Keeper of the Flame (1942) Directed by George Cukor. Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Richard Whorf (100 min)

A beloved American war hero dies in a car accident, and a reporter pursues his grieving widow for an exposé about his influential life and tragic death. Tracy and Hepburn, in their second film together, were already deeply involved in their private relationship, but the on-screen romance is muted. Evoking Citizen Kane in its quest for the secret of a mysterious public figure, this film has never been more topical than at this moment. The Philadelphia Story screen writer Donald Ogden Stewart said it’s “the picture I’m proudest of having been connected with—in terms of saying the most about Fascism that it is possible to say in Hollywood.”

When Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn were paired in their first film together, Woman of the Year (1942), they were among MGM’s top roster of stars. They were not only box office gold in a script carefully shepherded by Hepburn, but they began a personal partnership that would remain solid until Tracy’s death in 1969. The anecdote of their meeting, which may or may not be true, recounts a brief exchange at the studio commissary, with 5’ 7” Kate in trousers (which he disdained on women) in platform shoes with her hair piled high on top of her head encountering 5’ 9” Tracy. “I’m afraid I’m a little tall for you, Mr. Tracy, ”she volunteered, to which he retorted, “Don’t worry, Miss Hepburn, I’ll cut you down to my size” (Edwards 195).

Movie star scrapbooks have photos of Hepburn, but not nearly as many as for Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford. This is the portrait used in Keeper of the Flame when Steven O’Malley publishes an article about Christine Forrest.

As soon as the filming of Woman of the Year began, it became clear to everyone, that just as in any “opposites attract” film plot, the two stars fell headlong in love. I don’t really like Woman of the Year, with its midcentury misogyny in full cry, but the electricity between Tracy and Hepburn is undeniable. Tracy had been married to his wife, Louise, since 1923, and they would remain married until her death in 1983. He refused to divorce her because of his Catholic religion, and his loyalty to her and his children. His son, John, was born deaf, and Louise devoted her life to caring for him and other hearing impaired children. She was used to his many affairs and accepted them. Hepburn had been dating the director of Woman of the Year, George Stevens, but he stepped back when he saw the attraction between his stars. Hepburn didn’t want to be married or have children. Still, the Tracy Hepburn relationship was an open secret, known in Hollywood, but unknown to their fans.

On the other hand, there are few clippings of Spencer Tracy in my scrapbooks.

Because they were never seen together publically, they were anxious to find another film they could do together. Donald Ogden Stewart sent Hepburn the screenplay he had been working on for Keeper of the Flame, but MGM did not think it appropriate for their new romantic comedy stars. Hepburn felt drawn to the character of Christine, which she felt was a mature part, unlike the others she had been playing. “She is a woman, strong, resolute, placed in a tragic position in life, thinking back, I am surprised to find that I have never played a mature woman, I have played girls, girls, girls, all sorts of girls, shy, whimsical, sensitive, flamboyant, tempestuous, everything but mature human beings. I looked upon Christine as a new acting experience, the one I had been preparing years to play” (Curtis 466, Edwards 212).

But, it also meant that she could keep an eye on Tracy, without violating their privacy. He was a serious alcoholic, a binge drinker who became belligerent when drunk. She tried to isolate him from his drinking friends, and help him stay sober. Biographies of both Tracy and Hepburn use the same kind of phraseology to describe their relationship, she was “wife, secretary, companion, chauffeur, nurse” as well as lover. She picked him up every weekday at the house he shared with his wife. She drove him to the studio, and stayed there with him all day, even if she wasn’t on call. When the day wrapped, she took him to the house she rented in Malibu, cooked for him, encouraged him, kept him from the bottle, and eventually, drove him home. She was devoted to him, and thinking his talent greater than her own, gave his career goals primary importance.

