By Denise M. Clark
comes to mind when you hear the name ‘Spencer Tracy’? Do you see kind-hearted
Father Flanagan from the film ‘Boy’s Town’ or perhaps the wise fisherman
Manuel from ‘Captain’s Courageous’? Whatever the film, Spencer gave his
all to become the person he portrayed, one of the most gifted and adept at doing
so in movie history.
Spencer Bonaventure Tracy
was born on April 5, 1900 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, an Irish lad whose American
ancestors can be traced back to the founding colonies. The raucous tyke left
school at sixteen, and at the advent of World War One, joined the Navy, though
the war ended before he had the chance to go to sea. Changing his mind about the
benefits of education, Spencer enrolled at Ripon College as a pre-med student
and also joined the college debate team. His passion for public speaking
propelled him to act in a school play, which turned out to be a success. He soon
left medicine behind and transferred to the Sargent School in New York, where he
roomed with fellow actor Pat O’Brien. Surviving on
$30 a month, pretzels and water while studying acting, he eventually joined a
stock company in 1923. To support himself, Spencer worked at various
occupations, among them a bellhop, a door-to-door salesman and a janitor.
Burdened with a short temper, bouts of moodiness and his sometimes-rude
demeanor, he finally found a position, as one of the members of the stock
company was a young actress by the name of Louise Treadwell. Though not
considered handsome by many, his stocky build and craggy features nevertheless
attracted many women, including Louise, and he soon fell in love, marrying in
September of that year.
In 1924, Louise bore a son,
John, but several months later the proud parents discovered their child was
deaf. Determined that her son would be raised as
and as independent as possible, Louise soon dedicated her time to found a
clinic, which later became known
the famous John Tracy Clinic, founded in the early 1940’s.
big break into acting came in 1930 with his role as a convict in the play, ‘The
Last Mile’. Famous film director John Ford was impressed with Tracy’s
performance and cast him, along with another newcomer named
Humphrey Bogart, in
his film ‘Up the River’. In 1931, the young family, now boasting of a daughter
as well, moved to Hollywood, where Tracy signed a contract with Fox Films.
During the following three years, he made 16 films. In 1935, Tracy signed with
MGM, where he remained for the next 20 years, making films which show cased his
depth and versatility as a leading actor. With 1937’s ‘Captain’s Courageous’
and 1938’s ‘Boy’s Town’, Tracy won back to back Best-Actor Oscars.
In 1942, Tracy made his
first film with Katharine Hepburn in ‘Woman of the Year’.
Eight more films with Hepburn followed, and his attraction to her prompted him
to separate from his wife, and though his Catholic upbringing prevented Spencer
from divorcing Louise, Tracy and Hepburn remained ‘a couple’ until his death in
1967. The privacy which both Tracy and Hepburn were shown in an otherwise
scandal-loving Hollywood proves the respect the celluloid city felt for their
leading stars, avoiding the censure, damaged reputations and ruined careers
which are so common today. Many of Spencer’s best performances were with
Hepburn, including films such as ‘Adam’s Rib’ in 1949 and ‘Desk Set’
Spencer’s later films were
powerful and popular, two of which sprang from the early 1960’s. The films ‘Inherit
the Wind’ and ‘Judgment at Nuremberg’ showcased a more mature Tracy,
but one whose powerful performances had only gotten better. He was again
nominated for Best Actor awards for both character portrayals. Actor Laurence
Olivier once commented, “I’ve learned more about acting from watching Tracy than
in any other way. He has great truth in everything he does.”
1963, Spencer was hospitalized for a congested lung condition that never
improved. He was forced to turn down several roles, but his enthusiasm for a
project called, ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ compelled him to stand before the
camera’s one last time. Though very ill and growing increasingly weak, Spencer
forged on with his role with admirable, dignified courage. Unfortunately, three
weeks after filming was completed for this project, on June 10, 1967, Spencer
died of heart failure.
In addition to his Best
Actor Oscars for ‘Boy’s Town’ and ‘Captain’s Courageous’, Tracy
also received nominations for his portrayals in “San Francisco” (1936), “Father
of the Bride” (1950), “Bad Day at Black Rock” (1955), and “The Old
Man and the Sea” (1958).
Still other great
performances can be found in such classics as “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”
and “A Guy Named Joe” and “Father’s Little Dividend”. Any
way you look at it, Spencer Tracy was a man who put everything into every
performance he made. You’ll never go wrong tuning in to one of his films.
Denise M. Clark is a freelance writer based in California. This is her
first submission to
The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.
Other Spencer Tracy Pages:
A Tribute to
Spencer Tracy One of the most respected actors in Hollywood would have
celebrated his 100th birthday in April, 2000, when this tribute was first