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(1900-1967)

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         spencer
         tracy

tracy

s p e n c e r   t r a c y  :   b i o g  ]


"It's just that acting is no proper job for a grown man."
- Spencer Tracy


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spencer tracy
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tracy



biography


      Chester Erskine, director of the Broadway play that projected Spencer Tracy to stardom, provides a penetrating insight into his old friend's work and character

    'The best movie actor in the world', wrote an effusive journalist - just after Spencer Tracy had been nominated for an Academy Award for Father of the Bride in 1950. A lot of people, including most of his fellow actors, would agree to this. The notable exception was Spencer himself:

      'Now how can anybody declare me to be the best in the world? It's kind of silly. Like this Academy Award business, I'm damned pleased to be nominated and included amongst the other nominees, worthy actors all of them. That's enough of an honour for me. But if I should win, would that make me better than them? Of course not. A good performance depends on the role, and what the actor brings of himself to it. And him alone. I bring Spencer Tracy to it. Nobody else can bring Spencer Tracy to it because they're not me. I'm the best Spencer Tracy in the world. If they want to give me an award for that. I've truly earned it.'

    This is a true insight into his own work - Spencer did not act roles, the roles acted Spencer. His performances were part of him. They were him.

    He came upon this special approach during rehearsals of The Last Mile in 1930, a landmark play of the time in which society's right to take the life of even a murderer was questioned. It was directed by me in a new style of realism - one that I had successfully introduced into several previous productions, a true realism born out of a world in economic depression, a world impatient with euphemism. The play is about a convicted murderer awaiting execution in the death house of an American prison, who chooses to die in violent protest rather than by passive compliance.

    tracy
    men of boys town
    (1941)


    Spencer had previously appeared in a potpourri of plays in repertory and in New York. He was a promising actor who occasionally showed flashes of true talent. I had seen a few of his performances, and was not overly impressed by him as a candidate for the lead in The Last Mile. I was just about to dismiss him, when something about our too brief casting interview stayed with me. Since it was getting on to dinner-time I invited him to join me at a theatrical haunt. There, in a less strained atmosphere, I was suddenly made aware as we were talking that beneath the surface, here was a man of passion, violence, sensitivity and desperation: no ordinary man, and just the man for the part.

    On the play's opening night, I stationed myself at the back of the auditorium. I suddenly saw him, after a hesitant start, realize his power as he felt the audience drawn into the experience of the play and respond to the measure of his skill and the power of his personality. I knew that he had found himself as an actor, and I knew that he knew it. The play - and his performance - projected Tracy to permanent stardom.

    It was inevitable, of course, that the new realism of the theatre would pass to films, then in the transitional period from silent pictures to dialogue pictures.

    The film director John Ford came to New York and saw The Last Mile. He was fascinated by Tracy and invited him to make a picture. It turned out to be Up the River (1930), a slapstick prison comedy of no quality. It was an unfortunate start for Spencer. Fox, the company to which he was under contract, typecast him in similar roles and inferior material, though his performances rose far above the banal level of the films. Eventually a respite (inspired by film critics who complained of this misuse of his talent) came in the form of several interesting pictures. In particular there was The Power and the the Glory (1933), a brilliant study by Preston Sturges of an industrialist's rise to power, in which Spencer came to maturity as a film actor in a role worthy of him.

    tracy
    dr. jekyll & mr. hyde
    (1941)


    This honeymoon period was short-lived, however, and Tracy found himself again assigned to pot-boiler fare. But he had endured enough by now and rebelled. Following his angry protests - and some bad behaviour - Fox release him from his contract. Shortly afterwards he signed for MGM. The second and crucial phase of his career had begun.

    Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM, was not so convined that Spencer had sex appeal, so he was cast as a second lead to Clark Gable. Anyone acquainted with Spencer's private life could have reassured Mayer on this point, as Irving Thalberg, head of production, finally did. He freed Tracy from bondage to Gable and cast him opposite some of Hollywood's loveliest ladies, all of whom he was permitted to win by the script, and several of whom he won off-screen, regardless of script or permit.

