Upon Further Review: A Little Gal in the Big City by Brad Eastland, A.F.D

January 31, 2010
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      Welcome again, film fans, to “Upon Further Review”.   This week’s ancient movie review features an ancient movie star with a twist.   Because I guarantee you, she’s the biggest movie star you’ve never ever even heard of….

      It’s called “Big City”, and it was released in 1937.   That’s a big fat 73 years ago.   Yes, my friends, when it comes to quality film entertainment, there’s no limit to my dusty, reactionary ways.   Big City” is a Spencer Tracy movie, and the title role of the big city itself is played by, no surprise, New York.   Tracy is great in this movie.   This is not news.   Tracy was great in pretty much every movie he ever made, being not only one of the greatest stars in silver screen history but also being; by a consensus of most experts on the subject; one of the three or four greatest American actors of all time, if not thee greatest.   In “Big City”—a wacky yarn about a turf war between two rival Manhattan taxicab companies, a tall tale which is part light comedy, part screwball comedy, part slapstick comedy, part love story, and a pinch of just enough “serious” drama to make the whole thing delightfully ridiculous— he shows off his uncanny knack for both light comedy and the occasional burst of well-timed heavy-handed pathos, while at the same time dispensing that most indispensible of all star qualities, “watchability”.   When Spencer Tracy is on screen, that’s where your eyes are.   That’s a star.

      image0012But even though he’s one of the biggest megamonstermoviestars ever, and in 1937 he was coming into his personal golden age, literally approaching the peak of his powers, Tracy was not the top-billed star of this movie.   Weird, huh?   Weird because billing position is everything in Hollywood.   Betcha his agent objected.   Betcha Tracy objected.   But when the opening credits roll there he is, the great Spencer Tracy, lodged quietly in the #2 slot, behind, at the time, a slightly bigger star.   Shows you just how huge the heroine of our story was, at least back in 1937.

      Her name is Luise Rainer.

      Pronounced “Rye-ner”.   And yes, that’s how she spells Luise.

      Luise Rainer is a petite, pretty gal of Austrian birth, who after considerable success on the European stage came to America in 1935, and was an instant hit.   But she made only 10 movies during her brief, three-year stay in Hollywood.   She won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1936 for “The Great Ziegfeld”, and followed it up a year later with an Oscar for “The Good Earth”.   She thus became the first actress or actor to ever win back-to-back Oscars.   Rainer once described the two quick Oscars as “the worst possible thing” that could have happened to her.   We should all be so unlucky.   (Ironically, a year later, her co-star in “Big City”, Tracy himself, would win the second of his own back-to-back Oscars, and he did okay for the next 30 years.).   But after Rainer’s benefactor at MGM, the brilliant studio chief Irving Thalberg, died suddenly in his late 30s, her influence diminished in his absence, she got bad advice and poor career guidance, her star waned, she got depressed, and by 1938 she was back home in Europe.   Gone.   Gone from Hollywood forever.    Therefore, perhaps no star in Hollywood history ever rose as fast and fell as fast as Luise Rainer.  

      All this would certainly make her one of the most amazing stories in Hollywood history.   If that’s all there was.   But there’s one other teensy weensy little thing which makes her saga even more amazing….

      She’s still alive.

      That’s right.   Bet I confused you with all that present-tense stuff a couple paragraphs back, huh.   But it’s true.   The top-billed star of “Big City” is still alive, 73 years later.   Tracy, by contrast, has been dead for 43 years.   And to top it all off, less than a month ago, on January 12th to be exact, Luise Rainer celebrated her 100th birthday.

     How cool is that?   Five minutes ago you’d never even heard of her, and now you find out she’s still alive and enjoying her second century.   Maybe you’ll meet her one day…but you’ll have to go to London to do so.   That’s where the old gal’s digs are.

Spencer Tracey and Lxxxxx

Spencer Tracey and Luise Rainer.


