What happened in Mexico
didn't stay in Mexico for Lee Tracy
didn't stay in Mexico for Lee Tracy
|Lee Tracy 1945|
Betrayal From The East
"I was feeling pretty high so I shouted as loud as I could, 'Why don't you go to hell.' But I was just helping them celebrate."
Lee Tracy had been a movie actor for several years by this point. He'd also been on Broadway. He was Hildy Johnson in The Front Page, the play that was transformed on screen as His Girl Friday. There Hildy Johnson became a woman, Rosalind Russell playing the role opposite Cary Grant and Ralph Bellamy.
It was 1933. A time before stylists and spin doctors. The studio had warned him not to talk, Tracy said.
"The insult offered by this actor to the Mexican Cadet Corps has embarrassed and shocked the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer organization as deeply as it has the Mexican people," Mr. Mayer wired.
"As a result of this actor's deplorable behavior, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer has removed him not only from the film Viva Villa, but has dismissed him entirely from its employ and canceled his long term contract. Tracy's action in effect
|The Front Page |
-- The Pittsburgh Press, November 23, 1933
Charles G. Clarke, the cinematographer on the picture, said that he was standing outside the hotel and doing some filming during the parade. People in the crowd were yelling for Tracy and Wallace Beery to come out and make an appearance.
"All of the paraders were not ardent fans, however, and some of them would make obscene gestures. The exact meaning may have been known only to themselves, but I gathered they were not complementary. Our boys, in innocence, may have laughingly returned a gesture or two, but if so, I did not witness it.
"I thought it was nice of them to make an appearance and that they must have thrilled many of the country boys who could not return to their homes and boast to all their friends about how they had seen the famous actors in person.
"In a short time our government liaison connections rushed down to the hotel and stated that Lee Tracy had to be gotten out of the country immediately. They said that the papers were coming out that afternoon with a story to the effect that Tracy had insulted the Mexican flag, Mexican motherhood and the nation in general. It would put the government in an embarrassing position and some action against Tracy would have to be taken.
"The Mexican papers raised such a scandal that our own press took it up. Lee Tracy became a martyr, and to satisfy public opinion he was removed from the picture. Much has been written about this affair, and there may have been other circumstances, but at least you have one eyewitness account of what really happened. *The most widely reported story is that Lee Tracy urinated on the people below."
-- Highlights and Shadows: The Memoirs of a Hollywood Cameraman
Lee Tracy appeared in Bombshell with Jean Harlow
The earliest articles said Tracy was on the balcony in his pajamas gesturing,
|Emporio Armani |
Men's Cotton Pant
He'd also admitted from the start that he'd had too much to drink. He was hollering back and forth with people in the crowd. That behavior was bad, particularly as a guest in the country and a representative of the studio.
Some of the later articles changed things around. He became more and more naked and exposed in each article. His behavior was reported as being even more outrageous. Repeatedly he was called Godiva on a balcony.
"Tracy was accused of hurling insulting epithets from the balcony of his hotel at the passing parade. Not only that, but the actor is charged with playing the dickens with Mexican morals by appearing on said balcony with nothing between him and nudity but a carelessly draped blanket which revealed much of Mr. Tracy's physical magnificence."
-- The Sunday Morning Star, Wilmington Delaware
|"At the Brown Derby in Hollywood. Irving Pichel, Isabel Jewell and the irrepressible Lee Tracy. |
His Mexican adventure fitted in so perfectly with his screen character that he was promptly forgiven by his fans."
Silver Screen Feb. 1934
Director Howard Hawks had been in Mexico working on the movie earlier. He had already left Mexico at the time all this happened. Hawks however did say that Tracy urinated on people. Where the director got the story and why he repeated it isn't clear.
It seems there would have been some more immediate ramifications following such behavior that we also would have heard about.
There is at least a chance the 'urination' part of the story was manufactured entirely from thin air. That part of the story could have kept going to the point that it seemed to be fact due to repetition and word of mouth.
From a book about the director, a story he told:
"Hawks may have even inadvertently killed a man himself. At one location 'a fellow came out and shoved a gun at me and started to yell something. I just turned and hit him and he went over and hit his head on a railroad track.
"I never heard whether he died or what happened. I said, 'What the hell was he yelling?' They told me that he said, This is for the revolution! Another man supposedly blew his brains out in front of everyone. Hawks's bemused comment on all this turmoil was simply, 'It was nutty.'"
|"Actor clad only in blanket on balcony police say,|
and then it slipped."
