Spencer Tracy was the two-time Oscar winner starred in a variety of classics before his death in 1967, including nine films opposite fellow legend Katharine Hepburn. Let’s take a look back at 20 of his greatest films, ranked worst to best.
Tracy pulled off the rare hat-trick of winning back-to-back Best Actor Oscars, first for his performance as a Portuguese sailor in “Captains Courageous” (1937), then for playing a dedicated priest helping wayward youths in “Boys Town” (1938). It’s a feat that would only be repeated once more in this category by Tom Hanks (“Philadelphia” in 1993 and “Forrest Gump” in 1994).
Tracy would compete seven more times in the category: “San Francisco” (1936), “Father of the Bride” (1950), “Bad Day at Black Rock” (1955), “The Old Man and the Sea” (1958), “Inherit the Wind” (1960), “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961), and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” (1967), which was recognized posthumously.
He’s perhaps best remembered for starring in nine films with Hepburn, starting with “Woman of the Year” (1942), the classic “Adam’s Rib” in the middle and ending with “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?,” filmed shortly before his death in 1967. The two were just as famous for their off-screen relationship as they were for their on-screen one, with rumors abounding of an affair between the two for decades. (Hepburn cared for Tracy throughout his illness, adding fuel to the rumor fire.)
Tour our photo gallery of Tracy’s 20 greatest films, including a few for which he didn’t receive Oscar nominations.
20. THE SEVENTH CROSS (1944)
Directed by Fred Zinnemann. Screenplay by Helen Deutsch, based on the novel by Anna Seghers. Starring Signe Hasso, Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Agnes Moorehead, Herbert Rudley, Felix Bressart, Ray Collins.
“The Seventh Cross” was an early triumph for director Fred Zinnemann, establishing him as a sturdy director of thoughtful entertainments with a socially-conscious bent. Set in 1936 Germany, the film centers on seven Jewish prisoners who escape from a Nazi concentration camp. The camp commandant erects seven crosses, one for each man, and slowly fills them until only one is left for Tracy. Hume Cronyn earned an Oscar nomination for his supporting turn as a factory worker who gives the hunted man refuge. One of the best of the initial films to deal with one of our greatest tragedies.
19. SAN FRANCISCO (1936)
Directed by W.S. Van Dyke. Screenplay by Anita Loos, story by Robert E. Hopkins. Starring Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald, Jack Holt, Jessie Ralph, Ted Healy.
“San Francisco” is the type of big budget, star-studded spectacle MGM excelled at in its heyday. Directed by W.S. Van Dyke, the film centers on a Barnaby Coast saloonkeeper (Clark Gable), a talented yet impoverished singer (Jeanette MacDonald), a kindly priest (Tracy), and a Nob Hill socialite (Jack Holt) whose lives are interrupted by the devastating 1906 earthquake. It’s hard to imagine “Titanic” without this one setting the stage for melodramas set against the tragedies of history. The film won an Oscar for its sound and received five other nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Tracy, his career-first bid (he lost to Paul Muni in “The Story of Louis Pasteur”).
18. LIBELED LADY (1936)
Directed by Jack Conway. Screenplay by Maurine Dallas Watkins, Howard Emmett Rogers, George Oppenheimer, story by George Oppenheimer. Starring Jean Harlow, William Powell, Myrna Loy, Walter Connolly.
This effervescent screwball comedy features four movie stars at the top of their game. Myrna Loy stars as a wealthy socialite suing a newspaper for libel after it falsely claimed she broke up a marriage. Tracy is the paper’s editor, who enlists a former reported (William Powell) to help make the story real. The plan: Powell will marry Tracy’s own fiancee (Jean Harlow), then have Loy tear the union apart. Of course, nothing goes as plan. The film earned a lone Oscar nomination for Best Picture, with none of the actors getting recognized for their hilarious performances. Interestingly enough, Tracy and Powell contended in Best Actor that year, albeit for different films (Tracy for “San Francisco,” Powell for “My Man Godfrey.”)
17. THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA (1958)
Directed by John Sturges. Screenplay by Peter Viertel, based on the novella by Ernest Hemingway. Starring Felipe Pazos Jr., Harry Bellaver, Don Diamond.
Tracy is pretty much the whole show in this adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novella. He plays the Old Man of the title, a Cuban fisherman who hasn’t landed a fish in 84 days. On his 85th day at sea, he catches a giant marlin, and engages in a battle of strength and mental agility with the giant sea creature. The battle, which lasts three days and three nights, ultimately tests his mettle as a man. A seemingly unfilmable book becomes a captivating character study thanks to John Sturges’s sturdy direction and it’s lead actor’s performance. The film earned an Oscar for its score, plus nominations for Tracy and cinematography. (Tracy lost Best Actor to David Niven in “Separate Tables.”)
