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Spencer Tracy hoped that 20,000 Years in Sing Sing was the film that would change his future. While under contract to Fox, he was unsatisfied with the projects that were given to him, and he was ready to find a career-defining role at Warner Brothers.
While this film wouldn’t make him a star, it proved that he could hold his own on the screen and deliver a powerful performance like no one else could.
1. Cagney was the original lead.
James Cagney and director William Wellman were originally supposed to team up for the film, after the success they had with Public Enemy. However, Cagney's contract dispute changed that plan. Fox loaned Tracy to Warner Brothers for $10,400 for four weeks' work. The film took approximately 30 days to film.
2. Bette and Tracy got along great.
Tracy was a fan of Bette Davis’ work and gushed about her performance in The Menace. Bette only worked on Sing Sing for nine days, but in that time, Davis was impressed with him too. “Spence didn’t have any pretenses, and for an actor that’s like saying the Hudson River never freezes over,” she said. “For the run of the picture, we had this wonderful vitality and love for each other.”
3. They filmed inside Sing Sing.
The film was based on the novel by Sing Sing’s warden Lewis E. Lawes, who was actually still in charge while the movie was being made. As a result, he allowed them to film on location and even use some of the prisoners in shots. Additional filming was also done on MGM’s Stage 10 where a prison block had been built for The Big House.