Hollywood’s Everyman From America’s Heartland

The summer after I graduated from UW-Madison I took a temp position with the Wisconsin Historical Society. Best job I ever had. In helping patrons with their family research, I had full access to the state’s entire collection of local and federal censuses, newspaper archives, and assorted historical documents going back to the early 19th century. And while this might begin to sound like a curriculum vitae on one’s resume, I mention all this because the first day on the job I got to look up the birth record of one of the most famous Hollywood actors to hail from America’s Heartland: Spencer Tracy.

Actor Spencer Tracy in a promotion still for State of the Union (1948).

Actor Spencer Tracy in a promotion still for State of the Union (1948).

Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on April 5, 1900, the second son of Caroline and John Edward Tracy was not only as old as the century, but would grow up to virtually embody the century’s defining artistic and technological innovation: movies. Not too tall, not too lean, and not particularly handsome, the reddish brown- and eventually silver-haired, broad-shouldered actor was the screen’s first “regular Joe”, exuding an unselfconscious screen “presence” across a wide variety of genres; which included both serious dramas and romantic comedies, and a wide variety of roles, which included unflappably honest along with seriously flawed characters. Able to steal a scene with a tolerant half-smile or slightly-raised brow, Tracy came to be known as the “actor’s actor”; mostly because he forewent, and even foreswore, the conventional attention-grabbing tactics or hammy histrionics of his more showy colleagues.

As opposed to over- or even under-playing a scene, Spencer Tracy the screen actor had the singular, unprecedented gift of appearing as if he wasn’t even “acting” at all. As observed by director John Ford, for whom Tracy made his 1930 film debut in Fox Films’ breezy prison escape drama Up the River, “When I say Spencer Tracy is the best actor we ever had, I’m giving you something of my philosophy on acting. The best is most natural.” [1] And it was this naturalness that set Tracy apart during his 37-year, 75-film career. Contemporaries like James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, and frequent co-star Clark Gable were easily imitated, though infrequently matched, but only Tracy among them escaped the mannerisms and speech inflections that made even the best actors of his generation the endless target of nightclub comedians and cartoon parodies.

But anyway, back to scanning a microfiche file for an infant Spencer Bonaventure (seriously!) Tracy: though he had been a favorite actor of mine, I had never made the Wisconsin connection before. But, on reflection, it seemed obvious. Embodying a distinctly Midwestern masculinity, where words and deeds are only as important as the sincerity behind them, the quiet dignity of Tracy’s on-screen manner reminds me of what I aspired to as a kid growing up in the Midwest modeling my behavior (or attempting to) on my dad and my grandpa, along with male teachers and coaches whose “contained” sense of self I admired. So, in celebration of his birth month, I thought I’d sit down with a key selection of Spencer Tracy movies and record a few thoughts on Hollywood’s effortless Everyman: without hyperbole, the realest human being to appear in front of a camera.

[1] Spencer Tracy: A Life (2011) by James Curtis, John Ford comment pg. 741

THE POWER AND THE GLORY

(1933, Fox Films, dir. William K. Howard)

Spencer Tracy (right) in THE POWER AND THE GLORY (1933), directed by William K. Howard. The film has been restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive.

As we’re moving chronologically through Tracy’s career here, it’s appropriately ironic that we’re starting with a movie that was celebrated in its day for its non-chronological story-telling structure. Fox Films’ 1933 production of The Power and the Glory comes mid-way through Spencer Tracy’s otherwise undistinguished 25-film tenure at the studio but, among his earlier movies, comes closest to showcasing the depth and range of the actor’s naturalistic acting style. From future comedy genius director Preston Sturges, whose first Hollywood script here was improbably a drama, the film tells the history of recently deceased railroad tycoon Tom Garner (Tracy) through flashback, flash-forward, and shifting points-of-view, complexly detailing how a powerful American industrialist gained wealth, prestige, and power, but lost his soul in the process. And if that description sounds in any way familiar, yes, the radical structure and thematic content of the film served as inspiration to an infinitely more famous and stylistically innovative critical take on the “successful American” by another Wisconsin native, Orson Welles, in his Citizen Kane (1941), but Tracy acquits himself admirably in the role of a proto-Kane and displays true flashes of humanity that help us understand the character as opposed to distancing him from us. As Garner/Tracy moves from walking alongside the train tracks to heading the company boardroom, the wounded and tragic dimensions of the character is unambiguously addressed by the echoes of a gunshot through a cavernous mansion, as opposed to a dropped snowglobe shattering on the floor, but is no less devestating for it.

