G.K. Chesterton and Spencer Tracy

gk and tracy smallIn their different media, G. K. Chesterton and Spencer Tracy painted portraits of the ordinary person, offering an instructive comparison in words and images.   Chesterton captured the “common man” in his writings, while Tracy depicted him in his films.

In June 1936, the month that Chesterton died, Tracy starred as a priest in a feature movie,  San Francisco.   Such a part was unusual for a leading actor as it would normally have been performed by a secondary, character actor.  Moreover, Tracy approached the role with trepidation.   On the one hand, he felt a weight of responsibility in portraying the Church to a mass audience, and on the other, he sensed, as a legacy of his Irish-Catholic upbringing in the American Midwest, that he should have been a priest – that, somehow, he had spurned his primary vocation and settled for acting as a second-best choice.[1]

Tracy’s role was crucial to the credibility of San Francisco.  Set at the time of the great earthquake in 1906, the movie depicted two men, played by Clark Gable and Tracy, who had been friends from boyhood but whose adult lives had followed sharply different paths.   Gable had become a night-club owner in the seediest district of San Francisco known as the Barbary Coast.  He had no time for God, though he held to a certain moral code that prized such virtues as compassion for the underdog and loyalty to friends, including Spencer Tracy, who, by contrast, had become a priest.   The movie had a distinctly religious theme, in that it revealed at its climax the religious conversion of Clark Gable.  This took place after the earthquake, which destroyed the bulk of the city of San Francisco, and also after Gable had fallen in love with a young singer, played by Jeanette MacDonald, whom Tracy befriends when Gable is willing to compromise her by having her sing in his rather sleazy nightclub.

tracyTracy showed in San Francisco  (above, with Clark Gable) the kind of qualities that characterised his performances throughout the almost 40 years he appeared on the screen – and the 80 or so movies in which he starred.    As an actor he had an unmistakable naturalness about him, an understated power; no display of affectation or artifice, no posing, no contrived voice or gesture.   His voice, in fact, had an almost musical quality to it, which was remarkable given how masculine it was.   He had also learnt the importance of listening – and of reacting.  The director of his last movies, Stanley Kramer, said that Tracy “was the greatest reactor in the business.”[2]   Accompanying the art of listening – and a sign of it – was his silences.  They could be very powerful and even poignant, especially when he conveyed emotion wordlessly through his eyes.    A fellow actor in Boys Town (1938), Bobs Watson, who played the part of Pee Wee Wilson, recalled that in one of the early scenes he had to look straight into Tracy’s eyes.   He later said:  “I’ll never forget those eyes.”[3]

The singular quality of Tracy’s performances was that he did not appear to be acting.   Katharine Hepburn, with whom Tracy frequently co-starred on the screen and shared a close relationship in his private life, believed that Tracy was the most “economical” actor she had ever known.[4]  He never seemed to work at a role.   He did not play a character – he was the character.   The word of the script became the flesh of the character.    By contrast, even the most accomplished stage and movie actors can seem somewhat rehearsed and artificial.  Tracy did not fit the description of Sir John Gielgud which was offered on one occasion by Orson Welles:  “Gielgud used to play Shakespeare as though he were dictating it to his secretary.”[5]

In most of his movies, Tracy portrayed the “common man.”    Without any apparent effort he was able to make interesting the ordinariness of human life; make appealing the plainness of the human person, and give meaning to daily mediocrity and mundaneness.   A telling sign of this “common man” demeanour was that Tracy did not have a recognisable public persona.  He was never imitated or parodied by comedians.   He was not imitable – in the way that many other actors were, such as James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne or James Stewart.[6]

Tracy was a consummate movie actor, as distinct from a stage actor.   He knew the importance of not just acting but of reacting, of being silent, of conveying meaning through the eyes, not just the mouth.   He knew how to play a part in the most challenging of circumstances – connecting with an invisible audience.    He could be natural in an unnatural environment.   Among his peers in Hollywood, he was regarded as the “actor’s actor.”    In the judgment of Humphrey Bogart:

Spence is the best we have, because you don’t see the mechanism at work.   He covers up, never overacts, gives the impression he isn’t acting at all.   I try to do it, and I succeed, but not the way Spence does.  He has direct contact with an audience he never sees.[7]

