Spencer Tracy & Stanley Kramer: Eye in the Storm

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This piece was prompted by the “Classic Symbiotic Collaborations” blogathon, graciously hosted by the marvelous CineMaven. For a complete list of other enlightening entries on your favorite star-director teams, please click here.

 

The “message” movie is hardly a recent concept. In 1932, Warner Bros. released I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, a ripped-from-the-headlines tale of the horrors of the Southern chain gang system, which saw men shackled together by the ankles to perform hard labor as punishment for crimes ranging in seriousness from theft to murder. The film, suspenseful and harrowing, is credited with stirring American audiences against the chain gangs, resulting in the vicious system’s reform and eventual dissolution.

The success of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, and others gritty films like it, convinced the major studios that socially relevant films could not only be artistically compelling, but also commercially viable. Filmmakers like Frank Capra and Elia Kazan built careers on material that pulled both entertainment and progressive ideals (however naive those ideals might sometimes have been) from uncomfortable topics. Democracy, antisemitism, racism and alcoholism, instead of pushing audiences away, drew them in, albeit to varying degrees of financial success. Films which grappled with the troubling topics of the day became not simply curious spectacles for audiences in search of lurid topics, but respected artistic achievements worthy of peer respect and Oscar nominations.

 

I Am A Fugitive from a Chain Gang

Paul Muni in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), Dir. Mervyn LeRoy

The American studio system of the ’20s through the ’60s brought the world many watershed achievements in film artistry, and nurtured (and sometimes killed) the careers of the now iconic actors and actresses who fill our film history books. The heads of MGM, Fox, Paramount, RKO and Warner could make or break their creative talent, possessing as they did a tight contractual control over the number and regularity of films an actor would make. The studios viewed their talent as financial assets, occasionally loaning them out to other studios for a price, as one would a rental car to a visiting tourist. Creative freedom for writers, directors, producers and actors was tightly controlled and scrutinized, not only by the studios themselves, but also by the Motion Picture Production Code which determined, often senselessly, what topics would be too immoral for digestion by the American public. By the time most films had been ground through the writing process, through limitations on production costs, and then through content excision by the Breen office, the finished product often came out looking something wholly unlike what was originally intended. In spite of this (and in some cases, one could argue, because of it) Hollywood continued to produce artists of incredible integrity and films which, despite the codified pattern required of them, continue to live on for interested modern audiences.

Libeled Lady

Spencer Tracy in the trailer for Libeled Lady (1936), Dir. Jack Conway

Spencer Tracy, who arrived in Hollywood in 1930 after making a splash as a death row prisoner on Broadway in a play called The Last Mile, experienced this studio system firsthand. Under contract to Fox from 1930-1935, and then MGM from 1935-1955, Tracy had risen to a level of stardom that contradicted his own personal insecurities regarding the films he was given and his average, non-matinee-idol looks. At MGM he experienced some of his greatest career successes, including San Francisco (1936), Boys Town (1938), and Father of the Bride (1950). At MGM he also met Katharine Hepburn, with whom he would make several timeless and beloved films, including Woman of the Year (1942) and Adam’s Rib (1949). They would share an unsuccessfully secret personal partnership which would last until his death in 1967.

By 1955, at which time Spencer Tracy had abandoned MGM following a career which at many points looked like it might be cut short by his alcoholism or crippling personal anxieties, the studio system as it had stood was crumbling. A federal antitrust case in 1948 had disrupted the business model of the major studios, who up until that time had sold package-deals of films (which varied in quality from excellent to cheaply made and mediocre) to theater chains in a system called “block booking.” Tracy himself had starred in several of these minor “programmers,” or B-films, in between shooting what would become his most respected roles. Unfortunately for the major studios, these minor film efforts and the block booking system had contributed immensely to financial security, and with that security gone, a new system would have to be adopted. By the 1950s, studios which had previously controlled every element of their film-making, from the actors to the theaters which showed the films, were quickly selling their assets to adapt to an entirely new business model. Everyone was suddenly going freelance.

