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Spencer Tracy: A Biography—Book review

Spencer Tracy: A Biography—Book review

by James Curtis (Knopf)

I’m not sure I have sufficient superlatives to express my feelings about James Curtis’ latest biography, which consumed six years of his life (and about a month of mine—time well spent in both cases). It represents a high-water mark in this field: a scrupulously researched life story that is also well-written and completely absorbing, through 878 pages of text and the endnotes that follow.

            Curtis has chosen not only to chronicle one of the 20th century’s finest actors, but to tell the interrelated story of his wife Louise, a talented actress who was his biggest booster. She gave up her career to have children and doggedly remained Mrs. Spencer Tracy even after he stopped living in the same house, long before Katharine Hepburn entered his life. Her saga, and her determination to give her deaf son Johnny the best possible life he could have is as compelling as her husband’s. (The history of the John Tracy Clinic, which she conceived and developed from scratch, is quite amazing and involves the Tracy’s family friend Walt Disney at several junctures.)

          Moreover, Curtis has chosen to incorporate a mini-history of each

 —Tracy film into his narrative, filling his book with fascinating backstage anecdotes and insights on films as varied as Man’s Castle, Fury, Captains Courageous, Bad Day at Black Rock, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

            It would be easy to write a harsh book about Tracy, who despite his enormous talent, and the almost-universal respect he commanded, was beset by demons…not just the demon rum, but an almost-overwhelming Catholic fear of damnation. He was certain, for instance, that his son John’s deafness was direct punishment from God for his own drinking and philandering. (In his frontispiece, Curtis quotes William Butler Yeats: “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.”) Yet the book doesn’t judge or condemn Tracy. Curtis reports the facts, laid out for us through interviews with friends and family members, nuggets culled from obscure oral histories and unpublished manuscripts (including one by Louise) and unprecedented access to Tracy’s own papers, including a series of datebooks in which he made terse but revealing notations about his daily ups and downs.  

            Curtis’ own observations are articulate and even-handed. He quotes Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who came to realize while working on Test Pilot that the seemingly-spontaneous actor prepared thoroughly for each day’s shooting, not only learning his lines but devising bits of business that would spark his performance. Says Curtis, “It was, perhaps, the legacy of the boy magician, the instinct that compelled him to hide all the work, to keep the secrets to himself, leaving the impression that it all came out of thin air, effortless sand magical, a thing of mystery and wonder.”

            Here is his eloquent description of Tracy and Katharine Hepburn’s first screen kiss, in Woman of the Year: “…When she catches her breath and says, ‘I thought you might want to kiss me good-bye,’ Tracy calmly takes it in, processes it, then turns himself from the camera, ostensibly to glance down the terminal corridor, but also to make sure the most significant kiss of his entire career takes place completely out of sight of the audience. The camera moves in, Hepburn in profile as he draws her toward him, her lips apart, the moment of contact perfectly obscured by the brim of his cocked hat. It is brief but heartfelt, passionate and completely unencumbered by concerns of lighting, position, focus. It’s the back of his head, her chin, the muffled soundtrack, their eyes laser-locked on each other as he releases her. It’s as real as any kiss in the history of the medium, the look of astonishment on her face, the deadly serious look on his, screen acting at its finest… if it was acting.”

 I’ve never seen most of the photographs that punctuate the text—another of this hefty volume’s many assets. Following the final chapter, Curtis has a brief essay in which he dissects, or should I say “decimates,” a number of Katharine Hepburn biographies, insofar as they relate to Tracy’s life. As a meticulous researcher he has no patience for authors who fabricate material, quote dubious sources, repeat unverifiable innuendos, or simply fail to do their homework. Since the actor’s daughter, Susie Tracy, granted Curtis complete access to her father’s medical records as well as his datebooks, he is able to refute many scurrilous statements which readers of those volumes—some of them by “respectable” writers and publishers—had no reason to question before.

