Before It Was Black Rock: Tracy's Classic Drama

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The year was 1953, and the studio was desperate to make a film with their star Spencer Tracy before his contract ended.

That’s when the short story “Bad Day at Honda” was brought to the attention of screenwriter Millard Kaufman, who used the plot’s framework to make one of Tracy’s greatest and most poignant pieces.

1. Tracy was “tricked” into doing it.

In fact, Tracy turned it down based on the short story alone. But Screenwriter Millard Kaufman fixed the story’s problems, added the key mystery, and made the lead character one-armed. Before resubmitting the project to Tracy, the head of production Dore Schary sent the script to Alan Ladd and informed Tracy that he had accepted the part. He hadn't, but it got Tracy to say yes to the movie that would led to another Oscar nomination.

2. Tracy was particular about his outfit.

When presented with the suit his character would wear, Tracy felt it wasn’t “grumpy” enough and wouldn’t be something an Army man would buy after returning from war. As a result, the costume department went searching and found two suits that fit the bill in a Los Angeles discount clothing store. Tracy also purchased a plain gray suit himself that was purposefully unfitted.

3. The title changed thanks to the Duke.

The film got the go-ahead with the name “Bad Day at Honda”. However, in 1953, John Wayne’s successful Hondo was released. Screenwriter Kaufman said, “So our title went out the window.” Alternate titles included “Bad Day at Parma” and “Day of Reckoning”. As it happened, Kaufman was in Arizona scouting locations for another film when he stumbled across the name of a bleak stop called... Black Rock. The film, however, was actually shot in California near Death Valley and on MGM’s lot.

4. Tracy was impressed with Robert Ryan.

The cast included heavy hitters Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Anne Francis, and Walter Brennan. After filming ended for the day, Tracy often invited his castmates back to his suite for cocktails – though he stuck to 7-Up himself. Tracy was particularly captivated by Robert Ryan’s sinister performance and knew that if Ryan could scare him that he’d scare the audience too. Ryan was impressed with his co-star as well and said, “When I was starting out in Hollywood, I would spend any day off I had or any free time on the set watching Spencer Tracy, who was one of the great masters.”

5. Borgnine was nervous.

And who wouldn’t be working with the great Spencer Tracy? In their first scene together, everyone was watching, and Borgnine felt it as Tracy walked toward him. “All I could see were these two Academy Awards coming at me,” he remembered. Afterward, Tracy complimented his performance and appreciated that his fellow actor looked him right in the eye during the scene. Well done, Ernest!

6. Borgnine helped choreograph the fight scene.

In the film, Tracy’s one-armed character incapacitates Borgnine. A stunt double filled in for Tracy, and Borgnine worked with him to choreograph the fight, even using a bloody sponge strategically so as to make it look real. The screenplay also called for Tracy to light a match using his fingernail. Tracy couldn’t do the trick and suggested just using a Zippo lighter which was what he felt Army men actually used anyway.

7. Borgnine and Tracy were Oscar-nominated the same year…

But for different movies. The 1966 nominees included Frank Sinatra, James Cagney, James Dean, Tracy, and Borgnine. Ernest wowed audiences with his performance in Marty and took home the gold statute that year. Tracy sent him a congratulatory telegram, and later, Borgnine had the chance to catch up with him on the set of Desk Set, where he met Katharine Hepburn for the first time. Tracy also told him that his Oscar for Boys Town mistakenly had “Dick Tracy” engraved on it.