There is no evidence that Chesterton and Tracy ever met, or that Chesterton saw a Tracy movie or Tracy read a Chesterton book, but there is an intriguing passage in one of Chesterton’s novels, The Return of Don Quixote (1927), that suggests he would have understood the simplicity and naturalness of a Tracy performance.   Chesterton (below) is writing about a librarian who featured in a local play, the author of which comments on the librarian’s performance: “You think he was always acting, and I know he was never acting.”[8]

chestertonWhat was the nature of the “common man” that Tracy played?   To appreciate his enactment of the ordinary person, it is helpful to turn to Chesterton for a description and interpretation.   One of his most memorable evocations of the “common man” is to be found in Heretics (1905), a precursor to his more famous Orthodoxy (1908).    Heretics is a study of various intellectual prophets – false prophets, “heretics,” as Chesterton called them – of the early 20th century, such as H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw, whose philosophy, Chesterton said, is “quite solid, quite coherent, and quite wrong.”[9]      In his chapter on Shaw, Chesterton criticised his friend for placing the philosophy of progress, which is assumed to be inevitable, above the needs and capacities of human beings.  “Mr Shaw,” writes Chesterton,

 cannot understand that the thing which is valuable and lovable in our eyes is man – the old beer-drinking, creed-making, fighting, failing, sensual, respectable man.  And the things that have been founded on this creature immortally remain; the things that have been founded on the fancy of the Superman have died with the dying civilisations which alone have given them birth.[10]

 Chesterton was at pains to counter a form of elitism – spiritual and intellectual elitism – which had become immensely powerful in the early years of the 20th century, and which had deeply distorted the conception of the human person.   It found its most menacing expression at first in the eugenics movement – a social elitism that reflected belief in, and a demand for, human perfectibility.     It was inspired by various strains of thought, especially evolutionary theory, and was made possible, and even irresistible, as a result of the extraordinary advances of science and technology.   In this way, a social elitism soon found expression in – and reinforcement from – a technological elitism, applied particularly in the field of medicine.

The horrors of trench-warfare in World War I, the gassing of thousands of soldiers, did something to dispel this illusion of human perfectibility and the prospect of an earthly paradise, as did the subsequent advent of the atomic bomb in World War II, first manifested in the destruction of the Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.   It was, indeed, before or during these world wars that the most savage forms of elitism emerged – the two ideological scourges of Communism and Nazism.   One totalitarian system was built on the elitism of class – the Marxist belief in the supremacy of the working class, the dictatorship of the proletariat – while the other totalitarianism exalted the value of race, the notion of a superior race, the purity of the Aryans.  Both involved an elitist conception of man – and a rejection of certain human beings because of their class or their race.  Both of them involved a rejection of man as he is.

Such spiritual and social elitism has proved remarkably tenacious, and eugenics remains deeply entrenched in present-day society.   It now extends systematically to human beings who are aborted because of their physical disabilities or their unwanted status.  (There are now very few Down’s Syndrome babies who are allowed to be born, as they are systematically aborted once the technology of ultrasound has revealed their imperfections.)   At the same time, paradoxically, we give significant attention to disabled people in our society, as shown in the recent emphasis on a national disability insurance scheme.    We face the paradox of disability being an accepted – and even exalted – condition for the born, but not for the unborn, as though a change of location – being outside the womb instead of inside it – is enough to justify a decision of death over life.   In so many ways, the thirst for human perfectibility – and thus the rejection of the “common man” and of ordinary life, with all its imperfections – lingers as the touchstone philosophy of post-Christian culture in the West.

The social and political elitism which Chesterton combatted was really a secular version of an ancient spiritual tendency – that of religious enthusiasm.   As Ronald Knox showed in Enthusiasm (1950), a monumental study of this phenomenon, surges of religious fervour have been a common occurrence throughout history.    The vitalising root of such fervour is the passion for perfection, which is indeed a laudable and necessary impulse and has a salutary effect when it is absorbed into the bloodstream of an institution or a society.    The passion for perfection has been a conspicuous, and a crucial, feature of Christianity, and especially Catholicism, most clearly manifested in the rise of religious orders in different periods of history.   In Knox’s words, enthusiasm is “not a wrong tendency but a false emphasis,”[11] which can cause great discord and give rise to sectarianism – breakaway movements, new schisms, that constitute fresh tears in the fabric of religious and social unity.

Set against such elitism and the divisions it causes is the influence of unifying traditions – of the beliefs and bonds that make cultural life possible amid all kinds of people, united in their ordinariness rather than by any other factor – of race, class, geography or gender.  Both Chesterton and Tracy appreciated the importance of a Christian people and a popular Christian culture – Chesterton intellectually, Tracy experientially; Chesterton in understanding the place of a Christian people in buttressing a Christian culture, Tracy in knowing the experience of the Christian faith embedded and expressed in a popular native culture (in his case, the Irish).    A Christian people represents a cultural extension of the ordinary person – a way in which the Incarnation of Christ finds new embodiments in the history of divine salvation, new bridges to reach out to souls.