Stanley Kramer

Stanley Kramer, circa 1955

Stanley Kramer, who throughout the early ’50s had produced a series of films which would prove financial losses for Columbia, found less personal success under the studio system than had Spencer Tracy. Kramer, who had independently produced successful films such as Champion (1949), The Men (1950) and High Noon (1952) before accepting infamous Columbia head Harry Cohn’s offer of a five year producing contract, found himself the name behind one failed picture after another. Kramer’s goal had always been to produce films with social content, a task he found to be more simple and satisfying when producing independently. By the time his contract with Columbia had ended in 1953, Kramer had experienced enough of Cohn’s heartless and confusing influence over his creative ventures to last a lifetime (as Kramer states in his autobiography, “Every day that I didn’t see [Cohn] was a good day…”). As a final kiss-off to Columbia, Kramer had managed to produce a resounding success in The Caine Mutiny, which made financial amends for each of his previous losses. In spite of this success, it is also the film for which Kramer, at least at one point, felt that he had most sacrificed his personal vision.

After Tracy’s break with MGM in 1955 and Kramer’s break with Columbia in 1953, each man had a sense that they had gained an opportunity to create only the kind of films they wanted to make. Being independent and free from the control (but also the protection) of the powerful studios likely meant different things for each of them. James Curtis’s extensive biography of Spencer Tracy reveals a man who, in spite of his occasional belittling of his own profession, desired to make a difference with the parts that he played. He was a man frequently embarrassed by his own fame, whose undoubted ego and self-awareness of his own incredible talent was tempered greatly by a pervasive guilt and also a secret and continuous generosity.

Inherit the Wind

Spencer Tracy and Fredric March in Inherit the Wind (1960), Dir. Stanley Kramer

The surge of fame Tracy received after his success playing the real-life Father Edward J. Flanagan in Boys Town never sat well with him, his concern and hope being that his role in the somewhat schmaltzy movie would be to the overall benefit of the real orphans of Boys Town. Tracy was unimpressed by most accolades, including Oscars, and as Curtis’s biography frequently notes, Tracy himself was not his own best judge of his work. Tracy’s personal notations on his films in his private datebook, and his criticism of his performances within those films, often contradicted the eventual critical success he received. While Tracy, like many actors, could occasionally be accused of false modesty (he was noted for pulling aside and sternly admonishing actors who were, foolishly and hopelessly, trying to under-play him), there was an unrelenting self-doubt which drove Tracy to continually create fine and deeply nuanced work. When asked about his craft by reporters, Tracy would produce an annoyed and curt answer which usually amounted to I learn my lines (a response Tracy’s contemporary Robert Mitchum would also often employ to withering effect). This coy deprecation of acting continued in spite of the fact that by the time he had left MGM, Tracy had been living as a perpetual insomniac, enduring years of sleeplessness as he stayed up in the dark hours of the morning, coffee at his side, perfecting his characters. When he arrived on set, only the foolish could be forgiven for believing that everything that came out of Spencer was natural, as if he had done no preparation at all.

Kramer’s desire to make meaningful, progressive films was born out of a childhood in impoverished Hell’s Kitchen, where he later recalled that as a young and disenfranchised Jew, he would make “strategic alliances” with black and Hispanic boys in his neighborhood as a shelter against the poverty and prejudice which had made them social pariahs. By the 1930s, he was a faithful supporter of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose progressive and unprecedented social policies impressed the young Kramer with a sense of justice and political awareness. He would remain a dedicated “Roosevelt liberal” for the remainder of his life, incorporating his hopes for (and critiques of) American life into nearly every project he undertook.