Keeper of the Flame was written for the screen by Australian poet and novelist I. (for Ida) A. R. Wylie, who sent it to MGM weeks before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It was already accepted for serialization in American Magazine. The novel was published in the spring of 1942, and the identity of the inspiration for patriot Robert Forrest was debated. Was it William Randolph Hearst, Henry Ford or Franklin Roosevelt? It’s likely Stewart had Charles Lindbergh in mind.

Lindbergh’s fame was enormous in 1927 after he became the first pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic. Acclaimed as a national hero, his family was besieged by the press. This popularity revealed its darkest side when his baby son was kidnapped and murdered. He and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, fled the US for England and then France. While they were living in Europe in 1938, he was invited to inspect the German air force, and the Nazis carefully showed Lindbergh exactly what they wanted him to see and he felt Hitler was “undoubtedly a great man, and I believe has done much for the German people” (Olson 19). He accepted a medal from Hermann Goering, just a few days before Kristallnacht. He became a strong isolationist, willing to concede Europe and Britain to the Nazis, maintaining America’s independence from allies. He gave a rare speech on the radio where he said the country’s job was to band together to “defend the white race against foreign invasion” (Olson 72). President Roosevelt wrote privately to one correspondent, “I am absolutely convinced that Lindbergh is a Nazi” and to another ”When I read Lindbergh’s speech I felt that it could not have been better put if it had been written by Goebbels himself. What a pity that this youngster has completely abandoned his believe in our form of government and has accepted Nazi methods because apparently they are efficient” (Olson 103).

This still can’t help but evoke the torches of Charlottesville

His loyal wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh was not always in sync with her husband’s political ideas, she was hesitant about his membership in the extremist organization America First, which did not want the US to enter the European war. Time Magazine called America First a collection of “Jew-haters, Roosevelt-haters, England-haters, Coughlinites, politicians and demagogues.” The Chicago Tribune said they had “given aid and comfort to the enemy, which constituted treason” (Olsen 318). Anne’s character could have been an inspiration for Hepburn’s. Publically steadfastly loyal to her husband, privately, Anne expressed doubts about his opinions. “The arguments of the isolationists are so often narrow, materialistic, short-sighted, and wholly selfish—I am repelled by them” she wrote in her diary in 1940 (Olsen 243). Lindberg’s advocacy for the organization meant “Lindberg became, against his will, the darling of the worst elements of isolationism” (Olsen 319). In November of 1941, Dorothy Thompson (ironically the model for Hepburn’s character in Woman of the Year) said she was sure that Lindbergh was forming a new political party to run for President, at the urging of isolationist senators.

Hollywood was a powerful influencer in the 1930s and 40s, when half of Americans saw at least one movie a week. Senator Gerald Nye called the studios “the most gigantic engines of war propaganda in existence” and demanded a Senate investigation (Olsen 360). Hollywood, of course, was coded language for Jewish. Isolationists thought the Jews were pressuring the Roosevelt administration to enter the European war, not for patriotic reasons, but for religious ones. Joseph Kennedy (John F. Kennedy’s father) was the isolationist ambassador to Britain at the time, and warned the movie moguls of a national anti-Semitic backlash if Hollywood continued to make films like The Mortal Storm and Confessions of a Nazi Spy. The only Hollywood person who didn’t care was Charles Chaplin, who boldly made The Great Dictator, which even mentioned the Jews, which the other films did not. He wasn’t Jewish, but his half-brother, Sydney’s, mother was Jewish. Of course, after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, and Hitler declared war against the United States, there were few isolationists remaining.

Director George Cukor said cautiously, “we made this picture during a period of undercover fascism in this country…Certain things were in the air, but hadn’t come out into the open. I suppose, to draw attention to them, we exaggerated” (Curtis 465). Screenwriter Stewart, the head of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi league, wanted to send a stern message. He wanted it to be “a contribution to this war against Hitler” (Curtis 466). While many in Hollywood, including Hepburn, were involved with liberal causes, Stewart’s politics were more radical. This was the last film Cukor made before his own military service, and the only film he ever made with a political message. “The screen is a powerful factor for the expression of those ideals in which we believe and today are fighting for” a suspenseful mystery that spoke “the truth of democracy and Americanism” (Levy 147).

