This week’s Monday Movie Meme theme is movies featuring Dads and it brought one name immediately to mind: Spencer Tracy.
Spencer Tracy may not have been the world’s best father or family man, but perhaps it’s his personal feelings about such personal failures which provided him with the ability to act the part of complicated fathers with such divine grace. Naturally Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) leaps to mind — but I think the role which best captures Tracy’s ability to portray a film father is Father’s Little Dividend (1951).
Both films focus on parental reaction to the situations of their adult children, but in Father’s Little Dividend Tracy’s role as father Stanley Banks is the focus on the film. This focus on a common man’s response to the traditional life cycle change from father to grandfather makes for portrayal of full, complex person — a character rather than a caricature. But I don’t think anyone can watch Tracy and not give his acting ability its due.
It may be dutiful and doting dad Stanley Banks who struggles with his new relationship with his “modern” daughter and his disconnected and distanced relationship with a grandson who begrudges him that magic moment of bonding by crying whenever grandpa is near; but it’s Spencer Tracy who delivers those scenes and the emotions beneath them.
(Spoilers follow — Stop reading if you don’t want to know!)
It is because of Tracy’s superb acting that we understand — not just because “things were different back then” — just how useless grandpa feels around his grandson. So we understand how easy it would be for grandpa to step too far away from the sleeping-safely-in-his-carriage baby at the park and go feel useful and connected by helping a group of boys with their soccer game… And just how devastated, guilty, and frightened he would feel when he returns to the park bench to find the carriage and baby missing!
When Banks stands before the less than understanding police, confessing he lost the baby and pleading his case for his grandson to be returned to him without calling his daughter, his pain becomes our pain because Tracy is the one who inhabits it and conveys it.
When the policeman suggests the test of Banks’ claims be the baby’s reaction to him, we all flush and swallow hard lumps of fear right along with Tracy because we fear what Banks does: that the baby will cry and reject him, resulting in further embarrassment and problems. We all hold our breath while Tracy as Banks walks towards the baby who is happily preoccupied with the group of police…
And when that baby lights up with delight upon seeing his grandpa, we all feel giddy with relief — and the realization that these two finally have their magic moment and are forever bonded, their devotion sealed in this shared secret.
We wouldn’t feel any of that if it weren’t for Spencer Tracy’s ability to feel and convey all the emotions of fatherhood, including the less than flattering ones.
Spencer Tracy may not have been able to, as he himself lamented, been able to be a the best father — but he carried within himself not only such bittersweet knowledge, but teh ability to apply the bitter and the sweet to his acting roles as on-screen dads. From watching Spencer Tracy “dads,” I’ve learned that fatherhood comes with all the expectations, mistakes, and complexity of motherhood.
While there’s certainly sadness in such things, there is also awareness — we are not alone, knowledge is power, there is hope.