Last year, when Margaret Perry approached me about taking part in The Great Katharine Hepburn Blogathon, I jumped at the chance to take a second look at The Rainmaker, a KH film that I’d been eager to re-watch after first discovering/reviewing it in 2012.
When I learned that this celebration of Katharine Hepburn would be taking place for a second year, I decided to boldly go where few bloggers have gone before, and defend one of Kate’s least-beloved films.
Keeper of the Flame was the second pair-up of the now-legendary Katharine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy screen team. The film tells the story of a journalist (Tracy) who is covering the death of an American political hero, Robert Forrest. In the course of his journalistic digging, he meets Forrest’s widow (Hepburn) and makes a few surprising discoveries about Forrest’s life and death.
Very few (if any) Hepburn/Tracy fanatics would rate this mystery-drama as the best film made by the two. A. Scott Berg’s Kate Remembered states that the film’s worth lies in the simple fact that it partnered Hepburn and Tracy up again, rather than in its story or strongly anti-Fascist message.
The film’s director, George Cukor, hated it as well. In a 1969 interview which has since been reprinted in the book George Cukor: Interviews (ed. Robert Emmet Long), Cukor stated that while he enjoyed making the film, he was incredibly unhappy with the end result. He found Hepburn to be stiff and artificial (due to problems with the script rather than any fault of her own), and stated that “[…] the story just pooped out. That was the real trouble.”
As Patrick McGilligan notes in George Cukor: A Double Life, “The picture turned out to be a disappointment to all – smoky and fiery in spurts, but at crucial moments, either souped up or watered down. In Cukor’s career it is an intriguing oddity.”
Perhaps my taste in films attracts me to “intriguing oddities,” because Keeper of the Flame was actually one of the first Katharine Hepburn films that I loved. I discovered it when I was in high school, in the early days of my love affair with Turner Classic Movies. I’d only seen a few of her films at that time, and Keeper of the Flame was my first Hepburn/Tracy film.
I hadn’t given the film a re-watch in a few years, so I decided to dig out my DVD copy and watch it again for this blogathon.
Spencer Tracy is the anchor of the film, playing a hard-working journalist with strong ethical and political convictions. Tracy’s performance is very strong, and he brings some of the film’s most powerful scenes — most notably his conversations with the gatekeeper’s young son Jeb (Darryl Hickman).
Kate doesn’t become a major on-screen player in the story until nearly thirty minutes in, though Mrs. Forrest is mentioned almost immediately by the journalists who have converged on the town, filling up local hotels and hoping to get the scoop on the deceased Mr. Forrest. When Mrs. Forrest does finally appear in the flesh, Hepburn adds a lot of intrigue to the film.
Her character is mysterious, and a little bit scheme-y. The viewer gets the sense that she’s an unstoppable woman — one with convictions just as strong as those of Tracy’s journalist character, and one who gets things done. Though Mrs. Forrest is a woman who has been living in her husband’s shadow, Hepburn brings a distinct sense of determination and strength to the character. And of course, she and Tracy are great to watch together.
Just as much as the lead performances, I appreciate this film for its social commentary, which is highly critical of hero worship (or “hero fever,” as one character in the film describes it) and is unusual for the period. Movies about heroic soldiers, spies, and political crusaders were popular in the 1940s, with World War II casting a great shadow over all aspects of life, including entertainment media. Keeper of the Flame is, instead, a film about questioning the legacy 0f — and revealing the flaws of — a man perceived as an honorable hero. The film doesn’t criticize the country, instead making Forrest a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” character (a secret fascist), but it’s still a pretty unique story.
I have to say, I disagree as strongly as ever with the amount of harsh criticism that has been tossed at Keeper of the Flame! It isn’t a perfect film, and the “FIERY LOVE DRAMA!” tagline from the posters may be over-selling it a bit. However, it’s a lot more enjoyable and interesting than most people give it credit for, and its condemnation of blindly supporting/following “heroic” figures is still relevant today.