Keeper of the Flame (1943)

Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn starring in a murder mystery, produced by MGM and directed by George Cukor – really? Oh yes, though there is no denying that this is perhaps one of the more unlikely of the nine Tracy & Hepburn pairings made between 1942 and 1967. Indeed, some viewers may be more familiar with it due to the use of some clips in Carl Reiner’s clever parody, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) starring Steve Martin alongside stars from several classic and not so classic movies of the 1940s. In its own way though it deserves to be remembered as more than a footnote in movie history, not least because this combination of propaganda and whodunit also plays like a more commercially orientated,  star version of Citizen Kane, the classic directed, produced, starring and co-written by ‘enfant terrible’ Orson Welles that had impressed and upset Hollywood in equal measure just a little over a year before. Like Kane it begins with the death of a rich and powerful American and charts a journalist’s investigation into that man’s life …

The following review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog and you should head over there to see the many other fascinating titles that have been selected.

“I said to myself, quite calmly, he’ll come this way and be killed unless you hurry and warn him. And I didn’t warn him because …” – Christine Forrest (Katharine Hepburn)

The links to Kane positively abound in this movie – apart from the basic storyline of an examination in the truth of the life and death of a great and powerful American tycoon, here World War One hero Robert Forrest, it also depicts the man’s life largely though his home, which is presented as an enormous, cavernous property to which we are introduced courtesy of the large ‘Keep Out’ signs outside. Like the Kane property, this is a house that also has a museum-like feel, even the dwelling of the gatekeeper (a typically great study in understatement from Howard Da Silva) adorned with a large and unlikely sculpture of a sphinx. As the reporter speaks to the various people who knew and loved him, a dark and inconsistent picture of Forrest emerges, concluding with a climactic fire at the property. Intriguingly, the film was originally going to be made by RKO, the studio that made Welles’Kane, before MGM decided to buy it off them.

The finished film is certainly redolent of the opulence and gloss one associated with MGM, indeed it also plays like a slightly perverse retread of Hepburn and Cukor’s last hit for the studio, The Philadelphia Story, which incidentally also had a screenplay by Donald Ogden Stewart and is also about a pair of journalist invading the home of a rich woman, being met with hostility and discovering a few skeletons in her family’s closet. Although one can see in these connections that this is not a film that emerged without a context and a pedigree of sorts, Keeper of the Flame was none the less an unlikely project in many ways, not least as a box-office follow-up to Woman of the Year (1942), the romantic comedy drama with which Hepburn and Tracy has just had a sizeable hit at MGM. For starters it is a murder mystery, although we don’t know that at the start, and one on which Hepburn is cast as the somewhat unlikely ‘femme fatale’. Added to top of which comes a subplot involving emerging fascism in America before its entry into war, so that you have a mixture that just doesn’t seem like the kind of fare associated with the grand MGM. Indeed, Mayer is said to have hated the finished film …

It is hard to discuss the mystery aspects of the story without really getting in to spoilers, but none the less we are put on guard fairly early on that there is something not right in the Forrest household. The man was a beloved figure, compared in the film to Abraham Lincoln and Alexander the Great, and the opening section of the film, after a dramatic curtain-raiser in which his car crashes down a ravine during a storm-swept, lightning streaked night, deals with the funeral and mourning over his death. Forrest had enthused thousands of pro-America groups throughout the nation and he had a special appeal to the young. Our hero is Steven O’Malley (Tracy), a journalist just returned from reporting on the horrors of the war in Europe (the film is set in September 1941) and who is clearly quite traumatised. He wants to write a book about Forrest, to celebrate a hero at a time when the world needs that the most. Forrest’s widow Christine (Hepburn) initially refuses to meet the press and instead they have to make do with Kerndon, Forrest’s  unctuous secretary (Whorf). O’Malley befriends Jeb, the son of the gatekeeper and is able to smuggle himself in and eventually convinces her to let him write his book.

Tracey, Hepburn and Cukor on the set of ‘Keeper of the Flame’.

