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ON FAITH & MEDIA View Comments

Spencer Tracy, Hollywood priest

By
Kurt Jensen
Source: Catholic News Service

Screen legend Spencer Tracy (1900-1967), who won one of his two Academy Awards for portraying a priest during Hollywood's golden age, played Catholic clergymen three other times, but was never comfortable with it, reveals a forthcoming book about the star.

In "Spencer Tracy: A Biography," to be published this fall by Alfred A. Knopf, James Curtis writes that MGM director W.S. "Woody" Van Dyke had to talk Tracy into taking the role of Father Tim Mullin, the pugilistic childhood friend of Clark Gable's character Blackie Norton, in the 1936 film "San Francisco." Before then, clerical roles in films had always been assigned to character players, not leading men.

"If he had any fear," Curtis writes, "it was the fear of artificiality, the fear that lifelong Catholics would look at Father Tim and see a movie star pretending to be a priest and not the soul of a real priest." As it turned out, Tracy's portrayal was so convincing, his fan mail began to include requests for spiritual advice, leading him to reflect to his secretary, "You can't live up to an idealistic role."

Tracy, a lifelong Catholic whose boyhood parish was St. Rose of Lima in Milwaukee, played a priest for the last time as Father Matthew Doonan, rescuing children from a doomed hospital in 1961's "The Devil at 4 O'Clock."

But he's best remembered for two portrayals of a real-life cleric, Father Edward J. Flanagan (1886-1948), in 1938's "Boys Town" and its 1941 sequel, "Men of Boys Town"—winning an Oscar for the first film.

It took another Catholic—Eddie Mannix, production manager at MGM—to persuade Tracy to take the part of Father Flanagan. "Your name is written in gold in the heart of every homeless boy in Boys Town," Father Flanagan eventually wrote Tracy from the Omaha, Neb., headquarters of the charity he had founded in 1917, "because of the anticipated picture you are going to make for us."

Tracy and co-star Mickey Rooney, who played would-be tough guy Whitey Marsh, were never close. Curtis writes that on the first day of shooting, Tracy growled at Rooney: "The moment I catch you trying to louse up a scene I'm in, I'll send you to purgatory."

Tracy learned of one unexpected result of the famous part in 1967 while making his last film, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." With the help of a studio plumber, an outsider, a man in his mid-30s, sneaked onto the set.

"Uncle Spencer?" he said. "I'm Bobs Watson. I played Pee Wee in 'Boys Town.'"

Watson, then occasionally working as an actor, told Tracy of his plans to become a Methodist minister. "And I wanted to tell you that though I know it was a role, the way you were as Father Flanagan—the warmth and loving and caring I felt—was a major influence on my decision to enter the ministry."

Tracy, Watson remembered years later, "was very moved."

Tracy never resolved his real-life conflicts about his faith: Though his Catholic sensibilities—perhaps along with other factors—prevented him from divorcing his wife, actress Louise Treadwell, with whom he had two children, he nonetheless engaged in a number of extramarital affairs, most famously a longtime relationship with Katharine Hepburn. Yet Curtis writes that the actor still acknowledged his spiritual needs.

One occasion for doing so occurred during a 1966 visit from then-Maryknoll Father Eugene Kennedy, after Tracy's health had begun its final decline. Tracy, the former priest recalled, embraced a wooden statue of the Madonna he had found in Chamonix, France, and told Kennedy, "This is something I truly love. It's so simple."

Just before dinner that evening, Tracy confided, "You know, I thought about being a priest once; I guess every Catholic kid does, or did, anyway. I don't know how they feel with all these changes taking place. Now Pope John XXIII, he was my kind of pope. But with this Vatican II, I'm not sure that priests believe in sin anymore or still hear confessions."

He paused, then asked Kennedy, "You still know how to?"

*****
Kurt Jensen is a guest film reviewer for Catholic News Service.



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Cyril and Methodius: Because their father was an officer in a part of Greece inhabited by many Slavs, these two Greek brothers ultimately became missionaries, teachers and patrons of the Slavic peoples. 
<p>After a brilliant course of studies, Cyril (called Constantine until he became a monk shortly before his death) refused the governorship of a district such as his brother had accepted among the Slavic-speaking population. Cyril withdrew to a monastery where his brother Methodius had become a monk after some years in a governmental post. </p><p>A decisive change in their lives occurred when the Duke of Moravia (present-day Czech Republic) asked the Eastern Emperor Michael for political independence from German rule and ecclesiastical autonomy (having their own clergy and liturgy). Cyril and Methodius undertook the missionary task. </p><p>Cyril’s first work was to invent an alphabet, still used in some Eastern liturgies. His followers probably formed the Cyrillic alphabet (for example, modern Russian) from Greek capital letters. Together they translated the Gospels, the psalter, Paul’s letters and the liturgical books into Slavonic, and composed a Slavonic liturgy, highly irregular then. </p><p>That and their free use of the vernacular in preaching led to opposition from the German clergy. The bishop refused to consecrate Slavic bishops and priests, and Cyril was forced to appeal to Rome. On the visit to Rome, he and Methodius had the joy of seeing their new liturgy approved by Pope Adrian II. Cyril, long an invalid, died in Rome 50 days after taking the monastic habit. </p><p>Methodius continued mission work for 16 more years. He was papal legate for all the Slavic peoples, consecrated a bishop and then given an ancient see (now in the Czech Republic). When much of their former territory was removed from their jurisdiction, the Bavarian bishops retaliated with a violent storm of accusation against Methodius. As a result, Emperor Louis the German exiled Methodius for three years. Pope John VIII secured his release. </p><p>Because the Frankish clergy, still smarting, continued their accusations, Methodius had to go to Rome to defend himself against charges of heresy and uphold his use of the Slavonic liturgy. He was again vindicated. </p><p>Legend has it that in a feverish period of activity, Methodius translated the whole Bible into Slavonic in eight months. He died on Tuesday of Holy Week, surrounded by his disciples, in his cathedral church. </p><p>Opposition continued after his death, and the work of the brothers in Moravia was brought to an end and their disciples scattered. But the expulsions had the beneficial effect of spreading the spiritual, liturgical and cultural work of the brothers to Bulgaria, Bohemia and southern Poland. Patrons of Moravia, and specially venerated by Catholic Czechs, Slovaks, Croatians, Orthodox Serbians and Bulgarians, Cyril and Methodius are eminently fitted to guard the long-desired unity of East and West. In 1980, Pope John Paul II named them additional co-patrons of Europe (with Benedict).</p> American Catholic Blog This is the beauty of self-giving love: Men and women, driven by love, freely choose to give up their autonomy, to limit their freedom, by committing themselves to the good of the spouse. Love is so powerful that it impels them to want to surrender their will to their beloved in this profound way.

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