The relationship between Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy is the stuff of legend. They were together for twenty-six years, and while morally their relationship may raise some red flags, it was always good to see their love for each other every time they locked eyes. Almost twenty years after Tracy’s death, Hepburn, along with many others who knew him, looked back at his life and work in 1986’s The Spencer Tracy Legacy: A Tribute By Katharine Hepburn.
Hepburn starts out summarizing Tracy’s early life. He was born in Milwaukee in 1900 and attended Ripon College briefly before leaving to pursue acting, starting with the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. While beginning his career on the stage, Tracy met and married Louise Treadwell, and they had their first child, John, in 1924, with a daughter, Susie, following in 1932. Tracy, who was headhunted by the movie studios, initially signed with Twentieth-Century Fox, and his first film was 1930’s Up the River. Not satisfied with his treatment at Fox, Tracy went up to Culver City five years later and signed a contract with M-G-M, where he stayed for the next twenty years.
The film doesn’t go into exhaustive detail about Tracy’s personal life as some might expect, but what it does have is movie history gold. A lot of it revolves around Hepburn going to places that were important to Tracy. She touches on the John Tracy Clinic, which was founded by Tracy’s wife, Louise after she learned that John was deaf. Tracy put a large amount of his earnings and moral efforts into the clinic, which remains an enormously valuable support to deaf children and their families to this day.
Hepburn also visits Tracy’s daughter, Susie, who at the time was living in a house built on a former polo ground her father used to frequent, as he was an avid player of the game. Susie shows Hepburn her father’s datebooks that he kept from 1935 until 1942, writing down his current weight, little notes about the movies he was making, as well as personal details. For instance, on June 7, 1937, Tracy wrote, “Jean Harlow died. Grand girl.”
Not only that, but Hepburn goes to what was still the original M-G-M lot in 1986, and walks around with her purse slung over her shoulder while she reminisces. She’s clearly loving every minute of her time at the studio, albeit with a sense of the passage of time. “While you may always be the cake, you do not remain the frosting. That changes,” she says outside the former star dressing room building, and points upwards. The camera follows her finger to reveal a sign reading “Stallone Building.”
Hepburn takes us to the exact spot where she and Tracy first met, which was at one of the side entrances to the Thalberg Building. She also reveals how it seemed to be fate that brought the two of them together to make Woman of the Year: Tracy had been in Florida shooting The Yearling, and armies of bugs flew into all the cameras, rendering them useless (and pretty gross). Naturally, the movie–and the cameras–had to be scrubbed, and Tracy returned to Culver City. Meanwhile, Hepburn was fresh from her hugely successful film, The Philadelphia Story. Thus having shed her box office poison label, she sought out Tracy to be her costar. Apparently, when they met, Hepburn was wearing high heels, and since Tracy wasn’t the tallest fellow, she promised to be careful about her shoes when they made the movie. Tracy just looked at her, appraising her as only he could, and Joe Manciewicz, who was watching this little interplay, said, “Don’t worry, Kate. He’ll cut you down to his size.” Hepburn was entranced from the beginning and more than a little starstruck. Tracy’s initial impression was that Hepburn had dirty fingernails.
It may not have been love at first sight on both sides, but the Hepburn-Tracy screen chemistry was electric. They made nine movies together.
The documentary came out at the time nostalgia for Old Hollywood was picking up steam. There were still plenty of stars who were able and willing to talk about the studio era, and they’ve got nothing but praise and respect for Tracy. Among those who appear are Joanne Woodward, Angela Lansbury, Robert Wagner, Stanley Kramer, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, and Burt Reynolds.
But this is no puff piece. The main descriptor these actors have for Tracy is “strength.” Tracy wasn’t a method actor per se. He always kept his characters deep down inside of him, ready to be brought out at a moment’s notice. His costars remember Tracy giving them acting tips: Be on time. Plant your feet. Know your lines. Mean what you say. Don’t let them catch you. Having Spencer Tracy on a set raised the bar for everyone.
Tracy wasn’t just a mentor–he had good rapports with his fellow actors. My favorite story came from Elizabeth Taylor, Tracy’s costar from Father of the Bride and Father’s Little Dividend. Tracy and Taylor called each other “Pops” and “Kitten” in the films, respectively, and the nicknames stuck. Taylor remembered getting telegrams from Tracy after that, beginning “To Kitten.” and ending, “Love, Pops.” Somehow, Tracy always knew when Taylor needed to hear from him, and they maintained a sweet friendship until Tracy’s death.
The other big thing Tracy’s costars remember about him is his underlying vulnerability. In the 1953 film, The Actress, there’s a scene when Tracy is on the bottom level of a human pyramid. He’s got the weight of all the other guys on top of him. He’s struggling. His muscles are shaking. His jaw is set. And then…his pants fall down. Tracy gets an “Oh, whoops,” look on his face, but he doesn’t waver. In fact, he glances up and smiles at the other men while continuing to support the pyramid. Joanne Woodward said, “For a moment, you could almost weep for him, because of the tragedy. It was so in the moment.”
Tracy’s vulnerability showed in other ways, too. Lee Marvin recalled the first day he worked with Tracy in 1955’s Bad Day at Black Rock: “I was paralyzed. I didn’t think he was that good, but he was. I said, ‘Oh boy, Lee. You’re in trouble.’ He had such a presence, and an unmoving, when he could use it, an unmoving concentration that was just overwhelming.”
The film dealt with a town that had a dark secret, and did all it could to nudge Tracy’s one-armed character, John, out, especially when they learn he’s come to talk to a Japanese farmer who lives there. Marvin remembered that Tracy had to create fear in himself so that he could properly play a character that was constantly on the defensive. “He put himself in such bad positions that all of us wanted to move on him.” There’s a scene in the film when Marvin’s character, Hector, confronts John in John’s hotel room, and John is clad only in a bathrobe. Marvin later said, “I really wanted to hurt him.”
No one witnessed Tracy’s frailty more than Katharine Hepburn. She saw that he couldn’t sleep at night, and the effects of his drinking. Hepburn sensed the guilt Tracy felt for not living up to his Catholic upbringing. Finally, she saw his life wind down. In the last scenes of Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, the knowledge that Tracy’s health was failing seemed to show on Hepburn’s face, as she knew this would be his swan song. She remembered the night Tracy died, and how he had insomnia as usual. Hepburn tried to bore him to sleep, but it was no use. He got up to make a cup of coffee in the early morning and died of a heart attack in the kitchen, where Hepburn later found him.
Hepburn lamented that Tracy had to battle such demons, and closes the documentary with a letter that she wrote to Tracy years after his death. “Are you happy, finally? Is it a nice, long rest you’re having? Are you making up for all your tossing and turning in life?” She also regretted that she, the closest person to Tracy, was never able to completely figure him out.
I’ve read several sources over the years that cast doubt as to whether or not Hepburn and Tracy ever loved each other, and that their twenty-six year companionship was a sham, but I’ve never believed any of them. Sure, Tracy was a hard guy to pin down, and he kept so much within himself, but even the most gifted actors can’t hide something as strong as what these two had.
For more Spence and Kate, please see Crystal at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Thanks, Crystal, for hosting–I’m sure Hepburn and Tracy would enjoy your tribute if they could see it. Kudos!
Day after tomorrow, we’re gonna close out this giant week on Taking Up Room with another blogathon:
Thanks for reading, and see you on Friday!
This film is available on Amazon.