Spencer Tracy (1900 -1967)
Biography from Leonard Maltin's Movie Encyclopedia:
It is one thing for a movie star to earn the adulation of the public. It is another thing to win the praise of the critics. It is still another thing to win the respect and admiration of one's peers, who actually know a thing or two about acting. Spencer Tracy was one of the very few in Hollywood history who won over all three groups. Stocky, round-faced, and not particularly handsome, he nonetheless radiated that peculiar charisma that drew every pair of eyes to his corner of the screen. He could deliver dynamic performances to match any ever filmed, but he could (and usually did) accomplish just as much in a quiet, understated way, mesmerizing audiences with simple gestures, expressions, and body language. The result-invariablywas complete credibility. He made every line of dialogue ring true. A former Jesuit prep-school student who once intended to become a priest, Tracy joined the Navy in the waning days of World War 1, and upon being mustered out enrolled in Northwestern Military Academy and Wisconsin's Ripon College; in the latter school he took up dramatics, and determined to become an actor. He entered New York's American Academy of Dramatic Arts and studied diligently, even landing a few small roles in Broadway productions. Mostly, though, he supported himself by working in odd jobs. Tracy eventually penetrated New York's community of stock actors, took more Broadway assignments, and finally won a leading role, as a convicted killer on Death Row, in "The Last Mile."
Although Tracy tested the celluloid waters with roles in some New York-filmed short subjects, including 1930's "Taxi Talks" and "Hard Guy," he confided to his wife Louise that, as a decidedly unhandsome character, he had no future in movies. But director John Ford, who'd seen him in "The Last Mile," had Fox sign Tracy to star in a prison yarn he was filming, Up the River (1930, which also featured New York stage actor Humphrey Bogart). Tracy's skillful performance, coupled with his "Last Mile" fame, kept him confined to gangster and tough-guy roles for his first several years inHollywood. He was already a better actor than many of the leading men out there (having mastered early the technique of underemoting for the camera), but studio brass insisted on casting him as a thick-ear type in the likes of Quick Millions, Six-Cylinder Love, Goldie (all 1931), Sky Devils, Disorderly Conduct, Young America, Society Girl, The Painted Womanthe delightful Me and My Gal and She Wanted a Millionaire (all 1932), among others. An increasingly truculent Tracy, loaned to Warners for yet another prison picture (1933's 20,000 Years in Sing Sing took to drinking heavily and grousing loudly. Fox loaned him to Columbia to star opposite Loretta Young (with whom Tracy was once romantically linked) in Frank Borzage's Depression romance, Man's Castle (1933), and did offer him some better roles, as the itinerant sign painter in Face in the Sky (also 1933), for example. Producer Jesse L. Lasky even selected him to star in his prestigious, innovative drama, The Power and the Glory (also 1933), playing the ruthless industrialist with a tragic personal life. The literate, handsome production (written by Preston Sturges) was not a box-office success, and Tracy finished out his Fox contract in mostly undistinguished fare, including The Mad Game, Shanghai Madness(also 1933), The Show-Off, Bottoms Up, Now I'll Tell, Marie Galante (all 1934), and It's a Small World (1935). (Two of his better outings during this period were 1934's jaunty Looking for Trouble and 1935's Dante's Inferno
MGM's wonder boy, production head Irving Thalberg, thought Tracy would make an ideal secondary lead and character actor, and signed him in 1935 to a long-term contract. That year, after getting top billing in a nondescript B, The Murder Man Tracy took the number two spot supporting Metro stars Myrna Loy (in Whipsaw and Jean Harlow (in Riffraff as well as borrowed Paramount star Sylvia Sidney (in 1936's Fury a Fritz Lang drama in which Tracy made his best impression to date for MGM). He supported Clark Gable and Jeanette MacDonald in San Francisco (and was Oscar-nominated for his work as a priest), and William Powell, Myrna Loy, and Jean Harlow in Libeled Lady (both 1936) before being cast as the Portuguese fisherman Manuel, in support of child star Freddie Bartholomew, in Victor Fleming's letter-perfect adaptation of Kipling's Captains Courageous (1937), a characterization that won him his first Academy Award.
