Tracy, Spencer (1900-1967)

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Tracy, Spencer (1900-1967)

Spencer Tracy, frequently defined by his peers as "an actor's actor," was the prime exemplar of understated acting in both comedy and drama. The unrufflable simplicity was deceptive, for beneath the surface of that craggy face and chunky frame simmered anger, passion, compassion, or grief, as the role required. It is for his famous on-screen partnership with his legendary off-screen love, the redoubtable Katharine Hepburn, that Tracy remains best remembered, but his other achievements in a film career that spanned thirty-seven years and some seventy-three films were substantial.

Tracy was cast in a unique mold. He achieved leading man status of the first rank without a vestige of glamour or movie-star good looks. His strikingly natural persona, combined with many of the characters he played, became a benchmark for solid values and dependability as he worked his way through a succession of priests, fathers, judges, and down-to-earth avenging angels. Avuncular, often gruff, and sometimes irascible (a reflection of his own temper), there generally lurked an understanding heart beneath the rough exterior. Stern but kindly, often with a twinkle in his eye, Tracy was a rock of integrity who, but for graying hair and the lines of age that barely disturbed his familiar face, never essentially changed in either appearance or manner.

Born in Milwaukee, Tracy was the son of a truck salesman. He was educated at a Jesuit school and initially intended to enter the ministry, but he later found he preferred dramatics and decided to become an actor. In 1922, he enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. After graduation, he embarked on a succession of menial jobs until he eventually found work in a stock company. Gradually he made it to Broadway where, in 1930, his lead performance in a successful prison drama, The Last Mile, caught the attention of Hollywood director John Ford, who cast him as the lead in Up the River, a gangster film, that same year.

The next five years were spent under contract to Fox, where Tracy made a couple of interesting films, including The Power and the Glory (1933), but his best roles came among the frequent loan-outs to other studios, notably in the hard-hitting 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1933), made for Michael Curtiz at Warner Brothers. In this film, Tracy starred as a criminal who confesses to a murder of which he is innocent, and the actor was given ample opportunity to display toughness and humanity in equal measure. Indeed, during these early years, Tracy frequently was cast as a rough-hewn character, either made good or gone to the bad. Having married in 1923 and always a devout Catholic, a guilt-ridden Tracy courted unwelcome publicity in the early 1930s when his affair with Loretta Young was revealed in the scandal sheets. When, in 1935, he was arrested for drunkenness, Fox fired him. MGM hired him and, in time, provided fertile ground for a rich crop of roles that established Tracy as a star.

His first major success at MGM was as the man who survives an unjust lynching and seeks vengeance in Fritz Lang's powerful drama Fury in 1936, the same year he played the priest in San Francisco and earned his first Oscar nomination. He won the Oscar the following year for his role as the Portuguese sailor protecting Freddie Bartholomew in Captains Courageous and in 1938 became the first actor to win two in a row when he was again voted best actor as Father Flanagan in Boys Town—the first of his biopics.

In 1942 the Tracy-Hepburn collaboration began with Woman of the Year, in which his sports reporter and her politician, wonderfully ill-matched, fall in love. The film set the tone for the most successful and popular of their films together as sparring partners in the battle of the sexes, competitive, witty, sometimes acidic, but always affectionate. In Frank Capra's political comedy State of the Union (1948) Tracy is a presidential candidate, Hepburn his estranged wife; in George Cukor's Adam's Rib (1949) they are married lawyers on opposite sides of an attempted murder case; in Cukor's Pat and Mike (1952), she is a sporting phenomenon, he a sports promoter of dubious connections who sets out to exploit her money-making potential. Without Love (1945), an uncertain romance from a failed Broadway play, sank without a trace (the only one to do so), while there were more serious but less popular excursions with Cukor's Keeper of the Flame (1942), Tracy impressive as a reporter destroying the reputation of a dead politician, and Sea of Grass (1947), a brooding drama with Tracy cast as a work-obsessed cattle tycoon.

In 1950, directed by Vincente Minnelli, Tracy played the gruff, bumbling, and put-upon Father of the Bride to daughter Elizabeth Taylor, a huge hit which won him an Oscar nomination and was followed by a hit sequel, Father's Little Dividend (1951), but quality vehicles were growing thinner and, correspondingly, so were the memorable performances. The only truly noteworthy contributions to the 1950s were his political campaigner in John Ford's The Last Hurrah and his one-armed, dark-suited avenger in John Sturges's Bad Day at Black Rock (1955). Descending on a crumbling one-horse outpost to unearth a terrible secret and seek justice, Tracy was never better than in this superb Western morality tale, unconquerable, implacable, ironic, compassionate, and heroic. It earned him a third Academy nomination, and there was a fourth for The Old Man and The Sea (1958).

The 1960s brought the onset of illness. During his last years, Tracy grew increasingly moody and difficult to work with, and producers shied away from using him. An exception was Stanley Kramer, and it was for him that the actor gave his impressive last three performances: a thinly disguised Clarence Darrow defending in an equally thinly disguised Scopes Trial in Inherit the Wind (1960), the presiding judge wrestling with the Nazi legacy in Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), and, in a last glorious reunion with Hepburn, another irascible, bewildered, and tender-hearted father in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? Already very ill, Tracy died a few weeks after filming was completed.

—Robyn Karney

Further Reading:

Davidson, Bill. Spencer Tracy, Tragic Idol. New York, Dutton, 1987.

Fisher, James. Spencer Tracy: A Bio-Bibliography. Connecticut, Greenwood Publishing, 1994.

Kanin, Garson. Tracy and Hepburn: An Intimate Memoir. New York, Bantam, 1972.

Tozzi, Romano. Spencer Tracy: 1900-1967. New York, Galahad Books, 1973.