Nationality: American. Born: Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 5 April 1900. Education: Attended St. Rosa's Parochial School and West Side High School, Milwaukee; Marquette Academy, Milwaukee; Northwestern Military Academy, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin; Ripon College, Wisconsin, for three semesters; American Academy of Dramatic Arts, New York, graduated 1923. Family: Married Louise Treadwell, 1923, son: John, daughter: Susan. Career: 1922—stage debut in Theatre Guild's production of R.U.R. in New York; on stage in stock in Grand Rapids and Trenton, also in plays on Broadway, including Yellow, 1926, Baby Cyclone, 1927, and The Last Mile, 1930; 1930—feature film debut in Up the River; contract with Fox; 1935–55—contract with MGM; 1942—first of a series of films with Katharine Hepburn, Woman of the Year; 1945—on Broadway in The Rugged Path. Awards: Best Actor Academy Award, for Captains Courageous, 1937; Best Actor Academy Award for Boys' Town, 1938; Best Actor, Cannes Festival, for Bad Day at Black Rock, 1955; Best Actor, British Academy, for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, 1968. Died: 10 June 1967.
Films as Actor:
Taxi Talks (short) (as a gunman); The Hard Guy (Hurley—short) (as World War I veteran); Up the River (Ford) (as St. Louis)
Quick Millions (Brown) (as "Bugs" Raymond); Six Cylinder Love (Freeland) (as William Dontoy); Goldie (Stoloff) (as Bill)
She Wanted a Millionaire (Blystone) (as William Kelly); Sky Devils (Sutherland) (as Wilkie); Disorderly Conduct (Considine) (as Dick Fay); Young America (Borzage) (as Jack Doray); Society Girl (Lanfield) (as Briscoe); The Painted Woman (Blystone) (as Tom Brian); Me and My Gal (Walsh) (as Don Dolan)
Twenty Thousand Years in Sing Sing (Curtiz) (as Tom Connors); The Face in the Sky (Lachman) (as Joe Buck); The Power and the Glory (William K. Howard) (as Tom Garner); Shanghai Madness (Blystone) (as Pat Jackson); The Mad Game (Cummings) (as Edward Carson); Man's Castle (Borzage) (as Bill)
The Show-Off (Riesner) (as Aubrey Piper); Bottoms Up (Butler) (as Smoothie King); Looking for Trouble (Wellman) (as Joe Graham); Now I'll Tell (Burke) (as Murray Golden); Marie Galante (Henry King) (as Crawbett)
It's a Small World (Cummings) (as Bill Shevlin); Dante's Inferno (Lachman) (as Jim Carter); The Murder Man (Whelan) (as Steve Gray); Whipsaw (Wood) (as Ross McBride)
They Gave Him a Gun (Van Dyke) (as Fred); Captains Courageous (Fleming) (as Manuel); The Big City (Borzage) (as Joe)
Mannequin (Borzage) (as John L. Hennessey); Test Pilot (Fleming) (as Gunner Sloane); Boys' Town (Taurog) (as Father Flanagan)
Stanley and Livingston (Henry King) (as Henry Stanley)
I Take This Woman (Van Dyke) (as Karl Decker); Northwest Passage (King Vidor) (as Major Rogers); Edison, the Man (Brown) (title role); Boom Town (Conway) (as Square John Sand)
Men of Boys' Town (Taurog) (as Father Flanagan); Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Fleming) (title role)
Ring of Steel (Kanin—short) (as narrator); Woman of the Year (Stevens) (as Sam Craig); Tortilla Flat (Fleming) (as Pilon)
Keeper of the Flame (Cukor) (as Steven O'Malley); A Guy Named Joe (Fleming) (as Pete Sandidge)
Battle Stations (Kanin—short) (as narrator); The Seventh Cross (Zinnemann) (as George Heisler); Thirty Seconds over Tokyo (LeRoy) (as Lt. Col. James Doolittle)
Without Love (Bucquet) (as Pat Jamieson)
The Sea of Grass (Kazan) (as Jim Brewton); Cass Timberlane (Sidney) (title role)
State of the Union (Capra) (as Grant Matthews)
Edward, My Son (Cukor) (as Arnold Boult); Adam's Rib (Cukor) (as Adam Bonner)
Malaya (Thorpe) (as Carnahan); Father of the Bride (Minnelli) (as Stanley Banks)
Father's Little Dividend (Minnelli) (as Stanley Banks); The People against O'Hara (John Sturges) (as James Curtayne)
Pat and Mike (Cukor) (as Mike Conovan); The Plymouth Adventure (Brown) (as Captain Christopher Jones)
The Actress (Cukor) (as Clinton Jones)
Broken Lance (Dmytryk) (as Matt Deveraux); Bad Day at Black Rock (John Sturges) (as John McReedy)
The Mountain (Dmytryk) (as Zachary Teller)
The Desk Set (Walter Lang) (as Richard)
The Old Man and the Sea (John Sturges) (title role); The Last Hurrah (Ford) (as Frank Skeffington)
Inherit the Wind (Kramer) (as Henry Drummond)
The Devil at Four O'Clock (LeRoy) (as Father Matthew Doonan); Judgment at Nuremberg (Kramer) (as Judge Dan Haywood)
How the West Was Won (Hathaway, Ford, and Marshall) (as narrator); It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (Kramer) (as Captain C. G. Culpeper)
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? (Kramer) (as Matt Drayton)
By TRACY: article—
Interview in Film Weekly (London), 29 August 1936.