16. STATE OF THE UNION (1948)
Directed by Frank Capra. Screenplay by Myles Connolly and Anthony Veiller, based on the play by Russel Crouse and Howard Lindsay. Starring Katharine Hepburn, Van Johnson, Angela Lansbury, Adolphe Menjou, Lewis Stone.
Viewed through today’s political landscape, the idea of a wealthy businessman seeking the Republican presidential nomination would make for a terrifying horror movie. But in Frank Capra’s capable hands, it becomes a charming piece of Americana, and a perfect vehicle for Tracy and his frequent leading lady, Katharine Hepburn. Tracy plays an aircraft tycoon who decides to make a run for the White House. His campaign manager (Van Johnson) encourages him to reunite with his estranged wife (Hepburn) for appearance’s sake, but her confidence in him is shaken when he begins to compromise his values for political gain (proving that little has changed when it comes to Washington).
15. BROKEN LANCE (1950)
Directed by Edward Dmytryk. Screenplay by Richard Murphy, story by Philip Yordan, based on the novel ‘I’ll Never Go There Any More’ by Jerome Weidman. Starring Robert Wagner, Jean Peters, Richard Widmark, Katy Jurado, Earl Holliman, Hugh O’Brien.
Edward Dmytryk creates an almost Shakespearean western with “Broken Lance,” a saga about the trials and tribulations of a rancher family. Tracy is fantastic as the patriarch, who has raised his four sons (Robert Wagner, Richard Widmark, Earl Holliman and Hugh O’Brien) with an iron fist. Their fierce work ethic and lack of brotherly love threatens to tear the business — not to mention the household — apart. Philip Yordan won an Oscar for his original story, while Katy Jurado earned a Supporting Actress nomination for playing Tracy’s second wife (and Wagner’s mother), a Native American named “Señora.”
14. PAT AND MIKE (1952)
Directed by George Cukor. Written by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin. Starring Katharine Hepburn, William Ching, Aldo Ray, Jim Backus, Sammy White, Charles Bronson.
After the success of “Adam’s Rib,” Tracy and Katharine Hepburn reunited with director George Cukor and writers Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin for another hilarious battle of the sexes. “Pat and Mike” casts Hepburn as a talented athlete fighting back against the ignorant men around her, particularly her husband (William Ching). Tracy plays the gruff yet lovable coach who separates her from her spouse so she can excel at sports, developing feelings for her in the meantime. As always, Tracy and Hepburn’s chemistry lights up the screen, thanks in part to Cukor’s nimble direction and Garson and Kanin’s Oscar-nominated script. Aldo Ray is a standout as a dense sports sensation.
13. THE LAST HURRAH (1958)
Directed by John Ford. Screenplay by Frank S. Nugent, based on the novel by Edwin O’Connor. Starring Jeffrey Hunter, Dianne Foster, Pat O’Brien, Basil Rathbone, Donald Crisp, James Gleason, Jane Darwell, John Carradine, Frank McHugh, Edward Brophy, Richard Cortez, Wallace Ford.
Tracy teamed up with legendary director John Ford for this electrifying adaptation of Edwin O’Connor’s political novel. “The Last Hurrah” centers on Frank Skeffington (Tracy), longtime mayor of a New England city with a large Irish-American constituency. As he mounts his last campaign for office, he faces accusations of corruption and opposition from a wide variety of supporting players. Jeffrey Hunter co-stars as his starry-eyed nephew, a journalist who observes the drama while writing for a rival newspaper. Tracy gives an electrifying performance as a lifelong politician given to grandstanding, earning a BAFTA nomination for his work. (He competed at the Oscars that same year for “The Old Man and the Sea”).
12. DESK SET (1957)
Directed by Walter Lang. Screenplay by Phoebe Ephron and Henry Ephron, based on the play by William Marchant. Starring Katharine Hepburn, Gig Young, Joan Blondell.
William Marchant’s hit play proves to be a perfect vehicle for Tracy and Hepburn, an office romance about the perils of modern technology. Directed by Walter Lang, “Desk Set” casts Hepburn as the head of a TV network’s research department. Tracy is the efficiency expert who arrives to install a new computer that could render Hepburn and her fellow employees obsolete. As expected, the two start off hating each other before falling in love, but not without a few witty exchanges. Of special note: the screenplay was written by Phoebe Ephron and Henry Ephron, the parents of future Oscar-nominated writer/director Nora Ephron.
11. IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD (1963)
Directed by Stanley Kramer. Screenplay by William Rose and Tania Rose, story by Tania Rose. Starring Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Ethel Merman, Mickey Rooney, Dick Shawn, Phil Silvers, Terry-Thomas, Jonathan Winters, Edie Adams, Dorothy Provine.