FURY

(1936, MGM, dir. Fritz Lang)

spencer-tracy-furyFour films into his subsequent contract with MGM, a relationship that would last into the mid-50s, Tracy earned his first prominent role for the studio in an uncharacteristic social drama made by the most acclaimed German director of the silent era, Fritz Lang (Metropolis [1927], [1930]), who three years before had fled the Nazi apparatus and was here making his first Hollywood feature: Fury. Yes, that may be a good deal of information packed into that over-stuffed sentence, but it’s helpful, and possibly necessary, to understanding the unusual power of both the film and Tracy’s performance. The story of an innocent man who becomes the victim of a smalltown lynching, and then narrowly escapes to wreak his revenge on the vicious townspeople who nearly burned him alive, the film per its title evokes in its most terrifying moments the chaos and simmering brutality that overspills into an otherwise civilized setting when its inhabitants are possessed by mob rule. As initially bright and hopeful, affianced gas station attendant Joe Wilson, Tracy transforms on-screen through the traumatic experience of witnessing a “world gone mad” – reflected in the actor’s body language, which becomes increasingly rigid and automaton-like – but renders that transformation believable and even audience-complicit. Able to make an audience identify with a character who grows more and more unhinged as the story darkly, and even fatalistically, progresses, Tracy essentially invites viewers to imagine the circumstances under which an everyday, “average Joe” could become a monster.

SAN FRANCISCO

(1936, MGM, dir. W.S. Van Dyke)

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Having indulged the devilish side of his nature, Tracy next took an infinitely more angelic supporting role, as Catholic priest Father Tim Mullin, in MGM’s A++-production of 1936: director Woody “One-Shot” Van Dyke’s ridiculously entertaining San Francisco. As the sound era’s inaugural “disaster flick” – which would portend the studio raining a hail of locusts on a Chinese peasant’s field in 1937’s The Good Earth and rival studio 20th Century-Fox burning down the Second City In Old Chicago (also ’37) – San Francisco details the sinful goings-on of the Barbary Coast in the months leading up to the devastating citywide earthquake of 1906. Clark Gable stars as powerful gambling den and saloon owner “Blackie” Norton: a godless, charming rogue who represents the immoral, though thoroughly engaging, dark heart of the benighted city. But with studio songbird Jeanette MacDonald on-hand (who, as opera-aspirant Mary Blake, sings the famous title song a record six times in the movie), along with childhood friend Tim Mullin (who, like Blackie, rose from the shadows of Nob Hill, but took an entirely different path in life), Blackie’s eventual “turn towards the light” is entirely assured – even if the movie has to destroy an entire city to bring this “miracle” about! Basically, Tracy’s supporting character, as written, functions as the “moral conscience” of San Francisco – both for the movie and its main character – but Father Tim Mullin comes off as no mere cipher thanks largely to Tracy’s warm and believable performance.

WOMAN OF THE YEAR

(1942, MGM, dir. George Stevens)

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Undoubtedly the most important moment in both Tracy the man and Tracy the actor’s personal and professional career came when he and fellow MGM studio contract player Katharine Hepburn were cast opposite each other in late 1941 for a romantic comedy, co-written by Michael Kanin and Ring Lardner, Jr., and directed by the great George Stevens, called Woman of the Year. The “Woman” of the title is indeed Ms. Hepburn, who as intrepid international, multilingual, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Tess Harding runs afoul of fellow New York Chronicle sports columnist Sam Craig (Tracy) when she makes a few ill-chosen, elitist remarks dismissive of America’s then-Pastime (baseball, of course) in an editorial about the then-worsening situation in Europe (WWII, of course). A heated war of words via newsprint quickly ensues until the pair are called into the managing editor’s office for a “truce”… where, when meeting for the first time, sparks of an entirely different nature quickly arise. Yes, the 25-year, 9-film legend of Tracy & Hepburn – the most realistic romantic screen pairing in the history of Hollywood movies – begins here and in my opinion Woman of the Year, their very first movie together, is also their very best. With its fascinating delineation, and upturning, of gender roles circa 1942, along with notions of culture and class as Sam Craig and Tess Harding attempt to reconcile Yankee Stadium with swank 5th Avenue cocktail parties, one gets the sense that only one man, one screen actor in Classic Hollywood’s “galaxy of stars” would be able to match the accomplished and intimidating Ms. Hepburn; and that man and actor was, of course, the decent and plain-spoken Mr. Spencer Tracy.

