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Think of Spencer Tracy and you think of a rock, a figure of unswerving purpose, understated, powerful, stoical. Tracy's latter-day roles in Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), The Last Hurrah (1958), Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) and Inherit the Wind (1960) crest over the floodgates of memory. He won Oscars® for his steadfastness in Captains Courageous (1937) and Boys Town (1938). In between, he and Katharine Hepburn rewrote screwball comedy, most notably with Woman of the Year (1942), State of the Union (1948), Adam's Rib (1949) and Pat and Mike (1952). Until they got their hands on it, the engine of screwball comedy had been a headstrong woman upsetting a staid man. Hepburn's unstoppable force and Tracy's immovable object were equals, though (after meeting for Woman of the Year, they began a 26-year relationship that lasted until his death). The public, and apparently they, loved the stand-offs. Did any of the Hollywood greats ever make acting look so unadorned, so instinctive, so effortless as Tracy did?
But take all those mental film clips of the steadfast icon and shove them to the back of your mind when you consider the younger Spencer Tracy in The Show-Off (1934). It wasn't long before he was to break out as a lynch mob victim in Fury (1936). Until then, however, he had been considered a critic's darling in such films as Frank Borzage's noteworthy Depression-era reverie, Man's Castle (1933). But, like Hepburn, he was regarded as box-office poison! It wasn't as if Tracy hadn't paid his professional dues. He began acting on stage in 1922, making his Broadway debut the following year as a robot with no spoken lines in R.U.R. In 1930 he and a prison play, The Last Mile, were Broadway hits. John Ford liked him in the play and cast him in his own prison movie, Up the River (1930). Tracy and Humphrey Bogart made their debuts in it and often spoke of working together again, but never did. Work at Fox from 1930-35, though, failed to boost Tracy onto the A-list. He made 25 films, most of them flops.
The most significant thing about The Show-Off may have been that he was lent to MGM to film it after Hollywood's other Tracy - Lee - was detoured by strong drink in Mexico. MGM's production chief, Irving Thalberg, saw something in Tracy that Fox didn't and urged studio boss Louis B. Mayer to sign Tracy. Mayer did, despite reservations connected to Tracy's reputation as another actor with a drinking problem. Tracy went to MGM in 1935, stayed until 1955, made the most of the better scripts available to him there, and rose to stardom. It would be idle to insist that The Show-Off was one of those scripts. But it deserves better than the disparagement it got from some writers. The comedy by George Kelly (Grace Kelly's uncle) was a Broadway hit in 1924, and had been filmed as a 1926 silent with super-siren-to-be Louise Brooks as the love interest, and again in 1946 with Red Skelton in the title role. One reaches for dated words to describe its protagonist, J. Aubrey Piper. Blowhard, gasbag and loudmouth spring to mind. He pipes up, always on his own behalf. He never pipes down.
Tracy's tricky assignment was to make us root for - or at least not root against - a character not immediately likable, if not an out-and-out jerk. He beats the odds, and gets the job done with two of his trademark tools - acting with his eyes, and listening hard. Like most good comic characters, Aubrey Piper never knows when enough is enough. A small cog in a big machine - a railroad - he keeps bragging, exaggerating, lying, and inflating his station, never able to stop his flow of whoppers until they do him in. Mistakenly taking him for a hero when he's pushed overboard and saves a drunk who falls off an excursion boat (a function of Herman J. Mankiewicz's crisp screen adaptation), he becomes the poisoned apple of Madge Evans's eye. Evans's Amy can't wait to bring him home to her parents and her go-getter inventor brother, and tie the knot. She projects warmth and appeal, and the way Tracy looks at her pays off later, when he's gone too far and one of his heedless acts costs him his job; she tells him she no longer can live with him. He then hangs his head, lingering around outside her parents' house, intercepts her brother (who remains friendly enough) and, leaving his bluster on the curb, asks the brother in a deflated way what she's doing and if she talks about him. This is the moment where Tracy finds some emotion to play.
It's not that he's contrite, or even feels bad about hurting someone who put her trust in him. He's just in pain, and lets it seep into his subdued manner, after losing the woman he loves. It's then that we buy that fact that he does love her. This is in contrast to her married sister, whose husband seems a much more solid prospect, but without ever saying so, we become aware that he cheats on her and that she puts up with it. His sister-in-law's husband may have business savvy, but Aubrey has heart. And it is fun to watch Tracy sail into Aubrey's bluster full tilt. No nonsense about the insecurities that drive him to behave as he does. We just get actions and their consequences here, and we enjoy Tracy as he labors to keep up Aubrey's front. His mother-in-law and to a lesser extent father-in-law grump about Aubrey's windy but empty mouthings, but Aubrey just laughs off their disparaging remarks with gusto and unruffled amiability, even when he gets Clara Blandick's dander up by calling her "Mumsy-Wumsy."
Kelly was something of a moralist as a playwright, but he has the good sense, or sure dramatic instinct, to fly in the face of conventional morality and give Aubrey a break - two breaks, really - in a pulled-out-of-a-hat ending that some have groused about as merely convenient. But a sudden undeserved upturn looks good on Tracy, whose carnation stays firmly planted in his buttonhole even when he falls into New York Harbor. There's also something satisfying about the script's flouting materialistic America's ideal of lip service to hard work, and acknowledging that some fortunes are indeed the result of dumb luck. Tracy keeps it simple in The Show-Off. Given its nature, how could he do otherwise? But his choices are always the right ones. You can imagine him, as Joseph L. Mankiewicz once described him, holing up in a room nights, alone with the script of Test Pilot (1938), paring, paring, working to achieve plainness, until he arrived at as little as he needed to make the role work. He was a minimalist who delivered to the max.
Producer: Lucien Hubbard
Director: Charles F. Reisner
Screenplay: Herman J. Mankiewicz; George Kelly (play)
Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Art Direction: David Townsend
Film Editing: William S. Gray
Cast: Spencer Tracy (J. Aubrey Piper), Madge Evans (Amy Fisher Piper), Henry Wadsworth (Joe Fisher), Lois Wilson (Clara Harling), Grant Mitchell (Mr. 'Pa'), Clara Blandick (Mrs. 'Ma'), Alan Edwards (Frank Harling), Claude Gillingwater (J.B. Preston).
by Jay Carr