Chesterton was exposed to the value of a religious people in the Catholic countries he visited and wrote about, in particular Ireland and Poland; and residually in his own country, England.   Tracy appreciated the value of a religious people through his growing up in an Irish-Catholic neighbourhood in America’s Midwest.    These popular Catholic cultures testified to the value of a Christian people – of the universal embrace of Christ’s redemptive mission, which is not satisfied with the contraction of Christianity into a sect, a chosen group of the spiritually minded.   This does not correspond to Christ’s proclaimed mission of universal salvation.

The passion for perfection is not lost just because the religious impulse appears to fade: rather, as in our post-Christian culture, it is canalised elsewhere, assuming earthly forms of elitism, founded on such features as class or race or gender – or even the environment.     The evangelical spirit can find apocalyptic expression even in a supposedly secular culture.    Global warming becomes a far more disturbing threat than hell-fire;  the saving of the planet far more urgent than the saving of the soul.

Remarkably, Chesterton saw at a very early stage – now more than a century ago – the religious as well as the social and political implications of elitism.    In the same passage from Heretics, he wrote:

When Christ at a symbolic moment was establishing His great society, He chose for its corner-stone neither the brilliant Paul nor the mystic John, but a shuffler, a snob, a coward – in a word, a man.  And upon this rock He has built His Church, and the gates of hell have not prevailed against it.   All the empires and the kingdoms have failed, because of this inherent and continual weakness, that they were founded by strong men and upon strong men.  But this one thing, the historic Christian Church, was founded on a weak man, and for that reason it is indestructible.  For no chain is stronger than its weakest link. [12]

In his vision of man, Chesterton connected the ideas of hope and humility – hope in man, but a hope founded on a truthful understanding of man’s nature, conceived as “given” rather than made, and thus involving gifts, particularly the attribute of freedom, which can lead to great good or great evil.      Such a hope – such an understanding – requires humility.   Chesterton expressed this balance of truths in Orthodoxy, arguing that Christianity gave man hope by exalting him, investing him with a transcendental dignity, while at the same time making clear that he was not God – that he had a created nature which was lower than God’s, and in need of God’s saving love.     In a memorable passage in Orthodoxy, he expressed it thus:

In so far as I am Man I am the chief of creatures.  In so far as I am a man I am the chief of sinners. . . . One can hardly think too little of one’s self.  One can hardly think too much of one’s soul.[13]

Chesterton put this a little more emphatically, and even wryly, in an essay not long before his death, when he criticised both the utopian thinking of those he called “the old optimist progressives” such as H.G. Wells, and the bleak outlook of the “old pessimist reactionaries” like Aldous Huxley and his Brave New World:

We must not hate humanity, or despise humanity, or refuse to help humanity; but we must not trust humanity; in the sense of trusting a trend in human nature which cannot turn back to bad things. . . . There is one little defect about man, the image of God, the wonder of the world and the paragon of animals; that he is not to be trusted.   If you identify him with some ideal, which you choose to think is his inmost natureor his only goal, the day will come when he will suddenly seem to you a traitor.[14]

Chesterton realised, in fact, that an excessive or misplaced hope in man – a belief in an exceptional being who would no longer be cruel or nasty or narrow-minded, who would never give rise to disillusionment – was actually founded on despair.  “Hope for the Superman,” he said, “is another name for despair of man.”[15]

When Chesterton wrote about the “common man,” and when Tracy enacted him on the screen, they both engaged in an exercise of the moral imagination.   Chesterton once proposed that we should invoke what he called “the most wild and soaring sort of imagination; the imagination that can see what is there.”[16]     The moral imagination takes us to an even higher level, so that we can see the goodness that is there – the goodness that Christians believe God sees in human beings.

