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The Eclipse of Spencer Tracy

- Abstract

Throughout much of his career, Spencer Tracy was one of America’s most successful and beloved film stars. A poll published by Fortune in 1939 showed him to be America’s “favorite movie actor” (Clark Gable came in second). He received nine best-actor Oscar nominations and won in two consecutive years, a feat only one other performer, Tom Hanks, has since achieved.

But while a handful of Tracy’s 75 pictures continue to be shown on TV fairly often, most of them—including Captains Courageous and Boys Town, the films for which he won Oscars in 1937 and 1938—are all but unknown to contemporary audiences. He is probably best known as an appendage to Katharine Hepburn, with whom he made nine movies and conducted a more-or-less open affair from 1941 to his death in 1967. Indeed, the Tracy-Hepburn romance is the only thing that the average under-50 moviegoer knows about the man whom John Ford called “the best actor we ever had.”

About the Author

Terry Teachout, Commentary’s chief culture critic and the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal, wrote about George Szell in the last issue. Satchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, recently opened in Orlando, Florida.