Spencer Tracy Speaks His Mind (1935) 🇺🇸
Draw up your chair and listen to some inside stuff.
by Gladys Hall
“Me,” said Spencer Tracy, “I pay for what I get. I also get what I pay for. Every sorrow in my life has had its corresponding joy. Every loss has had its profit. My life, like everybody else’s, I guess, is a matter of debit and credit. The scales weigh pretty even if you have the patience to balance them.
“I can’t discuss any vital matter,” Spence said, that shy and honest grin of his making a ruggedly plain face not plain at all, “I can’t talk about anything concerning myself without bringing my ten-year-old son, Johnny, into it. That’s because Johnny is the vital thing in my life, you know. It’s his tenth birthday today, by the way. He’s having twenty-one kids in for a party. I’m the twenty-oneth!
“Well, Johnny, as you know, doesn’t hear. He had infantile paralysis when he was too little a shaver to have met up with suffering at all. He has caused me the nearest thing to heartbreak I ever want to know. On the other hand he has given me profound happiness, the emotion of a deeper tenderness than I could ever have known without him, a humble understanding of what courage can be in a little kid, a thrilling hope for what we may build together out of his disasters. Pretty heavy on the credit side, huh?
“My own mistakes — romance I should have foregone — the ‘bad boy’ I’ve played on occasion — the remorse of these derelictions, however beautiful, have been balanced by a deeper understanding with my wife, a stronger love of home and home things than I could have had in any other way. Sure sorrow and shame have their credit side. Their faces, when reversed, are sort of divine.
“Which brings me to Hollywood— the debit and credit sheets of Hollywood. Well,” said Spencer, leaning across our table for two in the M-G-M commissary while that sun-tanned, blue-eyed rough-hewn face of his blazed with an honesty as real as flame, “well, I’m kinda nuts on the subject of Hollywood on the scales. I’ve said that most of life is a matter of debit and credit. So is Hollywood but with the credit side so outweighing the debit that a man would be a son of a sea cook to do much complaining.
“And I’m not in the soft-soap business, either. I can wave a red flag with the best of them if there’s anything to wave about. But I’d like to know where else in the world people could make what we make here. Nowhere! I get so damned sick and tired of hearing beefs about producers, about parts that have to be played, about staying on sets until after sundown, about ‘injustices’! Injustice hell! When a producer is paying a man some hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year — which is just one hundred and forty-nine thousand and nine hundred more than that same man would be likely to get for any other job — why shouldn’t the producer be entitled to ask the actor to postpone his dinner hour a few minutes? I sometimes think the studios will have to work with dogs if the actors don’t get hep to themselves and get off their high horses and down on their knees where they belong.
“I’ve often had to get out of a room because I couldn’t sit with a gathering of people where some million dollars a year or more is represented in actual earnings and listen to the yowlings about the working hours, and all the other thises and thats. Why, blank-blank-blank, most of us never heard of such sums of money until we came out here! Most of us never knew whether we’d eat from one week to the next until we hit this town!
“Look at doctors and lawyers and long-shoremen, do they yelp and howl if they have to work all hours of the night? They do not. And do they get the rewards we get out here? Not on your life they don’t and can never hope to. And some of ‘em have had long years of arduous preparation and others of ‘em work, with their muscles and their sinews and their strained hearts. We need never have gone to school — Hollywood doesn’t ask us for any mortar board. And the strain we put on our hearts and muscles wouldn’t hurt an embryo. Better hit me over the head, if you want me to stop. This is a sore point with me. Seems to me that for actors to complain about Hollywood and the producers is like a spoiled brat hitting an overindulgent, undemanding parent in the face.
Anyway, this is the credit side of the sheet. If it hadn’t been for Hollywood and what it has done for me I wouldn’t have been able to do what I’ve done, and am doing, for Johnny. I couldn’t have taken him to the best doctors, the last-word experts in the country. I couldn’t have taken him to San Francisco last week, for instance, and have tests made and a device used which has ascertained that he has a little hearing. A very little but enough so that there is hope for the future. Enough so that he could, for the first time in his life, hear my voice and his mother’s. Say, no headline story that could be written about me could be the big story this one line of information is. And say, I’d owe Hollywood the skin off my back if all it ever gave me was the look on that kid’s face when he heard his mother’s voice and mine for the first time in his life.”
Spencer cleared his throat, rubbed one hand across the blue of his eyes and said roughly, “Sure, it’s given me the chance to live on the ranch we’re living on now — Gary Cooper’s you know. It’s given me the chance to give Johnny and Susie, too, horses and polo ponies and dogs, a swimming pool, fields to roam about in. It’s opened a whole world of activities to a little chap who might have been shut out of a lot of them. Just this alone is enough to swell the credit side of my sheet so top-heavy there won’t be much room for the debits.
“Hollywood saved my mother’s life. She was seriously injured in an automobile accident back East. The doctors there said that the injuries were fatal. I could and I did bring her out here, into the sunshine, into a house of her own in Beverly Hills. Care was available, medical attention. She is alive and well today. It couldn’t have been done if I had been in any other line of work. Chalk that one down to the credits...”
And there are other items which belong on the credit side of Spencer’s Hollywood. Things he didn’t tell me himself. Things his friends have told me. There are the old friends of his Dad’s — men who are tired and beaten, too old and too frustrated to start again. Well, thanks to Spencer they have started again and one of them said to me one day, “It wasn’t only the money he gave me, it was the faith in people I got back.”
