Looking for Trouble must be one of William Wellman’s most obscure pre-Codes – not officially available on DVD and never shown on TV. I’m going to try to keep this piece fairly short, as it’s a good bet that almost nobody reading this will get a chance to see it. Yet it’s a highly entertaining, fast-moving comedy-drama, with a great cast, headed by Spencer Tracy, and some spectacular earthquake footage. The reason it has been forgotten seems to be that it isn’t a Warner release, even though it has all the grittiness of the company’s films from the period, but was made by Twentieth Century Pictures. Presumably that’s why it never turns up on TCM.
Anyway, I was lucky enough to get hold of a high-quality copy and would definitely recommend this one to any fans of Tracy or Wellman. It would also be of interest to anyone who likes 1930s films focusing on people’s working lives. Tracy plays a telephone company troubleshooter (hence the title), Joe Graham, with Jack Oakie as his best buddy and workmate, Casey. Constance Cummings also stars as telephone operator Ethel, who is Joe’s on-off sweetheart. The film features the cutting edge of phone technology throughout, even showing how telephone records are used to solve a crime – something which I believe only became common practice decades later.
It is very clear who directed from the opening scene onwards, as Tracy is seen carrying out work on a telegraph pole amid torrential rain, the type of weather which crops up time and again in Wellman’s films. Tracy’s character, Joe, is the type of tough and short-tempered but secretly soft-centred working man whom he often plays in films of this period. Joe is initially dismayed to be teamed up with Southern newcomer Casey (Oakie), who seems like a big-headed idiot in his first scene, with an endless stream of unfunny practical jokes. However, within a few minutes it is clear that first impressions were misleading. Casey soon succeeds in charming both Joe and the audience, as it turns out that he does have a genuine sense of humour and sensitivity to other people’s feelings… once he has put away that whoopee cushion and the fake cigarette lighter. The believable buddy relationship between the two is one of the things that appealed to me most about this film. I haven’t seen Oakie in anything else, but he is great fun to watch in this and extremely likeable throughout.
Constance Cummings is also good as Ethel (I was surprised to see her in an American film since I’d always assumed she was British, but in fact she moved to the UK and became a naturalised Brit). Her relationship with Joe is fairly believable, as they love each other and have a friendship beyond their romantic involvement, but end up bickering every time they talk for more than a few minutes. She also has a best friend, the laconic, wisecracking Maizie (Arline Judge), who has soon fallen for Casey, almost despite herself. Judge and Oakie have some sexy kissing scenes, with some of the longest clinches I’ve seen in a pre-Code – all very playful and showing them enjoying their relationship and having fun together.
Intertwined with the personal relationships is a complicated and increasingly melodramatic crime plot, with Morgan Conway as a villain and Judith Wood as a sharp-tongued femme fatale. I won’t go through all the twists and turns, but will just say that the climax sees Tracy and Oakie caught up amid the 1933 Long Beach earthquake, which had happened only months before the film was made. The earthquake scenes are as powerful as you’d expect from Wellman, who is always good at re-creating disasters, as with the landslide and floods in Other Men’s Women and the similarly dramatic earthquake scenes in Frisco Jenny. I believe that miniatures have been used to help create the effects here, and there may also be some news footage of the quake worked in amid the reconstructions. Apparently film from this sequence has often been featured in documentaries about earthquakes, even though the rest of the film is rarely-seen. The cinematography is by James Van Trees, who also worked on other Wellman pre-Codes like Midnight Mary and Heroes For Sale, and is very atmospheric, with darkness and shadows adding to the drama.
At 80 minutes, this film is a bit less rushed than some of Wellman’s shorter pre-Codes, but still moves at quite a pace, with never a dull moment, and a lot of fun along the way.