(Who came up with this?)
"US Ambassador to Mexico Josephus Daniels reported more fully to the State Department:
"'Tracy appeared on a balcony of the Hotel Regis unclad and using very profane and insulting language at the moment when the military cadets marching in the parade of November 19th were passing in front of the hotel. He was immediately arrested and ... was released at 1:00 o'clock on the morning of November 20th and left the capital by plane at 6:00 a.m. that day. His arrival at El Paso Texas was reported in press dispatches from there the following day, November 21st.
"'From November 22nd to November 24th the Mexico City press gave considerable publicity to the Tracy incident as well as to the filming of the picture, Viva Villa! On November 23rd prominence was given to a telegram which Mr. Louis B. Mayer sent to President Rodríguez apologizing for the conduct of Lee Tracy and announcing his dismissal and the cancellation of his contract with the company.
"'Prior to the arrest of Lee Tracy, considerable newspaper publicity had been given to alleged complaints against the filming of the picture Viva Villa!, which was said picture the former revolutionary leader of Mexico General Francisco Villa, in a manner defamatory to Mexico.'
[end of quote from the Ambassador to Mexico; ellipsis is part of quote]
"There was no mention of urination in the ambassador's summary, nor was there in a more detailed account prepared by the embassy's third secretary, John Aguirre. ... Hawks, who in his own memory of the events had left before any of this started, arrived at the US Embassy for a meeting at which he requested that the consulate general handle the case from here on, which was done."
-- Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood by Todd McCarthy
|Viva Villa poster, Wallace Beery, Fay Wray|
Cameraman Charles G. Clarke witnessed it, was filming and he says it did not happen. I can't find anything from Wallace Beery.
The most offensive outrageous story will get the most traction whether it's 1933 or 2014, and faster online. The more outrageous they say his behavior was, the more justification for his being fired. It may have served someone politically, too.
The most repeated information of Tracy's urinating on people is cited from the autobiography of Desi Arnaz. I haven't seen the book or the exact quote. I couldn't find what character Mr. Arnaz played in the film. If Arnaz was with them and/or witnessed the event, that's something right there.
Some of the web sites, blogs and books who have mentioned it may have alternate information and sources. It isn't that easy to find.
The Hays Office reported having Tracy under a Gentleman's Ban, giving him time to cool his heels.
|Eyewitnesses were interviewed in a 1934 magazine|
Addition September 2014: George Rigas played Pancho Villa's father in Viva Villa. He stood below the window of Tracy's room, watching the procession with Charles Clark, the cameraman of the company. .... "I am not a personal friend of Mr. Tracy. I have talked to him only once or twice in my life," he says. " But I feel that a grave injustice has been done and I should like do see it righted. You see I saw it all. I was not in the room with him, but even better - I was standing under his window, watching the procession pass. ..."
This is an excerpt from the article. Rigas says that a gesture Tracy made may have been misinterpreted by some in the crowd but if so it was a minority.
A newspaperman called the police and eyewitnesses admit that Tracy was argumentative with the officers who arrived. Another man, actor and director Irving Pichel, who was in the room with Lee Tracy was also interviewed.
Tracy takes out a full-page ad ...
In movie magazine Modern Screen he explains his side of the story, 1934
"To the readers of Modern Screen: I have no apology to make to anyone. In the first place, Mexico has forgotten my hilarious conduct while a guest in their country. Mexico is actually unable understand the unforgivably bad publicity meted out to me by uninformed members of the press.
"Hollywood, however is not quite so charitable. Making mountains out of molehills, creating rumor stories out of thin air seems to be the favorite indoor sport of our best gossipers."
He goes on to make his official statement:
"I did nothing shameful or disgraceful while in Mexico. I was fully clothed. There was no balcony. I was in a hotel room seven stories above the ground, peering over an iron grating that reached to my chest.
"Thanks to Modern Screen for their usual gesture of fairness in allowing me this opportunity of thus speaking my heart to their large body of readers. I hope I have assured my friends that my actions while in Mexico were the careless and natural actions of a hilarious young fellow who should have known better."
Questions: How different is this situation from something that might happen today? How would it be handled today?
Do you think Lee Tracy's comments helped his cause? Mr. Tracy was in his mid-thirties when this happened, if that matters.
