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The Sea of Grass (February 7, 2013)

The Sea of Grass is a movie with promise that falls short of delivering on that promise. Elia Kazan directed. Marguerite Roberts and Vincent Lawrence wrote the script based on Conrad Richter’s novel about the range wars between cattlemen and farmers in the late 19th century West. It was filmed from May through August 1946, and released in February, 1947. Kazan, a theater director who had worked in advanced circles of the New York stage from the early thirties on, had previously directed only one feature, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. He must have felt far more comfortable with that story than with this one. MGM gave it what it had, which was its prestige production values, Hepburn and Tracy for the leads, and two of its young featured players, Robert Walker and Phyllis Thaxter, to support them. It is said that Tracy refused to make the film on location so many of the exterior scenes are against back-projected backgrounds. Just compare the look of this film to that of John Ford’s Fort Apache, made a year later on location in Monument Valley, Utah, to note the difference between a studio-bound western and one filmed on location. Kazan hated the back-projection. In an interview he said, “I should have quit as soon as I heard that, I’ll never be a studio director.” The script has its problems, too. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times of the day accused it of “a confusing amount of wandering away from the point and delving into the afflictions of tormented mother-love”. The extreme delicacy of script presentation under the Production Code means that characters sleep together and unless you’re paying really close attention, you don’t even notice. Every once in a while I thought the scriptwriters might have borrowed a little text left over from a documentary about soil erosion. And when Robert Walker’s character says, referring to the name of the fictional town in New Mexico where the picture is set, “The people in Salt Fork will eat it up with a spoon,” I wondered if the scriptwriters couldn’t have found a less noticeable way of saying the same thing.

After all that what can I tell you to present the good points of the movie? The film did better than any other MGM film of its year at the box office, earning over $3.1 million. I’ve said that it is the changes in each star’s performance, and the way they play off each other, that are what distinguish one Hepburn-Tracy movie from another. Here Hepburn attempts and partially succeeds in sympathetically depicting the powerlessness of the legal position of women in 19th century America. That isn’t to say this is a feminist epic, though. Hepburn’s character’s flexibility and understanding evokes sympathy from the audience. Tracy’s character’s lack of those characteristics means there is little we can find to justify the way he acts. Other characters say he loves his children, but you couldn’t prove it by what we see. At about an hour into it you might think it is a costume version of the estranged mother story, a la Stella Dallas. Later the movie jumps forward in time and, as Jim Thomas, an Internet reviewer, writes, “within about five minutes you can see how everything is going to play out.” Tracy is at best uncomfortable here, as the cattle baron resisting the effects of changing times. He seems to harden his facial expression throughout the film, and that’s a problem because his charm and smile are his best asset in pictures. The troubled, and young, Robert Walker and the lovely, and young, Phyllis Thaxter do well with what the story offers them. When Hepburn and Thaxter both appear onscreen in the wasp-waisted dresses of the period you can imagine that they are indeed mother and daughter. Melvyn Douglas plays the other man, and the script more or less gives him the role of a stand-in. Edgar Buchanan and Harry Carey give understandable, though rather short, supporting performances. It is remarkable how limited the range for character development is in the two hours the film runs. Please join me in watching this western epic from 1947, The Sea of Grass, this evening.