Monday, June 2, 2014


OK, so maybe Spencer Tracy shot his classic movies at MGM. Anybody can do that, right? I'm more interested in his apprentice work during his early days at the Fox studio. You can keep those confections he made with Katherine Hepburn. I'll take Tracy as the wisecracking cop in Me and My Gal; the homeless man who knocks up Loretta Young in Man's Castle; and as the ill-fated tycoon in The Power and the Glory (a virtual blueprint for Citizen Kane, made eight years later) -- the kind of pre-code movies from a scrappy studio interested in simply pleasing an audience while occasionally striving for greatness. Tracy's final Fox feature, Dante's Inferno, is the weirdest of Tracy's entire career, and certainly wilder than anything else he made until It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World in 1963.

Don't let the title fool you. Dante's Inferno tells the story of Jim Carter, a sociopathic Walt Disney-wannabe who steps on, swindles or ruins anyone in his path in order to build an unrivaled entertainment empire, starting with the Dante's Inferno amusement park attraction. With the help of his assistant Jonsey, Carter reaches the pinnacle of success with the purchase of a gambling ship, the S.S. Paradise. When a strike threatens to delay the Paradise's maiden voyage, Carter goes against the captain's advice and hires a shipful of inexperienced workers. The formula is complete: Drunk passengers + drunker scabs x a large flambé served too close to the inflammable drapes = inferno on the high seas. Moral: desserts kill.

I'd take my kid to this over "It's a Small World."
Judging by the impressive sets, Fox must have considered Dante's Inferno its big release of 1935. The cost for the construction of the Inferno spook house alone must have equaled that of a short subject. The grand opening of the Inferno, by the way, is spoiled somewhat when one of Carter's swindled victims jumps from the top floor into a shallow man-made lake. Now that's entertainment!

Tracy pays close attention to Pop McWade's
request to call the safety inspector.

The hell motif is present right from the beginning, when we see a ship's boiler room from the perspective of the coal oven, and builds as Carter's star rises (or sinks into a morass, depending on your point of view). And yet Carter himself is actually an excellent husband and father. Well, until his wife feels obliged to commit perjury regarding his bribe of a safety inspector -- a pay-off which led the Inferno to collapse on hundreds of innocent people, including his wife's uncle, Pop McWade. (I guess Uncle McWade was little too wordy.) The safety inspector, realizing the collapse could have been prevented, commits suicide. Doesn't anyone see a pattern emerging in dealing with this Carter guy?

Some entrepreneur could make a fortune if he
built a members-only club that looked like this.
Pop McWade, having somehow survived a five-story building crashing all around him, warns Carter of his descent into immorality by reading aloud Dante's epic poem, setting up the movie's raison d'etre: a bizarre, disturbing (in a way only old movies can be) ten minute recreation of hell, featuring 3,000 of the best looking, near-naked damned souls you've ever seen, climaxing with them jumping into a lake of fire like Olympic champions. It was a trick Cecil B. DeMille mastered in his biblical epics: make the audience feel better about enjoying sin by presenting it as a morality tale. Six hours of footage were shot for Dante's Inferno and I bet half of that went to this scene alone. That's a hell of a lot of hell, equal only to the last three Adam Sandler movies combined. 

Don't mess with Spence.
Even competing with enough melodrama for a dozen movies, there's a naturalism about Spencer Tracy rare for his time. His Jekyll-Hyde portrayal of the good family man/evil entrepreneur makes his Carter that much more complex than it has any right to be. Yet his best moment happens without any dialogue at all. Discovering that his son has been brought on the gambling ship without his permission, Carter shoots Jonsey a look that rivals the entire Inferno scene for sheer intensity.

Tracy warms up for a chorus of
"My Mammy."
It could be Tracy was just angry at starring in Dante's Inferno, believing it one of the worst movies ever made, and going so far as to prevent Fox from using his name on any of the promotional materials, at least in America. (He was most likely appalled, too, by his brief blackface scene early on.) 

But perhaps there was something else going on. Tracy was never as close to his own son the way Carter is, and his marriage was on its way to being in name only, thanks to, among other things, falling deeply in love with his Man's Castle co-star, 22 year-old Loretta Young. A Jesuit school graduate, Tracy felt that his son being born deaf was God's punishment for his own laundry list of transgressions -- adultery, alcoholism, choosing show business over the priesthood, and his alleged bisexuality, to name a few. 

Today’s audiences would respond to all of that with, “What else you got?” But Tracy himself might have felt he shared all of Carter’s bad traits without any of the good. Had he seen his image in the Spanish release of Dante's Inferno (the title of which translated to Satan's Ship), he might have thought he was staring into a particularly penetrating mirror.  No way is Dante's Inferno the worst movie ever made. But when one looks at it with Tracy's own life in mind, it's probably his most fascinating.


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