#ClassicFilmReading: Spencer Tracy by James Curtis

Spencer Tracy was a titan, and this 1,024-page biography by James Curtis, is an excellent thesis as to why.

Tracing his life from the early years in stock to the final days shortly after he finished his scenes for his final film, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, James Curtis leaves no detail out. 

To me, Spencer Tracy has always been this sort of mythical, elder statesmen of classic Hollywood. He delivers great performance after great performance regardless of the material; he never really enters the gossipy fray but manages to entangle himself in one of the eras most enduring and most celebrated romances (with Katharine Hepburn) for 26 years; and through it all, he remains unabashedly himself.

I love this style of biography, which is more than just an exploration of the person in question, but also a complete portrait of the era. Not only do we get the in-depth stories on the progression of Spencer's career, but we also follow the stock theatre seasons, the inner workings of Fox (his first studio) and MGM, and how he moved about in the world plunged into two world wars, a depression, the blacklist, and ultimately, the end of the studio era. 

The only caveat to all of this is the pacing, if something like that bothers you. It takes around 400ish pages to get to Katharine Hepburn, but then the '60s last around 100 pages (to be fair, Spencer fell ill mid-decade and stopped working for a while, only coming out of retirement to make Guess Who's Coming to Dinner). 

The relationship with Katharine is a major focus, obviously, in the latter half of the book, but it never attempts to set up the clich├ęd love triangle element. Curtis presents the facts with a little editorializing, but Spencer, Katharine and Louise (the wife Spencer would never divorce despite living separate lives since the mid-'30s, basically) are all fully-realized people in this book. Their faults, their triumphs and their lives are presented as they happened. 

I've always been a fan of Spencer's but I have to confess that I haven't normally sought out his films. If he's starring opposite an actor or actress I like and I happen upon it on the TCM schedule, I'll usually watch it or DVR it, but there haven't been many times where I've thought to myself, "I have to watch this for Spencer Tracy." Honestly, after reading this, that might have to change. 

I have, of course, seen his bigger films like the majority of his movies with Katharine Hepburn; Captains Courageous and Boys Town (his Oscar-winning films, which made him the first actor to win two Oscars and the first to win them back-to-back, which is a record that held until Tom Hanks won two in a row in 1993 and 1994); and other big ones, but I'd like to go back and explore his smaller and lesser-known movies to see his acting style. 

Spencer has been lauded, both in his lifetime and beyond, as one of the best naturalistic actors in Hollywood. When you watch him it never feels like you're watching a performance, and I've certainly found that I'm drawn to him when I do watch his films. One of my favourite anecdotes from this biography is how Mickey Rooney was poised to use his normal scene-stealing tactics on the set of Boys Town but Spencer set him down and was basically like, "Listen here, you little shit" and scared him straight. 

And, of course, since it's me, I loved all the backstage gossip and inside baseball provided in this biography. Like the time Spencer insisted on taking Grace Kelly to the Golden Globes (she'd been nominated for Mogambo while he was nominated for The Actress) just to mess with Clark Gable; or all the things he'd write about Burt Lancaster in his calendar, about his acting style, his insistence upon top billing, or his salary demands; and how much he loved Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable. 

Another favourite part was learning more about the deep friendship between Spencer and Clark Gable. I loved how he'd constantly give him crap for Parnell, to the point that he even sent Clark a telegram when Gone with the Wind was being feted as the best film of the year that read, "I still remember Parnell." 

If you're a fan of Spencer Tracy, do yourself a favour and read this biography immediately

And with that, I've officially completed the 2021 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge! This is something I've started looking forward to each summer and I've already started eyeing up some books that I may want to read next year, courtesy of Racquel's wonderful round-ups of new and upcoming classic books.

I hope you've enjoyed my reviews. See you next summer!

2021 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge Reviews: 


  1. Congrats on completing the challenge especially with this honker of a book as your finale! I like what you said about this book being a bio and a complete look at the era. It does have a lot of context and background which I appreciated!

  2. I've always loved the films Gable and Tracy made together and wished there were more. How great to know they remained friends!


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