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Saturday, September 10, 2011

KEEPER OF THE FLAME (1942)

Like Elia Kazan’s SEA OF GRASS/’47, this earlier pairing of Spencer Tracy & Katharine Hepburn (the second of nine) sidesteps sexual politics & romantic comedy for dark, brooding Gothic-tinged melodrama. It’s not exactly better than Kazan’s eminently forgettable pic, in fact, this George Cukor film is faintly ludicrous, but it’s also fascinating; an up-to-the-minute cautionary tale on the pitfalls of hero worship, false patriots and the ever-present appeal of bromides, self-proclaimed leaders & fascism. Hepburn plays the great man’s recent widow, a teary specter of woe & mystery, she holds the key (literally) to the truth behind the legend. Tracy’s a renowned, world-weary reporter, back from a rapidly darkening Europe (it’s just before Pearl Harbor) and startled to spot feet of clay supporting the dead man's monumental reputation. Except for a couple of sharpies in the press pool, the rest of the fabulous cast (Richard Whorf, Frank Craven, Margaret Wycherly, Howard da Silva, Percy Kilbride, Forrest Tucker, Donald Meek, even Darryl Hickman as an hysterical boy) might have stepped right out of a Universal horror pic. But the main influence, visually & thematically, was undoubtedly CITIZEN KANE/’41, though scripter Donald Ogden Stewart may have been spending his nights rereading Sinclair Lewis’s IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE. The pace lifts off in the final reels, but there’s so much business to wrap up, the ominous tone gets lost amid long explanations & rides to the rescue. It all a bit ridiculous, yet the film’s concerns aren’t easily sloughed off.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Until she pulls herself together in the last reel, this is uncongenial material for Hepburn. Greta Garbo would have been the likely candidate, but she & Cukor had just made an embarrassing flop (TWO-FACED WOMAN/’41) after which she never worked again. (Hepburn also took over on Tracy’s Frank Capra pic, STATE OF THE UNION/’48, when Claudette Colbert walked.) This helps explain why Garbo’s regular cinematographer, William Daniels was on the film and it surely explains why stage legend Pauline Lord originally filmed all of the scenes that Margaret Wycherly reshot as Hepburn’s mother-in-law. Cukor was always trying to work with the great stage divas of his youth. But Pauline Lord had an even better reason for playing what she thought would be Garbo's mother-in-law. Back in 1921 she was B’way’s original Anna Christie, the same role Garbo took on as her first Talkie. What a missed opportunity! . . . if it really played out this way. And whatever happened to that missing Pauline Lord footage?

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