Tuesday 20 October 2015

'He peed on the cadets': Lee Tracy in Mexico

In most tales from Hollywood history, the truth will never really be found. The passing of time and the death of key players as well as the problem of preserving positive legacies, keeps some facts buried forever. Surprisingly with the strange arrest of Lee Tracy during the filming of Viva Villa in late 1933, the facts were never confirmed. With the allegations never going to trial plus the alleged rumour mongering of compulsive liar - namely director Howard Hawks - and the disgruntled, face-saving Mexican authorities there was more accounts of the incident than hours in the day. Despite all the confusion and interested parties, the explanation from Tracy and most of the media seem to support one another with most of the details. Nonetheless, the prevailing story at the time is not the story that has permeated into contemporary pop culture.

The truth (or the closest account to what actually happened)
The short version of the account is that on November 20, 1933 during filming of 'Viva Villa' in Mexico, Tracy got heavily intoxicated; appeared on the balcony of his hotel room; and made some kind of obscene gesture to a crowd of people below. This included a parade of cadets, which was taken as a massive insult to the Mexican people. He was arrested, then let go and then rearrested the following day. Authorities then gave Tracy permission to return to the US. According to media reports, Tracy was initially charged with "violation of public morals and insulting the government, the result of a personal appearance, informal and undraped on a hotel balcony". These charges were dropped. Despite media reports, all up Tracy spent seven hours in jail.
Tracy's own account after the event substantiated this view:
"Tracy freely admitted that he was 'feeling the drinks' after a cabaret party when he hailed a Mexican parade from his hotel balcony. He denied he was unclothed. 'The whole thing started with a grand cabaret party when I came off location Saturday, celebrating the finish of the picture Viva Villa ' Tracy told United Press correspondent in El Paso. 'I heard a parade going by. I ran out on the balcony, waved and shouted 'via la parade. I had on pajama pants. Some of the guys in the parade saw me waving my arms and shouting and they hollered back at me to shut up. I was feeling pretty high so I shouted back as loud as I could, 'Why don't you go to hell'. But I was just helping them celebrate."
Charles Clark, who also worked on the film as a cinematographer, made this comment about the event in his autobiography titled Highlights and Shadows: The Memoirs of a Hollywood Cameraman. His view of the event is even more complimentary of Tracy's actions than the actors own story:
"As in all parades, there were frequent holdups, and during these many of the paraders would shout for 'Wally Bee-ery'. He and Lee Tracy eventually came out on the balcony of their room and responded to the cheers of their fans. All of the paraders were not ardent fans, however, and some of them would make obscene gestures… Our boys, in innocence, may have laughingly returned a gesture or two, but if so, I did not witness it. I thought it was nice of them to make an appearance and that they must have thrilled many of the country boys…In a short time, our government liaison connections rushed down to the hotel and stated Lee Tracy had to be gotten out of the country immediately. They said that the papers were coming out that afternoon with a story to the effect that Tracy had insulted the Mexican flag, Mexican motherhood and the nation in general."

It was not until November 21 after Tracy was released for the first time that reports surfaced alleging Tracy was in fact naked on the balcony. A newspaper article printed on November 21 by a Mexican paper brought forward the eye witness account of a local man and his daughter:
"Heraclio Rodriguez, acting prosecutor of the federal district, said Tuesday that he was ordering the police of all border towns to arrest Lee Tracy, American movie actor, who left here some hours earlier by train for Laredo, Tex. The American actor had departed by permission of the police after being held in custody twice since Sunday and questioned on a complaint that he had "offended public morals". No explanation was made of the apparent divergence of opinion on the action. The case passed to Rodriguez when Tracy was arrested for the second time Monday on the complaint of a lawyer, Alfonzo Esparza, who said he and his 12-years-old daughter saw Tracy standing unclothed on a balcony of his hotel. Tracy was told that he had to remain in the city after he was released on his own recognisance following the arrest, but he left Tuesday morning, apparently with permission…A delegation requested Present Rodriguez to refuse to allow the film, already made, to be taken from Mexico."
A memo was later sent to the US authorities from the US ambassador to Mexico which mentions Tracy as being 'unclad':

"A memo sent to the State Department by the American ambassador to Mexico, Josephus Daniels…: Tracy appeared on a balcony of the Hotel Regis, unclad and using very profane and insulting language at the moment when the military cadets marching in the parade of November 20 were passing in front of the hotel."

It was also reported:

"Mexican officials declared he wore only a robe that slipped from his shoulders during his outburst."

