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Spencer Tracy is one of the most respected screen actors of his generation. He’s best known for portraying strong and self-reliant characters – Father Flanagan of Boys Town and Henry Drummond of Inherit the Wind. In his many comedy roles opposite longtime companion Katherine Hepburn, he played a regular kind of guy one could depend on. A new biography of Tracy – the first serious effort in 40 years – paints a more complex picture of his off-screen life. He was haunted by alcoholism, guilt and insomnia. It chronicles the actor’s struggles with family, his deep Catholicism, and his film legacy. Guest host Susan Page talks with biographer James Curtis about his new book on the life of Spencer Tracy.
- Katharine Houghton actress and playright
- James Curtis author of biographies of W.C. Fields, Preston Sturges and James Whale.
Actress Jean Simmons once said of Spencer Tracy, “When you saw him work, it didn’t seem like acting at all, it just was.” In the first serious biography of Tracy in more than four decades, author James Curtis examines the actor’s life on and off the big screen. He offers insights on Tracy’s career, his Catholicism, and his turbulent relationship with Katherine Hepburn.
An Actor’s Start
Born in Milwaukee, Tracy loved silent movies. He spent hours absorbing split-reel westerns and nickelodeons, to the point that he could memorize and reproduce the action. But Curtis thinks Tracy’s first taste of performance was serving mass in church. Tracy went to college at Ripon, where he got a part in the spring play, and he found he had a talent not only for absorbing the lines, but also for understanding the essence of a character. Tracy first appeared in a Broadway play in 1930 titled “The Last Mile,” which producer John Ford saw. Ford signed Tracy up for his 1930 film “Up the River,” in which Humphrey Bogart also made his movie debut.
Insomnia and Alcohol
According to Curtis, Tracy was not the “drunkard” that some have made him out to be, though he did struggle with alcoholism. He would reportedly go for years without touching a drink. He was plagued by insomnia, and would often drink huge quantities of tea and coffee to keep him awake during the day. “And so he was wired on caffeine at night, bedeviled by his own personal demons, the things that he thought about, the crimes, the misdemeanors that he had committed over his life which he would not forgive himself for, and also he did his best work in the middle of the night preparing for the next day, something he liked to hide,” Curtis said.
The Hepburn-Tracy Romance
Tracy met Katherine Hepburn during the filming of “Woman of the Year” in 1941. Interestingly, a line that is often attributed to Tracy from an early meeting with Hepburn was actually uttered by producer Joe Mankiewicz. When Hepburn said that she would refrain from wearing heels so she wouldn’t be taller than Tracy, Mankiewicz told her not to worry because Tracy would cut her down to his size. Tracy and Hepburn had, at times, a troublesome relationship, according to Curtis, owing at least in part to Tracy’s struggles with alcohol addiction. Hepburn “saw him as a project and she was also madly in love with him,” Curtis said. Tracy’s later films, Curtis said, may be a credit to the fact that Hepburn looked after and sustained him so that he lived to an older age than he might otherwise have.
Before beginning his relationship with Hepburn, Tracy had been married to his wife, Louise, and they had several children, one of whom was deaf. He was raised Catholic, and Curtis says he had a very visceral sense of Catholicism that apparently led him to believe his son’s deafness was God’s punishment for his early philandering. “He never forgave himself for that until the day he died,” Curtis said.
You can read the full transcript here.
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Actress, Jean Simmons, once said of Spencer Tracy, when you saw him work, it didn't seem like acting at all, it just was. In the first serious biography of Tracy in more than four decades, author James Curtis examines the actor's life on and off the big screen. He offers insights on Tracy's career, his Catholicism and his turbulent relationship with Katherine Hepburn. The book is titled "Spencer Tracy" and James Curtis joins me in the studio. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MR. JAMES CURTISThank you, Susan.
PAGEWe're going to invite our listeners to join our conversation later in this hour. You can call our toll-free number 1-800-433-8850, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, find us on Facebook or Twitter. Well, you know, I think you have to start with this remarkable photograph that's on the cover of your biography. I know it's hard for the radio listening audience to see this photograph. Maybe you could describe it for us.
CURTISIt's shot by Irving Penn. It was in the late '40s, shot for Vanity Fair, I believe - no, Vogue, pardon me. And Penn did a series of portraits of well known people where he placed them in a particular corner of his studio and then he shot what he saw. In Spencer Tracy's case, he made two exposures, one where he was smiling and one where he was much more, shall we say, contemplative.
CURTISAnd that's the one that we choose for the cover of the book. I think that it had a level of intrigue to it that fascinated me. And I think it kind of invites you and almost dares you to want to know more about him. It was one of Katherine Hepburn's favorite photos of him as well. And I first saw it at the auction preview for her estate.
