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In the early 1930s, Spencer Tracy's truculent attitude and thunderingly aberrant behavior were his only defenses against studio power brokers who cast him as stereotypical con men, buddies and gangsters. But by the end of the decade the actor's on-screen style--seamless naturalism and subtle inflections--had proved the ticket to stardom. A Tracy performance was always more than just action; there was always an undercurrent of mental activity beneath the surface. Stanley Kramer, who directed him in several films, recalls: "I was afraid to say, 'Spencer, you're a great actor. He'd only say, 'Now what the hell kind of thing is that to come out with?' He wanted to know it; he needed to know it. But he didn't want you to say it--just think it. And maybe that was one of the reasons he was a great actor. He thought and listened better than anyone in the history of motion pictures. A silent close-up reaction of Spencer Tracy said it all." Tracy's seemingly effortless approach earned him the respect of his peers, helping him to become one of the most distinguished and venerated actors of his generation.
Tracy's early childhood was one of intense rebelliousness--he was expelled from a total of fifteen grade schools. By the time he reached high school, he had had a change of attitude, achieving good grades and even aspiring to the priesthood. But at Ripon College Tracy became involved with college theatrical productions, and before long he found himself in New York City, enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
The 1920s were a decade of struggle, as he fended off poverty by taking any acting job that came along, from traveling road companies and one-nighters to repertory work in towns as far-flung as White Plains and Grand Rapids. He first achieved Broadway notice in "Yellow" (1926) and critical and audience praise in "Baby Cyclone" (1927). But three flops in a row in 1929 ("Conflict," "Nigger Rich" and "Veneer") saw his career come to a standstill. In 1930, Tracy appeared in two low-budget short films: "Taxi Talks," as a gangster, and "Hard Guy," as a World War I veteran. But the films were unimpressive and Tracy still struggled until "The Last Mile." Playing killer John Mears in this Broadway crime drama, Tracy had his first major success. One audience member impressed by Tracy's performance was director John Ford, who persuaded Fox to sign him for Ford's upcoming film "Up the River" (1930).
"Up the River," a comic crime film, was a hit for Fox and Tracy was put under contract. But before long Tracy despaired of the studio's ever casting him in the right vehicles. Although he received critical praise for "Quick Millions" (1931), "Society Girl" (1932), and "20,000 Years in Sing Sing" (1933), most of his films were financial failures and Fox was reluctant to promote him in quality features. A frustrated Tracy responded with heavy drinking, fighting with producers and directors and disappearing from film sets for days at a time. Fox did cast him in its prestige production, "The Power and the Glory" (1933), Tracy's most challenging role yet, as a ruthless business tycoon, but the film's meager box-office convinced Fox that Tracy would never be a box-office star and he played out his contract in second-rate productions.
Although Louis B. Mayer felt Spencer Tracy lacked box-office fire, Irving Thalberg pushed for Tracy to come to MGM, feeling that he could make it at a studio top-heavy with female stars. Signing with MGM in 1935, Tracy was featured the next year in two successes, "San Francisco" and "Libeled Lady," although more as a glorified supporting player to Clark Gable and William Powell than a force who could carry his own film. Tracy more than proved his star power and earned industry respect with back-to-back Academy Award-winning performances in "Captains Courageous" (1937) and "Boys Town" (1938). Having proved his mettle in dramatic roles, Tracy solidified his reputation for versatility by co-starring in a long-running series of romantic comedies with Katharine Hepburn, beginning with "Woman of the Year" (1942) and continuing with such classics as "State of the Union" (1948), "Adam's Rib" (1949), and "Pat and Mike" (1952). Tracy's unsophisticated gruffness provided a perfect counterpoint to Hepburn's ethereal cosmopolitanism.
Tracy continued at MGM until problems developed on the set of "Tribute to a Bad Man" (1956), where his imperious and confusing behavior caused the production to shut down. Director Robert Wise was forced to fire Tracy from the film, effectively ending his twenty years with the studio.
In declining health, Tracy became reclusive, never venturing from his rented home. But he developed a friendship with director Stanley Kramer, who guided him through the final decade of his life in such crowning performances as the Clarence Darrow-inspired lawyer in "Inherit the Wind" (1960) and the transcendental judge in "Judgment at Nuremberg" (1961). Suffering from emphysema, Tracy made his last screen appearance opposite Hepburn in Kramer's "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" (1967). Struggling through the production, Tracy died two weeks after filming was completed.
Tracy's presence was a strong, quiet, reliable one. He gave the American cinema some of its most enduring and undeterred portrayals of stolid honesty and thoughtful scrupulousness. The inner strength and self-assurance he projected are in stark contrast to the cinema's current stars.