Commemorating Spencer Tracy’s Graduation Centennial
Updated: Sep 29
One of the most iconic actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Spencer Tracy was the first actor to win two consecutive Academy Awards for Best Actor and was nominated a total of nine times during his career. His effortlessness and charisma garnered love and praise and allowed him to appear in 75 films during a career that spanned over forty years. The American Film Institute named Tracy as the 9th greatest male star of Classic Hollywood Cinema. This year marks the 100th anniversary of his graduation from The Academy.
A Milwaukee native, his youth was fraught with poor classroom attendance and minimal focus during the times he was present. It was this behavior that led to his being placed into the care of an order of nuns to “transform his behavior” at the age of nine. He attended several Jesuit academies during adolescence before venturing to Marquette Academy. There, friend and fellow Academy alum Pat O’Brien would introduce the midwestern boy to acting. The two attended countless plays before, at the age of 18, enlisting in the Navy. This decision would ultimately allow him to attend Ripon College, where, despite his intention to major in medicine, Tracy would find his niche as an actor.
At Ripon, Tracy formed an acting company, the Campus Players, that allowed him to get his footing onstage. His abilities with rhetoric and oration led to his involvement in the college debate team. While on tour with the team, he auditioned for The American Academy of Dramatic Arts and received a scholarship to attend. There he would work and refine, as all our alumni have, his craft. Of his time at The Academy, Tracy would later comment on its impact made saying, “I shall always be grateful for The American Academy for what I was taught there - and the value of sincerity and simplicity, unembellished and unintellectualized.” In just three months following his graduation, he would make his Broadway debut in R.U.R. as a wordless robot. There truly are no small parts.
He would continue working in the theatre for several years, primarily with stock companies. The fledgling early days of his career saw him join another acting troupe in upstate New York. Like his Broadway debut, these were largely small parts led led to an inevitable departure from these companies. He joined another group in Cincinnati before landing a small part in the Broadway comedy A Royal Fandango in November of 1923. The show closed after poor reviews and only 25 performances. In 1926, Tracy would find his third Broadway role in Yellow. George M. Cohan, writer of Yellow, would tell Tracy, “You’re the best-goddamned actor I’ve ever seen!” This would begin a long collaboration between the two. Cohan would write parts specifically for Tracy for several years before landing a role that would alter the trajectory of his career forever.
In 1930 his performance in The Last Mile caught the attention of the growing Hollywood film industry. His screen debut would follow soon after in Up The River, starring alongside Humphrey Bogart. Tracy would sign a contract with The Fox Film Corporation, leading to five years of roles as a leading man. In spite of his chops, these films failed to amount to much financially, and after his contract with Fox was over, he joined Metro Goldwyn Mayer.
MGM being the most prestigious studio of Hollywood’s major studios at the time, this decision allowed Tracy’s career to blossom. It was with MGM that Tracy would receive his back-to-back Oscar wins starring for Captain Courageous (1937) and Boys Town (1938), respectively. Tracy would work with leading man Clark Gable for three box office hits, and in 1942 with Katharine Hepburn, the latter of which began a decade-spanning personal and professional relationship between the two. The two worked together on nine films over the course of two decades. Tracy received the Cannes Film Festival Award for Best Actor in 1955 for his work in Bad Day at Black Rock.
Tracy’s legacy lives on decades after his death. His name still echoes throughout theaters, cinemas, and acting classrooms across the country. He was known as an actor’s actor, and what is perhaps most powerful about his career is his resilience in the face of the immense hardship he faced for nearly a decade before being recognized. We honor him a century on.