STATE OF THE UNION

(1948, Liberty Films/MGM, dir. Frank Capra)spencer-tracy-state-of-the-unionTracy and Hepburn’s fourth film together, directed by the legendary Frank Capra, as a subsequent politically-themed film companion to the director’s own earlier Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), is timely for 2016 as a political satire running the 1948 presidential election through the populist wringer. Times have changed in the past 68 years, though, and I imagine that many viewers today would almost perceive the personal compromises of an idealistic dark horse candidate, as he attempts to secure the Republican nomination by sacrificing his own integrity, with something approaching wistful nostalgia. Tracy plays aircraft industrialist Grant Matthews who, against his better nature, is persuaded by ambitious newspaper owner Kay Thorndyke (played with ruthless aplomb by a young Angela Lansbury; who at this point in her career excelled at playing “the other woman”) to run for President on the ultimately manipulative platform of being a “non-politician”. Aided (and abetted) by experienced political wags Jim Conover and Spike McManus (expertly essayed in hilariously acidic turns by Adolphe Menjou and Van Johnson), the politically inexperienced Matthews seems primed towards caving into the special interests… until his estranged wife Mary (Hepburn) arrives to (forcefully) encourage Matthews to speak his own conscience. In State of the Union, the title of course refers to both then-current political events as well as the broken condition of matrimony between the strong- and independently-minded couple. As sincerely and realistically portrayed by Tracy and Hepburn, that reconciliation is possible, and even inevitable, may have given contemporary viewers hope for the always grim-looking years ahead!

BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK

(1955, MGM, dir. John Sturges)

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John Struges’ colorful, CinemaScope action thriller Bad Day at Black Rock is 81 minutes of sustained screen nastiness. With malevolent supporting turns by Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine, and led by the incomparable screen heavy of them all, the forever-verging-on-psychosis Robert Ryan, one would be hard-pressed to imagine a staunch protagonist who could possibly succeed against those screen odds. Fortunately, Spencer Tracy was on-hand to (reluctantly) accept, and even effortlessly triumph, in his last performance as an MGM contract player. As one-armed WWII-veteran John J. Macreedy, Tracy arrives by snake-coiling train through the desolate desert wasteland of the American Southwest, smack dab in the middle of s**t-kicking nowhere (AKA “Black Rock”), to exact slow-burning justice on the vicious townspeople who lynched an innocent Japanese farmer in the days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. A modern-day Western, Tracy at 54-years-old essentially follows-up his 19-years earlier role at MGM, acting as a fascinating counterpart to the socially-conscious drama Fury. Here, though, with the added dimension of race, Tracy’s character is more acted-upon than acting, and in fact utterly destroys the sinful community not through direct agency, but rather in self-defense. Pushed to the limits of endurance, Tracy as Macreedy wrests order from chaos in honorable rather than vengeful terms, maintaining an equilibrium of level-headed cool in his performance as indignity upon indignity is heaped upon his unassuming character. As such, like the defensive martial art of Judo that the character employs when physically attacked by the odious Borgnine character, Macreedy essentially re-directs the negative energy of the bad town of Black Rock and, at film’s end, reasserts a code of moral conduct for the community as he re-boards the train back to destinations unknown.

DESK SET

(1957, 20th Century-Fox, dir. Walter Lang)

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Two years into his post-MGM film career as a non-contracted independent, Tracy returned to his first studio, Fox (since merged to become 20th Century-Fox), for his penultimate feature with screen-and-life paramour Katharine Hepburn in this thoroughly delightful De Luxe Color and CinemaScope romantic comedy, Desk Set. Whereas Woman of the Year utilized Hepburn’s command of international affairs and skill with foreign languages, and another Tracy/Hepburn outing, 1952’s Pat and Mike, capitalized on Hepburn’s athletic abilities, Desk Set employs Hepburn’s real-life photographic memory as Bunny Watson, head of fictional Federal Broadcasting Corporation’s research department, whose considerable brainpower is threatened by the arrival of plain-spoken efficiency expert Richard Sumner (Tracy), inventor of the IBM-like computer machine EMERAC (Electromagnetic MEmory and Research Arithmetical Calculator). By this point, the pair, drawing on their qualities from real-life, could have appeared in a 90-minute soap commercial and made it appear screen magical, but what brings me back time-and-again to this particular entry in the endlessly fascinating Tracy/Hepburn pairing is how their screen chemistry had aged 15 years into their screen partnership to the level of ease, comfort, and delight on-display for each of the film’s 103 minutes of romantically comic joy. With Hepburn/Watson’s astonishing wit, intellect, and energy pitted against Tracy/Sumner’s absent-minded, unflappably unconcerned unselfconsciousness, the screen viewer is treated to two brilliant performers who have been really in to each other for a really long time – and the fact that the feelings and emotions are all really real is, of course, an added and irresistible treat.