“When I was a youngster I dreamed of being a doctor,” Spencer once told me, adding with a laugh, “but hell, I wouldn’t have got through the first year of premedical school. Too dumb.”
So now there’s a certain young man who is going through McGill and. Spencer will tell you proudly, standing third in his class. And when this young man begins to heal with his hands the wounds of his fellowmen it will be the hand of Hollywood that trained him.
“I don’t want money. Not for myself,” Spencer told me. “I’d be a bad boy if I had too much dough. And I know it. If I could say to the studio tomorrow, ‘Toodle-oo, I won’t be needin’ you!’, I’d go berserk. So I keep myself broke and I’m happy and safe. I have insurance and annuities so that if I should die tomorrow the family would be substantially safe. That’s all I care about. I’ve got no use for the stuff myself.
“On the credit side goes, too, the way people feel about us — us movie actors I mean. In all the fan letters that come to me there’s not one with a grouse in it. You’d think that some folks would write in and say, ‘How did you get this way, you big punk? Who are you to be making your dough and riding around on polo ponies and living on dude ranches and buying orchids while we sweat for a beastly pittance and are as good as you are ?’ You’d think they’d say this sort of thing, some of ‘em. They never do. No one seems to begrudge us our big piece of cake. And so I say that on the credit side of my sheet goes my appreciation, my knowledge of the generous hearts, the unbegrudging spirit of my fellow men.
“And not only from the fans do we get this attitude, but right here at home where our well-paid and pampered bodies are right under the eyes of fellows who sweat for a living wage. The boys on the sets, I mean. Why, a finer gang of fellows never lived. And when I hear some actor beef, or when I myself think of beefing because I have to work overtime and then look at those chaps — say, it teaches you a thing or two.
“I remember,” said Spencer, flipping an admiring paw at Jean Parker as she passed our table with her chaperone, “I remember one night when we were making ‘Dante’s Inferno.’ I was dead tired, doing two pictures at the same time. Day and night stuff. There were two hundred extras on the set that day and the director couldn’t make up his mind whether he wanted me to stand up on a platform and take a long shot or a close-up. Along around seven o’clock I got temperamental for the first, and I think, the only time in my life. I ripped off the shirt I was wearing and started to go. As I made to leave the set one of the electricians grabbed hold of me. ‘Say, Spence!’ he said, ‘I had to move those big lights for this take, you know. Damned heavy, those lights, when you’ve been moving ‘em all day. And it’s seven o’clock for me, too.’
“So it was. So it was seven o’clock for him, too. Say, I put that shirt of mine back on and got back to that set in a hurry. Seven o’clock for him, too, and he couldn’t send out for coffee and sandwiches, either.
“They try to say that the life of a screen actor is short-lived. Phooey! Unless we go crazy, get grogged and stay that way we can keep working till the wagon comes. Look at George Arliss and Lionel Barrymore and Lewis Stone and a few of the others.
Spencer was saying, “Now about these debits — I told you I’d have to dig a bit for them. It comes to about this, I think. We actors are like the children of very wealthy parents who keep a very close watch on us, have guards and spies set over us. The studio is the mama and papa of the actor. The whole world, the press, the public are the guards and spies. We can’t really be ourselves, much of the time. “Maybe,” laughed Spencer, “maybe it’s just as well, but it’s damned uncomfortable at times. I mean, the average chap can do what he pleases, but an actor must always be on his toes. One slip and the whole town’s talking, and magnifying it to tremendous proportions.
“I can’t go about dressed like the farmer’s son as I would like to do and do a good part of the time. But even when I do, I can’t get the full pleasure out of the blue jeans and sweat shirt. I feel that I should be sporting the soup and fish and making papa proud of his little boy.
“I can’t play practical jokes, shoot off my mouth, horse about as I might want to for fear of being misinterpreted by some little bird who might overhear me or oversee me. It’s kind of a strain, all this. Even when I play polo I have a sense of guilt. I know that mama and papa studio really disapprove. They fear that I might break my little neck which is carrying the Tracy face through a production with a heavy cost sheet.
“And them thar,” said Spencer, finishing his pistachio ice cream with a flourish, “them thar are about the only items I can think of to list on the debit side. Kinda skinny little items they are, at that. But I can’t invent any. Even the well known ‘temptations of Hollywood’ are a lot of bologna, most of them. All the pretty girls, they say. Sure, but you know the old psychology about a candy shop. Work in one for a few days and you pay no attention to the sweets! The only temptation I know about out here is a sort of general inclination to go mildly nutty when you aren’t working. The balmy air, the vacationland atmosphere do tend to make you have to buckle on the armor and behave. But that’s really up to the individual and if the individual will keep his eye on the credit sheet he won’t really disgrace mama and papa — not for long.
“I got no kick coming,” said Spencer, “it’s all on the credit side with old man Tracy.”
(Left) Spencer says, “For actors to complain about Hollywood and the producers is like a spoiled brat hitting an undemanding parent in the face.”
(Below) With Virginia Bruce and Robert Barrat in “Murder Man.”
(Right) His deaf son, Johnny, whom Spencer adores, and, extreme right, his wife.
Source: Modern Screen Magazine, December 1935