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Luise Rainer collected her first Best Actress Oscar® for The Great Ziegfeld (1936) in March of 1937. That same year she appeared in three films: The Good Earth (1937), which would win her a second consecutive Oscar®; The Emperor's Candlesticks (1937); and Big City (1937), a romantic drama co-starring Spencer Tracy. In their only film together, Rainer and Tracy made an appealing pair, his solid, earthy presence an interesting contrast to her soulful delicacy. And in Frank Borzage, they had a director whose specialty was poignant stories of love tested by adversity -- he had won the very first Best Director Oscar® for one of the silent screen's transcendent romances, Seventh Heaven (1927). Unfortunately, with Big City, there wasn't much any of them could do to overcome a ridiculous plot. Tracy plays Joe, a New York City cab driver, and Rainer is his immigrant wife Anna. The film begins as a lighthearted love story, focusing on the couple and their relationship. But the tone quickly shifts as the film turns its attention to the taxicab war between unionized cabbies and independents, with Tracy as one of the leaders of the independents. After a tragic turn, and the threat of Anna being deported, it becomes a melodrama, and finally ends with knockabout farce in a huge waterfront brawl between the gangsters who run the union and some real-life famous athletes (Jack Dempsey, Jim Thorpe, Jim Jeffries, and Maxie Rosenbloom among them). All those elements don't blend well, but the chemistry between the stars and some deft directorial touches make Big City worth seeing.
Rainer had been a popular stage actress in Berlin and Vienna in the early 1930s, working in Max Reinhardt's company, when she was spotted by an MGM talent scout. He wired studio boss Louis B. Mayer that he had found the next Garbo, and offered Rainer a contract. She won rave reviews for her first MGM film, Escapade (1935), and followed that with her award-winning performance in The Great Ziegfeld. But after the Good Earth, and the death of MGM production chief Irving Thalberg, Mayer didn't know what to do with Rainer, and none of her subsequent films were successful. In 1938, she broke her MGM contract and moved to New York with her then-husband, playwright Clifford Odets. The marriage ended in 1940, and after World War II, Rainer remarried and moved to London, acting only occasionally in television, and, in 1997, in a film version of Dostoyevsky's The Gambler.
Spencer Tracy signed a contract with MGM the same year as Rainer did, but unlike her skyrocket rise and quick fall, his career at the studio had a steadier ascent. He had already been nominated once for an Academy Award, for San Francisco (1936), and on Oscar® night in 1938, both he and Rainer won the top awards for two 1937 films, with Tracy winning for Captains Courageous. The following year, Tracy would duplicate Rainer's feat of winning two years in a row, when he again took home the best actor trophy for Boys' Town (1938). Throughout the 1940s and '50s, Tracy remained one of Hollywood's busiest and most respected actors, and only slowed down due to ill health, finishing his final film, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967) just 17 days before his death.
Director Frank Borzage's career was at its peak in the late 1920s and '30s. Not surprisingly for the director who was known as the screen's great romantic, the best parts of Big City are the love scenes, and the way his camera lovingly presents Rainer. According to Frederick Lamster's study of Borzage's work, "Visually, the most striking aspect of this film is the use of light and shadows. Anna is often shot in softly glowing light, such as that produced by candles. When she is placed on board the ship that will carry her back to Europe, the use of extreme close-ups and the 'over-hanging' shadows echoes her isolation and the unknown future that she is facing." At MGM from the mid-1930s through the early 1940s, Borzage was the ideal director for Margaret Sullavan's tremulous emotionalism in three romantic dramas, including two early anti-Nazi films, Three Comrades (1938) and The Mortal Storm (1940). He also guided Joan Crawford to two of her best overlooked performances, in Mannequin (1938) and Strange Cargo (1940). His career slowed down in the late 1940s, and he made his final film, The Big Fisherman, in 1959.
Reviews for Big City were dismissive. Variety called it "a big mistake...The letdown is greater because of the superlative talent wasted on trivialities." Frank Nugent in the New York Times added, "It is not we must repeat exactly the sort of thing one would expect Metro to award to its academy winner." Luise Rainer apparently agreed. In an October, 2009 interview with a British newspaper, Rainer, approaching her 100th birthday, wasted few words on the film. Spencer Tracy, she said, was "a terribly nice man." Big City, not so much: "an idiotic film."
Director: Frank Borzage
Producer: Norman Krasna
Screenplay: Dore Schary and Hugo Butler, based on an original story by Norman Krasna
Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg
Editor: Fredrick Y. Smith
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: William Axt
Cast: Spencer Tracy (Joe Benton), Luise Rainer (Anna Benton), Charley Grapewin (The Mayor), Janet Beecher (Sophie Sloane), Eddie Quillan (Mike Edwards), Victor Varconi (Paul Roya), Oscar O'Shea (John C. Andrews), Helen Troy (Lola Johnson), William Demarest (Beecher).
by Margarita Landazuri