Keeper of the Flame (1943): Cukor’s Noir Agit-Prop Melodrama, Starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn (Not as Lovers or Companions)

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In 1942, the writer Donald Ogden Stewart sent director George Cukor and star Katharine Hepburn his adaptation of an unpublished novel by I.A.R. Wylie, Keeper of the Flame.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: C+ (** 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 Philadelphia 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, which was directed by George Stevens in 1942.

Her ambitious goal was to find good scripts for the two of them–it was also an effective way to keep an eye on the boozy (and occasionally cheating) Tracy. Hepburn soon functioned in multiple positions, becoming Tracy’s secretary, companion, chauffeur, and nurse–and co-star.  She would drive him to the studio, and stay on the set even when she was not needed. At the end of the working day, she would drive Tracy home, cook for him, and make sure that he had only two drinks. (He was drinking on the side, when she was not watching)

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Unlike other films, Tracy and Hepburn were not cast as lovers in the film. In fact, Tracy had a much bigger part, but Hepburn claimed that she didn’t mind. An added inducement to do the film was the fact that their mutual friend and reliable collaborator Cukor agreed to direct.

This was Cukor’s last project before his military service, which turned out to be brief due to age. Keeper of the Flame also bears the dubious distinction of being his first and only film with to convey overtly an explicit political message.

However, from the start, he complained that the subject was too dreary and the dialogue solemn.  “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 rare (but not entirely genuine) statements about film as a tool of propaganda, agit-prop.

Though neglected by film historians specializing in the noir genre, Keeper of the Flame is a quintessential noir suspense- mystery, one that the studio described as “giving 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. He would later be backlisted for tat,

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Spencer Tracy plays a stern journalist named Steven O’Malley, who sets out to write the biography of Robert Foster, a leader that he presumable (and initially) admired.

Refusing to cooperate with his investigation (at least initially), Foster’s widow, Christine (Katharine Hepburn), is determined to put one obstacle after another in his path.

As it turns out, Christine is trying to conceal the fact that her husband headed a vast secret organization whose goal was to turn the country over to fascism.

Made during a period of rumored undercover fascism in the U.S., Cukor was forced to fill the film with contemporary references, such as attacking the phenomenon of an excessive hero worship, the irreparable (and often negative) effects of leaders on American youth, manifest in a scene depicting funeral with Boy Scouts in attendance, and all kinds of speeches about patriotism.

Considering that the book was portentous, the unfolding of the mystery in the first part of the film showed quite a skillful craftsmanship.  Cukor used all kinds of visual and sound touches in building a strong, dark and grim atmosphere.

As was his habit, Cukor excelled in his attention to the smallest detail–Keeper of the Flame exhibited an intriguing Gothic style. that recalled that of horror movies set in a haunted house.

That said, if Cukor managed to conceal the fraudulent story in the movie’s first sequences, he was defeated in the later parts, which drew too heavily on the conventional melodramatics of a fire, chase, and ultimately a noble death.

To his friends and colleagues, Cukor described the movie as one defined by a “waxwork quality,” because everything was shot on the sound stage, including the exterior outdoor scenes.

Christina, the text’s mysterious widow, was Hepburn’s first mature screen woman. Hepburn looked beautiful, but she spoke in an exceedingly mournful manner, often resorting t0 declamation of speeches about the hatred of Jews, Negroes, loss of belief in God.

Visually, the last image of the film–a flowing American flag–was something that Cukor would have never used if it depended on him; it was added in the editing room.

Always the cynical, Cukor later joked that “Kate suffered too much. He ridiculed the fact that “Kate had to float around, with air down, while wearing a long white gown and carrying a bunch of lilies,” which in his few was “awfully tricky,” considering that Hepburn was known for her distaste of long gowns and elegant dresses.

Cukor himself later conceded that, under his direction and defeated by a text neither believed in, Hepburn’s performance was strenuous and phony–what with those long, piercing looks that conveyed both pity and pathos in the way she had to stare at the imposing portrait of her late husband–and the way she talked about him.

 

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Keeper of the Flame was the first, possibly the weakest, movie that Tracy made with Cukor directing. MGM’s most respected actor of the time, Tracy went on to appear in five more pictures helmed by Cukor–the largest number he would make with any other director.

Like Hepburn, Tracy actually gave a monotonous performance, though, formally, Cukor praised him for playing an impossibly difficult part. “It’s hard to keep plugging all that integrity and honesty,” he later said, “but Tracy did his best to be believable.”

The impressive supporting cast included Frank Craven, Donald Meek, and Howard Da Silva.

But perhaps best of all was Margaret Wycherly who, as Forrest’s delusional mother, conveyed a haunting portrait of maternal love and dedication to the extreme. Wycherly played the madness scenes at the end of the saga so well that the viewers almost forgot the melodramatic trappings.

Discovering and Exhibiting New, Fresh Talent

As noted, whenever possible, Cukor liked to get in his movies some new or fresh talented people, both in front and behind the cameras.

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

True, in the next decade, Cukor would launch the screen careers of Angela Lansbury (Gaslight), Judy Holliday (Winged Victory, years before Born Yesterday), 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 its 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 movie-house Radio City Music Hall.

In the end, it earned $2,190,000 in the U. S. and Canada and $1,030,000 million elsewhere, turning a profit of over $1 million fr a movie that MGM had low commercial expectations.

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

Cast

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