On TRACY: books—
Newquist, Roy, A Special Kind of Magic, New York, 1967.
Swindell, Larry, Spencer Tracy: A Biography, New York, 1969.
Kanin, Garson, Tracy and Hepburn, New York, 1971.
Tozzi, Romano, Spencer Tracy, New York, 1973.
Britton, Andrew, Katharine Hepburn: The Thirties and After, New-castle-Upon-Tyne, 1984.
Davidson, Bill, Spencer Tracy: Tragic Idol, London, 1987.
Fisher, James, Spencer Tracy: A Bio-Bibliography, Westport, Connecticut, 1994.
Leaming, Barbara, Katharine Hepburn, New York, 1995.
Andersen, Christopher P., An Affair to Remember: The Remarkable Love Story of Katharine Hepburn & Spencer Tracy, New York, 1997.
On TRACY: articles—
Current Biography 1943, New York, 1943.
Cowie, Peter, "Spencer Tracy," in Films and Filming (London), June 1961.
Tozzi, Romano, "Spencer Tracy," in Films in Review (New York), December 1966.
Obituary in New York Times, 11 June 1967.
Gilliatt, Penelope, "The Most Amicable Combatants," in New Yorker, 23 September 1972.
Buckley, Michael, "Spencer Tracy Remembered," in Films in Review (New York), August/September 1986.
Kenny, Glenn, "Spencer Tracy: This Actor Courageous and Father Figure Won Two in a Row," in Entertainment Weekly, March 1995.
Tibbetts, J.C., "Pre-MGM Spencer Tracy," in Films in Review (New York), November/December 1995.
"Editor's Response," in Films in Review (New York), January/February 1996.
* * *
Few actors on the American screen have enjoyed a stardom as sustained and respected as Spencer Tracy's. His roles were wide ranging, the films that contained them generically diverse. He appeared in gangster films, screwball comedies, Westerns, biographies, and romantic adventures. He played seamen, airmen, journalists, lawyers, judges, politicians, and priests. His characters included society's victims and, occasionally, its victimizers—sometimes both at the same time, as in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But even when he portrayed ruthless conniving men, Tracy exuded a rugged self-confidence that seemed to etch facets central to the American spirit. He had no airs, on-screen or off. Perhaps because his average looks and chunky frame denied him the romantic casting opportunities available to his more urbane contemporaries, William Powell and Clark Gable, he remained a character actor masquerading as a star.
Tracy's most vivid roles suggest a pragmatic if accidental blending of James Stewart's all-American affability and basic decency with the roguish Irish pugnacity of James Cagney. Although his more mean-spirited characters generally come to their moral senses before the final fadeout, Tracy's delight in depicting comic chicanery (Libeled Lady, Adam's Rib, The Last Hurrah, and It's a Mad . . . World) and savage revenge (Murder Man, Sea of Grass, and, notably, Fury) contradict the notion that he was primarily a player of paragons, such as Father Flanagan in Boys' Town and Edison the Man.
Arguably Tracy's most atypical role was the aforementioned Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In contrast to John Barrymore and Fredric March, who had played the dual roles in previous versions, Tracy donned little makeup for his Hyde. His was a more psychological approach. For many, including the critics, the subtlety of it all did not work. Reportedly author Somerset Maugham once visited the set and commented, "Which is he now? Jekyll or Hyde." At the height of his fame, and his alcoholism, the always-insecure Tracy would often disappear from the set for days, have to be tracked and persuaded to come back. He remained ashamed of his performance in the film to the end of his life. While perhaps not ranking with the best of his career, it was polished and professional and has worn quite well over the years. One suspects that the hostility with which it was greeted at the time had much to do with critic and audience expectations, and with Tracy's having been cast so firmly against type, a problem that does not seem to arise for viewers today.
Most enduringly of all, however, Tracy will be remembered for his legendary partnership with Katharine Hepburn, with whom he maintained an offscreen relationship for 25 years and co-starred in seven MGM films. Three of them (Keeper of the Flame and, memorably, Adam's Rib and Pat and Mike) were directed by George Cukor, who once characterized their improbable alliance: "They were a very amusing combination. She says that he helped her very much and he didn't spare her, you know. If he thought she was grandiose, he could be terribly funny about her. She talked in a certain elegant way and there was nothing la-di-da about him so, chemically, they were very amusing together." Those personality contrasts provided ore for their best film pairings. In Woman of the Year, Adam's Rib, and Pat and Mike a progressive battle of the sexes is fought to a sparkling standoff as Tracy's plain dealing, cynical men defend their turf against Hepburn's competitive incursions. Together, they Americanized the Restoration comedy of manners.
—Mark W. Estrin, updated by John McCarty