PAGEHe looks -- his body looks relaxed, but his face looks really weary and he's backed into a corner like he's been trapped there.
CURTISI think entrapment is a theme that could reasonably be ascribed to his life. He was a very moral man in a strange sort of way. I think that whatever he did in life, he always -- it always entailed a self judgment on his part and it was usually negative.
PAGEYou -- if listeners want to take a look at this cover, you can go onto our website. We've posted it there. Now, this book is pretty substantial, more than 1,000 pages. How did it come about? What attracted you to Spencer Tracy?
CURTISWell, I was interested in doing a biography of an actor and it's got to be somebody that I'm fascinated with and who has a body of work that will sustain several years of effort. In this case, it was six years. And Tracy fit that category, not only in the -- to the extent that he was a fascinating subject for me, but also that there had not really been a biography that was definitive. There was a need there, which was nice.
CURTISAnd -- so I was able to make contact with his daughter, Susie Tracy, who eventually confirmed that she would cooperate on such a book. And thus began the effort which was really quite a journey of discovery, I must say. I went into the book without any kind of preconceived notion as to what I would find. And I tried to ignore as much as possible, the legends of growing up around him and Katherine Hepburn. I wanted to see it anew and this was the result.
PAGEAnd Susie Tracy who --the daughter who cooperated with you, did she put any restrictions? Did she have concerns or was she very eager to cooperate in the biography of her father?
CURTISNo. It surprised me in a sense, but, no, she placed no strings on it whatsoever. She gladly signed whatever I needed to see confidential records, school records, et cetera. I think, as I say in the beginning of the book, that she simply wanted to know what happened, she wanted to know the truth. And she felt, after checking me out a bit, that I would deliver that. And thankfully she agreed with Bill Self ,who was her great advisor, the late Bill Self and went with me. And once she made that decision, she supported the effort fully.
PAGESo what did you have access to that no one has seen before?
CURTISWell, his date books which they kept, the closest thing to a diary, I think, that he kept. They're not necessarily, terribly effusive, but you do have notations about the various films he did. Sometimes we know who he was with in terms of women. We also know, because he was very careful about documenting his alcoholic binges, the times when he would go off on toots because pressures or things that happened that forced him to do that. I think he had a terrific need for that on occasion.
CURTISAnd the legend had grown up around him that he was a pretty consistent drunkard and that turned out not to be the case. He would go for years without touching a drink. Part of what tormented him so was a tendency toward insomnia. He could not sleep and part of the reason for that, I think, is because of the gallons of coffee and tea that he would consume during the daytime to keep from drinking.
CURTISAnd so he was wired on caffeine at night, bedeviled by his own personal demons, the things that he thought about, the crimes, the misdemeanors that he had committed over his life which he would not forgive himself for and also he did his best work in the middle of the night preparing for the next day, something he liked to hide, I may say.
PAGEHe was born in Milwaukee?
PAGEInitially thought he might want to be a doctor.
PAGEWhat made him decide to go into acting instead?
CURTISWell, I think he had a natural gift for it that was born of his childhood love for silent movies. And if people ask me who his first great influence was as an actor, I always say Broncho Billy Anderson because he spent hours upon hours absorbing these split reel westerns and nickelodeons in the areas around his house. And I think that seeing them time and again impressed them upon his mind in such a way that he could go home and reproduce the action, putting himself in the role of Broncho Billy or some of the other people he saw on screen.
CURTISAnd that was his first real attempt at secular acting. I like to say, also, his first taste performance was serving mass in church. I think those two things combined to give him a fascination for it. And that really blossomed when he ended up in college at Ripon and he was able to fall in with the mask and wig and actually get a part in the spring play. And that was really the start of it, I think, was -- as an adult he found that he had a talent for absorbing not only the lines of dialogue in a play but also the character. And he naturally knew how to bring something of himself to the character which of course is the actors great goal in their craft.
PAGEIn 1930, he appeared in a Broadway play "The Last Mile." The director John Ford saw it, signed him up for his first movie "Up The River" in 1930 which had another actor making his film debut and lets listen to a clip from "Up The River" that has an exchange between Humphrey Bogart and Spencer Tracy.
MR. SPENCER TRACY AS SAINT LOUISHey, buddy, I'm sorry. I butted into something I didn't know.
MR. HUMPHREY BOGART AS STEVE JORDANShe don't want to see me. She wants to see you.
LOUISSay, I didn't know that you two were fond of each other.
JORDANGee, I don't know how fond she is of me, but I think she's a fine girl.
LOUISWell, ain't you never said anything to her?
JORDANNo, I haven't had a chance. You know what the rules are. Oh, we peeked a couple of times in the windows.
LOUISWell, you come on over. I'd like to have you meet her.
JORDANYeah, but listen, if she's caught talking to me...
LOUISOh, don't let that worry you. I'll take care of all that.
PAGEWas it clear in this movie "Up The River" from 1930 that two enormous stars had just been seen for the first time on screen?
CURTISWell, you know, if you watch the film today, you can see a bit of the magnetism that both of those guys exuded later. But they were both awfully young and young by terms of the time, since they were both 30 years of age when they made that film. Of course, today, we have stars that are in their teens, but that wasn't quite the case back then.
CURTISYou had these stage trained actors coming from New York who could deliver lines, talkies were only a few years old at that point and so they were trying everybody. And it was a few years before Bogart really started to make an impression. Tracy was embraced by the FOX studio when they let Bogart go and he was with them until 1935.
PAGEHere's a question that some people have raised about Spencer Tracy and that is whether he was actually acting or did you just see Spencer Tracy kind of playing himself in a variety of roles, what do you think about that?
CURTISWell, I think -- I don't think that's true. I think that whatever he did, he brought himself to it. And -- but I think the test of that is when you think about a lot of these guys of that generation, most all of them have kept hoards of impressionist in business for generations now. Jim Cagney, James Stewart, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, go on down the list. The only one they can't do is Spencer Tracy.
PAGEWhich means he was being the character, he was playing not just himself...
CURTISNot just himself, no, no.
PAGE...when he was on the screen, right.
CURTISHe said he got to the point, eventually, and this is when he got into his 60s, that he would imagine himself -- this is a gross simplification, but he'd say, this is a lawyer -- this is Spencer Tracy as a lawyer. This is Spencer Tracy as a judge. I think what he did on a more sophisticated level was he had almost a subtractive approach to his craft in the sense that he got to the point where he was looking for how little he needed to do in order to make the impression, to create the effect that he wanted to create.
CURTISHe was one who was really, I think, from an early age, repulsed by a lot of the florid acting styles that you saw on stage in the '20s, especially in the regional theater which was all nose putty and crape hair. And Tracy was one of the early guys who tried to do it all from within. He didn't like make-up. He didn't use it in films, for the most part. And so what he was trying to do was make a direct connection with the audience. Something that was uncommon at that time.
PAGEAnd did he have to work hard at it? You said he did his best work, sometimes, at night. Did -- was this a big effort for him or was something that came very easily?
CURTISPart of it came easily in that he had a photographic memory so he could master a page of dialogue very simply and easily. But no, it came hard for him, I think, in the sense that he never trusted his own instincts fully.
PAGEWe're going to take a short break. And when we come back, we'll continue our conversation with James Curtis about his new biography of Spencer Tracy. And our phone lines are open, 1-800-433-8850, give us a call. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. With me in the studio, James Curtis. He's written a new biography of Spencer Tracy. He's the author also of "W. C. Fields: A Biography" and "James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters" and "Between Flops: A Biography of Preston Sturgis." About halfway through this big book on Spencer Tracy before you introduce a character many people associate with him, and that is Katherine Hepburn, his long time companion. Why did you wait -- why did you do so much writing without mentioning her -- before you introduce her?
CURTISWell, because she didn't come into his life until he was 41 years of age. And she was really not on his radar any time earlier. One of the goals of the book was to see the situation from his vantage point. Hepburn never impressed him as an actress in particular. He suspected -- he said later that she was a lesbian. She said that herself, which amused her, I think, to some degree.
CURTISShe was very focused on him, however, and she wanted to work with him. And she saw an opportunity to in 1941 when the filming of "The Yearling" in Florida was aborted and Tracy was, all of a sudden, available for this part in a romantic comedy called "Woman of the Year," which Hepburn had caused to have written and was pretty much in charge of after "The Philadelphia Story" which was a great success for her at MGM.
PAGEAnd so they met for the first time when she was trying to get him to do this movie. Tell us about the meeting.
CURTISWell, Joe Mankiewicz who was the producer and later became a great writer and director was with Tracy. They were walking into the office building at MGM and out she came. They were introduced and she said the famous line at that point, or something to the effect of, yeah, well, I'll try not to wear shoes that are so high, because she liked to think that she was taller than most of the men that she worked with. She kind of fudged that a little bit. But she said that to Tracy and I'm not sure that was really a dig. It just kinda came naturally out of her. And Mankiewicz said the immortal line, don't worry, Kate, he'll cut you down to his size.
PAGEWell, a few years later, they made a movie called "Adam's Rib." Let's go -- let's listen for a moment to an exchange from that movie.
MS KATHERINE HEPBURN AS AMANDA BONNERYou're really sore at me, aren't you?
MR. SPENCER TRACY AS ADAM BONNEROh, don't be diriculous -- ridiculous.
BONNERThere, proves it.
BONNERAll right. All right. I am sore, I am sore. What about it?
BONNERWhy are you?
BONNERYou know why.
BONNERYou mean Kip, just because he's having a little fun?
BONNERNo, because you're having a little fun. You've having the wrong kinda fun down in that courtroom. You're shaking the law by the tail and I don't like it. I’m ashamed of you, Amanda.
BONNERIs that so?
BONNERYes, that's so. We've had our little differences and I've always tried to see your point of view, but this time you've got me stumped, baby.
BONNERYou haven't tried to see my point of view. You haven't even any respect for my -- my -- my ...
BONNERThere we go, there we go, there we go. Oh, here we go again, the old juice. Guaranteed heart melter, a few female tears, stronger than any acid. But this time, they won't work. You can cry from now until the time the jury comes in and it won't make you right and it won't bring you that silly case.
BONNERAdam, please, please try to understand.
BONNERAh, don't you want your rubdown? Want a drink?
BONNERDo you want anything? What, honey? Ow.
BONNERLet's all be manly.
PAGESo the chemistry between Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn enchanted a generation of movie goers. What was the chemistry like between them when they were offstage?
CURTISI think it was there. I think it was a little more complicated than what you saw onscreen sometimes. As Katherine Houghton said, Katherine Hepburn's niece, she thought this was kind of an idealized version of their relationship. There were a lot of characteristics there that ring true.
CURTISIt's the sort of relationship they would've liked the public to think that they had. But it was a troublesome relationship because Tracy was bedeviled by alcoholism. He was a tough guy to live with, tough guy to get along with sometimes. I think Katherine Hepburn could be also, but she saw him as a project and she was also madly in love with him. And she wrote a letter to that effect, as a matter of fact, not long after they got together.
CURTISAnd I think she thought that he was the greatest actor in America at that time and that he was slowly destroying himself. And she inserted herself into that situation and I think sustained him. I think we have his later performances as a result of her attention to him and his wellbeing, those later films that he did for instance. I think he would've been dead before then had it not been for her.
PAGEYou know, one of the things that you do in this book is take a more three dimensional look at Spencer Tracy's wife Louise who has sometimes been seen just as kinda the longsuffering victim. Tell us more about her.
CURTISWell, I don't think Louise was so much a victim of anything other than circumstances and perhaps the fact that she did not have the emotional tools perhaps to cope with some aspects of his torment. She was a fine actress from everything that I've been able to see in terms of the reviews I've seen. She was primarily on the stage. She did very, very little film work and didn't like it.
CURTISShe was a basketball star in high school, she was a suffragist. She came from a newspaper family. She wrote for the New York Times. She sold poetry to H. L. Menken who was no pushover. She was a world class athlete in some ways. She founded the first women's polo league on the west coast. And then as a stellar final act she founded John Tracy Clinic in 1942 which will enjoy its 70th anniversary this next year.
PAGEAnd the John Tracy Clinic named after their son...
PAGE...born deaf and a matter of some anguish for Spencer Tracy.
CURTISYeah, yeah. And one of the things that's telling is that when Louise founded the clinic with her moxie and knowhow and his money from the movies, one of the components that she considered very important was psychological counseling for the parents. The clinic was set up for parents and it reflected the -- it answered the needs that Louise felt existed at a time when she was an itinerant actor in the '20s and had a deaf son and was really not getting the information or the help or the interchange with other parents that she wanted.
CURTISAnd so the clinic was designed for the parents and families of deaf children, how to bring them along in the home during the first few years of life when development is so important.
PAGENow they had -- they were married -- Spencer Tracy had a series of affairs. He had this very long term relationship with Katherine Hepburn. Why did they stay married?
CURTISI think they were very important to one another. I know he was important to Louise. Louise and he had a bond that was formed so early that I don't think that it could be easily broken. They lived separate lives in some ways, but they were always in touch with one another. He saw her on a regular basis. She read every script that he ever filmed, passed judgment on such things. And whenever his films were previewed, it was Louise that went to see them. And then the phone would ring at home after she had arrived back home again and there was an hour, hour-and-a-half discussion and a critique of how the film went.
CURTISI think he had tremendous -- a tremendous emotional attachment to Louise. If you want to call that love, if you want to call that devotion, if you want to call that a need, I can't put a label on it necessarily. But that was an important relationship for him and it was important 'til the day he died.
PAGELet's let our listeners join our conversation. Herman's calling us from Baltimore. Hi, Herman. Thanks for giving us a call.
HERMANHi, everybody. I'm enjoying this listen. Dr. Livingstone, I presume. You know that movie?
CURTISYes, "Stanley and Livingstone."
HERMANWell, I saw it first run in 1939.
HERMANAnd back then, I mean, the Stanley and Livingstone story was still big enough news that they made a movie out of it. And also my chums and I used to always greet each other, Dr. Livingstone, I presume.
CURTISDid the audience laugh when he delivered the line, do you remember?
HERMANWell, you can see the movie on YouTube and type in Stanley and Livingstone. And he murmured it very subdued.
CURTISYeah, he had...
HERMANVery deferential to Reverend Livingstone so no, it was not a laugh line.
CURTISWell, he had a bet because there was a famous joke at that time. The payoff line -- the punch line was Dr. Livingstone, I presume. And he had a bet with the producer that the audiences would laugh. And he was determined he was not going to say that line in the film. And ultimately they go...
HERMANNo. He said it in a very, very subdued way.
CURTISYes, he did. Yes, he did.
HERMANAnd I had one other thing.
PAGESure, please go ahead.
HERMANHenry Morton Stanley who found him, he was assigned by the New York Herald to find Livingstone. And on his way to Africa, he passed through the Middle East including Persia -- Iran and he was in a ruin there called Persepolis. And Stanley sketched his name into a rock and the date 1870, New York Herald in Persia, which is now Iran. I was there myself in the year 2000, and I came across Stanley's etching in the rock. And as I saw it, this whole thing from 1939 came back.
PAGEHerman, thank you so much for your call. Let's go to Gloria. She's calling us from Coral Cables, Fla. Gloria, hi, you're on the air.
GLORIAYes. I was just wondering if in all his research, he heard anything about both Spencer and Katherine being the greatest of friends. They loved each other as friends, but that they were not lovers, that they were both gay. And this article that my sister saved for me appeared in Vanity Fair. When I went to visit her in Palm Springs, she showed me the article and it was written by an old gentleman that said he was gay. And he said he ran a place for your famous actors in Hollywood that were gay, provided the young men.
GLORIAAnd he showed -- Vanity Fair showed a picture of Katherine during the transatlantic trip to Paris with a woman. It showed them on the deck of the ship and it showed them arm in arm.
PAGEWell, interesting. What do you think?
CURTISWell, those assertions were first brought forth after Katherine Hepburn's death in 2003. Several books have made those assertions. I included an author's note in the back of my book that addresses those. When you press such assertions against the archival record, they don't add up and so I'm not persuaded, I'm afraid.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking your calls at 1-800-433-8850. Well, what about Katherine Hepburn's recollections of their relationship? She gave some interviews never published, but you had access to them in writing this book. What did they tell you?
CURTISThey give a more nuanced version of the relationship. Some of her confusion about him, I think. She never fully understood him, she said. And I think that's probably true. She also wasn't sure that he loved her. He never said as much, but there was certainly great affection between them. She loved him I think as much as she could.
CURTISBut there were some terrible times in the '40s when he was drinking heavily, especially in New York. She did what she could for him. And then in the '50s, there was a period of separation as well. I think they were difficult people to live with. And I think it's Katherine Hepburn who made that relationship work and it was to Tracy's great benefit. But I think at times they got on each other's nerves.
PAGEHe was beset by a lot of demons.
CURTISYes, yes, he was. And I think one of the things he felt -- he had a very visceral sense of Catholicism -- and I think that he was convinced that his philandering, his early crimes of emotion and behavior had resulted in the deafness of his child, that it was a punishment from God in some manner. And he never forgave himself for that until the day he died.
PAGELet's listen to another clip. This is from "Judgment at Nuremberg," a movie that he made in 1961. Here Tracy is portraying Chief Judge Dan Hayward rendering a decision about holding Nazis accountable.
MR. SPENCER TRACY AS CHIEF JUDGE DAN HAYWARDThis trial has shown that under a national crisis ordinary -- even able and extraordinary men can delude themselves into the commission of crimes so vast and heinous that they beggar the imagination. No one who has sat through the trial can ever forget them. Men sterilized because of political belief, a mockery made of friendship and faith and murder of children. How easily this can happen.
MR. SPENCER TRACY AS CHIEF JUDGE DAN HAYWARDThere are those in our own country too who today speak of the protection of country, of survival. A decision must be made in the life of every nation. At the very moment when the grasp of the enemy is at its throat then it seems that the only way to survive is to use the means of the enemy, to arrest survival upon what is expedient, to look the other way. Only, the answer to that is survival is what? A country isn't a rock. It's not an extension of oneself. It's what it stands for. It's what it stands for when standing for something is the most difficult. Before the people of the world let it now be noted that here in our decision this is what we stand for, justice, truth and the value of a single human being.
PAGEThat was Spencer Tracy in the movie "Judgment at Nuremberg," which came out in 1961. Here we have a Tweet from someone saying, "How is Spencer Tracy even relevant anymore?" Kind of a skeptic. How would you answer that?
CURTISI think his style of acting is very modern. And I think that a lot of today's actors have in some way or another learned and have been inspired by his work in the past. I think that Tracy got to the point where he was a senior figure in the motion picture industry and virtually essential to some of the parts that he played. You can say that certainly about "Judgment at Nuremberg."
CURTISI think there was a level of authority to him that you don't always get these days with modern acting. And I think that he showed how it could be done and at the same time do it in a way that was naturalistic, real and made the words such as Abby Mann's words in that last clip real to the audience.
PAGEHe had -- did some roles of great enduring social consequence...
PAGE...the Clarence Darrow character for instance in "Inherit the Wind."
CURTISAnd that came from his association with Stanley Kramer toward the end of his life. I think that Stanley Kramer was fascinated by Tracy and developed projects that were specifically for Tracy. And there were times when, in fact, he cast Tracy over the objections of some of the producers. "Judgment at "Nuremberg" for instance, they wanted Jimmy Stewart who was a bigger name at that time, but Kramer insisted upon Tracy and we're all the better for it.
PAGEOne of the social movies he made, the very last one he made, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll talk on the phone with one of the costars of -- with Spencer Tracy in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." And we'll go back to the phones, take some of your calls, 1-800-433-8850 or send us an email to email@example.com. Stay with us.
PAGEJoining us now by phone from New York is Katharine Houghton. She played Spencer Tracy's daughter, Joey, in his final film "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." Thanks so much for being with us, Katharine.
MS. KATHARINE HOUGHTONMy pleasure.
PAGENow, you are also the niece of Katherine Hepburn. Tell us how you first met Spencer Tracy.
HOUGHTONWell, I guess I was maybe four or five years old and they were doing a film in Connecticut. They were filming part of what became the home movies in "Adam's Rib" I believe down at Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon's home. And he came to lunch. And it was a very stormy day. And he sat at the table with our whole family. We lived right by the sea. And the first thing that impressed us was Kate asked him to recite a poem that my brother liked very much and he did "Casey at the Bat." And we were just thrilled.
HOUGHTONAnd then he was sitting with his back to the sea and we all began to notice that this storm was getting worse and worse. And the little boats that were anchored out in front of the house, the little regatta of the community, they began to pull on their anchors and they were headed for a stone pier. And all of a sudden Kate jumped up and she said, everybody drop your pants and follow me. Well, the younger generation wasn't expected to do this, but -- and Spencer wasn't expected to do this, but as everybody flew out the door to go rescue the boats, he looked at us children and he said, this family is absolutely nuts.
HOUGHTONSo that was my introduction to Spencer Tracy.
PAGENow, years later you worked with him on "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." What was he like to work with as an actor?
HOUGHTONHe was an angel, absolute angel. When you think of what he was going through, he was dying, he could've just been peremptory and awful to me, but he wasn't. He was extremely kind. And I just love working with him.
PAGENow, he knew that he was dying at this point.
HOUGHTONOh, yeah, we all knew. It was -- everyday was -- everyday that he could work was a blessing. And you probably know that we started the film in San Francisco. That was the only location shooting. And when I got back to my hotel after the first day of shooting, Kate called and said that the film was off, that we couldn't get insurance for Spencer and so they were canceling the film. So that shows you the state of affairs. It was very dire.
PAGEAnd how did they get around the insurance issue so the movie could be made?
HOUGHTONStanley Kramer, the director, and Kate and Spencer said, we will not take any salary until the film is finished. So Columbia was stuck. They didn't wanna do the film anyway. They thought it was a terrible idea. They thought that the film would be a huge bomb and that they would lose lots of money.
PAGEAnd they were wrong.
CURTISFool them good.
PAGEKatherine Houghton, she played Spencer Tracy's daughter in his last film "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." And we appreciate you being with us. And as you leave us, we're going to play the climatic speech by Spencer Tracy near the end of that movie about the challenges facing his white daughter, you, and her black fiancé. Let's hear that.
MR. SPENCER TRACY AS MATT DRAYTONI'm sure you know what you're up against. It will be 100 million people right here in this country who will be shocked and offended and appalled at the two of you. And the two of you will just have to ride that out maybe every day for the rest of your lives. You can try to ignore those people or you can feel sorry for them and for their prejudices and their bigotry and their blind hatreds and stupid fears, but when necessary you'll have to cling tight to each other and say, screw all those people.
MR. SPENCER TRACY AS MATT DRAYTONAnybody could make a case and a hell of a good case against your getting married. The arguments are so obvious that nobody has to make them. But you're two wonderful people who happened to fall in love and happen to have a pigmentation problem. And I think that now no matter what kind of a case some bastard could make against your getting married, there would only be one thing worse and that would be if knowing what you two are, knowing what you two have and knowing what you two feel, you didn't get married.
PAGEAttitudes toward interracial marriage, of course, very different now than they were in 1967 when this movie came out.
CURTISOne of the things I think is important to remember when watching this film is the characters of the parents in that film were all born between the years 1900 and 1910. And so they grew up at a time when lynchings in the south especially were quite common. And they're coming from their perspective from a very different place than their children are. And so it's interesting today to watch the film from that particular perspective because it doesn't occur to people today that they're really thinking about that from their perspective back in the 1920s when they came of age.
PAGEThis movie that the studio wasn't eager to make ended up being nominated for ten Academy Awards. What kind of impact did it have?
CURTISIt had tremendous impact. It went on to become Columbia Pictures' biggest success up to that time. It made more money for them than anything else that they had ever released including "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and those all other pictures. It also I think had a tremendous effect in terms of the dialogue in this country. And if you've got thousands upon thousands of influences great and minor that perhaps led to the day when we could have a black president in the White House. I think Katharine and the people who made "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" can take a little sliver of credit for helping to change attitudes in this country and make that happen -- help make that happen.
PAGEHere's an email from Lynn. He writes, "Please comment on 'Bad Day at Black Rock.' The topic is still timely and the movie is still rather difficult to watch." What is that about?
CURTISIt's about Tracy coming back from the war and discovering that this small town has this dreadful secret where they had, in effect, murdered a Japanese rancher who was part of that community in the early day of World War II and were trying to cover it up. And in their zeal to cover it up, they're planning to kill Tracy's character. And it's a fascinating subject that is very easy to take and re-imagine with today's Islamic character in that part or someone who was killed because of either their religion or their racial profile. And so I think that's one of the films that is extremely modern today, and very, very well made I might add.
PAGEWe have another emailer asking if Spencer Tracy had a favorite role. Did he?
CURTISYeah, I think his favorite role, he often said, was "Captains Courageous" where he played the Portuguese fisherman. I think he had a lot of trouble with that role and that's the reason he was so proud of it and it was so atypical for him. Also I think "Judgment at Nuremberg" was a particular favorite of his.
PAGELet's talk to Ben. He's calling us from Bowie, Md. Ben, hi, you're joining us on "The Diane Rehm Show."
BENHi. Can you hear me okay?
BENYes. One of my favorites of Spencer Tracy with a political theme was "The Last Hurrah" where he played Finley disguised biography of Mayor Curley of Boston. And one of the scenes that has stayed with me was where he went into apparently a club of Boston aristocrats and was...
CURTISAnd he takes a Jewish ward healer with him just to upset them all the more.
BENRight. Right. It was just such a marvelous film. I suppose one of his comedies, but of course I liked him in everything. But it's one that has stayed with me and that I delighted in so much.
CURTISHe was wonderful in it.
BENHe was, absolutely.
PAGEAll right, Ben. Thanks so much for your call. What were Spencer Tracy's own politics like?
CURTISHe was a progressive Democrat, a Roosevelt Democrat. I don't think he could've spent a lot of time with either Katherine Hepburn or Stanley Kramer where he not in synch with them politically. But he disapproved of actors using their position with the public to put forth a particular political philosophy. And so he kind of stayed away from that. He never endorsed a candidate other than Roosevelt. I think Katherine Hepburn was more politically active than he was. He sat back and I think was amused by her involvement in certain causes, but chose not to participate himself.
PAGELet's talk to Lisa. She's been holding on patiently from Louisville, Ky. Lisa, thanks for holding on.
LISAThank you. Can you hear me okay?
PAGEYes. Please go ahead.
LISAOkay. Great. Well, I was born in 1961, the year that "Judgment at Nuremberg" was released. And I grew up, my favorite actor is Spencer Tracy, favorite movie is "Captains Courageous." And I think I was about 11 or 12 when Garson Kanin's book came out, "Hepburn and Tracy." I was so intrigued. I went to the library and brought it home and I started reading it. And I thought, you know, this isn't too great. Maybe these people weren't so great after all, given the fact that he was married and so forth and so on.
