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SPENCER TRACY

By Denise M. Clark

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1930s-1940s Spencer Tracy MADE IN USA Arcade Card1936 Spencer Tracy MGM-Watkins 4x5 Promotional PhotoWhat 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 Spencer Tracy with Hedy Lamarr on the cover of Movie Story Magazinenormally and as independent as possible, Louise soon dedicated her time to found a clinic, which later became known Spencer Tracy as featured on the cover of the Cuban Magazine Cine-Mundialas the famous John Tracy Clinic, founded in the early 1940’s.

Tracy’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’ in 1957.

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.”

1968 Spencer Tracy PosterSpencer Tracy Oscar Portrait by VolpeIn 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.
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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 written.