‘The Spellbinder’ on TCM

Lee Tracy was Hollywood’s specialist for fast talking shysters, con-men, and underhanded newspapermen in the 1930s. With his nasally voice, staccato delivery, wise-guy manner, and diminutive size, he had a knack for comic characters and he was kept busy playing cynical reporters and press agents during the pre-code era. He was also a heavy drinker with a reckless lifestyle off screen, which ended more than one studio contract. By the mid-thirties, Tracy was without a studio and freelancing on smaller films. He made The Spellbinder (1939) for the B-unit of RKO and journeyman director Jack Hively, who rose up from the editing room to the director’s chair.

Jed Marlowe is a classic Tracy role, a silver-tongued lawyer who befuddles witnesses on the stand and manipulates juries with theatrics, but apart from the shenanigans behind the scenes of the first trial (he pays off a small company of actors to play his client’s family in court) there’s no comic twist here. He’s a cynic when it comes to law but a doting, protective single father when it comes to his teenage daughter Janet (Barbara Read). She adores him and plays hooky from finishing school to watch him defend his client Tom Dixon (Patric Knowles) for murder. Knowles was a handsome British import whose poise and confidence landed him a few leading roles but mostly was relegated to supporting parts. He played drama, comedy, and adventure with equal success. For The Spellbinder he played another of his specialties: the charming cad.

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Plays on TCM on Thursday, August 21

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