The obscure, often deservedly so, early films in which Spencer Tracy forged his screen persona are dusted off in this uneven collection of essays from the New England Vintage Film Society.
Before he developed into a film icon of rough-hewn moral integrity, Tracy was a contract player churning out forgettable entertainments for Fox Films in the early 1930s. The dozen flicks analyzed here provided him a broad palette of characters—jailbirds with hearts of gold, ruthless gangsters, macho lady-killers, sappy romantics, working-class mugs and amoral tycoons—but they also saddled him with contrived plots, clumsy scripts and dimwitted sidekicks trotted out to generate yucks. It’s forgivable that the film scholars and buffs assembled here don’t always take a liking to these films, less so that they don’t always take an interest in them. Short, shallow, badly edited—“The only character to which Tracy maintains any sort of affection is for his fellow sailor” [sic]—and often lacking in reader-friendly amenities such as plot summaries, many of the essays have the perfunctory feel of college term papers. Tracy’s naturalistic acting is praised to the skies, but readers get little feel for it because commentators rarely delve into his technique. Instead, they harp on the most obvious aspects of the films—racial and gender stereotypes, Depression-era cultural references, the mildly risqué gestures and badinage of pre-Production Code Hollywood. There are bright spots in the anthology, such as Eric Shoag’s sprightly appreciation of Tracy and Joan Bennett’s romance in Me and My Gal and Jeremy Bond’s interpretation of The Face in the Sky as “a reverse Wizard of Oz” in which “no place is as bad as home.” Charles Morrow’s fine study of Tracy as a comedic actor is a high point—a sharply written, aesthetically engaged retrospective that blends shrewd criticism with a vivid evocation of the actor’s onscreen presence.
The many indifferent, sophomoric essays here will give Tracy fans information about his early work; the best ones will give them reasons to see it.