KATHARINE HEPBURN MONTH
KEEPER OF THE FLAME ( 1942 )
Well folks. It’s back to my turn on the “All Good Things” review table, and I continue Katharine Hepburn month with my essay on “Keeper Of The Flame”. A rather neglected film from Hepburn’s filmography that I have always enjoyed, and because it fits into the criteria of Katharine’s dramatic and in depth performances, which I am focusing on this month, I have decided to provide an insightful article on it today.
“Keeper Of The Flame” is the second of the nine Tracy and Hepburn collaborations, and today it remains the most obsolete and underrated production on their resume of films, for the fact that it lacks the chemistry or the whimsical plot that are evident in their romantic comedies that they were largely associated with. Instead it is blatantly ignored among audiences and is considered too dark and serious to be a Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy vehicle.
Following the success of their first film, “Woman Of The Year”, audiences yearned for another project that would display the indelible presence of both Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in the same film, and that is what the studios planned for.
The film first came to life in April 1941, when RKO purchased the outline form from an unpublished book by I. A. R Wylie, in the hopes of turning the novel into a motion picture, but once casting difficulties proved to be onerous, they sold the rights to MGM in December that same year for $50,000. MGM were intrigued in the story and saw great potential in it, except for Eddie Mannix, who had a different perception on the idea and tried to abandon the project because of the political nature it contained. However, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Mannix finally relented and agreed for the production to go ahead. Now that the project was in the works, Random House published the book in 1942.
At the time, the story meant so much to Louis B Mayer, that he assigned the script to his favorite screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart, which seemed unusual since Stewart was only accustomed to his light romantic comedies featuring wealthy New York socialites, but Mayer seen this as the perfect opportunity for Stewart to augment his strong political leanings. On the other hand, Stewart was just as enthusiastic and approached the assignment with great pleasure in being able to explain the situation about the war and fascists, so much that the script became the proudest moment of his entire career.
Along the way Stewart encountered several altercations, which included adapting the novel to the screen, and with filming scheduled to begin in June 1942, he knew that the commencement date would have to be postponed until the screenplay was complete.
Once the screenplay was finished, casting for the film went into reconsideration. Spencer Tracy had been the main choice for the role of Stephen O’Malley ever since MGM purchased the rights to the novel. With Tracy elected to take on the lead role, Stewart sent Katharine Hepburn a copy of the unfinished script. Katharine was immediately absorbed and engrossed by the character of Christine, and wanted so much to do the film, as she thought that it would be a great way to contribute to the war effort. However MGM executives thought that Hepburn being cast in the picture would be an inappropriate follow up to her previous film with Tracy, and did everything they could to prevent her from being selected, but when she found out, she campaigned heavily for the part and won the case.
The film was masterfully directed by Katharine Hepburn’s close friend, George Cukor, who worked with Hepburn on several occasions during his illustrious career, and with superb cinematography by William H Daniels, “Keeper Of The Flame” serves as a great Film Noir, featuring the famed onscreen couple.
Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy illuminate the screen in this perennial classic that is bound to enthrall audiences from beginning to end. After national hero, Robert Forrest is suddenly killed in an automobile accident, Forrest’s long time admirer and notable journalist, Stephen O’Malley ( Spencer Tracy ) returns from a vacation in Europe to conduct research for a proposed biography on the deceased man.
On the path to meeting Robert’s wife, Christine Forrest ( Katharine Hepburn ), he befriends the gatekeepers young son Jed, who blames himself for the death, but can offer O’Malley assistance in finding a way into the Forrest mansion, where he meets Christine, who at first refuses to speak to him. Eventually Christine agrees to help Stephen, and invites him to her estate the next day, where they work together to help keep Robert’s legacy alive.
During the process he encounters many obstacles, including conflicting stories and a mad mother. Now Stephen finds himself caught in the cobwebs of mystery surrounding Robert’s death, and must try to unearth the missing facts to discover the truth of who Robert Forrest really is.
In my opinion, this is movie making to perfection. The film contains many elements of suspense, mystery and plot twists, abound with brilliant cinematography that will keep the viewer intrigued for the duration of the picture.
Katharine Hepburn delivers a laudable performance in her portrayal of Christine Forrest, the wife who knows the truth about her husband, but must remain the keeper of the flame. This was a much more subdued role for Hepburn compared to some of her other heavy dramatic parts she played, but it also gave her the opportunity once again to spotlight her inimitable talents as an actress by disseminating the versatility in her range. It’s here where she appears her most expressive by putting lots of feeling into her character & demonstrating such raw emotions.
Spencer Tracy is also commendable, and his performance is extremely effective as the journalist whose beliefs have been shattered. This film really proves that Spencer Tracy could feel equally at home in whatever role he had to play, and still make the character look believable.
For a film that was largely panned at the box office, it holds up well today. As with many cases in Hollywood, “Keeper Of The Flame” is one of those movies that was unfairly dismissed on it’s release, but once you discover it, it’s like finding a vein of pure gold in a mine of lost treasures.
Louis B. Mayer was very unhappy about the film’s political content, thinking it noncommercial. Katharine Hepburn too felt that the storyline was too dull and needed to be pepped up with some romance. She complained to producer Victor Saville about this but he ignored her comments, so Hepburn went directly to Mayer who was only too happy to make the film into a more conventional Hollywood romance.
Katharine Hepburn: Born Katharine Houghton Hepburn on May 12th, 1907 in Hartford, Connecticut. Died: June 29th, 2003 in Fenwick, Connecticut. Aged 96.
Spencer Tracy: Born Spencer Bonaventure Tracy on April 5th, 1900 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Died: June 10th, 1967 in Beverly Hills, California.