Inherit the Wind

Inherit the Wind (1960), Dir. Stanley Kramer

Stanley Kramer recounts Spencer Tracy’s suspicion of Kramer’s brand of “message” film-making in his autobiography. After happily leaving Columbia, Kramer had decided that he would now be producing and directing his own films, meaning that while creative control would be in his hands more than ever, he would also be gambling with his own finances. Kramer, like most, had an immense respect for Tracy’s career and was courting him for the role of Henry Drummond, a fictionalized version of agnostic lawyer Clarence Darrow, in Inherit the Wind. A fanciful and somewhat ahistoric take on the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, Inherit the Wind was to be based on the successful stageplay which utilized the “evolution-on-trial” scandal to examine the broader issue of freedom of speech in America, and the degradation of that freedom encouraged by the highly un-American McCarthy trials. Kramer was concerned about what he perceived to be Tracy’s conservatism and reserve (although Tracy himself had also been an unflinching supporter of Roosevelt). To allay fears over their potential partnership, Stanley Kramer and Spencer Tracy went to dinner. Kramer recounts Tracy asking him harshly “Just how self-important and self-indulgent are you?” But Kramer, still the little boy slugging it out in Hell’s Kitchen, defended himself (one gets this impression that this was not a common occurrence around Tracy), asking Tracy “Are you suspicious of every progressive idea you hear?”

Inherit the Wind

Inherit the Wind (1960), Dir. Stanley Kramer

With that bit of spunk, Tracy must have somehow known that he was in safe hands. Although he had worked with many of the great directors (including John Ford, Vincent Minnelli, and Frank Borzage), Tracy was known to find many directorial quirks an impediment to his own particular working style. In spite of his personal demons, Tracy would show up fully prepared to set, and as such had difficulty abiding by those who would require multiple takes, rehearsal, or emotional dissection of a scene (his longtime love Katharine Hepburn was in many ways his opposite in this regard – she loved to rehearse). By 1960, when shooting for Inherit the Wind began, Tracy was nearly 60 and, due to years of alcoholism, unhealthy eating, hypochondria and personal stress, was less energetic than a man his age should have been. Perhaps there was a sense of resignation in Tracy’s deferral to Kramer’s progressive idealism, but one gets the sense that a profound and very real level of respect developed between the two, in a way which neither had experienced before. Kramer, who had idolized Tracy for many years, provided him with the care and empathy that made doing his best work possible. And Tracy, who had for years bellyached about the quality of material he had been forced into (and frequently tried to back out of) at Fox and MGM, was finally delivering the kind of words he had always wanted to, unobstructed by artistic interference from a studio head or pesky producer.

Inherit the Wind pits Tracy against another Hollywood heavyweight, Fredric March, playing the bombastic and buffoonish Matthew Harrison Brady (a version of the Scopes Trial’s anti-evolutionist crusader William Jennings Bryan). March’s Brady is an unmistakably caricatured foil to Tracy’s calm and heroic Darrow. Nuanced details of the actual trial are overlooked in favor of the portrait of a town in the grips of illogical religious fervor. In the film, the town, and soon the country, is in an uproar over the attempt of a local schoolteacher to teach the basics of Darwin’s theory of evolution to his students, only to be taken to trial for disobeying the state law which decrees that no one can teach in a classroom man’s evolution from apes. But it’s not really evolution which is on trial in Inherit the Wind. It is free speech itself – the ability for anyone to think and communicate exactly what it is they believe without impediment or punishment. Making the case for free speech is a lofty goal for any filmmaker, but it is exactly the type of material with which Kramer felt it necessary to grapple. He felt not only that his films would be important, but that they would also appeal to an audience’s desire for entertainment and become financially viable products. For a filmmaker to be sustainable, after all, they must continue to make a profit on their investment.