The aftermath

The outburst from Mexican authorities and media was enough pressure to make MGM boss, Louis B. Mayer to sack the actor from both the film and the studio. On November 23, he made a public and private apology to Mexico:

"The insult offered by this actor to the Mexican cadet corps has embarrassed and shocked the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer organisation fully as deeply as it has the Mexican people. As a result of this actors deplorable behaviour, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer has removed him not only from the film 'Viva Villa' but has dismissed him entirely from its employ and cancelled his long term contract."
 Tracy with H. W. Waller of El Paso upon his return to the US
On Tracy's return to the US where he was greeted by girlfriend and actress Isabelle Jewel, he made more statements to the media regarding the incident. With the legal issues resolved, Tracy's focus was now on the future of his movie career.

"…Tracy said he had no plans but that he was mighty sorry it all happened. 'I do feel a bit bad about the whole thing', Tracy said when he arrived by train from El Paso, 'It seems to me I should be given a chance to tell the studio my side of the story.' 'Why, I like the place,' he cried, waving his hands, 'I stood at the balcony and cheered the boys. You know how those things area. Somebody shouted up at me and I shouted back…I'll still keep on working. The whole thing is a misunderstanding and I want most to straighten it out so everybody will be happy again.'"

Seven days after the incident occurred film industry magazines reported Stuart Erwin was announced as taking over Tracy's role in the film. He was an experienced actor but by no means as famous or talented as Tracy. As the initial shock and interest of the event died down, speculation as to the future of Tracy's place in the film industry began. A shock to the film industry, Tracy came out on top and almost unscathed:

Stuart Erwin with Wallace Beery
"Despite the fact that MGM have given Lee Tracy the proverbial spanking his fans are still loyal. Last evening I attended a preview of Lee's most recent cinematic effort –Advice for the Lovelorn - and the applause that greeted Mr Tracy was breath taking." Also that the San Fran theatre is doing capacity business. "And so you can easily understand that Lee's offers have been numerous for both screen and stage." (December 6, 1933)

"Lee Tracy is not through in motion pictures…If the women should turn thumbs down on Tracy, then he'll be through. They are too powerful to combat…Tracy has lost contracts before due to off-the-screen activities. But always there has been another major studio ready to hire him. And there are studios ready to sign him now." (December 14, 1933)

The urination situation

Claims are still circulating that instead of making 'obscene gestures' or even appearing 'unclad', Tracy urinated on the crowd. Although having no evidence in newspaper articles or eye witness accounts, some articles still insinuate that this occurred. But where did it come from? Biographers and historians seem to agree it was the films first director, Howard Hawks, who spread the rumour.  According to Bob Herzberg in his book Revolutionary Mexico on Film: A Critical History, 1914-2014, Hawks said Tracy, "peed on the Chapultepic Cadets during the Independence Day parade in Mexico and got in the can." Apparently, actor Dezi Arnaz who was involved in the making of the film, also wrote in his autobiography (admittedly I have not read it) that Tracy did indeed urinate on the crowd.

The juries out whether Tracy in fact urinated on the crowd. It is strange, however, that if it was the case why the Mexican newspapers did not report it. The country was openly against the production and would have used any and every opportunity they had to send the cast and crew packing. I agree with Herzberg, the rumour Tracy urinated on the crow most likely did not occur.

More troubles

Despite the Tracy incident, the film was riddled with problems and controversies. Around the time Tracy was fired, Hawks also left the production. There are several reported reasons for this including the assertion that Hawks was removed for standing up for Tracy and another that Hawks left due to unsafe working conditions.  Actress Mona Maris also began working in the lead female role but was replaced by Fay Wray. The film also causes several controversies between US and Mexican authorities with no Hispanic cast in the film and an actor typecast as a villain in the main role.
Adding further to the drama of the production, a plane carrying reels of film from Viva Villa crash landed in El Paso on November 22, 1933. A newspaper stated:

"J.J. Ingram, pilot, of Los Angeles jumped to safety today from his airplane which crashed in flames in an El Paso residential section. The plane was carrying films of Viva Villa in which Lee Tracy…was playing. Ingram suffered severe burns on the face and legs before he could be extricated. What caused Ingram's plane to burst into flames was not revealed. Howard Hawks, director, estimated the destroyed film was worth $100,000."

Somehow the film was completed and released on April 27, 1934 approximately three years after filming originally began. With a budget of just over $1million the film was an expensive production for MGM and had a poor gross taking of about $1.109 million. Despite the setbacks, the film was a critical and popular success with three Academy Award nominations (Best Picture, Best Writing Adaption and Best Sound Recording) and one win for John Waters as Best Assistant Director. Viva Villa (1934) is proof that no matter what troubles a film has during production, it has no bearing on its future success. The same of which can be said about actors, ie. Lee Tracy.


  1. I have never heard of this movie before but it was one very controversial movie indeed! I am now going to watch it, though i dont think tracy lee was in the wrong.

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