Keeper of the Flame (1942): George Cukor’s Only Agit-Prop Movie, Starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn

Keeper of the Flame was based on an unpublished book the female writer by I. A. R. Wylie

RKO Pictures bought the book in outline form in April 1941 but encountered casting difficulties and sold the rights to MGM in December 1941 for $50,000.

Just days after obtaining the rights, MGM Vice-President Eddie Mannix realized the source material was too political in nature and tried to abandon the project.

However, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, in December 1941, Mannix relented and the production went forward. Once the film went into production, the book was published by Random House in April 1942.

MGM shead Louis B. Mayer assigned the script to Donald Ogden Stewart, then one of his favorite screenwriters. Mayer’s choice was unusual, because Stewart had written only light romantic comedies featuring wealthy East Coast socialites, but Mayer felt Stewart’s strongly leftist political leanings would enable him to chalk out a better screenplay.

Stewart approached the project with gusto, later remarking: “I wrote an adaptation from a novel that tells about the fascist mice who are nibbling away at our country while we’re busy fighting a good war.”

Stewart believed Hollywood had punished him for his political views and felt vindicated by the assignment, declaring that “here was my compensation for the sabotage of my radical attempt to do my bit …The script was the proudest moment of his entire career.

Stewart, however, had extensive problems adapting the novel for the screen, and filming—originally due to begin in June 1942—was delayed for months while he worked on the screenplay. He consulted with the Bureau of Motion Pictures in the U.S. Office of War Information, the agency of the federal government created in June 1942 to promote patriotism and warn the public about domestic spying.

Spencer Tracy had been cast as the male lead just days after MGM purchased the rights to the novel. George Cukor was chosen to direct in late April 1942 because he had dealt well with troubled and headstrong actors in the past, and Tracy was considered a difficult.

MGM assigned top talent to this project. Bronisław Kaper, who had come to MGM in 1935 from Nazi Germany, was assigned to compose the film score. William H. Daniels (Garbo’s favorite) was named the cinematographer.

Katharine Hepburn joined the cast in mid-April 1942 after Stewart sent her a copy of the unfinished script. Initially, she was fascinated by the character of Christine, holdingt that doing the film would be her way of contributing to the war effort.

MGM execs did not want Hepburn attached to the picture, feeling it was an inappropriate follow-up for her first pairing with Tracy in Woman of the Year (1942), but Hepburn insisted, and MGM relented.

Later on, Hepburn expressed serious concerns with Stewart’s redrafting, in that he toned down the novel’s love story, placing more emphasis on the character of O’Malley and the action. She asked for more romance. Although Hepburn had spent much of the prior year searching for scripts with equally strong male and female parts for her and Tracy, she now requested that the O’Malley role be restored to the way he was depicted in the novel (O’Malley is impotent, troubled, and despairing of love) and her own part expanded.

However, producer Victor Saville threatened to resign if changes were made, and Tracy supported him, which led to her suggestions being rejected.

Nonetheless, the script still had numerous problems, which Stewart refused to recognize. In late summer 1942, Cukor brought in Zoë Akins, one of his favorite playwrights, to help with the script. Saville expressed concern that Stewart was basing more and more of the script on William Randolph Hearst, one of Louis B. Mayer’s best friends, and that this might jeopardize the success of the picture. Hurst was already depicted negativey in Orson Welles’ 1941 Citizen Kane.

As script work continued, casting went ahead in mid-1942. Richard Whorf was cast as the villain, Clive Kerndon. Frank Craven, Audrey Christie, Donald Meek and Stephen McNally were all cast in mid-July. Pauline Lord was cast in late July,[32] and Darryl Hickman added in early August. Craven, whose character was not initially specified, was given the role of Dr. Fielding. Forrest Tucker and Percy Kilbride were the last members of the cast hired. A search was even made for the voice of Robert Forrest.

Principal filming began the last week of August 1942. The entire picture was shot on sound stage, with no location shooting. Hepburn had already begun her extramarital affair with Spencer Tracy, and the crew could not help but notic the ways in which she doted on Tracy. Tracy drank heavily during the shoot, and Hepburn tried to keep him out of the bars, assisted him when he was drunk, reinforced his ego, and ran lines with him.

However, Hepburn continued to be upset by the script, and dealt with this problem by isolating herself from friends and family in order to concentrate on her interpretation of the role.

The filming process efficient: it was going so well that in the middle production Cukor asked Hepburn to talk to Judy Garland about the need to sober up.

In order to add realism, Cukor consulted reporters from United Press on how newspapermen would handle Forrest’s funeral. Based on their critiques, Cukor changed the scene in the village hotel’s bar so that instead of drinking and talking about the funeral, the reporters get to work drafting articles on their typewriters. The script was changed to permit the bartender to make a quip about reporters working rather than drinking.

