Like Fredric March, Tracy could slip into nearly any role with ease. His unconventional looks and stocky build helped make this easier, but it was his natural instincts and ability to convey both toughness and tenderness that made him such as potent actor.
Perhaps it was his own demons, either fueled or tempered by drink (or both), that added to his ability to understand the men he played. Regardless, he was a wonder, and during the 1930s he displayed that amazing range for which he was famous.
In the 1920s, Tracy graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. But it took time for the young actor to work his way up the ranks of Broadway, often finding any job possible to supplement his work. His big break came when he landed the lead in a prison drama called “The Last Mile.” Famed director John Ford was so impressed that he cast Tracy in his first full-length film “Up the River.”
Tracy worked tirelessly in films during the first half of the decade. If he didn’t have a true classic during this time, it was clear he was comfortable in front of the camera. He was best playing a tough guy, such as in “20,000 Years in Sing Sing” opposite Bette Davis as a con who believes his friends will free him from prison. Yet in the Depression-era romance “A Man’s Castle,” he talks tough but clearly has a soft spot for Loretta Young, even if he can’t bring himself to show it to her. His ability to seamlessly go from tough to vulnerable in one scene was already fully developed at this point, and his work here is beautiful to watch.
Once MGM signed Tracy in 1935, his career really took off. In the superb “Fury,” Tracy’s embittered and angry Joe Wilson vows vengeance on the lynch mob that tried to kill him. The intensity of his characterization is frightening because Tracy is willing to push himself to the edge, effectively showing how a man can change due to circumstances beyond his control and the decisions he makes.
As a change of pace, he joined Myrna Loy, Jean Harlow and William Powell in the comedy “Libeled Lady,” playing a newspaper editor who keeps delaying his marriage to Harlow due to a story. That famous Tracy gruffness gets laughs here, showing how easily Tracy could shift between drama and comedy.
Tracy displays a human touch mixed with his formidable toughness in the melodrama “San Francisco,” with Clark Gable and Jeanette MacDonald. Gable may be the lead, but Tracy, as Father Mullin, is most impressive. If the plot involving the two men – childhood chums who are now on opposite sides of the moral fence – is a bit creaky, the acting is anything but. Tracy earned his first Oscar nod for his performance here.
Crawford apparently ate her words and co-starred with Tracy in “Mannequin,” a routine soap opera that was her first box office success in a while, thanks to Tracy.
In “Boys Town” (below), Tracy is Father Flanagan, the real-life priest who founded the title community. If the script slips into routine situations and characterizations (Mickey Rooney’s outsized performance is either deliciously over-the-top or wildly annoying, depending on your view), Tracy’s Flanagan provides a steady leader and strong moral center for the story. He won a second consecutive Oscar for his work and would return to the role a few years later for “Men of Boys Town.”
In between these came the popular “Test Pilot” opposite Clark Gable and wife Myrna Loy. Yet again Tracy steals the movie as pilot Gable’s pal and mechanic, as this was one of MGM’s top hits of 1938.
Tracy is a joy to watch in nearly everything he did. If there’s a recurring theme in several of my selections for my favorite actors of the 1930s, it’s the fact that some of the best actors were less interested in Hollywood glamour. Instead, their intense focus was the work. Tracy was always that way, and it’s clearly shows onscreen. That’s why he’s considered one of the best ever.