Lee Tracy can be hard to take. That voice can certainly grate. Still, there is a certain rhythm to the noise that he makes. His characters are typically the loudest, most self-interested jackasses you’d never want to meet. What could be more perfect for a press agent?
It takes some time for Tracy to ascend to press agent in The Half Naked Truth. If that title is at the top of the ballyhoo chain, then Tracy’s James Bates begins much nearer its lowest link: as carnival barker.
If you’re familiar with the types of characters Lee Tracy plays then you know he’s going to make that climb. And you know he’s going to take every shortcut he possibly can in doing so.
His volume is high. His tone is consistent, yet off on a note bound to rub you wrong. Paragraphs run into single sentences out of Tracy’s motormouth, the syllables spaced so he can catch his breath in between. But every line Lee Tracy utters is the most important line in the world. Facts are irrelevant. They are easily supplanted by the addition of yet more words, each and every one a shortcut towards his final sale.
But like every great artist of the ballyhoo from Barnum to Harry Reichenbach, upon whom Tracy's character is based, Tracy needs something to pitch. For his Jimmy Bates it’s Lupe Velez’ Teresita, a carny hooch dancer, hard to understand but with a hell of wiggle. Teresita is also Bates’ girl, but they have far from a healthy relationship.
He refers to her the tamale, while she just as often calls him a four flusher. She smacks him; he smacks her back. Tempers flare and Bates comes at Teresita with his fist cocked while an even more unique voice, that of Eugene Pallette as Achilles the handcuff king, rings a bell and declares round one.
It’s during one such dysfunctional moment, after Teresita carries a gun across the grounds with every intention of shooting Bates, that he turns the situation to their advantage in what becomes step one away from carnival life. Bates' plan backfires and nearly causes a riot in the process but the ensuing chaos does provide an opportunity to escape from the small towns to the big city.
Between Pallette’s deep bass, Lupe’s various shrieks and Lee Tracy’s rat-a-tat excitement, The Half Naked Truth is certainly jarring for those who prefer moods, light and beauty in the style of Broadway producer Merle Farrell. Frank Morgan is Farrell, The Half Naked Truth’s own version of Florenz Ziegfeld. Farrell is tired and set in his ways, ripe to be overwhelmed by Jimmy Bates.
After Bates puts Teresita over to Farrell and all of New York as the Turkish Princess Exotica, Farrell sets her on the stage in a high toned exhibition that Bates had predicted as a failure from the outset. Rejecting Bates' suggestions Farrell explains, "They won’t stand for that primitive stuff from me."
The Princess slowly sways from one side of the stage to another as a slow beat sets the mood. “I think I’ll trade this for a cigarette,” one disappointed patron of Farrell’s Follies tells his wife, who can’t blame him for walking out. Just as Farrell orders the curtain brought down on this ill-advised flop, Tracy’s Bates explodes onto the stage.
Bates fights off a fictional Turkish stagehand whom he explains to the crowd has just told him that the Princess was performing a sacred dance before them. Ordering the Princess to “ditch the haberdashery,” in a loud aside, Bates tells the crowd that she’ll now sing a song for them that she learned coming over on the boat.
The Princess strips down and proceeds to strut, shake and thrust while bringing the place back to life with her rendition of The Carpenter’s Song (Lyrics reproduced at the bottom of this page).
Tracy as Bates is the perfect example of the many hustlers shown on film during the worst part of The Great Depression. Bates is uneducated, untalented, uncouth, but he can talk a blue streak and and seemingly put anything over. He believes from the very start that he can take Velez’ carny hooch dancer and turn her into a Broadway sensation.
Upon arriving in New York Teresita asks Bates where they are going. “To the front page of every newspaper in the country,” Bates replies confidently as he hatches his schemes.
First he gets them a room in the Savoy Ritz; After bursting in on Broadway producer Merle Farrell and subsequently being tossed from the premises, Bates tries a more subtle approach. He calls room service and orders three slices of Melba toast, dry; one pot of English Breakfast Tea with lemon; and … thirty pounds of raw meat. Chatter about the raw meat lures the press and by morning Bates manages to get Teresita in front of Farrell and Farrell’s signature on a contract before he even hears her sing.
