Keeper of the Flame (1943): Cukor’s Noir Melodrama, Starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn

keeper_of_the_flame_posterIn 1942, Donald Ogden Stewart sent director George Cukor and star Katharine Hepburn his adaptation of an unpublished novel by I.A.R. Wylie, Keeper of the Flame.
It dealt with a woman whose life is distorted by her continuing love-hate relationship with her dead husband.

Our Grade: B- (** out of *****)

The top echelon of MGM didn’t like it much, not after Hepburn’s success in the 1942 comedy Woman of the Year (and before that The Phialdelphia Story), but the stubborn actress used all of her charm to persuade them to make the film with Spencer Tracy as her leading man.

Hepburn had just met and fallen in love with Tracy on the set of Woman of the Year, directed by George Stevens in 1942.  Her ambition was to find good scripts for the two of them–it was also an effective way to keep an eye on the boozy Tracy. Hepburn soon became Tracy’s secretary, companion, chauffeur, and nurse. She would drive him to the studio, and stay on the set even when not needed. At the end of the working day, she would then drive Tracy home and cook for him.

keeper_of_the_flame_3Tracy and Hepburn were not cast as lovers in the film; in fact, Tracy had a much bigger part, but Hepburn didn’t mind. An added inducement to do the film was the fact that Cukor agreed to direct.

Cukor’s last project before his military service, which turned out to be bried, Keeper of the Flame was his first and only film with an explicit political message, though from the beginning he did not like the idea that it’s too verbose.  “The screen is a powerful factor for the expression of those ideals in which we believe and today are fighting for,” Cukor said in one of his rare statements about film as propaganda.

Though neglected by film historians, Keeper of the Flame is a quintesential noir suspense- mystery that “also gives an opportunity to speak the truth of democracy and Americanism.” Donald Ogden Stewart, who had become very political during WWII, stuffed the script with all kinds of anti-Fascist messages.

keeper_of_the_flame_2Spencer Tracy plays a journalist who sets out to write the biography of Robert Foster, a leader he admired. Refusing to cooperate, Foster’s widow (Katharine Hepburn) puts obstacles in his path. As it turns out, she’s trying to conceal the fact that her husband headed a vast secret organization that was going to turn the country over to Fascism. Made during a period of undercover Fascism in the U.S., Cukor filled the film with contemporary references, attacking the phenomenon of hero worship, the effects of leaders on youth, the funeral with Boy Scouts in attendance, official speeches patriotism.

Considering that the book was portentous, the unfolding of the mystery in the first part was good filmmaking. Cukor’s touch showed in building a strong atmosphere and in his usual attention to detail–Keeper of the Flames had an interesting Gothic style. Cukor managed to conceal the fraudulent story in the first sequences, but then the movie resorted to the melodramatics of a fire, chase, and a noble death. The film had a “waxwork quality,” because everything was shot on the sound stage, including the outdoor scenes.

Christina, the mysterious widow, was Hepburn’s first mature screen woman. Hepburn looked beautiful, but she spoke in a mournful manner and “suffered” too much. “Kate had to float in, wearing a long white gown and carrying a bunch of lilies,” Cukor said in her defense, “That’s awfully tricky.” Cukor himself conceded that Hepburn’s performance was a bit phony, what with those long piercing looks with which she had to stare at her husband’s portrait.

keeper_of_the_flame_1Keeper of the Flame was the first, possibly the weakest, movie Tracy made with Cukor. MGM’s most respected actor of the time, Tracy went on to make five more movies with Cukor–the largest number he made with any director. Tracy actually gave a monotonous performance, though Cukor praised him for playing a difficult part. “It’s hard to keep plugging all that integrity and honesty,” he said, “but Tracy is believable.”

The impressive supporting cast included Frank Craven, Donald Meek, and Howard Da Silva. But best of all was Margaret Wycherly who, as Forrest’s mother, conveyed a haunting portrait. Wycherly played the madness scenes so well that the viewers almost forgot the melodramatic trappings.

Whenever possible, Cukor liked to get in his movies new or fresh, talented people, both in fron and behind the cameras, in his movies.

In this one, Percy Kilbride, who later became Pa Kettle in the popular series Ma and Pa Kettle, made his debut in the small role of a taxi driver. “I have always rejoiced coaching untried performers,” Cukor said, “and do not prefer to work exclusively with established actors, as has sometimes been said.”

In the next decade, Cukor would launch the screen career of Angela Lansbury (Gaslight), Judy Holliday (Winged Victory), Tom Ewell, Jean Hagen and David Wayne (all in Adam’s Rib), Anthony Perkins (The Actress), Aldo Ray (The Marrying Kind), Jack Lemmon (It Should Happen to You), and many others).

Commercial Appeal

Despite mixed reviews and controversy about it politics, the film was a commercial hit, especially in big cities.  The movie was held over for a fourth week at New York City’s prestige house Radio City Music Hall. It earned $2,190,000 in the U. S. and Canada and $1,03 million elsewhere, turning a profit of over $ 1 million.

Overall, though, both Cukor and MGM considered Keeper of the Flame as the least successful of the Hepburn-Tracy collaborations.


Spencer Tracy as Steven O’Malley
Katharine Hepburn as Christine Forrest
Richard Whorf as Clive Kerndon
Margaret Wycherly as Mrs. Forrest
Forrest Tucker as Geoffrey Midford
Frank Craven as Doctor Fielding
Stephen McNally as Freddie Ridges (billed as “Horace McNally”)
Percy Kilbride as Orion Peabody
Audrey Christie as Jane Harding
Darryl Hickman as Jeb Rickards
Donald Meek as Mr. Arbuthnot
Howard Da Silva as Jason Rickards
William Newell as Piggot