Inherit the Wind

Inherit the Wind (1960), Dir. Stanley Kramer

There is something in Kramer’s desire to make his audience sympathize with, and understand, a social point which invites deeper scrutiny than might otherwise be afforded to a less openly progressive director. Awareness of Kramer’s ideals encourages the audience to ask not only if the film was an artistic success or if it sufficiently entertained, but also if it was able to convince the viewer of its point, or change their minds. There is danger in this, not only for the audience who may, to unforeseen outcomes, take the message of the film to heart, but also for the director himself, whose career is on the line with each boundary-pushing message. The burden of the progressive is that they must be certain that the worldview they are vouching for is the right one, and then they must find a way to communicate that worldview such that the desired change actually occurs. As in the case of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, these kinds of societal shifts are often good and humane, but they are also sometimes unexpected and unplanned.

Stanley Kramer, perhaps more than any other director, has been singled out in his overt desire to promote a “message” in his films. This singling out, however, has not always been in the pursuit of unabashed praise. Kramer is in contemporary criticism either a heroic game-changer, or an artless and nuance-less purveyor of commercialized controversy. Neither perspective fully encompasses the scope of Kramer’s hopes and weaknesses. The topics he selected for filming are endlessly relevant. At any point (in the last few weeks alone) you could point out still-current instances of religious tension, suppression of free speech, miscarriages of justice, and rampant racism. When Kramer was offering these issues to audiences in the ’60s, there was real risk of rejection, criticism, and as happened to each of Kramer’s films, boycotting. There was a bravery in his approach that is almost undeniable and, regardless of the artistic success of each individual film, admirable. Kramer saw financial success on only a handful of his films and, unless one assumes he was a glutton for punishment or was playing a martyr for future benefit, there is a sense that he stayed true to his goal of improving discourse and shedding light on topics which most families would rather avoid at the dinner table.

Inherit the Wind

Inherit the Wind (1960), Dir. Stanley Kramer

In Inherit the Wind, Tracy must prove that he is logical enough to rise above the beastly behavior of those people who would, rather ironically, refuse to believe they are descended from beasts. The combined power of Tracy’s portrayal of Drummond, as well as the near-satirical portrayal of the bigoted and ignorant townspeople, tells us in advance that this burden of proof won’t be a difficult one for the hero to shake. Kramer’s hand guides, perhaps too firmly, the audience into the awareness that nearly the entire town and Brady are awash in stupidity and fatal hubris. Fredric March abandons most traces of nuance in his suspender-snapping role as the all-too-confident Brady, a portrayal which might have offered even greater rewards had it been lowered to a simmer. When Brady goes up against Tracy’s humane and freethinking Drummond, there is never a moment’s doubt as to who is the better man.

There are several too-obvious moments in Inherit the Wind, including an outdoor meeting of the viciously religious townsfolk which wouldn’t look out of place as the pitchfork-and-torches scene in a Frankenstein movie. But there are lovely and thought-provoking moments as well, particularly when Kramer gives the material and the characters a chance to breathe. The most beautiful scene of the film occurs as Brady sits down with Drummond on the porch of their hotel, rocking on rocking chairs in the sweltering evening heat. Having already browbeat each other through several days of the trial, Tracy’s Drummond muses to his old friend Brady that it’s “funny how two people can start from the same point and drift apart.” Then Drummond, barely even opening his eyes as he rocks away, tells the story of “Golden Dancer,” a rocking horse he desperately wanted as a child which he, after finally receiving it from his hard-working parents, discovered was made of cheap materials that immediately disintegrated.  It is a quiet, thoughtful moment in an otherwise loud film, where Tracy can display the natural and quietly resonant acting for which he is known.

Inherit the Wind

Spencer Tracy and Fredric March in Inherit the Wind (1960), Dir. Stanley Kramer

Even in the trial scenes, Tracy’s volume only rises when necessary, ensuring maximum impact from what could be rather showy dialogue. Tracy portrays his anger without grandstanding. His is a terrifying and intellectual anger, lacking in ego but completely certain of its rightness. In one scene Drummond, questioning a student on the stand, asks somewhat sarcastically if learning of the theory of evolution had hurt the boy in any way. “Did it affect your pitching arm?” he asks, patting the boy’s shoulder with the kind of sweet and yet cutting point-making which Tracy could pull from the smallest moments with his tone alone. For Tracy’s character, the truth of evolution is incontrovertible. It’s the American question of freedom – did it affect your pitching arm? – which matters. In a courtroom filled with ideology and yelling, it is Tracy’s carefully listening Drummond who anchors the material – the quiet eye in the center of the storm.

