The Austin Chronicle

A Tall Drink of Water

Stars we love at the Paramount Summer Classic Film series

By Steve Davis, May 16, 2014, Screens

Mad for Tracy

Some film actors work from the outside in: They wear a prosthetic, adopt a mannerism, speak with an inflection to communicate the nature of their characters. These performers carry on the tradition of silent-screen chameleon Lon Chaney, who distorted his face to play an opera-house madman, and his body to portray a lovesick hunchback. Other film actors work from the inside out. They internalize their characters first; everything else is just set decoration.

Spencer Tracy is the consummate inside-out actor in American cinema. Though he won one of two Oscars for his performance as the Portuguese fisherman in Captains Courageous, he reportedly hated feigning an accent and resented the unnaturally curled hair required for the role. Tracy was an actor most comfortable in his own skin, whether he played drama (Bad Day at Black Rock), comedy (Father of the Bride), or anything in between (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?). The greatest compliment ever paid to him? He appeared to do nothing and everything at the same time.

Tracy received top billing in the 1963 epic, side-splitting extravaganza, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Sure, the free-for-all antics of an ensemble cast of comic pros like Phil Silvers, Ethel Merman, Sid Caesar, and Jonathan Winters scrambling to locate buried treasure define the film. It's mayhem on the grandest scale. But it's Tracy's sly turn as the put-upon police captain with ulterior motives that grounds the movie's madness. It's a pleasure to watch Captain Culpepper's exasperation during a phone call with his annoying wife, or to see the little man finally make his big move. Tracy may not fly an airplane through a billboard or burn down a gas station, but without him, this slapstick masterpiece would be nothing but a series of pratfalls in search of a movie.

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World: Tue., Aug. 26, 7pm; Wed., Aug. 27, 7pm (P)

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