Reshoots occurred in September and October. Hepburn returned to Hollywood in early September for retakes, and Pauline Lord was called back in October. Although James E. Newcom was the editor, Cukor had final cut. Lord’s scenes were deleted from the picture, and her name did not appear on cast lists. She was replaced by Margaret Wycherley.

The film was screened for the Office of War Information’s Bureau of Motion Pictures on December 2, 1942. Bureau’s chief Lowell Mellett was unhappy–he found it heavy-handed. MGM promoted Tracy, already multiple winner, for Best Actor, but he was not nominated.

Keeper of the Flame premiered at the Albee Theatre in Cincinnati on January 28, 1943, setting a box-office record. After other limited dates in February, it premiered at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall on Thursday, March 18, 1943. The premiere served as fundraiser for the Outdoor Cleanliness Association (a group dedicated to public lighting and enforcement of trash laws).

The premiere did not go well: Louis B. Mayer stormed out, enraged by his having encouraged the making of a film that equated wealth with fascism.

It opened in Los Angeles at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Thursday, April 1, 1943. It didn’t appear on American television until March 1957.

Although the film was held over for a fourth week at Radio City Music Hall (most films lasted one week), it did not do well at the box office nationally and is considered the least successful of the Hepburn-Tracy films. It earned $2,190,000 in the United States and Canada and $1,032,000 elsewhere, making an overall profit of $1,040,000.

As expected, the film generated political controversy. Republican members of Congress complained about the obvious leftist politics and demanded that Will H. Hays, president of the Motion Picture Production Code, establish guidelines regarding propagandization for the industry.

Citizen Kane with all the art scraped off

Critical reaction at the time was mixed. While at least one reviewer made references toe Citizen Kane and Rebecca, Hedda Hopper called it “Citizen Kane with all the art scraped off.”

Bosley Crowther, writing in The New York Times, concluded that while the first half of the film was very good, the latter half felt slow and failed to deliver emotional punch. Crowther called the film “a courageous and timely drama” and praised Tracy and Hepburn for performances that featured “taut solemnity.” But the script seemed uneven dramatically (“… the nature of this story is a murder mystery and yet the interest is centered much more upon the dead man than on the hunt”), and a critical problem was that the audience “is informed much sooner than the journalist what the nature of Forrest was, and the story drags while we wait for the journalist to catch up.” Crowther still praised Cukor’s direction, which sustained mystery even when little existed.

The Chicago Tribune and other critics pointed out that the picture seemed slow.

Generally speaking, the film was better received in the eastern half of the United States.

Cukor was highly dissatisfied by the film: “I suspect the story was basically fraudulent.” Like many critics, he felt that “as a piece of storytelling, the unfolding of a mystery, the first half of Keeper of the Flame is a damn good show,” but the rest of the film had substantial problems. He praised Tracy’s work, saying: “Tracy … was at his best in the picture. Subdued, cool, he conveyed the ruthlessness of the reporter sent to investigate Forrest’s death without seeming to try. He was ideally cast in the role, grimly and skeptically exploring the secret of the dead boys’ club hero who was in fact a rampant fascist.”

Hepburn, he felt, was hindered by the role and her approach to it. “It was Kate’s last romantic glamour-girl part, and she acted with some of that artificiality she’d supposedly left behind at RKO. That first scene, floating into a room in yards and yards of draperies with these lillies—well, it was all far, far too much. I don’t think I really believed in the story, it was pure hokeypokey, and her part was phony, highfalutin.” But he felt Hepburn did her best: “That’s awfully tricky, isn’t it? And doesn’t she give long, piercing looks at his portrait over the mantel? Well. I think she finally carried a slightly phony part because her humanity asserted itself, and her humor. They always did.”

Overall, though, Cukor felt the film was leaden, and that it had “a wax work quality.” Even screenwriter Stewart eventually came to feel the film was “tedious, wooden, and heavy-handed.”

The film’s technical quality was highly praised even by the detractors. William H. Daniels’ cinematography and lighting design has been described as lush and virtuosic, and he received accolades from his peers.  Cukor biographer and film critic Emanuel Levy praised the strong atmosphere of Keeper of the Flame and Cukor’s “interesting Gothic style.” Other historians have pointed out that the film’s score is particularly good. The music goes silent during the climactic scene in which Christine Forrest reveals her secrets to Steven O’Malley—an effective and unexpected emotional strategy.

“Early in the summer of 1942, the OWI had been asked to “supply the thinking” for the picture, one of the few pictures to deal with the threat of domestic fascism. … Keeper of the Flame did indeed reflect the war aims of OWI …” “O’Malley confronts Christine Forrest with evidence that she let her husband be killed when she could have saved him, and she finally admits her guilt and justifies her action by speaking of the real nature of Robert Forrest and the Forward American Association.

Keeper of the Flame, released during the first wave of racist war pictures, represents the first Hollywood message film that sought to establish a commanding—and a respectable—leadership position vis-à-vis the American people.