In the various parts he played, Tracy showed the moral imagination at work – the capacity to embody goodness and project it convincingly on the screen.    This image of man was projected in most of his movies.  In Bad Day at Black Rock (1956), he portrayed a one-armed war veteran who visits a remote American town to honour the memory of a fellow soldier, who was Japanese-American,  and uncovers a dark secret about the murder of the soldier’s father.  The producer of the movie, Dore Schary, described Tracy as a “granite-like wedge of a man” who had about him an air of “monumental dependability, self-confidence, and quiet humour.”  The producer’s daughter once commented that her father always wanted one of the major characters in his movies to be “A Decent Human Being.”    To Dore Schary, his daughter said, “the Decent Human Being looks like Spencer Tracy.”[17]

Was there a spiritual dimension of “A Decent Human Being,” not just its natural meaning, but its supernatural source and significance?   In the final act of his second play, The Judgement of Dr Johnson (1927), Chesterton puts these words into the mouth of his main character – as he speaks to another person in the play, John Swift, deliberately named so as to evoke a connection with Jonathan Swift and Gulliver’s Travels:

Suppose that you have deposed your tyrants and created your republics, suppose that a hundred years from now the earth is full of your free parliaments and free citizens.  You have often reminded me that Kings are only men.  Suppose you have discovered by that time that citizens are only men.  Suppose that those wielding power should still be bad men.  Suppose your parliaments are as unpopular as monarchies.  Suppose your politicians are more hated than Kings.   Suppose there returns to you war, the ancient enemy of mankind, laying the world waste and leaving riddles to be read by a decimated race of demagogues and hucksters.  If in that far-off day you are thus disappointed and embittered, I ask of you one thing.   Do not in that day turn upon the people and curse them, because in your own whims and fancies you have chosen to ask of them more than men can give.  Do not be like poor Gulliver, your great namesake, Jonathan Swift,  who saw so clearly where the world was going, and turned on them and called them Yahoos.  When your parliaments grow more corrupt and your wars more cruel, do not dream that you can breed a Houyhnhnm like a race-horse, or summon monsters from the moon, or cry out in your madness for something beyond the stature of man.   Do you in that day of disillusion still have the strength to say: these are no Yahoos; these are men; these are fallen men; these are they for whom their Omnipotent Creator did not disdain to die.[18]

In Chesterton’s vision, and in the Christian vision, God does not give up easily on the people He died to save.

At the same time, Chesterton did not experience the temptation of seeing ordinary people as dull – as if the ordinary person implied ordinariness or some kind of flat uniformity.  He did not diminish the miracle of individuality, or mistake a people for a collective.     Rather he probed below the surface and saw, as he once put it, that “the individual is so much bigger than the average, that the inside of life is much larger than the outside.”[19]

What Chesterton captured in print, Spencer Tracy enacted on the screen – the fundamental unity of human nature underlying the prodigious variety of human beings.   As Chesterton put it:

I do not believe that there are any ordinary people.  That is, I do not believe that there are any people whose lives are really humdrum or whose characters are really colourless.[20]  

James Schall has recalled a similar observation of C.S. Lewis’s:  “There are no ordinary people,” Lewis wrote.  “You have never talked to a mere mortal.    Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, . . .   But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.”     As Schall goes on to comment: “The nature of man must embrace immortality if it is finally to have any earthly meaning.”[21]

In recognising these profound truths about the “common man,” Chesterton and Tracy drew on very different life experiences.    Chesterton – an Englishman, a convert to Catholicism, a supremely intellectual and articulate man.   Tracy – an American, a cradle Catholic of Irish background, highly intelligent without being notably intellectual;  an actor and an artist rather than a philosopher.   Yet both men had experiences that enabled them to enter into the minds and hearts of ordinary people – to understand them, their hungers and their hopes, their loves and their fears.   On Chesterton’s part, his affinity with the “common man” had been influenced by experiences that were overwhelmingly happy – in particular, an idyllic childhood in London, solid and supportive friendships throughout his life, and a contented marriage.     Tracy, by contrast, had a more troubled childhood in the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  His father was an alcoholic, a condition which Tracy himself inherited.  His marriage was not happy: he had a long separation from his wife Louise – though he kept in touch with her throughout the years and never sought a divorce – and he had a well-publicised relationship with Katharine Hepburn and, at times, with other women.   His alcoholism and his infidelities caused him immense anguish.  They reflected and reinforced his inner torments, particularly the torment of guilt which he felt most acutely when his first child John was born profoundly deaf.   Tracy felt that, in some way, this affliction had been visited upon his son because of his own wayward behaviour.[22]

Despite a calm and confident demeanour, Tracy was, indeed, a tortured artist.  Beneath the public image of strength and stability lay a privately restless and troubled spirit.    The mother of one of Tracy’s co-stars, Gene Tierney, who had got to know him during a movie, commented that he was the most tormented man she had ever met.[23]   Katharine Hepburn often said that, for Tracy, acting was easy.  It was living that was hard – the constant demands of life that he found so difficult.   When he died in 1967, Hepburn was present soon afterwards and gazed at his lifeless body.  She told Tracy’s biographer of her response:   “He looked so happy to be done with living, which for all his accomplishments had been a frightful burden to him.”[24]

