The Westerns of Spencer Tracy
Stetson and six-gun weren't really for him
Spencer Tracy, left, star of the likes of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Judgment at Nuremberg and Inherit the Wind, was a fine and two-time Oscar winning (as well as multiple nominee) actor but he largely avoided the Western genre. So this little essay will be short (I am sure you are relieved to hear).
You could almost argue that he only did one. Almost. His first, which we reviewed the other day (click the link for that), Northwest Passage (1940) was what you might call a protowestern, an eighteenth-century adventure drama more than an oater, and pretty bad, to boot. Later the same year he co-starred with Clark Gable in Boom Town, but that was a modern-day wildcatter-to-oil tycoon yarn categorized by IMDb as “Adventure, Drama, Romance” rather than Western. In 1947 he was paired with Katharine Hepburn in the Elia Kazan-directed drama The Sea of Grass, a Western, yes, I suppose, in a way, though more on a turgid soap drama/family saga. In 1955 he was magnificent in John Sturges’s Bad Day at Black Rock, which I myself consider a Western though many do not (it’s an intense post-World War II drama). And in 1962 he narrated but did not appear in MGM’s cumbersome (but commercially successful) How the West Was Won, so you can’t really count that. Broken Lance (1954), directed by Edward Dmytryk, was perhaps the only ‘true’ Western he starred in.
The Sea of Grass should have been the big rancher vs. plucky homesteader film par excellence, rivaling Shane. Tracy and Hepburn (their fourth film in harness, but no magic this time), a substantial MGM budget, screenplay by Marguerite Roberts, direction by Elia Kazan, what more could you want for an epic and definitive Western?
Quite a lot, actually. Kazan himself said of the film in his autobiography, "It’s the only picture I’ve ever made that I’m ashamed of. Don’t see it."
It’s a sprawling, meandering family saga (dread term) which drones on for 131 minutes, no less, or until you beg for mercy, whichever comes later.
Tracy as New Mexico cattle baron, OK, we can live with that, even if he did seem to be just saying his lines at times. Hepburn as St Louis lady come out West to wed the rancher, yes, we can swallow that too, though she hardly sparkles. And Robert Walker as the wastrel son, well, he practically cornered the market in that part; he was the ne’er-do-well offspring. Need a wastrel son? Get Walker on the line. A couple of the smaller parts were very good: Harry Carey Sr is, as ever, magisterial in the too-small part of Doc Reid. It was his penultimate Western of 132. We also have a superb Edgar Buchanan as the family cook-cum-nanny in one of his very best roles. He is drôle, sad, wise and crusty, and just brilliant.
The rest of the casting sucks, though. Whoever chose Melvyn Douglas as Hepburn’s lover must have been bonkers. At 46 he looked 66. He was a New Yorker, appears smarmy, plays a shyster lawyer and is utterly improbable as Tracy’s rival. James Bell and Ruth Nelson as the homesteader and his wife were melodrama ham actors of the corniest kind. All the other characters are completely unmemorable ten seconds after the film has ended.
The production is poor. There are endless studio sets with back projection of reels and reels of black & white footage of grass prairie. Enough of that sea of grass already. We get seriously tired of seeing Tracy ‘ride’ one of those fake horses on a sound stage while action pans jerkily out behind him on a screen. Hepburn and her elderly paramour ride on a stationary sleigh in Denver in the same way. MGM were very bad at this and it disfigured many of their Westerns.
So where did all that big budget go? It seems to have been spent on Ms. Hepburn’s gowns (a different one in each scene) and the Victorian fripperies in the house.
The pace of the movie and whole look of it bring the word elephantine first to mind.
In some ways the theme was quite daring for 1947 – marital breakdown and separation, and an illegitimate son. But in others it is conventional and stifling. The act of procreation of this child is not even mentioned, never mind shown. After a while you just long for a verse or two of Let’s call the whole thing off on the soundtrack and end the movie after the first reel.
But in the last resort I think the worst crime of which this film is guilty is that it isn’t a Western at all but a cornball costume romance. A Western would have highlighted the rancher/homesteader conflict; instead, this aspect is played down. Tracy makes an eloquent case for the ranchers in the courtroom scene, while the homesteader Sam Hall (Bell) is made unsympathetic, and acts stupidly, almost therefore deserving his fate. In any case the range war is skated over, to leave endless feet of film to devote to family interaction, sigh, and yet more bloody grass. Unsure whether to make a Western or a melodrama, Kazan went for the latter but made a corny one. Not my favorite film, I’m afraid, though I’m sure it has its fans.
Years now pass before Tracy ventures to do a true Western. In 1954 he starred in Broken Lance. This Fox Western was a big picture. It was big-budget and released amid much bally-hoo. Tracy, now a major star, was towering in the lead. It had huge, sweeping Arizona vistas photographed in CinemaScope by Joe MacDonald. It was, again, one of those passionate family dramas so beloved by Americans, this time written by Philip Yordan, Oscar-winning and much better than Sea of Grass. The picture had a strong cast to support Tracy. It was a big critical and box-office hit.