Stanley Kramer made “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” as a response to critics who thought he took himself too seriously. Rather than simply make a comedy, he set out to make the BIGGEST comedy of all time, a 70mm, three-hour epic featuring the largest cast of funny people ever assembled. It all starts when a group of motorists learn that a criminal’s loot is buried under a Big W, setting in motion a hazardously hilarious race across the country to find the money. At the center is Tracy as the police chief keeping track of their hair-brained scheme while dealing with domestic problems of his own. The film earned six Oscar nominations and won for its sound effects. Surprisingly, not one of the ensemble cast members was recognized, which is no laughing matter.
10. FURY (1936)
Directed by Fritz Lang. Screenplay by Bartlett Cormack and Fritz Lang, based on the story by Norman Krasna. Starring Sylvia Sidney, Bruce Cabot, Walter Abel, Walter Brennan, Frank Albertson.
Tracy teamed up with Fritz Lang for his first American feature, which proved to be just as grim and unrelenting as his German films (including “Metropolis” and “M”). “Fury” revolves around Joe Wheeler (Tracy), a wrongfully convicted man who narrowly escapes a lynching by ravenous townspeople. Wounded and embittered, he decides to fake his own death and enact his vengeance on the mob by allowing them to be convicted of murder. Sylvia Sidney costars as Joe’s fiancee, who pleads with him to act mercifully. Norman Krasna earned an Oscar nomination for his original story. Tracy competed in Best Actor that year for “San Francisco,” although this performance was more shaded and nuanced.
9. BOYS TOWN (1938)
Directed by Norman Taurog. Screenplay by John Meehan and Dore Schary, story by Schary and Eleanore Griffin. Starring Mickey Rooney, Lee J. Cobb, Henry Hill, Leslie Fenton, Gene Reynolds.
Tracy won the second of his consecutive Best Actor trophies for this well-intentioned, uneven message movie, based on a true story. He plays Father Edward J. Flanagan, a tough-minded and compassionate priest who founds Boys Town, a community for wayward youths. One of them is Whitey Marsh (Mickey Rooney) a juvenile delinquent whose older brother (Edward Norris) is in prison for murder. The third act runs off the rails when Whitey’s sibling flies the coop, turning an inspirational teacher drama into a melodramatic crime thriller. Yet Tracy’s performance helps keep the movie from becoming either to saccharine or too stupid. A sequel, “Men of Boys Town,” followed.
8. GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER? (1967)
Directed by Stanley Kramer. Written by William Rose. Starring Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn, Katharine Houghton, Cecil Kellaway, Beah Richards, Roy E. Glenn, Isabel Sanford.
Stanley Kramer intended “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” to be a daring indictment of racism, presenting a positive view of interracial marriage at a time when it was still illegal in 17 states. (The “Loving v. Virginia” Supreme Court case struck down anti-miscegenation laws the year it came out.) Yet it misses its mark by casting Sidney Poitier as a man of such upstanding integrity that his fiancee’s (Katharine Houghton) liberal parents (Tracy and Katharine Hepburn) could have no possible objection to him aside from his race. His character is so saintly as to be almost neutered, which sets the tone for the rest of this high-gloss fluff. Yet its message is heartfelt, and it holds a special place in cinema history for being the last screen appearance of Tracy, who died shortly after shooting wrapped. His final speech about the power of love in the face of hate remains touching and effective. Oscars were won for Hepburn in Best Actress and William Rose’s screenplay. Tracy reaped a posthumous Best Actor bid, losing to Rod Steiger (“In the Heat of the Night”).
7. CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS (1937)
Directed by Victor Fleming. Screenplay by John Lee Mahin, Marc Connelly, and Dale Van Every, based on the novel by Rudyard Kipling. Starring Freddie Batholomew, Lionel Barrymore, Melvyn Douglas, Mickey Rooney.
Tracy won the first of two consecutive Best Actor trophies for this rousing high seas adventure. Based on the novel by Rudyard Kipling, “Captains Courageous” centers on a spoiled rich kid (Freddie Batholomew) who falls overboard from a cruise ship. He’s rescued by a Portuguese sailor (Tracy) who takes him aboard his fishing ship, where he learns lessons of hard work and camaraderie. Admittedly, it’s a bit jarring to see Tracy donning dark makeup and a heavy accent to play Manuel, yet his warmth and humanity shines through in every scene, and he creates a natural kinship with young Bartholomew. The film earned additional Oscar bids in Best Picture, Best Screenplay, and Best Film Editing.
6. WOMAN OF THE YEAR (1942)
Directed by George Stevens. Screenplay by Ring Lardner Jr. and Michael Kanin. Starring Katharine Hepburn, Fay Bainter, Reginald Owens.
