During the month of August, Turner Classic Movies is celebrating Hollywood and international stardom with its annual Summer Under the Stars series. Today, for many film enthusiasts—particularly young viewers-- choosing a movie often is based on its genre, special effects, or franchise. Decades ago, during the golden age of the studio system, filmgoers targeted their movie choices by the star names that appeared on theater marquees.
As the years have passed, only the elite of Hollywood and international stars are still remembered. Names such as Cary Grant, Judy Garland, Paul Newman, Charlie Chaplin, and Marlon Brando still carry some weight. A few stars, such as Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, and James Dean, have become iconic. Teenagers wear their images on t-shirts and handbags, but have not seen any of their films and cannot explain their significance to entertainment history.
Every once in a while we hear that George Clooney is the last of the movie stars. I doubt that is true. Scarlett Johansson, Angelina Jolie, and Jennifer Lawrence certainly are box-office draws, as are Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, and Denzel Washington.
However appealing these contemporary actors are, they cannot compete with the mystique of the old-time stars. Throughout much of the twentieth century, movie stars did not go out without full make-up and hair dressing and designer outfitting. Back in the day, the behavior of the stars was supervised by the studios that held their contracts. For the most part, even the paparazzi were controlled by the studios. Unlike today, bad behavior usually was not tolerated by the studios or by the public.
That brings us back to the TCM Summer Under the Stars series being broadcast all this month. Happily, TCM does not focus only on the Hollywood legends. For example, August 21 brings a tribute to highly talented stage and movie actor Lee Tracy, who was a star at MGM from 1929 through 1933. He wasn’t a handsome romantic lead, but he was a sharp-talking, spirited actor who could carry many types of character roles, especially conniving tricksters. In late 1933, as the story goes, Tracy was working on a film called Viva Villa! being shot in Mexico. While on location, as he stood on a balcony overlooking a parade, Tracy-- who allegedly was quite a drinker-- either urinated on the crowd or made an obscene gesture in a very public way.
Whatever happened, no one knows for sure, but MGM immediately dropped his contract. His career continued at other movie studios and then in television, but the scandal followed him to the end of his days. He was a working actor but a fallen star. Before there ever was a Michael Jackson or a Justin Bieber, there was Lee Tracy, and he was quite a talent. Watch him in such classics as Blessed Event, Bombshell, Dinner at Eight, Turn Back the Clock, and Doctor X on TCM on August 21.
Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She teaches film studies at the University at Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.
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