THE LAST HURRAH

(1958, Columbia Pictures, dir. John Ford)

LAST HURRAH, Pat O'Brien, Spencer Tracy, Ricardo Cortez, 1958, politician

John Ford, greatest of all American directors, serves up a triumphant career valedictory starring his favorite actor, Spencer Tracy, for a second politically-themed film on this list, detailing the final election campaign of Frank Skeffington, a self-made, staunchly Democratic, Irish-Catholic mayor of an “unnamed New England City” (Boston). Though Ford had essentially discovered Tracy when he cast the former Broadway actor in the director’s previously-referenced 1930 Fox film Up the River (which also featured the screen debut of Humphrey Bogart), the pair had not worked together since then and, indeed, would not work together again. However, Tracy’s “engaging rogue” Frank Skeffington, champion of the working class, thumbing his nose at the city’s blueblood personified by hidebound newspaper magnate Amos Force (John Carradine) and imperious investment banker Norman Cass (Basil Rathbone), effortlessly screen-embodies the quintessential Fordian hero: the indomitable frontier spirit of personal independence coursing through the character’s very veins. Surrounded by a supporting cast that borders upon the miraculous – including James Gleason, Ricardo Cortez, Donald Crisp, Edward Brophy, Jane Darwell, Wallace Ford, Frank McHugh; along with Tracy’s childhood friend and fellow Milwaukee native Pat O’Brien – this Last Hurrah plays almost like the passing of all the grand old movies of Hollywood past. Reduced by television, soundbytes, and amateur media manipulation, the old style of political campaigning is no more – and, by extension, the style of big screen entertainment that went with it – but Ford, Tracy, and company remind us of what we have irretrievably lost in Frank Skeffington’s more “personal touch”.

INHERIT THE WIND

(1960, United Artists, dir. Stanley Kramer)

spencer-tracy-inherit-the-windIn the final decade of both his life and career, Tracy teamed with socially-committed producer/director Stanley Kramer for a series of socially- and politically-themed films dealing with controversial and provocative themes. (Well, except for the pair’s outsized 1963 comic epic It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, that is: a gloriously goofy anomaly in both mens’ careers.) The first of these was indeed Inherit the Wind, based on the Broadway play that evoked the famous Tennessee “Monkey-Scopes Trial” of the mid-20s, along with the then-more recent McCarthy-Communist Witch-hunts of the early ’50s, and stars two “titanic”actors, Spencer Tracy and Fredric March, who had not only severally essayed the role(s) of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (March for Paramount in 1931; Tracy for MGM in 1941) but who were also old friends from and natives of the great state of Wisconsin (Tracy from Milwaukee; March hailing southeast from Racine). As such, a fascinating subtext to a pairing that was very much emphasized in the film’s promotion – essentially, “March Vs. Tracy” – is how Tracy as the Clarence Darrow-like Henry Drummond and March as William Jennings Bryant-simulacrum Matthew Harrison Brady represent diametrically-opposed acting styles in relation to the drama’s conflicting ideological strains of evolution and creationism, intellectual freedom and god-fearing faith, fundamentalism and humanism. A brilliantly powerful, though essentially theatrical actor, March plays the ready speech-making bluster of his character to the absolute hilt, but, like the drama of public and social debate that unfolds to spell-binding impact in the heated Southern courtroom, Tracy undercuts in his unassuming, deceptively “unstudied” and offhand manner to, in effect, total victory.

GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER

(1967, Columbia Pictures, dir. Stanley Kramer)

spencer-tracy-guess-whos-coming-to-dinnerThe last film on this list is, appropriately, Spencer Tracy’s final film. Passing away a mere 17 days after shooting wrapped, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is also, even more appropriately, the final screen pairing of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. As long-married Matt and Christina Drayton, the liberal-minded couple’s ideals are put to the test when their 22-year-old daughter Joanna (Katharine Houghton) returns from a vacation in Hawaii engaged to 37-year-old, widowed, black physician Dr. John Prentice (Sidney Poitier). Though one could imagine that parents today might have more serious objections to a 22-year-old becoming engaged to someone in their late 30s; with “anti-miscegenation” laws still on the books in some states back in 1967, and the Civil Rights movement barely begun, the most glaring defect in the supremely accomplished, well-mannered, kind and considerate Dr. Prentice as a suitable spouse for their daughter is, of course, the color of his skin. Producer/director Stanley Kramer “hits” this hot topic-issue quite lightly, actually, in what is essentially a mild drama with tension-relieving comedic elements. As always, watching Tracy and Hepburn interact is pure screen magic, both of whom, Tracy’s liberal newspaper publisher especially, have to overcome some rather serious misgivings before accepting their daughter’s quite obviously perfect fiancee. In his final role, as with the vast majority of his work, Spencer Tracy as Matt Drayton doesn’t so much change his point of view in the film’s closing moments – in an astonishingly naturalistic screen monologue that in no way feels like an actor “delivering” a screen monologue – as reveal the core of decency beneath the all-too-human flaws that, together, make this character, along with all his other characters, so vividly realistic.