      Anyway, back to “Big City”.   There are so many other things to like in this delightful little movie; as if the greatness of Tracy and novelty of Rainer weren’t enough.   Charley Grapewin is in the cast.   You might remember him as Dorothy’s timid Uncle Henry in “The Wizard of Oz”.   William Demarest is in the cast.   You might remember him as Uncle Charlie in the old Fred MacMurray TV show “My Three Sons”.   Ruth Hussey is in the cast.   You might recall her Oscar-nominated portrayal of Jimmy Stewart’s photographer girlfriend in “The Philadelphia Story” (She’s uncredited in “Big City”, so I had to rewind and watch the one scene she’s in about 20 times before I finally figured it out.).   And there’s even an actress in the cast named Helen Troy.   I don’t know a thing about her, but any female that has the courage to call herself Helen Troy is worth a sentence or two.  

       The film concludes in grand, quintessentially 30s style.   Tracy’s character, cabbie Joe Benton, is trying to keep his Russian wife (Rainer) from getting deported, and he knows the only man who has the authority to stop the boat from taking off with her aboard is the mayor of New York himself (Grapewin).   The mayor is attending a banquet that night at the famous Jack Dempsey’s equally famous restaurant at 49th & Broadway.   The banquet is apparently a gala honoring a bunch of great boxers and other great athletes from the past.   Tracy and dozens of his band of brothers in the cabbie trade burst into the banquet and Tracy pours his heart out to the mayor, imploring him to go with him down to the pier to stop the boat from taking off with his pregnant wife (Don’t ask me about the plot, I told you it was a comedy.).   Anyway, naturally the mayor is moved by Tracy’s inspired soliloquy and immediately drops everything to go with him, with all the action-starved famous athletes—including Dempsey himself, playing himself—in tow.   However, the other cab company, the bad guys, are all waiting at the pier to try to stop the mayor from boarding the ship, apparently because if Tracy’s wife gets deported it will help them to, in some strange and not fully explained way, consolidate their nefarious power.   (so don’t ask)

      The result is a good old fashioned pier six brawl.   A fistfight of gargantuan proportions.   Naturally the good cabbie company wins.   Stacked deck.   Four one thing, they had four former real-life boxing champions on their side; in addition to Dempsey there was former heavyweight champion James J. Jeffries, former light-heavyweight champ Max “Slapsie Maxie” Rosenbloom, and former welterweight titleholder James McLarnin.   Also in attendance on the side of the good guys were Frank Wykoff, whose record 9.4 second time in the 100-yard dash made him the “world’s fastest human” at the time, George Godfrey, a giant of a man who was probably this country’s greatest African American fighter in the period between Jack Johnson and Joe Louis, “Man Mountain” Dean, a legendary wrestler with a body as big as his name, and there was even a cameo appearance in this bawdy brawl by the greatest athlete of them all, the one and only Jim Thorpe.   All playing themselves.   Yep, our band of burly famous athletes beat those bad cabbies to a pulp.   As you might expect, this is no doubt one of the dopiest scenes in movie history.

      (Ironically, while in the movie Rainer’s character is saved from deportation, a year later, in real life, she was on a slow boat bound for Europe for good.   Of her own free will.  With her tail between her legs.)

      I highly recommend “Big City”, in spite of its scattershot script.   A screwball comedy?   An everything-but-the-kitchen-sink extravaganza?   An out-of-control farce?   Sure.   But don’t forget; this was 1937.   The Great Depression was still in charge of this country.   This is how Hollywood did its part and provided the country with what it needed most back then.   Laughs.



Brad Eastland, our Dr. of Ancient Filmology, is a movie buff and film historian, as long as the film was made before 1985 or so.  (If you want to hear about new-release films, pick up a Times).   Special effects and gratuitous anything have no place in his celluloid world.   Primarily a fiction writer, Brad has written four novels and over 20 short-stories.  Here are some samples of his best work:

Brad Eastland

Brad Eastland







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