Stanley Kramer in “Film-Making with Spencer Tracy” (essay found in The Films of Spencer Tracy):
“I can’t explain why I was never able to say to him what I wanted to say: that he was a great actor. Everyone else said it a thousand times over, but I never managed it. Once I told him I loved him. That came quite easily, and he believe me and was emotional about it. But I was afraid to say, ‘Spencer, you’re a great actor.’ He’d only say, ‘Now what the hell kind of thing is that to come out with?’ He wanted to know it; he needed to know it. But he didn’t want you to say it – just think it. And maybe that was one of the reasons he was a great actor. He thought and listened better than anyone in the history of motion pictures. A silent close-up reaction of Spencer Tracy said it all.”
Sunday, Aug. 31, highlights on Turner Classic Movies:
Those who don’t think that Marlon Brando is the greatest ham – er, actor – who ever lived usually name either Spencer Tracy or Laurence Olivier. Personally, I’d rather watch, say, Alec Guinness or Marcello Mastroianni. If I’m going to be served ham, I want it to be as lean as possible.
Among the Greatest Movie Actors, Spencer Tracy is usually singled out for his “naturalism.” Up to 1955 or whereabouts, Tracy’s “naturalness” was so natural, but so natural that I’ve never been able to perceive even an iota of it. Instead, all I saw in, say, The Painted Woman, Me and My Gal, San Francisco, Boys’ Town, Edison, the Man, Without Love, Cass Timberlane, Father of the Bride, etc., etc., was an actor (quite obviously) playing a role: making faces while delivering lines – whether angry or sad or happy or near death – in the same abrasive, nasal manner.
Now, something happened in the mid-1950s. Perhaps Tracy’s heavy drinking finally caught up with him, slowing him down. His speech became less mannered, his nasal tones less grating, his abrasiveness metamorphosed into a sort of Zen-like wisdom, while his acting became more – ahem – realistically naturalistic. I find Tracy excellent in Bad Day at Black Rock (right, with Lee Marvin), Inherit the Wind, Judgment at Nuremberg, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
In the Academy Award-nominated blockbuster San Francisco he plays a Catholic clergyman who saves Clark Gable’s soul but not the soul of the city of San Francisco, which not only happens to be destroyed by the 1906 earthquake but rises again to become a haven for gays and lesbians (if Tracy’s self-righteous priest only knew…); in Edison, the Man, he plays greedy Thomas Edison as a great hero; and in Boys’ Town he’s another self-righteous priest who saves gee-whiz rebel teen Mickey Rooney from perdition. How unfortunate. Anyhow, the result was an Academy Award win for Tracy (his second, following the previous year’s Captains Courageous) and one of the very worst films ever made.
Without Love is one of the weakest Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn pairings (only The Sea of Grass is worse); Father’s Little Dividend manages to be even more mediocre than Father of the Bride (worse yet, at the end of this film about human breeding habits we discover that granddad Tracy and his gorgeous wife Joan Bennett are still having sex – and they dare call Father’s Little Dividend a Family Film!); while Captains Courageous (above) has Tracy playing a (painfully phony) Portuguese fisherman while teaching spoiled brat Freddie Bartholomew something or other about True Values. (The fisherman should instead have taught the kid how to swim.)
And finally, the recommendations:
Tracy is actually perfectly ok in Adam’s Rib, the best of the Tracy-Hepburn pairings, directed by George Cukor from a screenplay by Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon, and with Judy Holliday nearly stealing the show as the jealous wife who shoots philandering husband Tom Ewell; and, as I mention above, Tracy is excellent in John Sturges’ mystery Western Bad Day at Black Rock, with the invariably reliable Robert Ryan providing solid support.
Now, Tracy isn’t very convincing in any of the following, but the films themselves are worth watching: Frank Borzage’s Man’s Castle is a beautifully shot social melodrama boasting one of Loretta Young’s best performances; Fred Zinnemann’s World War II drama The Seventh Cross follows a man who has fled a concentration camp; and Fritz Lang’s Fury is a worthwhile attack on mob justice, with a highly effective Sylvia Sidney as hunted-man Tracy’s gal.
Schedule (Pacific Time) and synopses from the TCM website:
3:00 AM San Francisco (1936)
A beautiful singer and a battling priest try to reform a Barbary Coast saloon owner in the days before the big earthquake. Cast: Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald, Spencer Tracy. Director: W.S. Van Dyke. Black and white. 115 min.
5:00 AM They Gave Him A Gun (1937)
With no other prospects, a World War I veteran turns to crime. Cast: Spencer Tracy, Franchot Tone, Gladys George. Director: W.S. Van Dyke. Black and white. 95 min.
9:00 AM Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)
General Jimmy Doolittle trains American troops for the first airborne attacks on Japan. Cast: Spencer Tracy, Van Johnson, Robert Walker. Director: Mervyn LeRoy. Black and white. 138 min.
11:30 AM Without Love (1945)
A World War II housing shortage inspires a widow to propose a marriage of convenience with an inventor. Cast: Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Lucille Ball. Director: Harold S. Bucquet. Black and white. 111 min.
1:30 PM Adam’s Rib (1949)
Husband-and-wife lawyers argue opposite sides in a sensational women’s rights case. Cast: Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Judy Holliday. Director: George Cukor. Black and white. 101 min.
3:15 PM Boys’ Town (1938)
True story of Father Flanagan’s fight to build a home for orphaned boys. Cast: Spencer Tracy, Mickey Rooney, Henry Hull. Director: Norman Taurog. Black and white. 93 min.
5:00 PM Captains Courageous (1937)
A spoiled rich boy is lost at sea and rescued by a fishing boat, where hard work and responsibility help him become a man. Cast: Spencer Tracy, Freddie Bartholomew, Lionel Barrymore. Director: Victor Fleming. Black and white. 117 min.
7:00 PM Father’s Little Dividend (1951)
In this sequel to Father of the Bride, a doting father faces a series of comic trials when his daughter has her first child. Cast: Spencer Tracy, Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Bennett. Director: Vincente Minnelli. Black and white. 81 min.
8:30 PM A Man’s Castle (1933)
An unemployed man turns to crime when he gets his girlfriend pregnant. Cast: Spencer Tracy, Loretta Young, Marjorie Rambeau. Director: Frank Borzage. Black and white. 75 min.
9:45 PM Fury (1936)
An innocent man escapes a lynch mob then returns for revenge. Cast: Spencer Tracy, Sylvia Sidney, Walter Brennan. Director: Fritz Lang. Black and white. 93 min.
11:30 PM The Seventh Cross (1944)
Seven men escape from a concentration camp and fight their way to freedom. Cast: Spencer Tracy, Signe Hasso, Hume Cronyn. Director: Fred Zinnemann. Black and white. 112 min.
1:30 AM Bad Day At Black Rock (1955)
A one-armed veteran uncovers small-town secrets when he tries to visit an Asian-American war hero’s family. Cast: Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Anne Francis. Director: John Sturges. Color. 82 mins. Letterbox Format