Inherit the Wind proved to be a successful partnership for Tracy and Kramer. Not only did it afford them financial and critical success, but it also created the precedent for what was to be a fruitful working relationship which filled the remainder of Spencer Tracy’s career. In 1961, they united to make the cinematic version of writer Abby Mann’s successful Playhouse 90 teleplay Judgment at Nuremberg. Again Kramer was approaching lofty and difficult topics, in this case the 1948 tribunal to prosecute Nazi judges who had sent innocent victims to their suffering or deaths under the requirements of the Nuremberg Laws. Tracy plays Judge Dan Haywood, one of three tribunal members who must hear disturbing testimony and decide the fates of of the four German judges on trial. Filming was a happy event for Tracy. He told a reporter from the Saturday Evening Post that Judgment at Nuremberg was “…the best script I’ve ever read,” which was high praise from a man unaccustomed to handing out accolades, even in the name of good press.

Judgment at Nuremberg

Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), Dir. Stanley Kramer

Tracy’s Judge Dan Haywood, much like Inherit the Wind‘s Drummond, is the moral calm and sensibility at the core of what is a horrifying and insensible reality. The prosecutor, played by Richard Widmark, is a troubled and justice-seeking military man who witnessed first-hand the worst sights imaginable at the liberation of Nazi Germany’s concentration camps. Maximilian Schell’s defense attorney is a man possessing immense (if unsympathetic) logic who desires to allay the guilt of his defendants by spreading that guilt around and utilizing the classic Nazi defense for atrocities – following orders. Supplementing the cast are witnesses played by Montgomery Clift and Judy Garland, and a suffering widow of an executed Nazi officer played by Marlene Dietrich.

Stanley Kramer’s handling of extremely difficult material in Judgment at Nuremberg is competent, but some of the “heavy-handedness” with which he’s been accused can’t help but show itself over the course of the three-hour film. Kramer’s tendency toward unusual casting is apparent, with Burt Lancaster appearing as the most prominent of the four German judges on trial. Clift, and particularly Garland, pull off their painful testimony scenes, but there is also a degree to which their unexpected star presence feels intended as a curiosity draw for audiences who might be otherwise disinterested in the material.

Judgment at Nuremberg

Marlene Dietrich and Spencer Tracy in Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), Dir. Stanley Kramer

Kramer repeatedly tracks his camera in a wide, slow-moving semi-circle around those on the witness stand, first showing us their face and then tracking around to give us their view of the courtroom. After using this same shot more than several times, it begins to feel as if Kramer lacks confidence in the ability of the words and performances to shape his message. There is a sense of false profundity being layered on top of a topic which doesn’t require it. In material that is already somewhat lacking in subtlety, Kramer’s flourishes weigh down the proceedings. In one scene, Tracy’s Judge Haywood meets Dietrich’s Frau Bertholt at a restaurant. She begs him to believe that she and other Germans had no awareness of the horrors which were occurring right in their own backyards, and Tracy, incredulously staring at her while a German drinking song plays in the background, begins to hear the sound of rhythmically marching jackboots. We already know that the sound is actually coming from the clapping and stomping of bar patrons, and the viewer can tell, simply by looking at Tracy’s face, that he hears the militaristic sounds as a revolting representation of her unbelievable excuses. It’s a profound and telling moment, but instead of trusting the audience understand this auditory hallucination in their own way, Kramer provides an additional shot of the bar patrons clanging their beer-steins. Instead of pulling the audience through the material and making them wonder and think for themselves, Kramer places a hand on the audience’s backs and pushes them through the story.