Right away though we realise that there is a very uneasy atmosphere in the house and a great deal of tension between Christine and the secretary, who really does seem to be exceeding his brief somewhat. Kerndon, who becomes increasingly agitated as the film progresses, is played by Whorf in a somewhat heightened manner, and his emotional unglueing can be seen as an index of how far the movie will eventually lurch towards melodrama as the mystery aspects of the plot emerge, in what is otherwise a fairly talkative and sedately paced movie. Although this is also a very earnest film, early on there is at least some banter and humour between O’Malley and his newspaper buddies (including a very early role for Stephen McNally, still billed under his real first name ‘Horace’ and sporting a pencil mustache), who help keep him on the story when it becomes clear that he is falling under Christine’s spell. She seems much too close to her cousin (Forrest Tucker), who has returned to the house having been previously barred by Forrest and whose money worries now mysteriously vanish. Then there is the mystery of the disappearance of Jeb’s sister. Did she have an affair with Forrest, with whom she was clearly infatuated just like everybody else? And why is Forrest’s elderly mother being kept from O’Malley? And just what is being kept in the ‘Arsenal’, an 18th century one-story stone building without windows on the estate? Why did Christine take a different route home and so not warn her husband that the bridge out of the estate had crumbled?

Eventually all is revealed and the  climax concludes with gunshots, car chases, fire and a couple of deaths. If the film is remembered today it is mainly for its attempt to alert America to the dangers of homegrown fascism (predictably it was disliked by some Republican politicians at the time), which is presented in very general terms here (this is MGM after all). This results in a somewhat muddled picture, one that looks wonderful (the almost symbolic image of the broken bridge from which Forrest’s car fell is beautifully rendered through miniatures and matte paintings) with some great production design but which doesn’t seem to quite be able to decide just how much on a limb it is prepared to go with its political message. The real villains of the piece in fact remain off-stage, though this does provide quite an ambiguous edge to the rushed finale, one that may have been unintentional but which stops the film delivering answers that are too pat, which would, at a time of war, have been clearly unreasonable. So, a good-looking movie made in the best MGM style sporting a very good cast (and Percy Kilbride for comic support as a taxi driver), an unusual plot and some truly top-notch credentials behind the camera. If it is too earnest to be a complete success, it gets plenty of brownie points for trying and there is more than enough going on to keep viewer interest alive over its 100 minute running time.

At the time, Bosley Crowther at the New York Times welcomed it fairly warmly:

“Keeper of the Flame” is a courageous and timely drama which touches frankly upon a phase of American life that is most serious and pertinent today. And in it Mr. Tracy and Miss Hepburn perform with a taut solemnity that is in decided contrast to their previous collaborative roles.

For the full review, click here.

A surprisingly detailed and well-researched look at the film can be found on Wikipedia (I’ve amended some of its small factual errors).

DVD Availability: The film is generally available on DVD from Warner either as a stand-alone release or as part of a Tracy-Hepburn box set. The image transfer is perfectly acceptable though it is a little scratched. No extras.

Keeper of the Flame (1943)
Director: George Cukor
Producer: Victor Saville
Screenplay: Donald Ogden Stewart (from the novel by I.A.R. Wylie)
Cinematography: William Daniels
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Branislau Kaper
Cast: Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Richard Whorf, Margaret Wycherly, Forrest Tucker, Howard Da Silva, Stephen McNally (credited as ‘Horace McNally’)

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in Orson Welles, Spencer Tracy, Tuesday's Overlooked Film. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Keeper of the Flame (1943)

  1. Colin says:

    Very good review Sergio. The film really stands out among Tracy and Hepburn’s pictures for just being so different in tone and subject. I think that may be my own biggest issue with it, the fact that it’s not at all what one expects.

    However, it does look fantastic, as you point out, and has bags of atmosphere. One thing that I have to say in MGM’s favour is that the studio knew how to polish up an onscreen image.

    You’re right that there is a somewhat muddled quality to it all, and it seems to take too long to get to the point. You refer to the villain being off-stage, and that’s another issue. Then again, it’s logical too, since the real villain in this case is actually an idea and a legacy. An interesting if flawed movie.