In his latter years, Tracy lived in a small, secluded cottage in the Hollywood Hills, rented from a friend, the movie director George Cukor.  Despite his relative wealth, he lived plainly, even ascetically.    The bedroom of the house, Cukor remarked, is almost like a monk’s cell.  It has an oak chest, one chair, a bed – that’s all.  It has the air of a place where a man might do penance.[25]

Such an attitude, expressed in an apparent act of atonement, recalls the comment of a priest who said to Katharine Hepburn on one occasion – that Tracy took only the negative things out of his religion and none of the consolations.    During the filming of his last movie, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Tracy commented to Hepburn’s niece, Katharine Houghton,  that he believed he would pay for his sins in the next life, and that he felt he hadn’t done anything worthwhile except for the John Tracy Clinic (named in honour of his deaf son).    Houghton responded that she felt he had already paid for his sins in this life, and that he’d been a “wonderfully positive influence in this world on millions of people whom [he didn’t] even know.”[26]

Yet, at certain points in his life, Tracy was conscious of the merits of his faith and the value of his good works.   Following his performance as a priest in San Francisco, he received letters from various people seeking spiritual advice.   Atheists even wrote to him, describing spiritual awakenings they had experienced after watching the movie.[27]    When the esteemed Catholic actress, Ethel Barrymore – who was part of a famous family of actors – died in 1959, Tracy mourned her death by visiting his local church in Beverly Hills, the Church of the Good Shepherd, to say the Rosary. [28]

One of Tracy’s earliest relationships was with the actress Loretta Young.  They co-starred in a movie, Man’s Castle, in 1933, and it was believed they were having an affair.  Yet it was reported that they were going to Mass together on Sunday mornings – and even Confession on Saturday afternoons.   When the relationship ended, Loretta Young issued a statement that, as she and Tracy were both Catholics and could not hope to marry,  they had agreed they would no longer see one another again.[29]    It is not easy to imagine such an admission being offered by two actors – whether Catholic or not – today.

Tracy’s wife Louise, who was an Episcopalian, told a friend that, during one occasion in his closing years when his health was endangered, she believed it was prayers that had got him through.   Tracy himself revealed that, in this period, he had received letters from nuns in Australia praying for him.[30]   He was also moved at another time when, years after making Boys Town, the actor Bobs Watson told him that it was Tracy’s performance as Father Flanagan – “the warmth and loving and caring I felt,” he said – that was a major influence on his decision to enter the ministry. [31]

A fellow actor in one of Tracy’s last movies, Inherit the Wind, Gene Kelly, tried to pinpoint the source of Tracy’s artistic power – and his depiction of the “common man” – by comparing his performance in that movie with that of his co-star, Fredric March:

I could understand and see what Fred was doing.  He was like Olivier.   A wonderful technician.   You could see the characterization taking place – the cogs and wheels beginning to turn.   If you studied his methods closely, it was all there, like an open book.  But with Spence, it was just the reverse.   He’d play a scene with you, and you’d think nothing much was happening.  Then, when you saw the rushes, there it all was – pouring out of his face.   He was quite amazing.    The embodiment of the art that conceals art.   It was impossible to learn anything from Spence, because everything he did came deep down from some inner part of himself which, to an outsider anxious to learn, was totally inaccessible.   All you could do was watch the magic and be amazed. [32]

There is one key to the “inner part” of Tracy, noted by Gene Kelly, that is worth highlighting, and that is his Catholic upbringing.    This occurred in the first decades of the 20th century, in a Church whose sacred and solemn rituals provided a cultural preparation for the secular art of acting.     In his boyhood, Tracy was fascinated by the new entertainment of the cinema, but it was the Church that gave him his first taste of performance.  The traditional Latin Mass was an extraordinary spectacle of divine drama.    As an altar-boy, Tracy was inducted into the phonetic sounds of the Latin language and the ritual movements of the Mass.  He would prepare for every Mass by putting on the special garb of a lace surplice and starched collar.  His mother once told an interviewer:  “I couldn’t keep an unlit taper in the house. Directly after school, Spencer would race home and arrange the candles in every room.  Then he would practice lighting and extinguishing them for hours.”[33]

To his friend, the scriptwriter Garson Kanin, Tracy once confided:

