Extraordinary couple

Watching a 1944 movie on television last night took me back 44 years to an experience I’ll never forget. In the film, The Seventh Cross, Spencer Tracy plays a fugitive on the run after escaping from a Nazi concentration camp. He winds up hiding in the modest home of a frightened German couple, played by Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy.

This movie was the first time the couple worked together as actors. They’d been married to each other for two years.

Cronyn and Tandy came to Fort Lauderdale’s Parker Playhouse in 1976, performing in the pre-Broadway run of The Gin Game, a comedy about two elderly residents in a nursing home who compete fiercely in a running game of gin rummy.

As theater reporter and reviewer for The Miami Herald in Broward County, I got to interview this extraordinary couple as they relaxed between performances. What a pleasant encounter, so down-to-earth. It felt like a conversation with family members. He did much of the talking as she quietly tracked their schedule and finances in a personal journal. They asked me to direct them to a local grocery store.

Their personalities and their backgrounds are so different, one marvels at their naturalness as a couple. Cronyn, one of five children, was born in London, Ontario. His father was a successful businessman and member of Parliament. His mother was an heiress of a large brewing company. Hume was educated in upscale private schools and McGill University.

Tandy was born in the other London, the one in England, the youngest of three siblings. Her mother ran a school for mentally handicapped children, and her father was a rope salesman. He died when Jessica was 12, and her mother began teaching evening courses to earn an income.

My mother would have called Cronyn a fussbudget. He obsesses on every detail, loves to micromanage. Spencer Tracy was asked his impression of working with Cronyn in The Seventh Cross, he replied, “The son of a bitch would fix the damned lights if they’d let him.’” Tandy, by contrast, presents a calmer, more serene demeanor.

Cronyn made his Broadway debut in 1934, in Hipper’s Holiday, and immediately impressed others with his versatility, playing several different roles on stage. He went on to a stellar career on stage and in films.

Tandy was 16 when she made her professional bow as Sara Manderson in the play The Manderson Girls. Her first West End play was in The Rumour at the Court Theatre in 1929.

Both, as we well know, went on to hugely successful careers as actors, winning awards and the respect of theater and movie lovers. They both had been married before, but when they married each other, they stayed together for 52 years. She died in 1994 of ovarian cancer. He passed on in 2003, of prostate cancer.

Spencer Tracy delivered a gripping performance in The Seventh Cross. Cronyn was nominated for an Oscar for his work as supporting actor. Watching this old 1944 movie last night brought back my wonderful encounter in 1976 with this special couple, an experience I cherish.




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