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This month's boxed set Tracy & Hepburn: The Definitive Collection contains all nine of the acting pair's co-starring films plus a disc of extras that includes a long-form, Emmy-winning TV documentary on Tracy hosted by Katharine Hepburn. I've chosen to review the 1942 entry Keeper of the Flame because of its intriguing political content. It's a DVD debut also available as a stand-alone release, along with the Elia Kazan picture Sea of Grass.
Keeper of the Flame is a professional job all around, showing the MGM machinery working at full power. Ace director George Cukor is at the helm, balancing out the performances in a story that takes its time revealing what it's really about. Hepburn and especially Spencer Tracy are in top form. The charming Tracy soon convinces us that he's an honorable, caring man dedicated to the truth. I've often heard Keeper mentioned when high-quality 1940s B&W cinematography is discussed. William Daniels makes the best of the studio's resources and gives us expressive scenes without show-off technique. Many of the film's day exteriors are filmed on interior MGM sound stages.
A quick rundown of the plot, without spoilers: The nation's press converges on a small rural community for the funeral of Robert Forrest, an industrialist and patriot deemed such a natural leader that most of America's citizens feel a profound personal loss at his passing. Youth clubs in his name have sprung up everywhere. Famed reporter Steven O'Malley is on the scene, having just returned from witnessing some of the worst of what Adolf Hitler is doing in Europe. "Stevie" is just as upset about Forrest's passing as anyone, and determines to interview the man's reclusive widow Christine (Katharine Hepburn). Ignoring the brush-off given by press secretary Clive Kerndon (Richard Whorf), O'Malley breaks through the high walls surrounding the massive Forrest compound, which covers several square miles of tall trees. Christine sends Stevie packing, but then follows him back to town to ask him write an in-depth piece on "the real Robert Forrest" known to nobody but her.
But Stevie soon becomes dissatisfied with the way he's being spoon-fed information. Christine avoids certain subjects while Kerndon pushes speeches, recordings and testimonials at him. Stevie must discover for himself that Forrest has a mother (Margaret Wycherly) living in her own house on the property. Down at the main road, the gatekeeper Rickards (Howard Da Silva) seems vaguely bitter about his late employer, who saved his life in the Argonne in the last war. Little Jeb Richards (Darryl Hickman) is making himself sick over grief for the fallen patriot-hero. And nobody will say what happened to Jeb's older sister, who worked for Forrest but then had to be put in a special hospital. Everybody outside the compound seems to think that Forrest walked on water -- except a disgruntled relative, Geoff Midford (Forrest Tucker) and the local doctor (Frank Craven) who chooses not to express his opinion of the great man. Stevie is convinced that something's going on ... but what?
MGM reportedly thought Keeper of the Flame too "political" of a subject until America got into the war, and then they didn't think of it as an appropriate vehicle for the brand new Tracy-Hepburn team. Overlooking the story's echoes of Citizen Kane (enigmatic, politically powerful millionaire; fortress home hidden away from the world), the studio probably saw the novel by the interesting female author I.A. R. Wylie as a well-timed anti-Fascist piece. When America entered the fight, Congress abruptly stopped persecuting premature anti-Fascists. In just a year or so Hollywood would be making screamingly false pictures extolling the democratic qualities of life in the Soviet Union. Only after the war would the writers and directors of all of these too-far-left films be once again demonized.
As adapted by screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart, Keeper of the Flame takes 100 minutes to arrive at a revelation that we've guessed since about the half-hour mark. -- (SPOILER begins here) -- The fabulous Robert Forrest is a religion unto himself, a charismatic leader like no other. But the hints keep coming at us, starting with what looks like an odd salute during the drive-by of the funeral procession (It's probably nothing more than an honor-guard pose). Little kids seem brainwashed into adoring Forrest, while "spontaneous" fan clubs seek to worship the great man and carry out whatever plans he has for the country. The slimy Kerndon won't stop gushing about this paragon's credentials. Even his lovely widow seems to be more in awe of the man than in love with him -- and she's clearly hiding a dark secret.
At this point the show has already delivered its message: we mustn't invest too much of our faith in one man, because democracy is supposed to function for the people and not for an individual, no matter how charismatic or inspired he may be. Keeper of the Flame could have stopped right there, in which case it might be considered a slap in the face to President Roosevelt, a president known to get his way in part by virtue of an unprecedented rapport with the common citizen.