Every time I play a priest  – and I’ve done my share, Father Flanagan in those two Boys Town ones and Father Mullin in San Francisco and Father Doonan in The Devil at Four O’Clock – every time I put on the clothes and the collar I feel right, right away.  Like they were mine, like I belonged in them, and that feeling of being – what’s the word? – an intermediary is always very appealing.        Those were always my most comfortable parts . . . [34]

It has been by no means uncommon for actors of Catholic background to be introduced to acting by means of the Mass.   The Australian actress, Judy Davis, for example, has commented on this quality in noting the large number of Catholics attracted to the world of theatre:

If you watch a Catholic service it is so theatrical.  There’s the audience and the stage and the priest – the actor.  You spend your formative years going to church every week and wanting to be the priest, so you grow up and become one.[35]

These intense religious and cultural experiences were not so readily available to Chesterton; but for Tracy, they were an integral part of his upbringing in the Irish-Catholic immigrant community in the United States.  Without doubt they helped to shape his appreciation of the “common man” he was later to portray on screen.    Certainly he was intensely conscious of his Irish roots.  In Hollywood it had been the Irish who first came to prominence, particularly as actors.   Apart from Tracy, there were others who formed part of what were called the “Hollywood Hibernians”; or less kindly, the “Irish Mafia”: such as James Cagney and Pat O’Brien (who was a boyhood friend of Tracy’s).     Tracy once said:

I was born a sentimental Irishman, and I play the parts the way they react on me.[36]

His experience of life was distinctively Irish – in its appreciation of the sorrowful realities as well as the joyous and humorous experiences.    He would have felt an immediate resonance with the comment attributed to W.B. Yeats:

Being Irish he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.[37]

Or, as the Irish-American politician, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, said after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963:

I don’t think there’s any point in being Irish if you don’t know that the world is going to break your heart eventually.[38]

 In Chesterton’s case, there were influences other than religion that excited his interest in the theatre  – and in acting.  As a child, he received the gift of a toy theatre that his father had made, which enlivened his sense of visual drama; and as an adult, he wrote plays for actors.    One of the most memorable lines in his plays, in fact, was when he depicted a playwright being goaded beyond endurance by the actors departing from the script and improvising their own dialogue.   The playwright eventually stood up and called out:  “Stop!  I am coming down.”[39]   This scene occurred in his play, The Surprise, and has often been seen as Chesterton’s image of the Incarnation – of God deciding that the only way to stop His people defying the sacred script He had written, and misusing their freedom, was to come down to earth, directly and personally.

What might Chesterton have said if Tracy had been an actor in one of his plays?  We could speculate and suggest that he would have echoed the comment of Abby Mann, who wrote the script of Judgment of Nuremberg (in which Tracy played the part of the presiding judge at one of the Nuremberg trials after World War II):

Every writer ought to have the experience of having Spencer Tracy do his lines.[40]

Mann expressed the view that, in writing the script of Judgment of Nuremberg, he only ever had Tracy in mind as the central character.   He believed that the power of the screenplay depended on an actor of Tracy’s authority in the part of the judge.[41]

In their personal lives, Chesterton and Tracy revealed qualities that connected them with ordinary people and kept their feet on the ground.   One was a spirit of loyalty.   This was shown in Chesterton’s taking on the struggle for the social cause of Distributism – a manifestation of Catholic social teaching in its emphasis on widely distributed property, which formed a precondition of economic and social freedom.   Chesterton’s loyalty to this cause was in part a way of honouring the memory of his brother Cecil, who had founded the journal The Eye Witness just before the First World War – later renamed The New Witness – and which Chesterton took over when Cecil died in 1918.   In 1925 it became G.K.’s Weekly until Chesterton’s own death in 1936.    For his part, Tracy showed strong loyalty to the John Tracy Clinic.   Though by that time estranged from his wife, he supported the Clinic faithfully throughout his life.

A second quality which Chesterton and Tracy shared, and which extended their sympathies in a way that contributed to their appreciation of the ordinary person, was their personal generosity.    Both men gave freely of their time and their money to causes they believed in – in Chesterton’s case, to propping up G.K.’s Weekly, which was never a financial proposition without his substantial support, and to the Church, as shown by his major donations to the local Catholic church in Beaconsfield; and in Tracy’s case, as already noted, to his generous support of the John Tracy Clinic, as well as to countless individuals and charities who approached him asking for financial help.    In the words of one of his secretaries, Tracy was a “sucker for hard-luck stories” and he responded frequently to those requesting money, often amounting to hundreds of people a month.[42]

A final quality of Chesterton’s and Tracy’s which helped them to understand the experience of the ordinary person was that of humility.    For two famous men, continually in the public eye, it is noteworthy that they strived to maintain a private life and avoided the kind of celebrity cult that has now grown, in a media-saturated culture, to envelop any prominent person.   Neither of them displayed any interest in the trappings of celebrity – Chesterton retreating to the quietness of a small village, Beaconsfield, outside of London, after his early days as a journalist in the hurly-burly of Fleet Street, and Tracy avoiding much association with the Hollywood party circuit.

