Universally regarded among the screen's greatest actors, Spencer Tracy was a most unlikely leading man. Stocky, craggy-faced, and gruff, he could never be considered a matinee idol, yet few stars enjoyed greater or more consistent success. An uncommonly versatile performer, his consistently honest and effortless performances made him a favorite of both audiences and critics throughout a career spanning well over three decades. Born April 5, 1900, in Milwaukee, WI, Tracy was expelled from some 15 different elementary schools prior to attending Rippon College, where he discovered and honed a talent for debating; eventually, he considered acting as a logical extension of his skills, and went on to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. His first professional work cast him as a robot in a stage production of R.U.R. at a salary of ten dollars a week. He made his Broadway debut in 1923's A Royal Fandango and later co-starred in a number of George M. Cohan vehicles. Tracy's performance as an imprisoned killer in 1930's The Last Mile made him a stage star, and during its Broadway run he made a pair of shorts for Vitaphone, The Hard Guy and Taxi Talks. Screen tests for MGM, Universal, and Warners were all met with rejection, however, but when John Ford insisted on casting Tracy as the lead in his prison drama Up the River, Fox offered a five-year contract.
Tracy's second film was 1931's Quick Millions, in which he portrayed a racketeer. He was frequently typecast as a gangster during his early career, or at the very least a tough guy, and like the majority of Fox productions throughout the early part of the decade, his first several films were unspectacular. His big break arrived when Warners entered a feud with Jimmy Cagney, who was scheduled to star in 1933's 20,000 Years in Sing Sing; when he balked, the studio borrowed Tracy, and the picture was a hit. His next two starring roles in The Face in the Sky and the Preston Sturges epic The Power and the Glory were also successful, earning very positive critical notice. Still, Fox continued to offer Tracy largely low-rent projects, despite extending his contract through 1937. Regardless, much of his best work was done outside of the studio grounds; for United Artists, he starred in 1934's Looking for Trouble, and for MGM starred as The Show-Off. After filming 1935's It's a Small World, executives cast Tracy as yet another heavy in The Farmer Takes a Wife; he refused to accept the role and was fired.