This crutch-like tendency of Kramer’s is particularly evident in Tracy’s final scene, where he must deliver the tribunal’s verdict. Tracy characteristically underplays the scene, allowing it to flow naturally from his own character’s judicious and tempered feelings. Just before he states a key line of dialogue, the camera crash-zooms into a close-up on Tracy’s face. A simpler and less groan-worthy interjection would have been achieved if Kramer had intercut the scene with a title-card: PAY ATTENTION, THIS IS IMPORTANT.

Judgment at Nuremberg

Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), Dir. Stanley Kramer

In many ways, Tracy’s performances in Kramer’s films bring much-needed refinement to what is a very bold and unrelenting approach to storytelling. Kramer’s choices as a producer and director interested in social justice are in some ways very much of their times, reflecting an approach that would likely be rejected if attempted today. In the 1960s, while Kramer was courting controversy, he had very real reason to fear rejection. There also must have been a thrill in confronting people’s long-held ideals in a way which hadn’t been possible during the studio era, when Kramer was stuck under the unsophisticated thumb of Harry Cohn. Kramer’s films seem to come from a man longing and desperate to be heard and understood, and as such, sometimes they are loud and desperate. And amidst that desperation is Spencer Tracy, a man so ordinary in appearance and shadowed in unsentimental naturalism that even his co-stars sometimes didn’t realize what he was achieving until they saw his performance on a big screen.

By 1960, Stanley Kramer had exhausted himself of serious topics, and decided to make a comedy. By this time he had also decided that any film he would make in the future would have room for his friend Spencer Tracy, and so when it came time to film It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Spencer Tracy was there, soaking in what undoubtedly was a once-on-a-lifetime gathering of legendary comedic talent. Spencer Tracy was in ill-health by this time, and deteriorating quickly. Kramer made many thoughtful concessions to his ailing star, who although not up to the task of performing his own slapstick stunts, was happy just to be near the madcap action. The film, not wholly successful as a riotous comedy, and unsure of what exactly to do with its immense talent, is an insane and colorful detour for the man who had only recently put Nazis on trial. After Mad World, Kramer produced and directed Ship of Fools (without Tracy) to tepid response.

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), Dir. Stanley Kramer

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), Dir. Stanley Kramer

By 1965, Spencer Tracy had lapsed into a coma as a result kidney failure precipitated by prostate surgery. His survival and recovery from that incident was miraculous for a man already so troubled by his poor health, and when Kramer approached Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy to be in his next film, they all knew it would likely be Tracy’s last. In many ways, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner has proven to be the most enduring of the four films Kramer and Tracy made together. It is significantly shorter than their other films, and was easily the most topical and edgy of any of the stories they had told together. In 1967, when the film was released, interracial marriage was still illegal in more than a dozen States. By 1968, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. would be assassinated on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel, the victim of a country so violently divided on the issue of race that most films of the time avoided the topic altogether.

Sidney Poitier recounts in his autobiography “The Measure of a Man” that Stanley Kramer “…knew that the country wasn’t ready for this one, but his attitude was – well, we’re going to do it anyway.” The subject matter of the film – Poitier’s character’s impending marriage to the white daughter of liberal parents – was so controversial that Kramer colluded to keep the details from Columbia until absolutely necessary. As predicted, they were terrified that audiences would reject the notion, and tried their best to sidetrack production, including keeping Kramer from hiring his desired star Tracy, who they said was uninsurable due to his precarious health. Such was the commitment of the three to the project that Hepburn and Kramer agreed that they would forego payment until the completion of the film as insurance against Tracy’s failing heart. They were sure that Tracy had one last great performance in him.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

Sidney Poitier and Spencer Tracy in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), Dir. Stanley Kramer