At a deeper level, however, both Chesterton and Tracy showed humility in various ways.  In the first place, neither had an exaggerated view of their chosen profession.  Chesterton always regarded himself, first and foremost, as a journalist, despite the other titles he could rightly have claimed as a polymathic author – novelist, poet, playwright, essayist, short story writer, literary critic, philosopher and theologian (to name just a few!).     It was Chesterton’s essential humility that gave him such insight into the ordinary person.    In an early essay, he defined poets as “those who rise above the people by understanding them.”   He saw poets, not in a literal sense as the composers of poetry, but rather as people who drew on their cultural experience and their imagination to “understand and share the feelings of their fellows”  – as against those who tend to despise ordinary people, seeing them as essentially stupid and using their culture and imagination “to rise to what they call a higher plane.”[43]

On Tracy’s part, he took a remarkably humble and matter-of-fact view of his life as an actor.   He always resisted elevating or embellishing what he did; indeed, he tended to demean his chosen career.   On one occasion he told a reporter that he thought acting did not “require much brainwork” and he had never found it “very demanding.”   As he went on to say:

Acting is not the noblest profession in the world, but there are things lower than acting – not many, mind you, but politicians give you something to look down on from time to time.[44]

To another reporter who asked him what advice he would give to up-and-coming actors, Tracy commonly replied in terms attributed to Noel Coward:  “Know your lines and don’t bump into the furniture.”[45]    In short, do your homework and be sober when you report to the set.   After a memorable final speech which Tracy gave in Judgment at Nuremberg, a fellow actor Burt Lancaster asked him:  “How did you do that so easily?”  Tracy replied: “You practise for 35 years.”[46]

Tracy’s attitude to the accoutrements of acting was self-effacing.   In 1938, he won an Academy Award for Boys Town – his second Oscar in a row for Best Actor, the first being for Captains Courageous in 1937.  On the evening of the Awards ceremony, he was reportedly uneasy and even embarrassed at the prospect of receiving the Oscar for the part of Father Flanagan, partly because he felt unworthy to be playing the part of a priest, and partly because he thought his own performance was in no way exceptional.  When he mounted the stage to accept the award, his eyes were noticeably cast downward as he spoke:

I honestly do not feel that I can accept this award.   I do not deserve it.  I can accept it only as it was meant to be for a great man – Father Flanagan, whose goodness and greatness must have been enough to shine even through me.[47]

Following the Awards ceremony, Tracy sent the Oscar to Boys Town in Omaha, Nebraska, with a personal inscription to Father Flanagan.

Tracy’s humility was also evident in his involvement with the John Tracy Clinic.  Apart from his substantial financial contributions to this venture, he always eschewed any public role or recognition in its development – or its occasional celebrations.  When a special dinner was held in 1960 to honour Tracy’s wife Louise for her work in establishing the Clinic, Louise singled out her husband for his moral and financial support.  But Tracy was not to be found at the front table with the other dignitaries such as Walt Disney and James Stewart; he sat inconspicuously at the very back of the ballroom.[48]

When he died in 1967, just a few days after completing the filming of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,  his burial plot in a Los Angeles cemetery was represented by a tombstone which reads, quite simply, “TRACY.”    No other details – no dates, no family connections, no quotation – accompanied the single name.[49]

In a famous essay on the jury system, written after he had been called for jury duty in London, Chesterton captured the natural and the supernatural dimensions of the “common man”:

Our civilisation has decided, and very justly decided, that determining the guilt or innocence of men is a thing too important to be trusted to trained men.   It wishes for light upon that awful matter, it asks men who know no more law than I know, but who can feel the things that I felt in the jury box.  When it wants a library catalogued, or the solar system discovered, or any trifle of that kind, it uses up its specialists.   But when it wishes anything done which is really serious, it collects twelve of the ordinary men standing round.  The same thing was done, if I remember right, by the Founder of Christianity.[50]

Chesterton elucidated in print what Tracy enacted on the screen; he explained what Tracy showed.    Word and image were fused to reveal the nature of the ordinary human person – at once incarnational in our life here on earth and transcendental in its extending to an eternal life.