Lee Tracy has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1638 Vine Street. He received his star in February 1960 when many classic stars received theirs.
Lee Tracy in Fixer Dugan
He played a circus promoter in the 1939 movie
He played a circus promoter in the 1939 movie
Spencer Tracy got his job in the 1934 film The Show Off because Lee Tracy, who'd been in The Show Off on Broadway in 1924 and was originally cast in the film, was no longer with the studio.
"Lee Tracy whose drinking was the stuff of legend in Hollywood, was accused of insulting a member of the Mexican Cadet Corps during a Revolution Day parade. .. Accounts differ as to exactly what he was supposed to have done. Later it was surmised that the growing strength of organized labor in Mexico had much to do with the resulting uproar over the incident."
-- Spencer Tracy: A Biography by James Curtis
The Film is Burned and Destroyed:
If all this weren't enough drama and confusion, there was an added situation also November 1933.
An American Airways mail plane "exploded and caught fire 800 feet above El Paso." The pilot, who was able to bail out, was burned badly but was expected to recover. "Undeveloped film for the motion picture Viva Villa, taken in Mexico was destroyed. The film was valued at $60,000 to $100,000."
"Films of Viva Villa, the photoplay made in Mexico about which a storm has developed, were destroyed in a fire. The plane crashed near a residence section after the pilot bailed out. [The pilot, who was] flying alone said his plane burst into flame from an undetermined cause. He was burned before he could escape."
"Howard Hawks, director of Viva Villa, said films burned were mostly of mob scenes and were valued at $60,000 to $100,000. He said they would need to be retaken." About half of the mail was burned.
-- Quotes and information from The Spokane Daily Chronicle and California's Berkeley Daily Gazette, November 22, 1933
Jack Conway is given credit as being director of Viva Villa. Howard Hawks and William Wellman are the two most often said to have also done some directing without receiving onscreen credit. Wellman may have taken over for a short time while Conway was ill. Late 1933, early 1934 newspapers said that Hawks had quietly left the movie and MGM entirely moving over to a different studio. Jack Conway would finish the picture.
Jack Conway also directed Libeled Lady with Myrna Loy, William Powell, Jean Harlow and Spencer Tracy in 1936. It's one of only two films that Harlow and Powell ever did together. Howard Hawks famously went on to some screwball comedies such as Bringing Up Baby with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn.
One good show deserves another
Apparently in December a theater group in Mexico City had quickly put together a show enacting scenes of the situations encountered by the actors and crew while filming Viva Villa. An act at one of the Mexico City Theaters was presenting a send-up of the movie troupe's escapades, the actors portraying the characterizations of Wallace Beery, Lee Tracy and even Howard Hawks. "This burlesque number shows Beery dissecting the beds and looking scornfully over his assigned room, refusing to stay there. ..." He refuses to stay in the finest hacienda in town.
There was a reenactment of "the famous Tracy balcony scene" and "throughout the play a man thrusts his head through a window and yells, 'It's Disartro!' Many other true incidents that took place while the troupe was there are also enacted much to the merriment of the audience. In fact the Metro invasion of Mexico City will not be forgotten by the natives there for years to come."
-- Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 19, 1933
Lee Tracy has been on the water wagon for 2 years still gets razzed
The actor said that the incident in Mexico had snapped him out of not only a life of alcohol abuse but caused him to give up drinking alcohol totally. "The trouble," Lee Tracy says, "is that every time anything happens in connection with me, and I mean anything everybody thinks that Lee Tracy is drunk again. ...
"Truth is Tracy hasn't had a drink in more than two years, or since his widely publicized escapade on a hotel balcony in Mexico City during a patriotic parade. That nearly ruined him as a movie actor, but he went on the wagon and eventually beat his way back to the top. He's starring now in See How They Run which will hit the RKO cameras in two weeks."
-- Milwaukee Journal, September 1, 1939
|Kohler Kitchen |
Books and Related Pages of Interest:
Highlights and Shadows: The Memoirs of a Hollywood Cameraman Charles G. Clarke
Spencer Tracy: A Biography by James Curtis
Boris Karloff wishes you a Happy Thanksgiving 1950, do you know your folk music?
Classic film actors jobs, clothes, tools of the trade Tour film stars' closets, more
A Book Desi Arnaz Autobiography
TCM's Summer Under the Stars August 2014
10 Famous TV Dads Costumes and Trivia: Ricky Ricardo
Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood by Todd McCarthy