1937 was a bumper year for Luise, with three films released, plus work on a fourth, and the not-so-small business of winning her first Academy Award. This really was the year Luise ‘arrived’ in Hollywood and the year that cemented her fame for the rest of her life.
When Luise picked up an Oscar in March for her work on The Great Ziegfeld (1936) she had already completed and released The Good Earth (1937), and had begun work on her next picture, The Emperor’s Candlesticks (1937), so it was her subsequent picture, Big City (1937), that would be the first chosen for her based on her new-found status as an Oscar winning ‘Best Actress’. It’s interesting to note that MGM chose a ‘small’ film, in keeping with the parts Luise wanted to play, and with audience’s expectations of her character. A lavish MGM epic this was not, instead, Big City is a dramatic character-driven film, small in scale but huge in talent and resources. Filming took place in the summer of 1937 and the film was released in the USA on 3rd September of that year.
Based on a story by Norman Krasna, Big City is a topical romantic drama, set on the violent and gang-ridden streets of New York City. Rival taxi firms are engaging in dirty tricks and gang warfare to steal business from independents and the violence is escalating. Caught amidst this is Joe Benton and his immigrant wife, Anna. Struggling to make ends meet their way of life is threatened when Anna is accused of bombing the garages of the Comet Taxi Company and she is marked for deportation, a sacrificial lamb offered up by the District Attorney to dampen the anger and to bring an end to the escalating turmoil on the streets. But Joe and his close-knit group of friends fight to clear her name and save her, with help from some unexpected celebrity sportsmen.
To direct the film MGM chose Frank Borzage, already a double Oscar winner for 7th
Heaven (1927) and Bad Girl (1931), one of the great directors of both the silent and sound era. His lyrical adaptation of popular plays and novels and his parallel career as an actor, set him apart from those with whom Luise had worked previously and she and Borzage should have seen eye-to-eye on their work ethic and goals. Opposite her the studio chose one of their biggest stars, Spencer Tracy, fresh from his own Oscar-nomination in March that year (for San Francisco, he lost out to Paul Muni). He would go on to match Luise’s successive victories in 1938 and 1939. Sadly, due to the general disenchantment she was feeling at the time Luise was initially unhappy on the set. Tracy too found her difficult at first, but he understood her unhappiness and engaged with her on personal matters, discussing Odets and the Group Theatre and putting Luise at ease. The approach worked and they became, if not close friends, at least pals, supporting one another and spending time together away from the studio (they spent a weekend away with friends on Tracy’s yacht in he summer of 1937). Interviewed in 1987 Luise recalled that Tracy was kindness itself, calling him “that darling man”, but she can’t bear to watch the film: “All I can see is the pain in my eyes. . . .” she says.
As always, the supporting players were a dependable and popular array of character actors, and the production is top-notch. With all this and the two star leads in its favour, it’s a shame that the film isn’t better known. What immediately strikes one when watching it again is the tone, a confusing mix of drama and comedy. The opening titles feature some cute cartoons, but this gives a false impression of the heart of the film, which is ultimately a drama about triumph over adversity and a call to arms for the oppressed to stand up and fight back. Tracy and Rainer make a darling couple, and there’s much light relief when they are on screen together. They shared a similar aesthetic when it came to acting and this shows on screen, this leading lady being one of the most evenly-matched in Tracy’s career up to this point. On the whole the film does work as a romantic drama, with two engaging lead performances and a genuine sense of time and place. But audiences were not won over. The uneasy mix of laughs and lament is difficult to reconcile, the problem perfectly summed up in the final showdown which takes place at a banquet in Jack Dempsey’s restaurant (in scenes filmed separately by an uncredited George B. Seitz) featuring a slew of famous sportsmen, playing themselves and delivering a finale of cartoon violence which diminishes much of the earlier heart and soul of the picture. This roster of athletes also, unfortunately, dates the film somewhat.
The film is available on US Region 1 DVD as part of the Warner Archive Luise Rainer Signature Collection.
Luise Rainer and Spencer Tracy
A Frank Borzage Production
Directed by Frank Borzage
Screen Play by Dore Schary and Hugo Butler
Based on an Original Story by Norman Krasna
Produced by Norman Krasna
Musical Score by Dr. William Axt
Recording Director Douglas Shearer
Art Director Cedric Gibbons
Associates Stan Rogers, Edwin B. Willis
Wardrobe by Dolly Tree
Photographed by Joseph Ruttenberg
Film Editor Frederick Y. Smith
Luise Rainer as Anna Benton
Spencer Tracy as Joe Benton
Charley Grapewin as The Mayor
Janet Beecher as Sophie Sloane
Eddie Quillan as Mike Edwards
Victor Varconi as Paul Roya
Oscar O’Shea as John C. Andrews
Helen Troy as Lola Johnson
William Demarest as Beecher
John Arledge as Buddy
Irving Bacon as Jim Sloane
Guinn Williams as Danny Devlin
Regis Toomey as Fred Hawkins
Edgar Dearing as Tom Reilley
Paul Harvey as District Attorney Gilbert
Andrew J. Tombes as Inspector Matthews
Clem Bevans as Grandpa Sloane
Grace Ford as Mary Reilley
Alice White as Peggy Devlin
Appearing as themselves: Jack Dempsey, James J. Jeffries, Jimmy McLarnin, Maxie Rosenbloom, Jim Thorpe, Frank Wykoff, Jackie Fields, Man Mountain Dean, Gus Sonnenberg, George Godfrey, Joe Rivers, Cotton Warburton, Bull Montana, Snowy Baker, Taski Hagio