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner functions more clearly as a fable than it does a deep or particularly insightful dive into the complications of race relations in America. The characters are stripped of almost all nuance in the service of creating a morality tale. Poitier, who at that time was experiencing backlash from some in the black community for portraying idealized characters and catering to a white fantasy of what black men should be, portrayed Dr. John Wayde Prentice, the fiance of Katharine Houghton’s Joanna Drayton. Dr. Prentice is, indeed, a too-good-to-be-true match for the white daughter of on-paper liberal parents. Kramer and screenwriter William Rose purposely stripped Poitier’s character of any offending traits, so that when it comes time for him to face the acceptance or rejection of Joanna’s parents Matt (Tracy) and Christina (Hepburn), his color is the only trait at play. A plot contrivance, in which Poitier’s Prentice insists privately to Joanna’s parents that he won’t marry her without their full and unabashed blessing, puts the power over their relationship into the hands of white characters. Tracy’s Matt, unexpectedly prejudiced after a lifetime of clearly stated liberal ideals, is the final obstacle in the film’s approval of the mixed-race relationship.

In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Tracy’s Matt has a portrait of Franklin Roosevelt prominently displayed on his office desk. In a film which takes place in essentially two rooms and a balcony, the portrait is shown several times, as if to remind the audience that Matt is not living up to the progressive ideals of his idol. The idol is not only Matt’s, it is Stanley Kramer’s – the boy from a poor neighborhood who thought the world should, and could, be a better place. Kramer too, like Roosevelt, has been accused of being an idealist. If we look to his films, this seems to be true. But is his idealism an impeachable offense? Unfortunately for Kramer’s films, idealism in art can only thrive and remain socially relevant for as long as that ideal is still out of reach. At some point, if change happens, the ideal grows stale. We move on and, hopefully, become better. There is some irony in Kramer’s elevation of Roosevelt as the high-point of democratic justice, and in ways which perhaps Kramer hadn’t intended, Roosevelt’s presence in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is prescient. Roosevelt, a man of admirable actions and unprecedented change for America, was himself slow to move on issues of racial equality (his wife, Eleanor, would often push him to go further on these subjects, only to find herself disappointed at his reticence). In Kramer’s tale, Matt is failing to live up to the nobility of progress and acceptance. But in reality, Matt is merely reflecting the tough reality of progress, which means sometimes coming up against, and withering in the face of, discomfort and change.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), Dir. Stanley Kramer

Everything is just a little bit too simple in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which is perhaps one of the reasons the film found immense success (even in the South), where Columbia had once predicted disaster. Poitier gives a potent performance which is alive and crackling even under the too-perfect human he was given to play. Hepburn and Beah Richards give touching performances, even as one-note mothers who just want their children to be happy in the face of uncertainty. But the story’s power rests in the hands of Tracy, who must convincingly portray a self-proclaimed liberal uncomfortable with the fact that his daughter is marrying a black man. It is to Tracy’s credit that the role is handled with the deftness that it is, especially when one considers the incredible lack of energy he felt during filming. The Tracy touchstones – impish good humor, his responsiveness to his fellow actors, the words rolling from his mouth as if they had never been on a page – are there. His final speech of approval is touching even in its problematic nature. It is idealistic and, in many ways, fails to address the troublesome occurrence of Matt’s racism for the previous hour and a half. And yet, as the two families sit down to dinner together, one cannot help but long for a world where such a situation is both common and embraced. Kramer can’t and doesn’t say it all, but his films do encourage us to reach further and think deeper.

