“Spencer always thought acting was a rather silly way for a grown man to make a living.”
That’s what Katharine Hepburn wrote about her frequent co-star and longtime lover, Spencer Tracy, who was born in 1900 and soon established himself as a warm, reliable paternal figure. That quote encapsulates his unpretentious style as well as any, for although he honed his craft on stage before making the transition to Hollywood, he never gave off the impression of being an artist hung up on the highfalutin bells and whistles of his profession. He was there to do the work, period.
As a result, it’s easy to underrate Tracy, who died in the summer of 1967, because he never possessed the silver-screen swagger of Humphrey Bogart or the elevated everyman brilliance of Jimmy Stewart. But there’s also another reason: His body of work isn’t quite as memorable as those other two stars’. Tracy’s iconic films are more popular favorites than critics’ darlings, and his choices tended toward the solidly mainstream. (And in his later years, he focused on message movies whose self-seriousness and liberal piety haven’t aged well.) Permanently unhip but there when you need him, Tracy is best thought of as our big-screen father, which is probably why Father of the Bride was such a good fit for him.
Still, the Academy loved him, nominating him for Best Actor a remarkable nine times over a roughly 30-year span. (He won the award twice.) Modern cineastes tend to downgrade him a little, focusing on his years-long affair with Hepburn because of its hint of old-school Hollywood tabloid scandal, but the films they made together in the 1940s and 1950s are impressive for how balanced they are gender-wise. (You felt that their characters were equal partners and possessed a mutual respect for one another.) “Listening, to me, is the great art of acting,” Tracy is quoted as saying in James Curtis’ essential biography of the actor, and that too is a key insight into how he operated as a performer. Spence worked very hard to make his job seem like no big deal.
So where do you start in your Spencer Tracy film education? I picked 10 films that I think are a fair representation of his oeuvre. However, that meant I did skip over some of his supposed classics, which I didn’t feel had held up, in favor of movies that were either more interesting or revealing. (Put it this way: I only included five of his nine Oscar nominations.) Below, you’ll see him shine as priests, romantic sparring partners and, occasionally, good men sucked into cruel worlds. He’s also really good as a ghost.
Even now, Fury is a surprisingly unsettling portrait of American small-mindedness, casting Tracy as Joe, a literal regular Joe who, while on a trip to meet his fiancée, (Sylvia Sidney), is stopped in a small town, the authorities believing he’s behind the kidnapping of a local child. This case of mistaken identity slowly morphs into a nightmare scenario, as Tracy embodies the naked terror of a man whose life hangs in the balance — and who eventually seeks vengeance on those who imperiled him.
The U.S. debut of acclaimed German filmmaker Fritz Lang, who had made a masterpiece about mob rule with 1931’s M, Fury was one of Tracy’s first standout leading roles, accentuating his ordinary-guy authenticity but also the hidden depths in a character who cannot forgive his accusers. “When Sylvia Sidney and I put in 21 hours a day on Fury,” the actor later said, “we did it because we knew that Lang had something; that it would be something worthwhile. … It was all the difference between that ‘just a job’ feeling that I’d once had in pictures and the conviction that we were getting somewhere.”
Reportedly, Lang and Tracy feuded on set, but Fury demonstrated that he could be a brilliant dramatic performer, setting the stage for a several-decade run as one of America’s most consistently dependable leading men. He’d rarely get this dark again, though.
Captains Courageous (1937)
Director Victor Fleming, the man behind The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind, supposedly said, “A good actor is one who, when he’s asked what he does for a living, will drop his head, kick a little shit and speaking with a bit of shame, mumble, ‘I’m an actor.’” It would make sense that Fleming would team up with the no-nonsense Tracy for Captains Courageous, in which the actor plays Manuel, a Portugeuse fisherman who becomes a father figure to Harvey (Freddie Bartholomew), the spoiled son of a wealthy businessman who falls overboard and is rescued by Manuel and his crew. What follows is tough love and earnest life lessons as these two characters become friends, leading to the boy finally growing up — although tragedy befalls the fisherman.
Captains Courageous earned Tracy his second Oscar nomination — his first was for the previous year’s San Francisco — and he bested future Inherit the Wind costar Fredric March, among others, to win Best Actor. But Tracy gave all the credit for the film’s success to his director. “[Fleming] must have done a magnificent job,” Tracy once said, “because it was the first picture of mine I ever saw where I sat and forgot all about myself, lost track that that was me up there.”
