Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5
USA, 1932. Warner Bros.. Screenplay by Howard J. Green, based on the play by Forrest Wilson and Manuel Seff. Cinematography by Sol Polito. Music by Leo F. Forbstein. Production Design by Robert M. Haas. Film Editing by James Gibbon.
The title is taken from columnist Walter Winchell, who at the time spilled the beans on adulterous affairs by noting which prominent members of New York society and celebrity were anticipating additions to their family but “without the benefit of clergy”. Lee Tracy is a hoot as an advertising copyrighter who rises to the top of his field when he playfully writes a salacious gossip column for his newspaper that, at first, draws libel suits that threaten his livelihood. When the suits are followed by a massive increase in subscriptions and circulation, he becomes the newspaper’s star reporter and has no fear of doing battle with mobsters, destroying the lives of Broadway hopefuls and entering a rivalry with a handsome crooner (Dick Powell in his film debut) despite his being his mother’s favourite singer.
Tracy has also won the heart of fellow reporter Mary Brian, but she begins to wonder if he’s the right man for her when she begins to notice that he enjoys his unchecked power too much and gets such enjoyment out of destroying people’s lives while pretending that he’s only giving his readers what they want. Based on the stage play of the same name by Forrest Wilson and Manuel Seff, this fast-paced gab-fest, likely inspired by the success of The Front Page, rather naively believes that the character’s soul can be saved by having a mirror held up to his face in order to see the humanity he is in danger of losing; by the time Burt Lancaster plays a version of Winchell in Sweet Smell Of Success, tabloid journalism has no hope of ever going away and the character is presented as never having had any humanity to begin with. The naivete of the happy ending is one of the film’s delights, and the performances all shine, the best of them Ruth Donnelly as the wise-cracking secretary who never seems to fall for Tracy’s glamorous shine but goes in for it all the same.