    MGM was soon aware that it had gained a genuine star of 'first top billing over the title', as it is officially denoted. He did not stereotype himself into a single character or role to be repeated in various stories as other stars did. What is striking in a random selection of his film roles is their variety: the harried victim of Fritz Lang's Fury (1936); the loveable Portuguese fisherman of Kipling's Captain's Courageous (1937); the gentle Father Flanagan of Boys' Town (1938); the redoubtable Stanley in Stanley and Livingstone (1939); Pilan, a Mexican peasant not above a little petty larceny, in Steinbeck's Tortilla Flat (1942); Joe the pilot in A Guy Named Joe (1943).

    tracy
    riffraff
    (1936)


    Tracy finished his contract at MGM with a masterful performance in Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) as the one-armed war veteran who uncovers a town's guilty secret: for this he received his fifth Oscar nomination. He next appeared in several distinguished films for Stanley Kramer with social themes close to Spencer's personal convictions. Inherit the Wind (1960) was a fictional account of the Dayton 'monkey' trial in Ohio during the Twenties, in which he played a lawyer, based on Clarence Darrow, who defends a teacher arraigned for teaching the Darwinian theory of evolution. In Judgement at Nuremberg (1961) he was the troubled judge at a Nazi war criminal trial. And Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? (1967), Tracy's last appearance, was a courageous story for the time, in which a couple, played by Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, come to accept the fact of a black husband for their daughter.

    Spencer's famous partnership with Katharine Hepburn began in 1942 with Woman of the Year. It was an historic occasion, both professionally and personally. For the next 25 years they appeared together in a variety of films. Perhaps the best were two sophisticated comedies, Adam's Rib (1949) and Pat and Mike (1952).

    When working, Spencer was very strict with himself. He examined the script carefully, defining his place in the story. He learned lines quickly, and asked for few if any changes. He relied on his ability to meet the requirements of the dialogue, no matter what. He did not go in for improvisation of any kind. He was a good listener in rehearsal and tried to do what was asked of him. Directors loved to work with him.

    tracy
    adam's rib
    (1949)


    As a star, Tracy avoided publicity and interviews, which did not make him a favourite with the PR boys. He would say:

      'I don't have to do those things. Everybody knows me. They see me in pictures. That's who I am.'

    But behind Spencer's strong, confident, craggy visage, there was an angry man disposed to self-destruction. When the strain became too intense he drank - drank fiercely to oblivion. He was not the only actor so afflicted. There were others - too many others. We talked about this, and I suggested it might be because acting imposed on the actor the burden of being his own instrument so that he was in danger of becoming a split personality. He smiled.

      'Jekyll and Hyde? I played that part. Maybe. And maybe it's just that acting is no proper job for a grown man. I've never really felt comfortable about it.'

    And then he added:

      'But I wouldn't do anything else for the whole world!'


tracy


filmography

    1930
      - Taxi Talks (short)
      - The Tough Guy/The Hard Guy (short)
      - Up the River

    1931

      - Quick Millions
      - Six Cylinder Love
      - Goldie

    1932

      - She Wanted a Millionaire
      - Sky Devils
      - Disorderly Conduct
      - Young America (GB: We Humans)
      - Society Girl
      - Painted Woman
      - Me and My Gal (GB: Pier 13)

    1933

      - 20,000 Years in Sing Sing
      - Face in the Sky
      - Shanghai Madness
      - Wings
      - The Power and the Glory
      - The Mad Game
      - A Man's Castle

    1934

      - Looking for Trouble
      - The Show-off
      - Bottoms Up
      - Now I'll Tell
      - Marie Galante

    1935

      - It's a Small World
      - Murder Man
      - Dante's Inferno
      - Whipsaw

    1936

      - Riffraff
      - Fury
      - San Francisco<<- Libeled Lady

    1937

      - They Gave Him a Gun
      - Captains Courrraaaaageous
      - Big City

    1938

      - Mannequin
      - Test Pilot
      - Boys' TTTooooown

    1939

      - Stanley and Livingstone

    1940

      - I Take This Woman
      - Northwest Passage
      - Edison, the Man
      - Boom Town

    1941

      - Men of Boys'Town
      - Jekyll and Mr Hyyyddddde

    1942

      - Woman of the Year
      - Tortilla Flat- Keeper of the Flame
      - Ring of Steel (short; narr, only)

    1943

      - A Guy Named Joe

    1944

      - The Seventh Cross
      - Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo

    1945

      - Without Love

    1946

      - untitled trailer for American Cancer Society

    1947

      - The Sea of Grass
      - Cass Timberlane

    1948

      - The State of the Union

    1949

      - Edward, My Son
      - Adam's Rib

    1950

      - Malaya
      - Father of the Bride

    1951

      - Father's Little Dividend
      - The People Against O'Hara

    1952

      - Pat and Mike
      - Plymouth Adventure

    1953

      - The Actress

    1954

      - Broken Lance

    1955

      - Bad Day at Black Rock

    1956

      - The Mountain

    1957

      - Desk Set

    1958

      - The Old Man and the Sea
      - The Last HHHHHurrah

    1960

      - Inherit the Wind

    1961

      - The Devil at 4 O'clock
      - Judgement aaaaat Nuremburg

    1963

      - It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
      - How the West Was Won (narr. only)

    1967

      - Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?



tracy



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