Boys Town (1938)
Tracy was raised Catholic by his strict father, and his religious background came in handy for this real-life drama, in which he portrayed Father Flanagan, a kindly priest who runs a home for troubled youths. Tracy played men of the cloth several times in his career, but Boys Town remains his most memorable outing, giving us a portrait of faith and compassion that’s admirably small-scaled. And much like Captains Courageous, it paired him with an impressionable, ill-tempered boy — this time played by Mickey Rooney — who’s badly in need of his guidance. Tracy’s gentle decency made him an exquisite choice for depicting surrogate dads.
Clearly, the Academy agreed. A year after the voters awarded him for Captains Courageous, Tracy went home with Best Actor again. But playing such a virtuous man had its downsides. Reflecting on the letters he’d get from fans seeking his spiritual guidance, Tracy once admitted, “You can’t live up to an idealistic role.”
Woman of the Year (1942)
Tracy and Hepburn made nine films together, the first being this romantic-comedy that’s very much an artifact of its era. He’s Sam, a sportswriter, who meets cute with Tess (Hepburn), a political columnist who thinks sports are silly. Of course, they initially don’t hit it off, only to eventually fall in love and marry — which Sam thinks will finally domesticate this independent woman. But Tess refuses to be tamed.
When Hepburn asked Tracy what he thought of the script, which initially was more focused on her character, he reportedly responded, “It’s all right. Not much for me to do as it stands — but, Shorty, you better watch yourself in the clinches!” Those words proved prophetic, both onscreen and off. Woman of the Year was electrified by the stars’ palpable chemistry, and it began a decades-long relationship between them that was an open secret in Hollywood. In his unflashy way, Tracy is exceedingly charming wooing Hepburn in Woman of the Year, and their cinematic courtship — him down to earth, her refined — would become one of Hollywood’s most storied.
A Guy Named Joe (1943)
Most have forgotten Steven Spielberg’s sappy romantic drama Always, but it was a remake of this far more successful love story, which found Tracy playing a brash pilot who only realizes how much he loves fellow pilot Irene Dunne after his death — not to mention when a new flyboy (Van Johnson) comes into her life.
Tracy’s best-known films are firmly grounded in realism or romantic-comedy effervescence, so A Guy Named Joe represents a nice digression from his usual strengths. Teaming up again with Fleming, he plays this fantastical situation wonderfully straight, which makes his character’s afterworld dilemma so much more moving: This pilot is still trapped in our world, forced to watch his soul mate be courted by another man. This is one of Tracy’s tenderest performances in one of his underrated gems.
Adam’s Rib (1949)
One of the things that made the Tracy-Hepburn pairing so engaging was that they starred in movies in which gender roles were challenged, with the two actors ably representing their side in this ongoing battle of the sexes. Adam’s Rib was their second film with director George Cukor — they’d previously collaborated on 1942’s Keeper of the Flame — and it’s a delightful legal comedy, even though the case involves attempted murder.
Tracy and Hepburn played married lawyers who end up squaring off in court. (He thinks the woman who pulled the trigger on her husband and his lover is guilty. She insists that if she was a man, he’d be given more leniency.) This battle of wits is endlessly endearing, and the film doubles as a great advertisement for how to keep a little spice in your lovelife even after you’re married. Adam and Amanda Bonner have a sophisticated, sexy back and forth that suggests that settling down has done nothing to rein in their flirtatious rapport. It doesn’t really matter which one of them wins in Adam’s Rib because it’s the audience who ultimately reaps all the benefits of Tracy’s sly underplaying and Hepburn’s demure wit.
Father of the Bride (1950)
There’s a decent chance that this wedding comedy might be Tracy’s most beloved film — or, at the very least, the film that features the role he’s best known for. He plays Stanley, a beleaguered, proud papa recounting the crazy months that led up to the wedding of his adoring daughter Kay (Elizabeth Taylor). In Father of the Bride, he personified every little girl’s ideal dad: the solid, dependable, secretly sentimental patriarch who will walk you down the aisle and never stop loving you. Tracy’s soothing charm gives the film its buoyancy and warmth, and considering that he had just turned 50 when the film opened, he was more than comfortable in the elder-statesman role.
