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Keeper of the Flame (January 10, 2013)

Katharine Hepburn’s initially successful movie career with RKO petered out in the late 1930s. In early 1939 she went to Broadway to star in The Philadelphia Story. It was a hit, she owned the rights, and she parlayed the sale of those rights to MGM into a decade-long relationship with that studio. She chose the director (George Cukor, who had directed her earlier), scriptwriter (Donald Ogden Stewart), and leading men for the film of The Philadelphia Story, which was made in 1940 and released early in 1941. She considered Spencer Tracy for the role that went to James Stewart. Later in 1941 Hepburn’s second project for MGM, Woman of the Year, directed by George Stevens, another director she’d worked with earlier, and written by Ring Lardner Jr. and Michael Kanin, allowed her to select Tracy as her co-star. This was the beginning of a long professional, and personal, relationship between the two stars.

One way to compare the various films that Hepburn and Tracy made together over the next twenty-seven years is to examine the way their characters are written and portrayed and how they interact with each other. In Woman of the Year they both play journalists – newspaper columnists. Hepburn’s highly ambitious and competent Tess Harding marries Tracy’s Sam Craig, sportswriter and common man. Harding turns out to be less than sensitive to the needs of their foster child, and to her husband Craig, who shows her her failing and saves her from this behavior by the final reel.

Keeper of the Flame was made from July to October 1942 and was released that December. Like Citizen Kane, made in 1940 and released in 1941, it begins with the death of, and the funeral for, a fictional, but well-known American public figure. One assumes that the story is set right before the entry of the United States into World War II. Tracy’s Steve O’Malley is an investigative journalist, a foreign correspondent just back from Nazi Germany. Hepburn’s Christine Forrest is the widow of the public figure, trying to protect his legacy and his memory. Hepburn doesn’t even appear in the film for the first twenty-five minutes. The focus of the unraveling of the mystery (who was Robert Forrest and how did he come to die?) necessarily is on Tracy, who again has a redemptive role.

Keeper of the Flame was also directed by George Cukor, who would also, in the future, direct the pair of stars in Adam’s Rib and Pat and Mike. The script was written by Donald Ogden Stewart. The cinematography was by William Daniels and the suitably mysterious and sinister music was written by Bronislau Kaper. I find the supporting performances by Richard Whorf, Forrest Tucker, Howard daSilva, Percy Kilbride and a young Darryl Hickman interesting to watch. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times of the period wrote “Gone is the charming pretense and the kitchen sink of Woman of the Year; gone is the mischievous romance with a twinkle in the eye. 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.” Keeper of the Flame was not a critical success, but it was a popular success with audiences, doing better business than Woman of the Year. Republican legislators at the time reportedly complained to the Production Code Administration about the film, which probably didn’t disturb either Hepburn or Tracy, who were both strong supporters of FDR. I hope you are looking forward to our examination of the collaboration on film of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, and enjoy tonight’s feature, Keeper of the Flame.