May 20, 2014

Spencer Tracy, Boys Town

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Won: Academy Award - Best Actor

Third time's a charm, right? After somehow getting nominated in lead for a supporting role as a priest who helps reform a morally unruly man, and after winning an Oscar the subsequent year for playing a Portuguese fisherman who helps reform an unruly boy, Spencer Tracy comes back (in his third consecutive attempt to win my heart) as another priest who puts it upon himself to build an orphanage that'll serve to reform a couple hundred unruly boys. And he got a second consecutive Oscar for doing it. So by now it just feels as though the members of the Academy back in the mid-to-late thirties were fixing to troll us all. I know I know, it's of the norm for Oscar to get his panties in a bunch over someone and spoil them rotten with his love in the process, but this is frankly the most preposterous instance I've ever seen where blind, unadulterated adulation is being flung on an actor for literally rehashing the same monotonous schtick over and over again.

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 photo ScreenShot2014-05-13at43531PM.pngI'd probably be more tolerant of this performance if it wasn't Tracy's third in a row of mediocre caliber. If you've seen Tracy's work in San Francisco and wondered to yourself how his performance would have fared if it were actually lead, look no further than right here--because his work as Father Flanagan is really just an extension of his work as Father Mullin (and it even looks as if Tracy's wearing the same exact wardrobe in both films). I will say that Tracy does warm and sweet effectively--he has a soft voice and a kind gentleness to him that wasn't there in San Francisco. Like his work in Captains Courageous, he is more than capable of playing a kind father figure, and his exchanges with the boys in the film come off as pretty natural. I suppose that this performance appealed to the conservative and sentimental hungry audiences of 1938 solely because of how selfless and big-hearted Father Flanagan is. But this role could literally be played by any competent actor and the results would always turn out the same. That's because it's such a terribly artificial role, and offers nothing by way of proving one's acting chops. The entirety of Tracy's performance consists of him shooting a warm smile at some kid, him giving a fatherly lecture to another kid, and him expressing concern either about a kid or his orphanage. He has to say some lines that are just plain terrible (the worst: "There's no such thing in the world as a bad boy" and its sister line, "...there is no bad boy"), and he's robotic in his love for these little boys. It's an extremely simple and boring characterization. And it's not as if Tracy infuses Father Flanagan with any redeeming or mildly interesting facets--no no, this is about as basic and simplistic a performance as you can expect from a typical sappy episode of Full House. Technically, this isn't the worst nominated performance I've ever seen, but I do feel it's one of the worst to have won the Best Actor prize, not so much because it's a role that doesn't provide any actorly challenges whatsoever but because it's a role that doesn't provide any actorly challenges and yet it still won Tracy a second consecutive Oscar. Given that Boys Town was one of the top-grossing flicks of 1938 (and given that Tracy also starred in Test Pilot, another monster hit and Best Picture nominee), I'd say it was a win based on Tracy's status in Hollywood as opposed to merit. But if this hadn't been recognized by the Academy it'd be just a typical nothing performance in an old corny flick--to say that it's the best of its year is completely absurd. What frustrates me most is that it gives no indication of any range or pathos Tracy may possess as a performer (not that his other two nominated performances have done so). It's a performance that's rotten with averageness.


  1. Ouch...haven't seen him yet myself. Spencer is really a great actor but it seems his winning performances are not really that deserving (his first win was OK but there were certainly better choices).

    1. I'm sure he's an excellent actor--it's just funny to me that I've gone through a third of his nominations already and they're all okay at most. Maybe things will change with Father of the Bride when I get there :P

    2. I doubt Father of the Bride will be the game changer :))

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  3. I think Tracy is one of the finest actors of his generation, but neither would I base that opinion on Boys Town, San Francisco or Captains Courageous. 20,000 Years in Sing Sing was good, Fury is very good, so is Woman of The Year, State of The Union and Adam's Rib, but its the valedictory performances of Tracy's last decade that sealed his reputation for most: Bad Day At Black Rock, The Last Hurrah, Inherit The Wind and Judgment At Nuremberg. Okay, yes, even though dripping in sentiment and pleading for tolerance, you can throw in Guess Who's Coming To Dinner too.

    In the yin and yang between Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg, neither man was always right. While Fox dawdled about renewing Tracy's contract at the end of 1935, Thalberg grabbed him and signed him up. Mayer's reaction: "What do we need with another galoot? We already got Wallace Berry." Mayer couldn't have minded being corrected by the peer regard of multiple nominations and escalating box office clout Tracy generated.

    Tracy isn't the first actor we have seen or will see gain nominations and wins in films that are arguably not their best. Flanagan, in scene after scene asks nothing more of Tracy than a motionless expression of moral certitude, and living saints get boring fast. Whenever playing a non-fictional character, especially one still living, it's not an uncommon occupational hazard for a performer's personal esteem to influence their effort to render a flesh and blood mortal. Not only was Flanagan alive and 51 at the time of production, he was permitted to review the script prior to filming.

    Then too, in this day and age there's a new element. Anyone half read up on the pedophile scandal that derailed in the Boston archdiocese in early 2002, can't watch this movie without some nearby discomfort. Maybe never again will we be able to observe a grown man in a Roman collar mentor pubescent, bursting-with-hormones young males without sensing red flags.

  4. Here is where we are totally simpatico. Tracy gives a fine, understated performance here that is nowhere near award-worthy. The character of Father Flanagan is sedate, moral, ethical, compassionate .... and doesn't change or grow one iota throughout the film. What you have is what you get in scene one, and there is nothing in this role that taxes Tracy's range or gives him anything dynamic to play. I think this award was earned by the saintly character and not the actor. Tracy would give far more worthy performances (i.e., "Bad Day at Black Rock", "Inherit the Wind") but this was not the one he deserved an Oscar for.

    Donat was terrific, but my vote would go to that gangster dynamo Jimmy Cagney.