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Spencer Tracy earned his second Academy Award nomination and first Oscar for his performance as Manuel in Captains Courageous. Interestingly though, he initially didn’t want the part.
“Fought against it like a steer," he said. "Thought the characterization to be phony. Didn’t see how the pieces would fit together. Didn’t know where I could borrow an accent."
In Rudyard Kipling’s book, the character of Manuel is Portuguese with curly hair, an accent, and the ability to sing and play the vielle. Tracy felt that all of those qualities couldn't be further from who he was.
But director Victor Fleming and screenwriter Louis D. Lighton urged him to reconsider. So Tracy asked his wife for her opinion. After reading the script, she recommended he take the part too, so he relented.
Still, he had doubts that he could pull it off, especially because of the accent. Thankfully, inspiration finally came to him when an actual Portuguese sailor visited the studio.
Tracy said, "The expression in his eyes, the way he walked, the way he sat, the way he used his hands, his knowledge of boats — he was Manuel."
So Tracy decided to try out his accent for him. He was especially interested if calling his young co-star, Freddie Bartholomew, “leetle feesh” would sound authentic.
Remembering the Portuguese sailor's reaction, Tracy said, “He looked at me patiently—and a little pityingly—and said, ‘Do you mean little fish, Mr. Tracy?’ I gave up."
Another challenge for Tracy was singing.
“The thought of singing gave me the shudders.”
He avoided the vocal coach until the very last possible moment. Then, as he put it, he "let the old baritone rip."
Fleming joked with him, saying, “Don’t get any better, Spence, then you’d be awful.”
While singing was a challenge, Tracy’s favorite scene actually turned out to be the one in which he sings under the stars.
After the picture was released, Tracy was surprised to be nominated for an Oscar and even more surprised to win. After all, his competition that year had been Charles Boyer (Conquest), Fredric March (A Star Is Born), Paul Muni (The Life of Emile Zola), and Robert Montgomery (Night Must Fall).
He credited his success to one person in particular: Freddie Bartholomew.
"The way he would look at me, believe every word I said, made me believe in it myself."