“[I]t was his sense of stillness, his ability to use economy of movement, vocal economy,” Taylor later said when describing Tracy’s talent as an actor. “It seemed almost effortless. It seemed as if he wasn’t doing anything, and yet he was doing everything. It came so subtly out of his eyes. Every muscle in his face.”
The film also garnered Tracy his first Oscar nomination since Boys Town. (As much as his best rom-coms with Hepburn are revered now, they didn’t get much love from the Academy beyond their screenplays.) And just as he was perfect at playing religious characters, Tracy soon proved to be an excellent vessel for 1950s’ picket-fence contentment. As author Susan Bordo explains in her book The Male Body: A New Look at Men in Public and in Private, convenience and luxury became societal buzzwords in postwar America, and they were embraced by Hollywood movies like Father of the Bride.
“Spencer Tracy ceased being the equal movie partner of a sassy, classy Katharine Hepburn,” she writes, “and became a suburban dad. … It was a world of gruff, kindly male providers and kittenish women-children, a world where the daily working grind was men’s domain.” Tracy made Dad Life look enjoyably square and reassuring.
Pat and Mike (1952)
Let’s do one last Hepburn picture — which was also another collaboration with Cukor. Pat and Mike didn’t have the wit of the best Tracy-Hepburn movies, but it’s a potent crowd-pleaser, casting Tracy as a shady trainer and Hepburn as an accomplished athlete who has a big stumbling block: Whenever her fiancé (William Ching) comes to see her compete, she freezes up. By this point, the chemistry between the two stars was so well-established and easygoing that simply having them on screen together was a guarantee of romantic sparks, but their contrasting personas continued to be richly comic.
Not that Tracy couldn’t still surprise his colleagues. Cukor and Garson Kanin, who received three Oscar nominations for writing alongside his wife Ruth Gordon (two of them on Tracy-Hepburn films), were astonished how the actor could transform himself into the disreputable but lovable Mike. While doing a read-through of the Pat and Mike script, Cukor recalled, “Spencer put his glasses on me — we thought he would simply read the words — but suddenly he departed and instead there appeared in his place this crude prize-fighting manager of Pat and Mike. There was no sign of the Spencer Tracy we’d just seen there a minute before. It was absolutely magical, Garson said: there Spencer was, and suddenly someone else appeared.”
Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
For a star of Tracy’s caliber, a gritty Western like Bad Day at Black Rock might seem too grubby for him. (As younger costar Ernest Borgnine later recalled, when he first had to perform opposite the actor, “All I could see were two Academy Awards coming right at me. I forgot my name. … I forgot everything.”) But the change of pace suited Tracy as he played a one-armed World War II vet who visits Black Rock to find a Japanese farmer, stumbling into a world of deceit, mistrust and violence.
A study of prejudice dressed up in genre trappings, Bad Day at Black Rock allowed Tracy to be involved with the kind of sharp, despairing material that had once excited him nearly 20 years earlier with Fury. Here, his inherent goodness is supplemented with a steely toughness as his character realizes that Black Rock is populated with bad men, forcing him to be the beacon of righteousness in a frontier town that’s gone to hell. If you only know Tracy from cuddly, feel-good films, Bad Day is a good reminder that he had more range than that.
Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)
In the 1960s, near the end of his life, Tracy did several films with Stanley Kramer, a director known for socially-conscious movies like The Defiant Ones. They’re eminently well-meaning but also a little dull and dated, although Tracy received three Oscar nominations from this period. While acknowledging Inherit the Wind and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, his best Kramer film is probably Judgment at Nuremberg, a somber drama about the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals in the aftermath of World War II. This was a prestige award-season release filled with big stars — including Burt Lancaster, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Maximilian Schell and Montgomery Clift — but Tracy got the plum role of the lead judge, whose moral outrage leads to the film’s big speech.
Soon after, Tracy would be plagued by heart disease and high blood pressure, dying shortly after finishing Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. But even before then, he was dismayed that his later work wasn’t as strong as what he’d produced earlier in his life. “I don’t get to the young people,” he said in 1961. “What the hell do they want to see me for? They don’t go to see an old man.”
In that same interview, Tracy was asked what he could teach young actors. “I’d tell them to throw their gum away and to keep cigarettes out of their mugs,” he responded. “But I couldn’t teach them, because I don’t know anything about acting.” To the end, Spencer Tracy’s trick was fooling audiences into thinking he really meant that.