in New York City in 1887, a town he loved, he has a sharp feel for the characters of the city streets and their tangy repartee, and he loved the working-class Irish families in Me and My Gal.  His father was a tailor who designed the uniforms for Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, which brought both prosperity and entrée to a society of colorful characters like Buffalo Bill and Enrico Caruso.  His beloved mother died when he was 15, and he roamed to Cuba, Texas and the Southwest, becoming a cowboy and returning to New York with the yearning to be an actor.  Since he could ride a horse, it became his ticket to the movies, where he acted (as John Wilkes Booth in The Birth of a Nation) and worked as D. W. Griffith’s assistant.  He became a silent movie leading man and director, but his career as an actor was cut short in 1930 after a freak automobile accident on location for In Old Arizona (his car hit a jackrabbit, which flew through the windshield, the glass shards resulted in the removal of one of his eyes).  One filmography lists Me and My Gal as his 90th film. In a documentary about him, one film historian says, “Pre-Code Walsh is simply delicious, entertaining, lusty, bawdy, some of his best work.” Walsh wanted to “keep it moving, with smart mouth characters, the kind I like the best.”  He relished “taunting the censors with the sex scenes” (Moss).

Raoul Walsh with Joan Bennett and Spencer Tracy

Spencer Tracy was praised for his naturalistic acting skills (“know your lines and don’t bump into the furniture”) although I have to say, he’s never been a favorite of mine.  He’s quite endearing in this film, which dates to the earliest part of his movie career.  He was born in Milwaukee, WI, in 1900.  He was a feisty kid who didn’t much like school, but the Ripon College drama department and debating team led him to a love of acting, which he studied in New York.  He travelled with stock companies, getting experience, and in 1923 married a fellow actor, Louise Treadwell. They had a son a year later, who was born deaf.  Tracy went on a bender, perhaps feeling he was to blame for his son’s disability.  He had always been a drinker, but now alcoholism would plague the remainder of his life and career. Tracy started getting small parts on Broadway, and became a protégé of George M. Cohan, who wrote a comedy, The Baby Cyclone, especially for him.  John Ford saw his fifth Broadway play, The Last Mile, in which he played a convicted killer, and cast him in a similar part in Up The River in 1930.  After eight struggling years on stage, he netted a Fox contract at $1200 a week, and he and his family moved to Hollywood.

One of Tracy’s biographers said, “The plot of Me and My Gal is innocuous at best, but the by play of Tracy and Bennett elevates it in virtually every scene…There are innumerable and obvious comic gimmicks, many of which are made delightful by Walsh’s snappy direction and especially by Tracy’s performance.” There were rumors of a romance between them, but neither Tracy or Bennett (in her memoirs) acknowledged it.  Tracy was a workhorse at the time, there were 18 Spencer Tracy movies between 1932-1934.  His ease at playing comedy was probably owed to his experience with the legendary showman George M. Cohan.  The Motion Picture Herald said, …As a matter of fact, the two make the picture, Tracy with his slangy wisecracking vocabulary and his easy, happy-go-lucky role does a splendid job, which is matched, letter for letter, by Miss Bennett, who is a sheer delight.”  I’d like to note that Bennett and Tracy affectionally call each other a “beezark” which was unfamiliar slang to me, but it’s also used in the intertitles of Show People, so it must have been a real expression of the day!   According to Google and the Urban dictionary- A fat, sloppy, useless loser.  Fox tried to re-release the film in 1935, but it violated the Production Code in too many ways to be publicly screened after 1934.

Joan Bennett had a very long career, based on her skill at reinventing her image along with the changing times.  First cast as a demure blonde ingenue epitomized by her role as Amy in the Katherine Hepburn version of Little Women, she transitioned to a raven-haired femme fatale in the 1940s, particularly in Scarlet Street and The Woman in a Window, and then to a warm-hearted mother in the 1950s, and finally a dignified matriarch in the long running tv soap, Dark Shadows.

Bennett was born into a famous theatrical family, her father, Richard was a matinee idol and her mother a leading lady.  Her older sister Constance would proceed her as a movie star.  Joan had a fancy education, eventually ending up at a Parisian finishing school.  But she had met a Seattle millionaire 10 years her senior on the Atlantic passage, and she ran away from school to marry him at 16.  She had a baby, but the marriage didn’t last and she turned to the family business to support herself and her infant daughter.  She auditioned for and won the lead in Ronald Colman’s Bulldog Drummond (1929) and then ingenue parts in Disraeli opposite George Arliss and Moby Dick with John Barrymore.  In 1932 she moved to Fox, where she stayed two years.  Her first film at Fox was opposite Spencer Tracy, She Wanted a Millionaire, and then Me and My Gal.  They would be reunited in the 1950s for Father of the Bride and Father’s Little Dividend.

