When it was announced in 1945 that Spencer Tracy was heading to the Broadway stage for the first time in fifteen years after great success as a film star in Hollywood, the news was greeted with tremendous excitement and anticipation for his return. What followed was not only disappointing for all concerned, but a story that could only be told many years after Tracy’s death, such were the powerful ways of publicists to reframe and fictionalize what really went on. Thanks to author James Curtis’s excellent research from his 2011 book Spencer Tracy: A Biography, among other sources, here are some glimpses behind the scenes of The Rugged Path that still tell a fascinating tale.
This following section from Curtis’s biography perfectly encapsulates one of the chief problems at the core of the production of Robert E. Sherwood’s The Rugged Path, which starred Spencer Tracy:
“Driven by an abhorrence of artifice and a natural terror of monotony, Tracy was constantly distilling the character to its essential elements, his stage effects coming wholly from within, all clean, sharp lines, lucid and completely free of the tricks ‘some people pull on stage.’ When a scene required him to emerge from the ocean after five days of being shipwrecked, he told [director Garson] Kanin he would not wear an appliance designed to simulate a growth of beard.”
‘It’ll look ridiculous,’ Kanin argued. ‘It’ll bother the audience.’
‘No, it won’t,’ countered Tracy.
‘Why won’t it?’
‘Because I’ll act unshaven.’”
That Tracy was demanding, arrogant and capable of pulling off such a stunt was well known. His naturalism was key to his depths as an actor and served him well as a major star of the Golden Age of Hollywood. By 1945, he was the only person to have won two Academy Awards as Best Actor (which he managed to do back-to-back in 1937 and 1938 for Captains Courageous and Boys Town). The envy of most actors in the film industry, his one-time co-star Hume Cronyn said of Tracy that “his method appeared to be as simple as it is difficult to achieve. He appeared to do nothing. He listened, he felt, he said the words without forcing anything.” Stanley Kramer, who directed him in four films, felt “he thought and listened better than anyone in the history of motion pictures.” And the great James Cagney, himself widely imitated, said of Tracy “you can’t mimic reserve and control very well… there’s nothing to imitate except his genius and that can’t be mimicked.”
Spencer Tracy (1945) in his return to Broadway after fifteen years in Hollywood.
Prior to his Hollywood success, Tracy was a total stage animal, trained in the theatre with years of regional performances under his belt before Broadway beckoned. His debut was A Royal Fandango in 1923, which starred Ethel Barrymore and featured another up and comer, Edward G. Robinson. But like his next four shows, Fandango folded quickly, leaving Tracy to scramble for other employment. It wasn’t until February of 1930, when he starred as Killer Mears in a prison drama called The Last Mile that Tracy got the recognition that made the motion picture industry take notice. He received a 2-week leave of absence from The Last Mile to star in Up the River, also a prison drama, shot in New York City, which featured another young Broadway actor, Humphrey Bogart. The two would remain lifelong friends until Bogart’s death in 1957.
Spencer Tracy (right) with Howard Phillips and Ralph Theodore
in “The Last Mile” (1930).