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Spencer Tracy earned his second Academy Award nomination and first Oscar for his performance in Captains Courageous. Interestingly though, he didn’t want the part.
“Fought against it like a steer. Thought the characterization to be phony. Didn’t see how the pieces would fit together. Didn’t know where I could borrow an accent,” Spencer later reflected.
Based on Rudyard Kipling’s book, the character of Manuel was described as Portuguese, having curly hair and an accent, and being able to sing and play the vielle – all things which Tracy felt very unsuited for.
But director Victor Fleming and screenwriter Louis D. Lighton urged him to reconsider. So Tracy asked for his wife’s opinion, and after reading the script, she recommended he take the part.
But he still had doubts about the accent and intentionally sought out movies where actors tackled them.
Inspiration for the character came thanks to an actual Portuguese sailor who visited the studio.
Tracy said, “He was Manuel. The expression in his eyes, the way he walked, the way he sat, the way he used his hands, his knowledge of boats.”
Tracy tested his accent out in his company, inquiring about if calling Freddie Bartholomew “leetle feesh” would work for the film.
“…he looked at me patiently—and a little pityingly—and said, ‘Do you mean little fish, Mr. Tracy?’ I gave up,” Spencer remembered.
Another challenge for the role was singing.
“The thought of singing gave me the shudders.”
Tracy avoided the vocal coach until he finally decided to buckle down and (as he said) “let the old baritone rip”.
Fleming joked with him, saying, “Don’t get any better, Spence, then you’d be awful.”
While it was a challenge, Spencer Tracy’s favorite scene ended up being the one in which he sings under the stars.
For his performance, Tracy was surprised to be nominated for an Oscar and even more surprised to win. His competition that year was Charles Boyer (Conquest), Fredric March (A Star Is Born), Paul Muni (The Life of Emile Zola) and Robert Montgomery (Night Must Fall).
He said, “Well, I got away with it. Want to know why? Because of Freddie... The way he would look at me, believe every word I said, made me believe in it myself.”