Spencer Tracy: Working Backwards from “Mad”

Just a few words on Spencer Tracy (1900-1967) since I just saw him the other night for maybe the two dozenth time in the first film I ever saw him in (It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World), and because I’ve already written about most of the other principals!

One can be forgiven for wondering what the hell Spencer Tracy’s doing in a movie with all those comedians. But there are real reasons and rationalizations; it isn’t just random.

First and foremost, he starred in nearly ALL of Stanley Kramer’s pictures during this stretch of both their careers: Inherit the Wind (1960); Judgment at Nuremburg (1961); It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). He’s normally the voice of reason or an authority figure or the audience’s eyes in these movies, even if he does succumb at the end of Mad World and become one of the crazies. So there’s that.

And then there’s the fact that Tracy HAD done comedies, among the many genres (nearly all of them) he partook in. It occurred to me this go-’round, for example, that Mad World channels the Father of the Bride comedies (which I don’t happen to like) with all that crap with his wife and his daughter nagging him over the telephone. Then there are all those tedious, dated battle-of-the-sexes comedies with Katharine Hepburn. Don’t care for those either. But it’s not as though he’s never been associated with comedy.

And lastly, there is a strong evocation of Tracy’s early Pre-Code pictures at Fox. He was usually a crook as opposed to a cop (much like Humphrey Bogart, George Raft, James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson) in these pictures (Quick Millions, Up the River, 20 Thousand Years in Sing-Sing) but talk of “Smiler Grogan” and the “Tuna Factory Robbery” (and the fact that Grogan is played by Jimmy Durante, whose first movie was 1930’s Roadhouse Nights, a very similar kind of film) are reminiscent of the first phase of Tracy’s film career.

And anyway, the cop is the straight man. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World seems balanced with him in the role. With an out-and-out comedian in the part it might not have. On the other hand, the tradition of comedians playing cops goes all the way back to Mack Sennett — it might have been a valid approach.

As with Joan Crawford, whom we wrote about a few days ago, I knew Tracy almost entirely from his late work first. In addition to the Kramer films, there was his solo turn in The Old Man and the Sea (1958), which we watched in school, and the thrilling The Devil at 4 O’Clock (1961) — I have always been a sucker for disaster films. But I did see some movies with the young Tracy as a kid, now I think of it. Boom Town (1940) was probably the first one and certainly Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941). I remember seeing these on television. And I watched Fritz Lang’s Fury (1936) as a young adult.

In more recent years, Tracy movies I’ve discovered and enjoyed have included the incredible The Power and the Glory (1933, Preston Sturges’ first screenplay), the bizarre horror fantasy Dante’s Inferno (1935), the early disaster movie San Francisco (1936), the western Northwest Passage (1940), Frank Capra’s State of the Union (1948), the dreary but now obligatory Plymouth Adventure (1952), the Shakespearean western drama Broken Lance (1954) and my favorite Tracy performance of all time: Bad Day at Black Rock (1955). Then there are his films that are so famous that I feel like I’ve seen them, though I’m not sure I have, such as Captains Courageous (1937) and Boys Town (1938).

Not surprisingly, given his way with a speech, Tracy was originally a man of the stage. He had done a half dozen Broadway plays before coming to Hollywood, including three with George M. Cohan, who famously told him “Tracy, you’re the best goddamned actor I’ve ever seen!” That has always stuck with me, for it seems to be me a key of appreciation of what both artists were all about: simplicity and honesty and bravery without nonsense. Today’s his birthday, a worthwhile time to celebrate those virtues of Spencer Tracy.

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