Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 30, No. 8. 1967.
The last of the giants: Spencer Tracy
The last of the giants: Spencer Tracy
Recent events in the film world were dominated by the death of Spencer Tracy, last of the great film stars. "When I go," he said once, "a whole epoch will have ended." He was referring, of course, to that era sometimes called the "golden age" of movies, a time when the star system and men like Tracy. Clark Gable and Gary Cooper, through personality allied with expert technique, left their stamp on every film in which they appeared.
Tracy's career in films began in 1930 when he was hired by the Fox Film Company to play toughguy roles. His first film was Up The River, in which he co-starred with Humphrey Bogart, also making his debut. Three years later he moved over to MGM, the most important studio at the time and chief propagator of the star system.
At Mgm Tracy found himself in the company of Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow. John and Lionel Barrymore, Garbo. Robert Taylor, Norma Shearer, Clark Gable and William Powell. His contract with MGM lasted until 1955 when it was cancelled by mutual agreement, although he continued to appear in films after this date. It is probably this later period that is most familiar to readers, in the memorable roles which he created in films like Bad Day At Black Rock, The Last Hurrah, The Old Man And The Sea, Inherit The Wind and Judgement At Nuremburg.
I have seen only two of the many films that Tracy made in his first twenty years in the industry. Northwest Passage (directed by King Vidor, 1940) and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Victor Fleming, 1941). Yet by 1939 he already had two Academy Awards for 'Best Actor" on his shelf, despite the fact that he had often been cast as a harmless goof, or as a foil opposite romantic stars like Gable and Powell. Tracy never entirely discarded the image of the good-natured "average Joe" although such an image was perfectly suited to his own rugged and indomitable character.
He went on to amass a total of eight Academy Award nominations, more than any other actor (Oliver runs a close second). In 1942 he appeared in Woman Of The Year, his first film with Katharine Hepburn. It was the beginning of twenty-five years of professional acquaintance and close personal friendship. Some of their better known films are Sea Of Grass, The State Of The Union, Adam's Rib and Pat And Mike. Their ninth and last film together, Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, was completed shortly before his death.
Spencer Tracy took the art of screen acting to near-perfection. "He acts less and less," a critic remarked ten years ago. He might also have added that Tracy's performances improved as a result, for his comment is very much to the point. Tracy so refined his style of "non-acting," of absorbing the role into himself (or is it the other way round?), that no trace of artifice or conscious effort is to be found in his "acting." Every one of his performances is a masterpiece of subtle underplaying and perfect timing.
Observe, for example, how in Judgement At Nuremburg, amidst the posturings and histrionics of some of the other players, Tracy strides through the film looking as though he had been playing Judge Haywood . all his life. It is one of his best performances, and the film deserves to be sought out for this reason. Tracy's gifts appear to be instinctive, born of native ability and long experience. As he once said, "I don't think about acting. I never have. You Just do it ... It doesn't require much brainwork. Acting is not the noblest profession in the world, but there are things lower than acting —not many, mind you, but politicians give you something to look down on from time to time." By the depth and uniform ex-cellence of his performances in many dif-ferent roles, Tracy proved himself to be the best film actor in the world. This view does not arise solely from personal pre-judice on my part (i.e. because he has always been my favourite star)—it has been expressed by, among others, Abby Mann, D. W. Griffith, Humphrey Bogart and Laurence Olivier.
Guess Who's Coming To Dinner was to have been Tracy's last film, for he contemplated retirement and permanent residence in London. He was undoubtedly haunted by the fact that he was the last of a line the like of which would not be seen again in the cinema. In his own poignant words, "The others like Bogart, with whom I started in movies, and Gable and Cooper are all dead and Jimmy Cagney has taken his millions off to retire, and I am alone. I cannot bear to watch their old movies on television at night. I have to switch off, which leaves the screen blank a lot of the time. A sign of old age I guess is that you cry at what you see." He may have been cheated of his years of retirement, but he is alone no longer. An epoch has truly come to an end with the death of Spencer Tracy, a great actor and a great man.