    On the subject of Tracy/Hepburn films that don’t quite work, I thought Sea of Grass was another that promised more than it was ultimately able to deliver.

    • Thnaks very much for that Colin, very kind. Also, structurally, because it is on such a slow boil, it makes it very hard to talk about without giving too much away though I suspect that a lot of basic movie synopses for th emovie in books and on the web will probably include all the info that really you are only supposed to get in the last 10 minutes! I must admit, as I typed the intro about the slight oddity of this as part of the Tracy and Hepburn series, the one that also came to mind was Sea of Grass, which must be the most obscure of the lot, despite being directed by Elia Kazan, together with another Philip Barry adaptation by Stewart, Without Love. I remember not being too impressed with eirher and in fact only have a scuzzy VHS of Love (and I have no idea if it plays anymore either, it’s been that long) – have either ever come out on DVD?

      • Colin says:

        Yes, it’s a tough one to write up without spoilers, but you managed it fine.
        I’ve never seen Without Love, but it did come out in the US last year as part of The Definitive Collection. That set also featured Keeper of the Flame & Sea of Grass, both of which got stand alone releases. I already had the former from the old UK set and picked up the latter asit was film I’d never seen – not a terrible movie by any means but it is somewhat disapointing.

        • Thanks for the info Colin, well worth knowing about. I found it so interesting publishing this review and then reading some of the talkback generated by your review of The Iron Curtain – makes me think that this is a film the primary merits of which are probably going to be obscured by spoiler considerations really. But then again, the films is so unusual that one must respect its intentions, or at least try to. What is clear is how difficult it would be, given the changed role of the media and our relationship with public figures, to try and present an updated version of this story and try and have anythign like the same impact. In many ways it is hard not to see that, despite the crusading tone of the finale, that liek Tracy says, the battle is still going on – and is, in fact, mostly been lost. Interesting times we live in of course, especially in Greece, France, Italy and the UK all having democratic elections within a few days of each other. Glad to say in Italy the Left made significant inroads as they did in the UK and France.

          • Colin says:

            Oh, it just wouldn’t work today. We’re so accustomed to seeing our leaders with feet of clay that there’s no surprises left there.

            Yes, we’re living through interesting if highly volatile times in Europe right now. The left certainly made inroads here in Greece too, though we’ve also seen the disintegration of the political culture and consensus that’s prevailed for the last 30 or more years. I’m sure you’re also aware that the extremists, of both shades, have risen to prominence here. It all goes to show that the issues of 50+ year old movies remain relevant today.

          • It did make me wonder how unconscious our respective decisions to review these particular movies right now were in fact … Mind you, it’s not like we were doing some Costa Gavras thrillers! Incidentally, anyone interested in how MGM created its fabulous look for this movie, and others too, should definitely check out the amazing Matte Shot website here. It has some wonderful information and examples of the beautiful artwork used to create the dreamlike atmosphere of Keeper of the Flame and so many other superb-looking movies.

          • Colin says:

            That’s a fantastic link – thanks for sharing it.

          • Amazing site isn’t it? As a kid I was fascinated by mattes and special effects and it brought it all back – the level of detail is quite extraordinary!

  2. I thought I had seen all of their collaborations but this doesn’t ring a bell.

    • Hi Patti, I think I picked a film that is perhaps a bitt too ‘overlooked’ this time! It is well worth a look though.

      • Colin says:

        This film is perhaps not what people think of when they have an image in mind of a Tracy/Hepburn movie, and that’s probably why it tends to be overlooked – it doesn’t quite fit the pattern viewers have come to expect. As such I think it’s good that you’ve drawn some attention to it.

        • Cheers Colin – unlike Adam’s Rib or Pat & Mike or Woman of the Year I suppose you could quite easily see other screen duo in the roles. In fact I kept thinking of Bogart and Ingrid Bergman as the Hepburn character is clearly mean to be either European or anyway someone who spent a good deal of time there (to tie in with the little local trouble they were having there at the time …).

  3. Pingback: Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) | Tipping My Fedora

  4. Pingback: Keeper of the Flame – A 1943 Movie for Today – All In One Boat

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s