After Bates pulls it off and makes Teresita a star as the Princess, she thinks she can go even further without him. With more refined press as Farrell has suggested to her. Never one to accept defeat Bates vows to take the next dumbbell that he meets and make her a star. That would be hotel maid Ella Beebee (Shirley Chambers) whose previous starring experience consisted solely of Shakespearean rehearsals in Achilles’ arms.
The Half Naked Truth then takes a surprising leap from Broadway to a nudist cult led by Ella, who presides over Eugene Pallette’s Achilles and several other men likewise disguised in loincloths and fake beards. Ella, topless with her long blonde hair covering key components, gives a hilarious interview to the press before Bates takes her on an open car tour through the heart of Manhattan which is soon halted by the police despite Bates' protests and threats.
Through an absurdist bit of blackmail Bates gets Merle Farrell to drop the Princess in favor of Ella Beebee and appears to have made good on his claims. But despite his success, soon played out through the high powered office of "James Bates: Director of Publicity," something is missing. Even old Achilles goes back to the carny, albeit in a much better position than his former one as handcuff king.
The hustler’s life is a chaotic one and so director Gregory La Cava spits it out as it should be—all over the place. It could have run smoother, but the somewhat haywire transitions add to the overall chaos and thus the overall good time we have climbing out of the gutter with Bates, Teresita and Achilles.
What we’re shown can be appreciated despite the fact that the two main characters are somewhat difficult to like. These people have no class but whether they know this or not they don’t let it inhibit their climb. The Half Naked Truth was released at the very end of 1932, a time when the hustling spirit was never more appreciated.
La Cava, who not only directed but co-wrote The Half Naked Truth with Corey Ford, delivers a comedy with much of the zaniness, though not nearly the social commentary, of his later screwball classic My Man Godfrey (1936). The Half Naked Truth is more of an escape. Chances were that if you had a dime to get into the theater your life was going to be better than this group of characters.
If you like Tracy in Blessed Event (1932), then meet his twin performance. If you’ve yet to experience either, then hold on—Lee Tracy as leading man is one of the unique treats of the pre-code era.
Lupe Velez is a visual delight in The Half Naked Truth and I’m talking about more than her midriff baring outfits worn throughout. She can flip a switch on the expressions she wears in a way that’s bound to make you smile and never more charming in doing so than she is in her final rendition of “O! Mister Carpenter,” which is filled with stops and starts of emotion.
And that song, the only one in The Half Naked Truth, is just as catchy as it need be. Far from the old carny tune that Bates touts it to be, “O! Mister Carpenter” was written in 1931 by songwriters Edward Eliscu and Harry Akst. By the time it gets in Lee Tracy’s head and begins to lure his Bates away from New York it has become familiar enough for us to hum along to.
Eugene Pallette must have pleased director Gregory La Cava as much as he does audiences because La Cava brought him back as the Bullock family patriarch in My Man Godfrey. Also returning in the later film was Franklin Pangborn, who played the hotel manager in The Half Naked Truth.
Frank Morgan will make you chuckle as the put-upon Broadway producer who after his first blitz of exposure to Bates and his tricks laments that he is “working so hard I don’t know what I’m doing.” It was nice getting to see Morgan more or less playing Ziegfeld as it will only be a few years before he’s playing rival and friend to the real Ziegfeld as portrayed by William Powell in The Great Ziegfeld (1936).
The common folk of The Half Naked Truth got everything they ever dreamed of but came to realize that they already had enough back where they had started. “It’s a lousy racket,” Achilles says of carnival life. “Sure it is,” Bates replies, “But it’s fun at that.”
O! Mister Carpenter
Oh, mister carpenter,
I wondered where you were.
Oh, mister carpenter,
I got a big job for you.
My cupboard doesn't swing,
My doorbell doesn't ring,
My bed has no more spring,
You ought to know what to do.
Tells me you work for her.
You better say goodbye now, you're mine now--
You chiseling carpenter!
So...if you're satisfied,
Each day when you come by
I've got a big job for you!
Music and Lyrics by Edward Eliscu and Harry Akst. Copyright 1931. Text reproduced from Latino Images in Film: Stereotypes, Subversion, and Resistance by Charles Ramirez Berg.