Tracy's next few assignments-in They Gave Him a Gun, The Big City, Mannequin (all 1937), and Test Pilot (1938, again in support of Gable and Loy)weren't particularly demanding, nor were the films particularly great. But Boys Town (also 1938) offered him the plum role of a real-life hero, Nebraska's famous Father Flanagan, whose private community for wayward boys had made headlines. Tracy superbly limned the priest as tough but tender, and won a second Academy Award for his portrayal. (He reprised the role in a 1941 sequel, Men of Boys Town
Loaned to 20th Century-Fox for Stanley and Livingstone (1939, in which he played the former, uttering the immortal line "Dr. Livingstone, I presume."), Tracy returned to Metro first to support Gable and Claudette Colbert in Boom Town but then appeared in several top-notch starring vehicles: Edison, the Man the rugged Northwest Passage, I Take This Woman(all 1940), and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941). In 1942 Tracy was teamed for the first time with Katharine Hepburn, who had made a surprising comeback-after being labeled "box-office poison" by exhibitors-in Metro's The Philadelphia Story. Woman of the Year (1942) was a delightful comedy directed by George Stevens that showed them playing out the battle of the sexes with élan; it was a routine they would evolve together periodically onscreen over the next quartercentury. An offscreen romance began as well, although Tracy-a devout Catholic-refused to divorce his wife, even though they lived apart for decades.
Tracy, by this time a top star at MGM, worked throughout the 1940s: Keeper of the Flame (with Hepburn), Tortilla Flat (both 1942), A Guy Named Joe (1943), The Seventh Cross, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (both 1944), Without Love (1945, with Hepburn), Cass Timberlane, Sea of Grass (both 1947, the latter with Hepburn), Edward, My SonHe always seemed at his best with Hepburn, and most of their films were unusually intelligent. In State of the Union (1948, based on the hit Broadway play), he's an indus- trialist who tries to maintain his integrity while running for President; Hepburn is his wife, who loses faith in him when he seems to be swallowed by the political machine (and its power broker, played by Angela Lansbury). In Adam's Rib (1949, written especially for them by their friends Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, and directed by another close friend, George Cukor) they're a liberated married couple, both successful as lawyers, who lock horns when they represent opposing sides in a love-triangle shooting.
Acting didn't come easily for Tracy, a tormented man who would disappear on binges for days, even weeks at a time. Still, he managed to rein himself in often enough to work on a steady basis, and toplined such 1950s vehicles as The People Against O'Hara (1951), Plymouth Adventure (1952), The Actress (1953, as the father of a budding actress, an autobiographical story by Ruth Gordon), Broken Lance (1954), and The Mountain (1956). He gave one of his most endearing performances in Father of the Bride (1950), as the hapless (but doting) dad of Elizabeth Taylor, and earned another Oscar nomination; he and his costars fared equally well in a sequel, Father's Little Dividend (1951).
He snagged another Oscar nod as the grizzled, one-armed veteran who exposes a Western town's dirty little secret in Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), and yet another for his tour de force as an aging fisherman battling the elements in Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea (1958). He found other good opportunities in the 1950s: opposite Hepburn again in Pat and Mike (1952) and Desk Set (1957), and reunited with director John Ford and an all-star cast in the sentimental The Last Hurrah (1958), which offered him a tailor-made role as an old-time politico.
By this time Tracy was white-haired and craggy-faced, his natural contrariness and irascibility gradually seeping into his performances. Inherit the Wind (1960), based on the real-life "monkey trial" of 1925, cast him as a fictionalized Clarence Darrow, a characterization that garnered him yet another Academy Award nod. He repeated the feat with his turn as the U.S. judge presiding over Nazi war criminals' trials in Judgment at Nuremberg (1961). But he couldn't save The Devil at 4 O'Clock (1961, playing a priest for the last time), and had little to do as the nominal straight man to a cast of scenestealing comics in It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963). He also narrated the epic western How the West Was Won in 1962.
Increasingly ill, Tracy returned to the screen just once more, at the behest of his friend, producer Stanley Kramer, to costar with his beloved Hepburn one last time in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967). An occasionally syrupy but well-intentioned and well-made plea for racial tolerance, it provided a fitting swan song for this great actor, who delivered a lengthy, moving speech in the final reel. Desperately ill during production, Tracy summoned up his last ounce of strength to finish the picture; he died just a few weeks after shooting was completed. He received a posthumous Best Actor Academy Award nomination-his ninth-for his performance.
Copyright ©1994 Leonard Maltin, used by arrangement with Signet, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc.