Spencer Tracy's Irish-Catholic guilt

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James Curtis, Spencer Tracy: A Biography (Knopf)

The 26-year love affair and nine-film collaboration of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn is probably the one thing most people remember about the man. But James Curtis’s new biography is designed to end the partial eclipse of Tracy by the more vivid and long-lived Hepburn.

Tracy’s ability to “just be” is apparent when you think of such contemporaries of his as Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, James Stewart and James Cagney. All of them are defined to some extent by mannerisms that lend themselves to caricature. But who has ever caricatured or imitated Spencer Tracy? 

Only Hepburn could upstage him, and Curtis tries hard to keep her from doing that.

Tracy had affairs with Loretta Young, Joan Crawford, Ingrid Bergman and Gene Tierney, among many others, but he also had an advanced Irish-Catholic sense of guilt. And one source of that guilt was the congenital deafness of his son, John.

Louise devoted her life (and much of Tracy’s money) to the clinic that she founded to deal with childhood deafness. Tracy, however, had an emotionally distant relationship with John, and writer-director Joseph L Mankiewicz believed that he blamed himself in some way for his son’s deafness: “He didn’t leave Louise,” Mankiewicz said. “He left the scene of his guilt.”

But they never divorced, partly because of his Catholicism and partly because Hepburn wasn’t interested in marrying him.

Curtis has done Tracy a service in drawing attention to the power and finesse of his work both together with and apart from Hepburn. Ernest Hemingway dismissed the Tracy-Hepburn films as “those toad-and-grasshopper comedies,” meaning it partly as a slur on Tracy, whom he disliked as “a man who could not hold his liquor”.

But if Tracy is the solid, down-to-earth toad, and Hepburn the flighty, busy grasshopper, Curtis has done a good job of making us appreciate the virtues of the toad.

FULL ARTICLE: “Spencer Tracy: A Life” by James Curtis (Washington Post)  


The Religious Affiliation of Spencer Tracy (adherents.com)

Spencer Tracy (Wikipedia)

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