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Wednesday
Apr 30 2014

A Year with Kate: Keeper of the Flame (1942)

Episode 18 of 52 ofAnne Marie's chronological look at Katharine Hepburn's career.

In which I'm not entirely sure what's going on but it seems to involve boy scouts and fascism.

So,you're a major studio with a bona fide hit on your hands.You've thrown two Academy Award winners,neither a matinee idol in their own right,into a romantic comedy,and the sparks between them burst with unexpected chemistry.The result is a commercial and critical smashthat will garner two Oscar nominations and one win (for Best Screenplay).Clearly,another movie between Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn is desired.The next question is: how do you follow an immediate classic?

If your answer is "with a heavy-handed,jingoistic melodrama about fascism,"then you're crazy,but you're also right.The tonal about-face from the lightheartedWoman of the Yearto Tracy and Hepburn's next film,Keeper of the Flame,is severe enough to cause whiplash.[more...]

Donald Ogden Stewart's screenplay is a touch ofRebeccaandCitizenKane,a heaping spoonfull of anti-fascism,and enough left-leaning criticism of public figures like Charles Lindbergh and William Randolph Hearst to overshadow the film's ultimately patriotic message.Steven O'Malley (Tracy),a cynical war correspondent,returns to America to uncover the truth about the death of a well-loved political figure named Robert Forrest.The more Steven learns about Forrest and his aloof widow,Christine (Kate),the more the reporter questions how power can corrupt a man,and how a man can corrupt a nation.

This is beginning to sound a lot like the introduction to one of my favorite genres...

"The calla lilies are in bloom again..."Wait,wrong movie.

Keeper of the Flameis a proto-film noir,one of those gothic melodramas from the early 1940s that foreshadows the darkness that would consumed crime thrillers in the next decade.The film contains the seeds of noir: the cynical hero who's seen too much,a mystery that threatens his last shreds of hope,a murder,a distant dame who could be dangerous,even a girl Friday for the hero to lean on.However,most important to the film is the brilliant black and white cinematography by legendary cinematographer William H.Daniels.(Daniels' filmography is a lesson in Classic Hollywood;everything from Greta Garbo toThe Naked CitytoHow The West Was Won.) ForKeeper of the Flame,Daniels casts the world around Stephen O'Malley in perpetual shadow.Low-key lighting throws objects and people into stark contrast,giving the entire film an unnatural,gothic eeriness.This is doubly true when O'Malley finally penetrates Forrest's mansion.The shadows the mansion casts are simultaneously cavernous and claustrophobic.

Daniels' light plays especially well over Spencer Tracy's craggy features.Tracy was not what one would call classically handsome,but he was interesting to look at thanks to his world-worn wrinkles and the focused intensity of his performances.Steven O'Malley is no exception;as the plot grows increasingly ridiculous,it's Tracy's intensity that carries it almost to the threshold of plausibility.

But what of Kate?Kate stinks.Christine Forrest isn't a true femme fatale,but she's still a woman with a secret to hide.The film relies on her being fascinating enough to hold O'Malley's interest,grief-stricken enough to hold the audience's sympathy,but distant enough to seem dangerous.Kate can't quite manage to balance all three.In fact,her incredible chemistry with Tracy is mostly smothered under the weight of her ponderous performance,which leans woodenly on grief.Kate is aided not at all by Daniels' contrast lighting - which highlights the geometric lines of her face until she looks almost alien - and her angular hairstyle.She spends the majority of the film looking like a stoic Vampira.Unfortunately,we're about a decade away from that being a viable style option.The good news in Kate's failure is it shows how far she has yet to go.In fifteen years,she'll play another widow desperate to keep secrets and preserve the memory of a great man,butthatwill be one of the best performances of her career.

Keeper of the Flameis as odd in Kate's partnership with Spencer Tracy as it is unlikely.Originally,Kate wasn't supposed to be in the film,but she bullied her way on in order to help the alcoholic Tracy get through filming.It may have prolonged Spencer's sobriety,but it ended Kate's box office mojo.The film inspired few box office returns,but much hand-wringing from higher ups worried about angering important political figures.Though offscreen Tracy and Hepburn's affair had just begun,Kate wouldn't be paired onscreen with Spencer for another three years.But oh,what a strange few years those will be.