Today every aspect of public life is awash in conspiracy theories. Neither big corporations nor the corner gas station are open about their business dealings, and it's out of necessity that even individuals keep PR in mind, should they get involved with any public issue. Does anybody speak the unvarnished truth when interviewed on the 6 O'clock news? Keeper of the Flame is from a time when only the very rich and powerful felt they had anything to hide, and surrounded themselves with constructions of public image. This makes Stevie O'Malley's investigation all the more unusual. We begin to suspect that Robert Forrest's spectacular death in a car crash may not have been accidental. The potential for a plot against his life is everywhere. Geoff Midford has a big chip on his shoulder and may be carrying on an affair with Christine. Gateman Rickards nurses a negative attitude, and he prevented his son Jeb from warning Forrest about a bridge washed out in a storm. Christine doesn't want Stevie to talk to Forrest's senile mother, as she says irresponsible (true?) things. And Kerndon continues to be a fountain of obfuscation.
Once the secret is out, Keeper of the Flame's mission is done. The liberal sermon has been delivered. Just as in a modern paranoid conspiracy film, none of what Stevie O'Malley discovers can be proved thanks to a chain of calamities that wipe out witnesses and burn up the evidence -- Forrest kept a cache of command-and-control contacts, much like 007's Ernst Stavro Blofeld. With nothing to back up his accusations, we wonder how Stevie can publish his tell-all book without being tarred and feathered as a liar. The movie isn't naïve -- far from it -- but it now seems tame in our modern era of media-driven character assassination. Today's press wouldn't let up on an old scoundrel like Charles Foster Kane for a minute. The national conspiracy imagined in Keeper of the Flame would be so full of leaks that it would be shot down (or at least infiltrated by several government intelligence agencies) before it accomplished anything.
What's impressive about the movie today is its willingness, in the first year of the war, to raise such a politically murky issue when other movies were content to hurl facetious, morale-boosting insults at the Fascist enemy. The revelation that Fascism could happen here (oh no!) sounds pretty weak, what with pro-Nazi associations and Bunds about, and powerful industrialists and heroes (Ford, Lindbergh) having directly or indirectly promoted the cause of Nazi Germany. The film teaches that a potential tyrant in patriot's clothing might easily fool the public. Through the Tracy character it also assures us that an informed public will always make the right choice. An important man is really a fraud with warped political ambitions? Not only is that not news, but the film doesn't give us a clue as to how to distinguish a traitor from a patriot.
Of all the moguls, Louis B. Mayer seemed the least secure. He knew that his movies helped to guide public opinion. Mayer was reportedly scandalized by Keeper of the Flame's insinuation that rich American industrialists and influence brokers are by nature addicted to power and prone to delusions of grandeur. Et tu, Louis? Mayer was a personal buddy of William Randolph Hearst, who was particularly sensitive to negative messages about reclusive zillionaires hiding like spiders in their baronial estates. Neither man wanted an incensed rabble to pull them down from their gilded roosts. The critics weren't kind to Keeper either. Liberals rolled their eyes at the film's supposedly worldly-wise hero, who is mortified to find Fascist activity afoot in the good ol' U.S. of A.. James Agee mentioned the film only in context with serious movies from the Office of War Information, and referred to it rather cryptically as "a roast albatross." Director George Cukor voiced no problems with the film's message, but expressed displeasure with his own treatment of Katharine Hepburn. Her Christine tends to drift around the darkened Forrest mansion holding clutches of flowers, just as she did in pictures from her box office poison days. Luckily for us, Keeper of the Flame still works as an unusual, well-acted suspense thriller.
Author I.A.R. Wylie had many of her stories adapted to the screen, including a number that became movies with a humanist-political bent. Most famous are John Ford's Pilgrimage and Four Sons, about the tragic losses of WW1. Wylie is fairly obscure now but is often discussed through her relationship to the famous social-working doctor Sara Josephine Baker. They were quite a remarkable pair.
A standout in the supporting cast is the sarcastic news hen played by Audrey Christie, whose face should be familiar: She's Billy Bigelow's boss in Carousel, and is even more unforgettable as Natalie Wood's joy-killing mother in Splendor in the Grass. Christie brightens up a film sorely in need of a sense of humor.
Warner Home Video's DVD of Keeper of the Flame is a fine B&W transfer that brings out the film's superior cinematography and art direction. For extras, the show comes with an Our Gang comedy and a hilarious, unabashedly racist wartime Tex Avery cartoon, The Blitz Wolf. The film's trailer is also included; it sells the show as an exciting mystery-thriller, pushing a romantic angle that never really surfaces in the picture itself.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Keeper of the Flame rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.