            This is the book Spencer Tracy deserves. It explores his great gifts as well as his tortured soul. I loved reading it, and didn’t mind the commitment of time it required. (In fact, after every chapter, I felt I simply had to share a story I’d just read with my wife.) I know I will refer to it for many years to come.

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Rick Smith

I only started reading this book because of the cover photo, which really intrigued me. I couldn't put it down. I've read so many movie bios that I thought this one would be like the rest. But most of the info was brand new to me. I've never been a big Tracy fan. I've always thought that his MGM films were boring stinkers that date badly. Well, now I'm going to have to take another look. Because of this book I watched "Desk Set" last night. T&H elevated the material past what it deserved. I look forward to watching a lot of Tracy in the future. Thanks, Leonard, and a big Thank You to James Curtis!

Bill Steinkellner

Great interview, Mr. Maltin, as usual.

I worked at Collector's bookstore on Hollywood Boulevard back in the late 70's. It sold one-sheets, lobby cards and movie stills from thousands of movies. The stills were organized by movies and stars. There were Monroe, Elvis, Shirley Temple fans and on and on and on. But in four years not one person asked for the Tracy portrait file. (Hepburn, sure and the movies they made together but never Tracy alone. )

I think Tracy was a fantastic actor and a great star of his time but somehow (at least in this small anecdotal test case) his stardom didn't last the way many lesser actors than and since then has. Perhaps it has something to do with the elusive quality of stardom. I wish you would comment on that some time. Maybe this book will raise the awareness of Spencer Tracy's greatness to a new generation. Again, wonderful review.

Mark Browning

Exemplary review by Mr. Maltin. Finally Spencer Tracy, our greatest American actor has a biography that matches his stature. Now I want to watch many of Tracy's movies again since I now know what was going on in his life as the movies were made and in some instances what was going on during particular scenes. And, as always it is fascinating to hear the stories behind movie roles that were offered to Tracy and rejected for various reasons. The most interesting revelation to me, however, was that Laurence Olivier was to have played the role of Ernst Janning in Judgment at Nuremburg rather than Burt Lancaster. Oh would I love to have witnessed that. Olivier and Tracy together in the same picture; that possibility is the stuff of dreams.

Mary Ranaudo-Somers

Leonard, your review is spot-on as always. Even though the book has a lot of pages, you don't want to put it down. The author really does know how to write and does Tracy justice. Fans who are interested in his early romance with the devoutly Catholic Loretta Young will enjoy Curtis' non-gossipy recounting of their romance. Additionally, I always assumed that Louise was a Catholic, so I learned something I never knew when I read she was not.

Dick May

I ordered this book as soon as I knew the availability date, having known Jim Curtis for a number of years thru a James Whale connection. I got thru it in about 10 days, and found it totally readable and un-gossipy. Anybody interested in the period from the beginning of the sound era until Tracy's death in 1967 will find many things of interest.


Great review! I've added this book to my list.

Jim Reinecke

A definite must-read for this Tracy fan. I've only read one biography of this superior talent and that was Larry Swindell's respectful but rather shallow volume published 40+ years ago (which, for a 13-year-old, which was my age when I read it, was a serviceable intro to the actor's story). You point out the rather scurrilous garbage that has cropped up in books about Katharine Hepburn in recent years, all of which turned me off completely, but it now seems that Mr. Tracy has been given his biographical due. Mr. Curtis already has an audience in this reader, as I've enjoyed his books on two of my other screen idols, James Whale and W.C. Fields, and I'm certain that this is one that will be keeping up nights as I keep vowing to read "just one more page", as I all the while continue to virtually devour the text! Thanks for alerting us to this new publication, Leonard!

Brian Freeze

It's really great to read such a glowing review. I worked with Jim 20 years ago at an insurance company. We were both film fanatics, and he had already written books on Preston Sturges and James Whale. He also was kind enough to get me a book of the screenplay of "How Green Was My Valley" signed personally to me by Phillip Dunne and Roddy McDowell. I'm so happy for him and can't wait to read it. I'm buying it this weekend.

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