February 27, 2014

Spencer Tracy, San Francisco

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Sometimes AMPAs makes baffling choices, and one can't help but sit and ponder about what exactly was going on in the collective minds of these damn voters. Supporting Actor awards were introduced for the first time in 1936, allowing new opportunities to recognize more performances in the vein of Frank Morgan in The Affairs of Cellini and (as some feel) Franchot Tone in Mutiny on the Bounty. Yet in spite of this, the AMPAs voters decided to give nominations that year to Basil Rathbone in Romeo & Juliet and Maria Ouspenskaya in Dodsworth instead, both of whom gave performances amounting to about 5 minutes of screen time. It's as if the voters were confused about the concept of "supporting", so much so that they all just jotted down some cameos instead. To top things off, the same voters awarded a Best Actress performance that was 30-ish minutes in a three hour film and gave Spencer Tracy his first Best Actor nomination for a 15-ish minute performance in San Francisco. Oscar works in twisted ways.

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 photo ScreenShot2014-02-23at45613PM.jpgI've never been a fan of supporting performances being shoved into lead categories, as well as the subsequent "he/she was the soul of the film" arguments. The way I see it is that if an actor doesn't feel 100% like a leading performance, then said actor ought to just be kept in supporting. An actor's presence during a film's run time as well as the lasting effects he or she has on me once the film ends plays a big role in how I judge leading performances. That said, there is absolutely nothing about Spencer Tracy's work in San Francisco that reads as leading. This is a film that revolves around Clark Gable and Jeanette MacDonald, and when Tracy first appears in San Francisco, not much attention is paid to him. No one in the scene even says his name! So Tracy exits his first scene without so much as a formal introduction to the viewer. Further, once Tracy actually gets a chance to tackle a decent amount of dialogue, he ends up only talking about...Clark Gable's character. So I sat there, watching, wondering what it was about Spencer Tracy in this film that warranted any attention at all. His character isn't central to the story whatsoever, and the film would hardly suffer if his part was deleted. My best guess is that he resonated with voters for being one of the few moral characters in San Francisco--probably a factor as America and Hollywood films entered a period of ultra conservatism. I will admit that there's a naturalistic quality to his acting while watching him. But in spite of this, Tracy's work isn't even remotely interesting. It's all so bland. He is given very little to work with. His character arc is one-dimensional, his performance consisting of warm smiles, stern concerned reaction shots, and playing up the good guy schtick we're supposed to associate with a man of God. I wouldn't even give Tracy a supporting nomination. What's worse, unlike Luise Rainer in The Great Ziegfeld, Tracy is not a highlight of San Francisco, and offers nothing that'd give a sense that one should sit through the film just for him. It's a nomination that technically marked the arrival of a great actor--yet ironically enough, the work itself is dull and forgettable.

*After a bit of reflection, I've decided to demote this performance down a statue. (as of 5/16/14)


  1. Oscar was having lots of trouble with the introduction of supporting categories in 1936. Tracy got a lead nomination for a 15-minute part and Stuart Erwin got a supporting nomination for "Pigskin Parade", in which he had the starring role.

  2. After San Francisco, Test Pilot and Boom Town, all of which made enormous money and the public flocked to, Tracy vowed to go on suspension before he'd accept another teaming with Gable. Not that he didn't like his co-star; he very much did. But Tracy also understood the danger to his own star by continuing the kind of amiable capon sidekick who doesn't get the alpha girl at the end.

    When Tracy's contract with Fox had ended in 1935, Irving Thalberg moved quickly to get him signed to MGM. Louis B. Mayer's reaction: "What do we need with another galote? We already got Wallace Berry." Doubtlessly Mayer's opinion came around once the bucks and Oscar nominations started coming in.

    Nevertheless these earlier roles pale with me too compared to Tracy's more valedictory work in Black Rock, Last Hurrah, Inherit The Wind, Nuremberg, and yes even Dinner.