Two weeks after completing the filming of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Spencer Tracy suffered a heart attack in the home he shared with Katharine Hepburn, and died. Two days after his death, the U.S. Supreme Court declared a verdict in the case of Loving v. Virginia, moving the United States one step closer to the diverse dinner table that touchingly ends Kramer’s film. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner has been accused of naivety, and through modern eyes it is undoubtedly not a film capable of attacking the complications of today’s problems. America still has such a long way to go. But maybe Stanley Kramer, who died in 2001, wouldn’t mind that his films might have less social utility today than they once did. And maybe the moniker of “heavy-handed” wouldn’t be the snide criticism to him that it is to us. Throughout his autobiography he asserts that his message pictures, for all the criticism they wrought, were simply what he had to do during the time he lived. And there is no question that the friendship he formed with Spencer Tracy made it all worthwhile. Kramer says:

What did I want? One thing I wanted was to be recognized as someone who knew how to use film as a real weapon against discrimination, hatred, prejudice, and excessive power. But there must have been more. My friend Spencer Tracy understood that.

One day he asked me, “What do you want?”

I thought for a while, then admitted I had never asked myself.

“Thank God!” he bellowed. Grabbing and hugging me, he said, “That’s why you’re so special.”

Inherit the Wind

Inherit the Wind (1960), Dir. Stanley Kramer

 

I enjoyed reading some fabulous resources for this piece, and without them I would have had no idea what the hell I was talking about. Recommended for further reading (and used for this essay) are the following: 

Curtis, James. Spencer Tracy: A Biography. New York: Knopf, 2011. Print.

Kramer, Stanley, and Thomas M. Coffey. A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World: A Life in Hollywood. New              York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1997. Print.

Poitier, Sidney. The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography. San Francisco: HarperCollins,                 2000. Print.

Follow this link for a lovely clip of Stanley Kramer discussing his friend Spencer Tracy.

Also tangentially recommended is the Ken Burns docu-series “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History.” Because no men, including the great ones, are as simple as they might seem. 

13 thoughts on “Spencer Tracy & Stanley Kramer: Eye in the Storm

  1. Excellent piece – your thoughtful comments on all the films are fascinating. I’ve only seen Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner out of these, but must see the others too. I couldn’t quite get my head around the contradictions in Tracy’s character in that one, and also must agree that Poitier’s character is too perfect and not individual enough. But I still thought it has a lot going for it, and there are some good scenes with Tracy and Hepburn together for the last time.

    Reply
    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Judy! You will probably find things to enjoy in the other three films as well, but as you say re: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, there are character contradictions (and one-note characterizations) in Kramer’s other films which can really bog down the proceedings. My evaluation changes a little bit every time I watch, but my basic assessment is that they’re a mixed bag. If you take a look any of the films, feel free to come back and give me your analysis 🙂

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  2. Tracy and Kramer are among my favorites so I was really looking forward to this post. You didn’t disappoint! “Tracy’s performances in Kramer’s films bring much-needed refinement to what is a very bold and unrelenting approach to storytelling.” – love that line!! Have little else to add except that I really enjoyed reading this. LOVE all the films and performances!

    Aurora
    Once Upon a Screen

    Reply
  3. Wow! Incredible analysis of the Tracy-Kramer collaborations. Thank you so much for sharing all this research with us. I think your post has given me a greater appreciation for Stanley Kramer and his films. 🙂

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  4. Getting a message across, a message you feel is truly important, is not an easy thing. I waver between admiration for Kramer and derision for that lack of nuance mentioned, depending on my frame of mind at the time one of his films airs. “Inherit the Wind” continually interests me. If I come across it on television, I am lost. “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” I consider a comedy of manners and, in that context, it works extremely well; rather like “The Philadelphia Story”. Ultimately, I find it impossible to dislike Kramer because he tried and he was true to himself.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Patricia! I am of completely the same mind. I personally think Inherit the Wind holds up the best of the four films they made together, and I still do find Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner moving and entertaining in spite of its flaws. I was surprised at how much certain directorial choices in Judgment at Nuremberg irked me, not having seen it until preparing for this post.

      I think, as you say, that Kramer’s intentions were pure. If anything, the flaws show just how hard it is to make a point without alienating an audience.

      Reply
  5. Thank you Sarah. Tracy was one of the most natural actors coming out of the classic era. I can’t wait to read your contribution. I appreciate the time you took to write and share this.

    Reply

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