Previous Weeks:A Bill of Divorcement,Christopher Strong,Morning Glory,Little Women,Spitfire,The Little Minister,Break of Hearts,Alice Adams,Sylvia Scarlett,Mary of Scotland,A Woman Rebels,Quality Street,Stage Door,Bringing Up Baby,Holiday,The Philadelphia Story,Woman of the Year,

Next Week:Stage Door Canteen(1943) - In which Katharine Hepburn,Tallulah Bankhead,and a stripper walk into a bar...(Available onAmazon&Netflix)

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Reader Comments (14)

This is an odd one in her filmography.Her look is striking,it feds into the rather otherworldly way she played the part but she did seem somewhat at sea.Then the film itself is slow moving and obtuse.It is undoubtedly a high class project with that MGM sheen and an excellent supporting cast but a minor credit for both stars,together or apart.

April 30,2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

This is the first film in the series I had genuinely never heard of-and I morbidly want to see now.The sign of a well-written takedown of a film.

April 30,2014 | Unregistered CommenterJohn T

I just discovered Hedda Hopper's review of Keeper of the Flame.She called it "Citizen Kane with all the art scraped off."John T,I hope that doesn't change your mind about seeing it.

April 30,2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

Hedda Hopper never changed my mind about anything,at least not to its detriment.

April 30,2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Yes,well,I told you that these 40s movies just don't really do it for me.I find a lot of these Tracy/Hepburn movies to be quite ponderous.In fact,I think you've got about six more years of blech,though I can't wait to see what everyone thinks of Kate in "Oriental"drag.Yikes.Wake me up when Bogie comes along.:-)

That being said,Kate's alien look in the movie is wickedly beautiful to a guy who has no sexual interest in her at all!

April 30,2014 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

Dave,I'm beginning to agree with you!I was looking forward today and I thought,"Oh,dear.May is going to be rough."Kate's awkward yellowface movie is on my birthday,too.Awkward.

April 30,2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

Might I suggest yellow colored cocktails to go with Dragon Seed?:-) And really,it's THAT voice more than anything that makes me giggle over it.What were they thinking?Kate is many things,but Luise Rainer she ain't,that's for sure.

April 30,2014 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

Dragon Seed IS going to be a rough one but I'm looking forward to next week's Stage Door Canteen,one of those wonderfully strange compendium films they put together for the war effort.This one with an amazingly eclectic cast.

Happy Birthday in advance Anne Marie!

April 30,2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

I think this may be the only Tracy/Hepburn film I haven't seen.I loved their movies when I was growing up,but I've cooled on them considerably since...it's dangerous to fall for a myth and then learn the facts don't measure up.

April 30,2014 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

I was in the hospital whenWoman of the Yearcropped up,so I will go on my little rant now: I hate hate hate the Hepburn/Tracy pairings that aren'tAdam's Riband the first two-thirds ofWoman of the Year.Spencer Tracy is already low on my list of classic Hollywood leading men that I enjoy watching,and in all of his pairings with Kate,it feels like all of her natural spiciness gets mellowed out;I don't know if it's because of their off-screen shenanigans or what,but she almost never feels like she's challenging him for control of a scene,or wants to.Everything I love about her work with Grant,or her sparring with Peter O'Toole inThe Lion in Winter,right of the top of me head,is just gone.

And this right here is the absolute pits as far as their collaborations go.It's such a bizarre mix of the sedate and the ludicrously overheated.I even like the yellowface more,I have to admit.

Okay,rant over.Sorry.

May 1,2014 | Registered CommenterTim Brayton

I'm pretty sure this is the only Hepburn-Tracy film I haven't heard of,and this review makes me kind of fascinated by it.I either love (Adam's Rib) or hate (Pat & Mike) even their most famous films together,so I can guess pretty easily which one this will fall into,but...now I'm kind of morbidly obsessed with it.Thanks,Anne Marie!

And I LOVE Stage Door Canteen,so I can't wait for next week!

May 1,2014 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

Tim,no need to apologize.This is a safe space.I agree that Kate mellows quite a bit in her lesser collaborations with Tracy.I blame script quality as well,though,since it also happens in a few of her spinster movies and I *hate* that phase of her career.I hope you're feeling better after your hospital visit!

Denny etc,if you decide to see Keeper of the Flame I will not be blamed if it doesn't live up to your expectations.It's a curiosity rather than a classic.A very long,ponderous curiosity.

May 1,2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

How crazy it is that they somehow always have to put a book with the title on it to prove that they're making a movie out of it in the poster back in the days?

May 1,2014 | Unregistered Commentercraver

Anne Marie,another stellar piece.Not being a huge fan of the Kate/Spencer pairings,which either feel too lightweight or archly gender--political to me,this one just might be my cup of black,very black tea.Melodrama is like catnip to me,and I would love to see these two go at it from a different angle than on either side of a desktop or dining room table.I'd be curious to see that kind of tension between them.And of course,Kate going goth could be really cool.LOL

May 1,2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

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