This week we look back at the lives of two of the greatest stars of Tinseltown’s golden era. During their careers they both filmed at the old MGM British Studios in Borehamwood.
Spencer Tracy is considered to have been one of the screen’s greatest actors. He had the ability to minimise his acting to be effective and realistic. Unlike the stage, it is necessary to allow the camera to capture the truth of your performance and it is a skill. I think actors like Anthony Hopkins have that ability today.
Spencer got his break in the 1930s, especially when he moved to MGM, and soon won an Oscar and a reputation for excellence. Sadly, he also had his demons and was an alcoholic, sometimes vanishing for days on end. MGM reluctantly accepted the situation and protected his reputation in the media because he was a good box office earner.
Spencer was a troubled man who was a devout Roman Catholic but had affairs with his leading ladies. When his son was born the lad was deaf and Spencer blamed himself, believing it to be a punishment.
In 1948, he was sent to Borehamwood to make Edward My Son with Deborah Kerr. By this time he had started a lifelong affair with Katie Hepburn but felt unable to divorce his wife. Katie accompanied him but stayed in a separate hotel.
In those days the studios ‘controlled’ the fan magazines, and newspapers were willing to keep quiet to avoid upsetting the powerful dream factories.
By the 1950s, MGM was changing and Spencer with his problems was no longer tolerable, so his contract was cancelled. By now his health was failing and in the next ten years he made only a handful of movies.
In the mid-1960s he was lured out of retirement to make Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner with Hepburn. His health was so frail the insurance company refused to cover him so the director and Katie put up their salaries as an insurance.
He did only a few hours a day but gave an excellent performance and I recommend the film, especially for a speech he gives at the end, watched by Katie on screen with real tears.
When Spencer finished his last scene the whole cast and crew burst into prolonged applause. At the time he was living with Katie and a couple of weeks later she heard him get up in the night for a cup of tea but he collapsed, suffering a heart attack in the kitchen and died. The studio and friends were called and Katie quickly moved out to avoid a scandal and did not attend the funeral out of respect to his wife and children.
His co-star and friend at MGM in the 1930s and 1940s was Clark Gable, who was once crowned the king of Hollywood. He was also a heavy drinker and womaniser but unlike Spencer, he did not have any feeling of guilt about it. Clark is best remembered as the star of Gone With The Wind, which secured him screen immortality.
He came to Borehamwood in the early 1950s to make several films at the end of his long career at MGM. Clark was always popular with his colleagues and the public alike.
Clark’s final film was The Misfits with Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift, both troubled individuals. Shortly after finishing the movie, Clark suffered a fatal heart attack just months before his only son was born. His widow blamed the strain of the film, but Clark had been a life-long drinker and heavy smoker.
I wonder how many readers have seen their films as they are rarely shown on the main channels today. However, I do recommend checking them out.
Finally, I must say farewell to the lovely comedy actress Dora Bryan who died last week but gave us decades of wonderful scatty performances.