Spencer Tracy and Freddie Bartholomew in 1937's Captains Courageous,… (Cinemax, Cinemax )
There are plenty of usual suspects in the UCLA Film & Television Archive's expansive three-month Spencer Tracy film retrospective. Titled "That Natural Thing," the festival opens Saturday evening at the Billy Wilder Theater in Westwood with Tracy's 1960 drama, "Inherit the Wind," directed by Stanley Kramer, which brought the actor an Oscar nomination as an attorney based on Clarence Darrow.
Over the months, cinephiles can watch the two-time Oscar-winning actor in classic films made at MGM such as 1936's "San Francisco," which brought him his first Academy Award nomination; 1937's "Captains Courageous," which earned him his first Academy Award as a colorful Portuguese fisherman, and 1938's "Boys Town," for which he received his second Oscar as Father Flanagan, the founder of Boys Town.
There are also renown films he made with longtime companion and frequent costar Katharine Hepburn, such as 1949's "Adam's Rib" and his final film, 1967's "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner."
What sets the festival apart is the inclusion of several of the early films Tracy made at Fox before he went to MGM and superstardom in 1935.
"We saw the opportunity given the sufficient space to explore a period of a career that is too little known right now because the materials are so rare," said archive programmer Shannon Kelley.
These films provide fascinating insight into his development as an actor.
"We take for granted his gift and his craft," Kelley said. "But how did he come into being before he was making these works that were so cherished? There is the fun of asking yourself, 'Do I see a glimmer of it in these works where the scripts and the casting and so forth weren't what they would later become in those prestige pictures?' The answer is, 'Yes.' You can see it but in an unallied form."
Tracy scored a hit on Broadway in 1930 in the prison drama "The Last Mile." And it was during this time that he was scouted as film material. He made a short for Vitaphone in 1930 called "The Hard Guy," which screens Sunday evening. Though Warner Bros. didn't put him under contract, Fox did. Tracy and Humphrey Bogart made their film debuts in John Ford's 1930's "Up the River," also scheduled for Sunday, which is a comedy revolving around prison baseball.
But Tracy didn't always get the best directors or the greatest costars at Fox. Most of the roles were stereotypical for the time. In 1933's "Face in the Sky," screening Jan. 13, he plays a traveling sign-painter and in 1932's "She Wanted a Millionaire," directed by the now-forgotten John G. Blystone, he plays a regular Joe who falls for a woman who marries a millionaire. Screening Jan. 18 is 1934's "Now I'll Tell," in which the very Irish Tracy plays a Jewish gangster modeled after the infamous Arnold Rothstein.
There are two standouts among the early films that the archive is screening.
One is 1933's "Man's Castle," directed by the Oscar-winning Frank Borzage, in which he plays a rough-around-the-edges hobo who falls in love with and sets up house in a shanty town with a beautiful homeless woman (Loretta Young, with whom the married Tracy had an affair during the production). It screens Jan. 14, with a 1934 Hollywood comedy called "Bottoms Up."
The other, scheduled for Jan. 21, is 1933's "The Power and the Glory," featuring a script by Preston Sturges, which is considered a precursor to Orson Welles' 1941 masterpiece, "Citizen Kane."
"Looking at these early works, which are at times pulpy and at times so fanciful it seems absurd, Tracy infuses generic pulp-fictiony characters with something a little bit more vital and measured and a little bit more internalized," Kelley said. "It's interesting. It's not work you would think is worthy of a Tracy, but he's elevating it so much the film becomes memorable."