“Woman of the Year” was the first of nine films Tracy made with Katharine Hepburn, and their dynamic was quickly established: she worldly and outgoing, he world-weary and slyly playful. Under George Stevens’ smart direction, the pair are allowed to shine, kicking off a professional and personal relationship that would last until Tracy’s death in 1967. The film centers on rival newspaper reporters who fall in love, only to find themselves at each others throats when they tie the knot and realize their careers aren’t compatible. Michael Kanin and Ring Lardner Jr.’s witty screenplay won the Oscar, while Hepburn earned a Best Actress nomination for her performance. Tracy, on the other hand, was overlooked, as were Stevens and the film.
5. BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (1955)
Directed by John Sturges. Screenplay by Millard Kaufman, adaptation by Don McGuire, based on the short story ‘Bad Time at Honda’ from ‘The American Magazine’ by Howard Breslin. Starring Robert Ryan, Anne Francis, Dean Jagger, Walter Brennan, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin.
John Sturges’ “Bad Day at Black Rock” is as tight as a snare drum, a western thriller that wastes not a second of its slim 81-minute runtime. Tracy stars as a one-armed man who arrives at the small town of Black Rock in search of a local Japanese farmer who has mysteriously disappeared. The deeper he digs, the more the ugly truth starts to rear its head. Robert Ryan, Dean Jagger, Walter Brennan, Ernest Borgnine, and Lee Marvin make strong impressions as the townspeople, who will stop at nothing to keep their secrets from getting out. A rollicking entertainment with a strong social message, the film earned Oscar nominations for Sturges, Tracy, and Millard Kaufman’s screenplay. Tracy lost Best Actor to his costar, Borgnine, for his leading role in “Marty.”
4. JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG (1961)
Directed by Stanley Kramer. Screenplay by Abby Mann, based on his ‘Playhouse 90’ television play. Starring Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Maximilian Schell, William Shatner, Montgomery Clift, Werner Klemperer.
This long, engrossing adaptation of Abby Mann’s “Playhouse 90” television play remains one of the most powerful dramas about the atrocities of the Holocaust. Directed by Stanley Kramer, “Judgment at Nuremberg” centers on an American judge (Tracy) in presiding over the trial of four Nazi officials convicted of war crimes in 1948 Germany. The all star cast includes Maximillian Schell as a passionate German attorney, Burt Lancaster as one of the defendants, Montgomery Clift as a traumatized survivor, and Judy Garland as a woman afraid to testify. The film contended for 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and acting bids for Clift and Garland in supporting and Tracy and Schell in lead. Schell bested Tracy in Best Actor, while Mann picked up a prize for screenwriting.
3. FATHER OF THE BRIDE (1950)
Directed by Vincente Minnelli. Screenplay by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, based on the novel by Edward Streeter. Starring Elizabeth, Joan Bennett, Don Taylor, Billie Burke.
Not to be confused with the Steve Martin remake, this 1950 comedy casts Tracy as a father continually befuddle by the problems stemming from his daughter’s (Elizabeth Taylor) upcoming wedding. Vincente Minnelli mines a lot of comedy out of the financial and personal issues that can arise from impending matrimony, with one crisis after another making the event seemingly insurmountable. But there’s also a lot of heart as well, particularly in the tender relationship between Tracy and Taylor, who are able to easily navigate the emotional minefields of this life-changing event. The film earned Oscar nominations in Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay, and inspired a sequel, “Father’s Little Dividend” (1951). Tracy lost his bid to Jose Ferrer (“Cyrano de Bergerac”).
2. INHERIT THE WIND (1960)
Directed by Stanley Kramer. Screenplay by Nedrick Young and Harold Jacob Smith, based on the play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. Starring Fredric March, Gene Kelly, Dick York, Donna Anderson, Harry Morgan.
“Inherit the Wind” represented the high-water mark of Tracy’s collaborations with Stanley Kramer, the perfect blending of the director’s trademark sermonizing with his leading man’s fiery performances. Based on a real life court drama, it centers on two lawyers who argue the case for and against science when a school teacher (Dick York) is put on trial for educating his students about evolution. Tracy makes the case for scientific teachings, while Fredric March argues on behalf of biblical study. Like many Kramer films, its subject remains timely long after its release. Tracy earned an Oscar nomination as Best Actor, losing to Burt Lancaster (“Elmer Gantry”).
1. ADAM’S RIB (1949)
Directed by George Cukor. Written by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin. Starring Katharine Hepburn, Judy Holliday, Tom Ewell, David Wayne, Jean Hagen.
The high watermark of Tracy’s collaborations with Katharine Hepburn, this effervescent courtroom comedy cast the pair as married lawyers who find themselves at odds professionally and domestically when a woman (Judy Holliday) is put on trial for shooting her husband. Hepburn is representing Holliday, while Tracy represents her wounded spouse. Working from a witty, Oscar-nominated script by married writers Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, director George Cukor brings out the very best in his actors, playing on their unique star personas. Holliday made her screen debut in this film, which helped convince Columbia to let her reprise her Broadway role in the movie version of “Born Yesterday,” for which she won Best Actress.