LISAAnd my dad said, you know, don't let that detract from whatever enjoyment that you derive from their performance. Don't ever let anything of any actor or performer, whatever in their private life detract, which is great. I would challenge anyone to find a greater range of actor from "Judgment at Nuremberg" one year and "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" of the next, going from stark drama to complete hilarity with Spencer Tracy's two performances. And "Captains Courageous" I would recommend for any family viewing, especially for young children. And that's all I have to say.
PAGEWell, Lisa, thank you so much for your call and your perspective. You know, I asked you if Spencer Tracy had a favorite part he played. After all the time you spent on this book, do you have a favorite part?
CURTISI'd have to say "Inherit the Wind" where he played Clarence Darrow. That's the film that really did it for me. I saw it on television. I think I was about 12 years old at the time. And I became fascinated by him, fascinated by the Scopes Monkey Trial, fascinated by Darrow, fascinated by H. L. Mencken and those are fascinations that have stayed with me.
PAGEYeah, we have a clip from "Inherit the Wind" that came out in 1960. He is playing Henry Drummond, a character based on Clarence Darrow. Let's listen to it.
MR. SPENCER TRACY AS HENRY DRUMMONDCan't you understand that if you take a law like evolution and you make it a crime to teach it in the public schools tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools? And tomorrow you may make it a crime to read about it and soon you may ban books and newspapers and then you may turn Catholic against Protestant and Protestant against Protestant and try to foist your own religion upon the mind of man. If you can do one, you can do the other because fanaticism and ignorance is forever busy and needs feeding.
MR. SPENCER TRACY AS HENRY DRUMMONDAnd soon, your honor, with banners flying and with drums beating, we'll be marching backward, backward through the glorious ages of that 16th century when bigots burned the man who dared bring enlightenment and intelligence to the human mind.
PAGEThat was Spencer Tracy in "Inherit the Wind." Why is that your favorite part?
CURTISI think because there's so much meat to the part. It's a wonderful part for any actor, of course, but it takes a certain power that Spencer Tracy had in abundance. He was one of those actors where you always knew that he had more in reserve. There was great strength there. And some of that was born of black energy, things that he carried within him that were somewhat poisonous, let's say, but he could certainly register it on screen.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We've had -- we had a caller who has unfortunately hung up, but had wanted to ask a question about whether there were other actors of his generation that Spencer Tracy really admired. How would you answer that question?
CURTISYeah, he did actually. He admired Gary Cooper quite a bit. He loved Clark Gable. Gable was more of a personality than an actor, though he showed that he had a greater range in some of his later performances than one might've suspected. Tracy was very fond of Gable. The problem with their relationship was that Gable was a very enthusiastic scotch drinker. And when you went to his house, you usually had a big tumbler put in your hand. And he couldn’t take that socially, so they limited their relationship for the most part to the studio commissary, but they were wonderful friends.
CURTISAnd when Carole Lombard disappeared over the skies of -- over Las Vegas in 1942, it was Spencer Tracy who drove seven hours according to his date book to Las Vegas to sit with Clark Gable that weekend when they brought the bodies down by pack train.
PAGETell us about his own final years and his death.
CURTISWell, the years of drinking, I think, especially the physical abuse that he subjected himself to, and some of that was emotional abuse also because of what it took to do the job that he did. And one of the things that I look for in subjects also to answer is the price they paid to be the people they were, the artists that they were. And Tracy paid a price to be Spencer Tracy. By the early '60s he was physically much older than his calendar years would indicate.
CURTISStanley Kramer kept him working. He was certainly perceived by Kramer to be a necessity for "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" to give it kind of the solid core that the comedy needed. And he moved heaven and earth to make "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" when, as Katharine said, Columbia didn't want it made in particular. Katherine Hepburn was with him at the end. His heart gave out 17 days after they finished "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner."
PAGETom who teaches theater at Wichita state University has called us to say that he uses "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" as a discussion exercise every year. Maybe that helps answer the question from our skeptical tweeter about why Spencer Tracy is relevant these days.
CURTISWell, I should point out also that this is not necessarily a movie star biography. This is an actor's biography. And so there's a great deal in it that I think is of nutritional value to the student of acting or an actor who wants to see how it was done to some degree. There's a point at which with the creative process the thing happens. But I think there's a great deal to be gleaned from this book in terms of his technique as an actor and what he brought to it. And I commend Tom for his use of that particular film, the clips from it. And I commend Tom also for pointing out Spencer Tracy's great talent and strength too in the generation of actors.
PAGEIt's an enormous book, 1,000 pages about "Spencer Tracy: A Biography" by James Curtis. James Curtis, thank you so much for joining us this hour.
CURTISThank you, Susan, my pleasure.
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
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