Thursday, 8 September 2011

The Keeper Of The Flame (1943)

This was the last of the four new Katharine Hepburn and Spencer tracy films that came in this little set and I really enjoyed it! It wasn't the best of the lot - the lot being Pat and Mike, Woman Of The Year, Adam's Rib and Keeper Of The Flame - but there were some really interesting things about it. I don't know how known this movie is in the classic film watching community, because judging by things I've read about it on the internet, it seems like the least successful film starring the famous duo. I can guess why, but it's not because of the quality of the film. Sorry about the long plot summary, you kind of need to know for the review to make sense.

Keeper Of The Flame (1943) directed by George Cukor

The sudden and tragic death of world renowned hero Robert Forrest strikes a deep note in everyone in the United States as well as in other countries and the whole of America goes into mourning. One night a terrible thunderstorm hits Forrest's hometown he doesn't see a break in the old wooden bridge he is driving over and he goes straight into the river underneath.

Though she is receiving millions of fan letters and letters of condolence, Christine Forrest - the widow of Robert Forrest - refuses to reply or see any men of the press. But when famed writer and journalist Steven O'Malley comes back from Europe (where he was working as a war correspondant) to write a tribute biography of Robert, he realizes that he will need to dig deeper into Robert Forrest's life and family. After befriending the guilt-stricken son of the Gate Keeper of Forrest's house he manages to get into the house and finds Christine. 

Had he not been who he was, she would have turned him out, but he happened to be a favourite writer of her's, and Robert's. She understands what he wants to do and appreciates it, but has to refuse because she is too upset to talk about it. He convinces her that she needs to help him maintain the flame that burns so bright for Robert Forrest in the country's eyes.

But later that evening, she pays a visit to the bed and breakfast Steven is staying in and tells him that yes, she will help him write the book. But as Steven finds out more about the family, he becomes more and more suspicious about the "accident". Along the way to writing the book he finds out that Robert had a mother no one knew about, and more than a few people in the neighbourhood who weren't on the best terms with him, including Christine's cousin. And as soon as he finds a shoe from Christine's horse near the bridge, he knows he needs to find out more.

{To write what I want to in the review, I kind of need to write a bit more of the story. But if you don't want the ending spoiled, don't read this bit.}

Finally cornering Christine in "The Arsenal", Robert's study and library (conveniently with no windows) while she is burning the documents that Robert ordered to be unread and destroyed, Steven tells her that he has fallen in love with her. He also lays down the horse-shoe on the table, and Christine finally tells all. For months she had been getting more and more worried about Robert's wellbeing. She says he used to look down on her as "a useless creature who couldn't give him sons". At first she grew mad, but then started to pity him because she thought he might have been going insame like his mother. But then she couldn't take it any longer and on the morning of the accident, she stole his keys and ran down to The Arsenal and went through all his secret files only to find that he had been running a Fascist organisation and had piles and piles of evil racist articles that he had written. All of them ready for publication.

It made her feel ill. It wasn't what she believed in at all and she knew that he had changed beyond recognition from the man that she had married. So she went out riding to think alone and she saw the bridge breaking - and thought that it was best not to warn Robert. If his plans for America worked then this fatal accident seemed like the only way to stop him.

Her secretary and advisor has been spying on them and, realising what they are talking about, sets The Arsenal alight and locks the only door. Of course there are no windows. Only a thin opening just wide enough for him to shoot at Steven and Christine. He fatally wounds Christine who tells Steven in her last moments that he must write the book and tell the world about what Robert was really like.

The Verdict:

This was a really different film. It felt like a cross between a film noir and a Murder Mystery and it had many similarities with Rebecca. Although it wasn't the best of films, it was entirely worth watching for the interesting portrayals and the strong political subject matter.

Made in only 1943, it seems quite early for there to be a film made about the possibility of Fascism taking hold in America if people don't wake up fast to the danger. Based on an unpublished book, the film rights were acquired by RKO, but they had serious casting difficulties so the rights were sold to MGM for $50,000. But when Eddie Mannix realised how political the material was, he tried to stop the film. They wanted Spencer Tracy from the start, and then hired George Cukor as the director - as he was known for dealing well with difficult actors.

Katharine Hepburn was on the hunt for good scripts for Tracy and herself after appearing in Woman Of The Year with him. When she saw this story, she was fascinated by Christine, and she thought the part might provide her way of contributing to the war effort. Though when she joined the cast she asked that the story be restored to the way it was in the novel, where there was more romance and Steven and Christine had more equally sized roles. But everyone else in the cast and crew disagreed with her so she gave in and left the script the way it was.

MGM didn't want Katharine Hepburn to take the role, and thought that it would be a bad follow-up to Woman Of The Year. But she protested and eventually became a great help to Spencer Tracy with his drinking. George Cukor was so impressed that he asked her to talk to Judy Garland about the need to sober up (according to Wikipedia...).

This is really Spencer Tracy's film. There's no denying it. He is in almost every single scene and he does fantastically with a character that could have become quite weak had anyone else attempted playing him. He maintains his cool all the way through, but we still manage to get that he is in love with Christina. You really find yourself working with him to find out what happens.

Katharine Hepburn is also amazing again. She has this fantastic monologue where she tells Steven about everything in The Arsenal and she just keeps it going for what seems like ages. There is no music and it's like she's talking directly to you. It really isn't a humongous part, but she plays it very well.

The reason this film didn't do very well in the box office was that there was some political controversy. Republican Members of the congress were disturbed by its political views and ordered that there should be new laws against films with such overtly left-wing political propaganda. One thing that was noted was that it was the first real time that Fascism was linked with wealth in a film. Critical comments aside from the political were mainly about the pace of the dramatic part of the film, and the suspenseful part. Though the Wikipedia page of the film says that after looking at the reviews it's evident that it was generally received more positively in the East of the United States.

I can see why people aren't crazy about this cinematically. There isn't much super fast paced dialogue and the second half does drag a little. But I really enjoyed all the performances and George Cukor's direction (even though Katharine Hepburn was apparently quick to criticise it, despite the fact they were very good friends). I say good on them for making such an important film at the time it was made. Definitely worth a watch.



Caftan Woman said...

The film has an interesting premise, but seemed to lack strong focus in telling its story. As you say, worth watching, but not one many would be interested in revisiting.

Unknown said...

From the very beginning of this film,we are given a host of innocuous clues as to it's subject matter. In the opening scene upon approach to the little town , we see a Halliburton arms factory sign. We are shown a partially covered swastika at the right hand top corner fold of a parlor drape . The portrait of Robert Forrest is dark with a "Hitleresque" cold austerity . The viewer is informed very early on that Robert Forrest had a fascist agenda which was preempted by his demise. Other keynotes were the Forward America youth groups -almost a mirror image of the Hitler youden movement of that era . So many little clues continually spark the viewer's interest as the plot unfolds . The movie is a masterpiece of suspense and an early warning to Americans of what was to develop politically in the coming years. There was a vague comparison of Robert Forrest to Prescott Bush-although the latter went on to promulgate an agenda much the same as portrayed in this Keeper of The Flame .

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