This is a scrapbook page of a portrait from a 1932 fan magazine.

In her memoir (written with Lois Kibbee), Bennett wrote that Me and My Gal was the only memorable film of the six she made in 1932. Of Spencer Tracy, she wrote: “Working with [him] was a huge treat. I remember him as a rather private person, taciturn, though he had a delicious sense of humor. He teased me unmercifully, and it always pleased him when I rose to the bait, which was most of the time. There was one thing that seemed contradictory to his rugged screen image: he dressed impeccably, sartorially splendid at all times.

“Spencer was known in Hollywood as an ‘actor’s actor,’ and his intense powers of concentration were legendary. I never had the feeling that he was acting, but that the truth of the scene occurred at the very moment he spoke, and no matter how many times we repeated a scene, that spontaneity was always there. Like George Arliss, he was extremely meticulous in his work and methodical in his schedule. He took two hours for lunch and quit every day at five o’clock, and that was that. I worked with Spencer several times after that, and it was always stimulating and rewarding for me.” (Jeremy Arnold on  She was fascinated that he didn’t want to rehearse, spoiling the spontaneity of the filmed takes.  “Bore, bore, bore” he would complain if anything other than a camera rehearsal was required.  Luckily, that meshed with Walsh’s directorial style. (Kellow 161).

She added in a later interview, “Raoul used to call me Means the Mumbler, and I called him Uncle Raoulsie.  He was an absolute delight, so much fun.  I did three pictures with him—Wild Girl (1932) which I wasn’t crazy about but we shot on location in the Sierra Mountains.  Big Brown Eyes with Cary Grant, and one of my favorites Me and My Gal.  I wasn’t one of those simpering idiots for a change.  I was a fast talking, gum chewing waitress.  And Spence Tracy was in Me and My Gal and I’d say he was my absolute favorite co-star of all the actors I worked with.  We used to tease each other all the time” (Gallagher 478).

The villain, Duke Castenada, is played by George Walsh, the director’s younger brother.  He had been a huge star, starting in 1915, starring in a series of action-packed romantic comedies for Fox, in which his buff body was often on display.  He was cast as Ben-Hur in the 1926 spectacle, but when Metro, Goldwyn and Mayer merged, his star part was a casualty. All his feature films were destroyed in a famous Fox vault fire, which also claimed most of the films of Theda Bara.  Already in his early 40s by the time talking films came in, he played a few supporting roles in his brother’s films, before retiring to train racehorses.  Raoul’s biographer, Marilyn Ann Moss notes “George’s performance adds sizably to the picture.  With his husky voice and sure demeanor, he easily made the transition from silents to talkies in an unfortunately truncated career” (Moss 136).

This is a publicity photo to promote him in the title role of Ben Hur.

Shot in a swift 19 days, it was based on a section of the 1920 Fox film While New York Sleeps called “A Tragedy of the East Side” written by Charles J. Brabin and Thomas F. Fallon.  When movies are shot and released so quickly, topical jokes can easily be included, in this case a lampooning of the recently released Strange Interlude with Norma Shearer and Clark Gable.  The film, which Danny misremembers as Strange Inner Tube, is then mocked by our hearing the characters’ thoughts, which was that film’s selling point.  The gimmick was also ridiculed by Groucho Marx in Animal Crackers.

Walsh seems to be in love both with the location of the action, and the romance of his two lead characters.  “He falls in love with Tracy and Bennett falling for each other.  He cannot have enough of it, and his love of the romantic ignites this film’s high energy level” (Moss 136).

Me and My Gal plays wonderfully to an audience, lots of laughs, even for the fake drunk that gets way too much screen time. It’s striking how much attention the Depression gets, from the man who is going to drown his dog because he can no longer feed him, to the discussions of thieving politicians and the candidacy of Al Smith, a Democrat who ran against Herbert Hoover for President in 1928.  The Museum of Modern Art notes that the film was a flop when released, but “now seems like a quintessential urban comedy of the Great Depression.”  “Joan Bennett” by Ronald Bowers, June-July 1977 Films in Review, The Great Movie Stars by David Shipman, Spencer Tracy by Allison King, “Pre-MGM Spencer Tracy” by John C. Tibbets in the Nov-Dec 1995 Films in Review, “Raoul Walsh” by DeWitt Bodeen in the April, 1982 Films in Review, “George Walsh” by Larry L. Holland in the April, 1982 Films in Review, “Raoul Walsh” by John Gallagher in the October, 1987 Films in Review, The True Adventures of Raoul Walsh (2014) Directed by Marilyn Ann Moss, based on her book, Raoul Walsh, the True Adventures of Hollywood’s Legendary Director, The Bennetts: An Acting Family by Brian Kellow.