Spencer Tracy here got his first real opportunity to stretch the acting muscles on which he built his reputation on stage in New York, and Preston Sturges--another Broadway veteran who thought he was just picking up some easy money in California before getting back to the real world--wrote
his first screenplay in this once celebrated, but now barely remembered, film. Opening with the funeral of a railway magnate, the film follows Morgan--the former secretary and lifelong friend of the dead tycoon--as first his wife, then an office watchman, revile the dead man's memory. Finally
Morgan sits down with his wife and tells her about his former employer, the flashbacks coming in jumbled fashion, skipping from point to point to explain aspects of his character rather than in chronological order. From humble backwoods origins comes Tracy, who marries his schoolteacher, Moore,
and with her prodding and guidance first takes a job as trackwalker with the railway; during the following years, through hard work and self-sacrifice, he becomes president of the company. While negotiating a merger with another railroad, he becomes infatuated with Vinson--the rival magnate's
daughter--and when he tells the ever-faithful Moore that he plans to divorce her and marry the new cookie, Moore, in a daze, steps in front of a bus and is killed. He marries Vinson, and when he discovers the younger woman has been having an affair with his own son, Jones, Tracy commits suicide.
The picture is more interesting for its unusual nonlinear construction than for its badly dated, moralistic story. The script idea sprang from the stories Sturges used to hear from his second wife, Eleanor Hutton, about her grandfather, C.W. Post, the cereal tycoon of Battle Creek, Michigan. Post
built his breakfast cereal company into the conglomerate giant General Foods, then killed himself. Sturges took this basic story, thinking about how he himself came to know about the man--not in one long sequential telling but in a number of small pieces, incidents that revealed facets of
character that, added together and sorted out, could explain the character of a man who built himself from nothing, achieved riches and fame, then killed himself at his peak. When he approached Jesse Lasky with the idea, the producer was dubious, especially when Sturges refused to explain the
story orally. Instead, he gave him a complete shooting script. Lasky read the script, thinking, as he wrote in his autobiography, "...if it had any merit I could put a team of two or four or a half dozen skilled writers on it to develop the basic idea in a manner suitable to the film medium."
Afterward, Lasky was so impressed that he let it be shot just the way Sturges had written it. The two men cut a revolutionary deal for the property. Sturges asked Lasky for a percentage of the gross, just as he was used to getting on Broadway. Lasky asked him how much he wanted for an outright
sale--"$62,475," answered Sturges. Lasky smiled and then they worked out an arrangement where the writer would receive three percent of the first half million dollars grossed, five percent of the second, and seven percent of everything over a million. Word of this unprecedented arrangement rocked
Hollywood, and B.P. Schulberg, who had just left his post as general manager of Paramount, wrote a long editorial in The Hollywood Reporter attacking Lasky for allowing the deal and for allowing the film to go into production exactly as Sturges had written it. He feared that other writers would
follow the reckless example set by Sturges and Lasky and demand similar guarantees of script integrity. Schulberg also took aim at The Hollywood Reporter for its editorial supporting the unorthodox deal, suggesting that leaving screenplays alone might be the best thing for films. Sturges was much
amused by all the hubbub and wrote a long, sarcastic rebuttal in which he referred to Schulberg as "My Learned Opponent." Sturges also defied Hollywood custom by hanging out on the set during the shooting. Colleen Moore later said, "In my whole career I never saw a writer. They told me they
existed, but Preston was the first actually on the set." Tracy also made waves in the movie. Previously cast generally as a hulking convict in films such as UP THE RIVER (1930) and 20,000 YEARS IN SING SING (1932), he was here given his first big dramatic role. Determined to make a success of it,
he hid himself away and memorized the script. When director Howard--a polo buddy of Tracy's--saw the amazing performance Tracy was getting into, "I just gulped and said `Roll."' A great deal was made of the unorthodox structure, which studio publicists dubbed "narratage," an uneasy bastardization
of "narrative" and "montage." The theater in New York where the picture debuted had a bronze plaque placed outside commemorating the historic event, though most critics pointed out it was nothing more than a clumsy use of flashbacks with narration over them. After a fast start at the box office,
and generally favorable reviews, the film did disappointing business, perhaps because of the depressing subject matter. Several years later the negative was destroyed in a fire and only after many more years did the American Film Institute put a complete print together. "Narratage" was mostly
forgotten until eight years later when, streamlined and adjusted, it was used to tell the story of a man's rise to the heights and the loneliness there--CITIZEN KANE.
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- Review: Spencer Tracy here got his first real opportunity to stretch the acting muscles on which he built his reputation on stage in New York, and Preston Sturges--another Broadway veteran who thought he was just picking up some easy money in California before get… (more)