On one level just another treatment of the clichéd cattle baron story, it does in fact have more. There is a theme of racial (in)tolerance, for one thing. Tracy is rich rancher Matt Devereaux. His wife is an Indian woman presenting herself as Mexican (the great Katy Jurado, replacing the equally fine Dolores del Rio – Ms. del Rio was to get to play a similar part, though, in 1960 in Flaming Star). The first three sons (Richard Widmark, Earl Holliman, Hugh O’Brian) are by a previous marriage of Devereaux and therefore ‘white’, while Joe, the baby of the family (Robert Wagner), is by Señora Devereaux and thus a ‘half-breed’. The family is riven. There are political repercussions too when the Governor (EG Marshall), an erstwhile ally of Matt, is upset because half-breed Joe is romancing his posh Eastern-educated daughter Barbara (Jean Peters).
In a Lear-like division, ownership of the ranch is broken up between the sons (naturally his wife can’t own it) and then Joe, who really loves his father, takes the rap for him and goes to prison for three years. When he comes out he learns that dad has died of a heart attack. Should Joe now revenge himself upon his faithless brothers? You sort of want him to. The title may give you a clue as to what he decides.
So it’s a pretty complex plot (I’ve only given you the bare bones). There are shades of The Brothers Karamazov in it and Edward G Robinson had played a Matt Devereaux-esque role in Fox’s House of Strangers in 1949 about Italo-American bankers in New York. In 1961 the same story was put in a circus setting, again by Fox, in The Big Show. So it was a plot that could be recycled handily. It dealt with racial intolerance and sibling rivalry. It was a winner.
Jurado’s Señora Devereaux is wonderful. She is quietly loyal and loving to Tracy’s Matt Devereaux yet once again shows independence, spirit and courage. It is a subtle, sensitive, nuanced performance and she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for it (though the Award went to Eva Marie Saint for On the Waterfront). Her performance ranks with High Noon as her greatest Western work.
The New York Times called Broken Lance "refreshingly serious" and The Hollywood Reporter said it was "a hard-hitting Western". For me it's definitely overblown, even a tad pretentious. But it's worthwhile for Jurado, Widmark, and Tracy, of course.
The following year MGM came out with Bad Day at Black Rock. Now Bad Day at Black Rock is a very good film. You can argue whether it’s a Western. It’s a Western in the sense that it’s set in the West (Arizona or California, it isn’t quite clear; it’s very well photographed by William C Mellor up at Lone Pine locations in the eastern Sierra Nevada) and contains many references to the West, usually in terms of the old West and the passing of the West. The characters in the town wear cowboy hats and have Western names like Reno, Doc and Tim Horn. Tracy, Clint-like, comes into town, a stranger, and rights wrongs, before leaving again. In a way it’s a reverse High Noon, because the scared but gritty lone good guy comes in on the train and finds a whole town of bad men. It’s an anti-Western in the sense that the good guy wears a suit and is from the city, while the country town Westerners are the corrupt ones.
This West is dying. Nothing grows but wild flowers on graves. The residents of Black Rock are all men (Anne Francis, probably imposed by the studio, is out of place and overdressed and made-up; her role should really have been another weak man). There are no families. The cowboys do not work and didn’t go to the war. The doc (Walter Brennan, back with Tracy after Northwest Passage) is also the mortician. He is “consumed by apathy” even if he tries, Rio Bravo-like, to redeem the fallen, drunken sheriff (the excellent Dean Jagger). The only youthful character, a blond James Dean look-alike (John Ericson) is weak and in on the conspiracy. His sister says “He’s a pushover for a muscleman” – mid-50s code, presumably, for homosexuality. The town is ratty and decaying. Lee Marvin is made sheriff at one point and straps on a revolver which he attempts to twirl. He is playing at cowboys.
Spencer Tracy and that great Western actor Robert Ryan as the principals are both superb. They face off and come to the inevitable Western showdown with courage, strength and skill, though in this showdown gunmanship is beaten by technological innovation. Tracy and Ryan do not waste time with acting tricks or facial contortions; they simply are John Macreedy and Reno Smith. With Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine as Ryan’s low-life heavies and Water Brennan as the soured Doc, the support acting is also magnificent.
Sturges was a man’s director of action films (The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, Gunfight at the OK Corral and so on) yet here he handles a tense psychodrama with great skill. Much of the talking takes place in the hotel lobby, like a play. The characters do a lot of standing still and plotting, then one moves to another part of town. It reminds you of a lethal chess game.
It was a ‘big’ film, a CinemaScope MGM star vehicle, yet in its B-movie title, the ‘da-da’ André Previn music over the rushing train and the titles, its shortness (81 minutes) and its small cast it also seems like a minor Western. Sturges and Mellor use the CinemaScope to emphasize the isolation (and creepiness) of the town and characters, the emptiness and loneliness, in a Budd Boetticher kind of way. Macreedy is also lonely and lost. He too is changed by these 24 hours in Black Rock. Well, Western or not, it’s a fine film, and it garnered Tracy an Oscar nomination in ’56 (though he lost out to Ernest Borgnine for Marty).
And apart from his narration of How the West Was Won, that was it as far as sagebrush sagas go. I don’t know if Tracy had a low opinion of Westerns and eschewed them deliberately, or if circumstances and timing just combined to make so few suitable for him but the result was the same. Compared with other heavyweight studio stars of the epoch he rarely wore the Stetson. Well, we all have out failings.