Karl Schmude is a Founding Fellow of Campion College, Sydney, and a former university librarian at the University of New England, Armidale NSW.  The above is an edited version of a paper delivered at a conference of the Australian Chesterton Society on “Reviving the Moral Imagination,” held at Campion College, Sydney, on October 19, 2013.   





[1] James Curtis, Spencer Tracy: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011), pp.277, 830.

[2] Curtis, Spencer Tracy, p.788.

[3] Curtis, Spencer Tracy, p.351.

[4] Kathrina Glitre, Hollywood Romantic Comedy: States of the Union,1934-65 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006), p.112.

[5] My Lunches with Orson: Conversations between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles. Ed. with an introduction by Peter Biskind  (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2013).

[6] Curtis, Spencer Tracy, p.755.

[7] Larry Swindell, Spencer Tracy: A Biography (New York: World Publishing Company, 1969), p.219.

[8] G.K. Chesterton, The Return of Don Quixote (London: Chatto & Windus, 1927), p.163.

[9] G.K. Chesterton, Heretics (London: The Bodley Head, 1905), p.15.

[10] Chesterton, Heretics, p.60.

[11] R.A. Knox, Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion, with Special Reference to the XVII and XVIII Centuries (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1950), p.590.

[12] Chesterton, Heretics, p.60-61.

[13] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1908), p.171-172.

[14] G.K. Chesterton, The Well and the Shallows (London: Sheed & Ward, 1935), pp.34.

[15] Maisie Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton (London: Sheed & Ward, 1944), p.538.

[16] G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (New York: Dood, Mead & Co., 1947; orig.ed.1925), p.xviii.

[17] Curtis, Spencer Tracy, p.666.

[18] G.K. Chesterton, The Judgement of Dr Johnson: A Comedy in Three Acts (London: Sheed & Ward, 1927), pp.89-90.

[19] G.K. Chesterton, The Glass Walking-Stick and Other Essays (London: Methuen, 1955), p.141

[20] Chesterton, Glass Walking-Stick, pp.140-141.

[21] James V. Schall, “No Ordinary People,” Gilbert Magazine, Vol.16, No.8, July-August 2013, p.8.

[22] Curtis, Spencer Tracy, p.96.

[23] Curtis, Spencer Tracy, p.630.

[24] Curtis, Spencer Tracy, p.861.

[25] Romano Tozzi, “Spencer Tracy,” Films in Review, Vol.17, No.10, December 1966, p.627.

[26] Curtis, Spencer Tracy, p.846.

[27] Curtis, Spencer Tracy, p.309.

[28] Curtis, Spencer Tracy, p.754.

[29] Swindell, Spencer Tracy, p.109;  Curtis, Spencer Tracy, p.234.

[30] Curtis, Spencer Tracy,  pp.827-828.

[31] Curtis, Spencer Tracy, p.849.

[32] Curtis, Spencer Tracy, pp.761-762.

[33] Curtis, Spencer Tracy, p.37.

[34] Garson Kanin, Tracy and Hepburn: An Intimate Memoir (New York: Bantam Books, 1971), p.26.

[35] Miranda Brown, “The Actress Most Likely to Succeed,” The Age (Melbourne), September 19, 1981, p.27.

[36] Curtis, Spencer Tracy, p.741.


[38] New York Times Book Review, April 30, 1978, p.15.

[39] G. K. Chesterton, The Surprise (London: Sheed & Ward, 1952), p.63.

[40] Curtis, Spencer Tracy, p.796.

[41] Curtis, Spencer Tracy, p.784.

[42] Curtis, Spencer Tracy, pp.309, 429.

[43] G.K. Chesterton, “The Three Kinds of Men,” Alarms and Discursions (London: Methuen, 1910), pp.149-150.

[44] “Tracy on Tracy,” Newsweek, January 9, 1961, p.54.


[46] Curtis, Spencer Tracy, p.794.

[47] Curtis, Spencer Tracy, p.363.   After Tracy accepted the role of Fr Flanagan in Boy’s Town, the actor received the following letter from the priest: ‘Your name is written in gold in the heart of every homeless boy in Boys Town because of the anticipated picture you are going to make for us, and every boy here, and all of our alumni, are talking about you, thinking about you, and praying for you every day.’ Curtis, Spencer Tracy, p.345.

[48] Curtis, Spencer Tracy, p.779.

[49] Curtis, Spencer Tracy, p.861.

[50] G.K. Chesterton, “The Twelve Men,” Tremendous Trifles (London: Methuen, 1909), p.68.

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