George Cukor (in glasses) directing Tracy and Hepburn

Tracy was announced for the film in December of 1941, and Hepburn was added to the cast in April 1942. “I’m most anxious to start the new film,” she said, “The script has been written by Donald Ogden Stewart, who did the excellent screen treatment of The Philadelphia Story, and George Cukor will again direct me…I want to repeat Woman of the Year, both as a picture and a box office hit, for I really think it was an excellent film” (Curtis 465). Tracy never discussed the film, whether he liked it, or he didn’t, but his part was solid, much better than Hepburn’s and tailored to his screen persona. They had very different ways of working. Hepburn liked to rehearse, she wanted to be involved with the script and with the director. She was happy to do take after take. Tracy was a more instinctive actor, his first take was usually his best. Shooting took 11 weeks, which was quite long in the studio era.

The film has a strong supporting cast, including from 11 year old Darryl Hickman, as Jeb. Darryl Hickman was a child actor in many important films during the 30s and 40s, including Leave Her to Heaven, The Grapes of Wrath and Men of Boys Town. He appeared in over 100 films by the time he was 20. In 1951 he chucked it all and entered a monastery, but returned to acting a year later. His younger brother, Dwayne, also an actor, played Dobie Gillis on tv and starred in Cat Ballou. A scene played with Tracy on a dark hillside in which the boy decides if he can trust the reporter O’Malley was, as Hickman said later, “the most difficult scene I played as a child actor.” He was helped by director Cukor, but also greatly by Tracy, “who was so ‘with you’ as an actor that you could feel his energy. He was very still and very quiet and very unspoken, but he was with you psychically I a way that I have never felt from another actor. He listened to you with such intensity that he literally drew you into himself. It isn’t that he did very much: in fact he did almost nothing. But he created a connection that was so intense that you couldn’t pull yourself away from him” (Curtis 469).

Cukor had a gift for discovering performers and spotlighting them. Here, he launches the career of Percy Kilbride, as a laconic taxi driver. Kilbride would go onto a popular series of “Ma and Pa Kettle” B pictures.

Hepburn’s clothes are by Adrian. Since she is a widow, her wardrobe is disappointingly shroudlike, although the gown in which she makes her entrance evokes a goddess-y robe he designed for her in The Philadelphia Story. This was near the end of his time with MGM, where he designed so many extraordinary gowns for extraordinary women. Hepburn told Calvin Klein in the late 1970s, “Adrian was my favorite designer. He and I had the same sense of ‘smell’ about what clothes could do and what they could say” (Gutner 54).

The film had a lot of push back from the Production Code, which objected to the original ending, which included a romantic ending for the couple. If Casablanca glowed with Ingrid Bergman’s uncertainty in not knowing how the film would end, it made playing Christine a challenge for Hepburn. Although the reviews for this film were not strong, it outgrossed Woman of the Year, cementing the potency of the Tracy-Hepburn partnership. Screenwriter Stewart liked to tell a story that the head of the studio, Louis B. Mayer, hadn’t seen the film until he saw the premiere at Radio City Music Hall, and walked out, in a fury when he realized what the film was actually about. “I can’t vouch for it. But, I’d be very happy if it were true” Stewart said (Curtis 480).

Cukor said in retrospect, “The story was basically fraudulent, Kate had to float in wearing a long white gown and carrying a bunch of lilies. That’s awfully tricky, isn’t it? And, doesn’t she give long, piercing looks at his (her husband’s portrait) over the mantel? Well, I think she finally carried a slightly phony part, because humanity asserted itself, and her humor. They always did” (Edwards 215).

If Woman of the Year’s contempt for its heroine’s accomplishments leaves a sour taste these days, Keeper of the Flame‘s legacy is the opposite, its message shockingly contemporary. The audience at the North Carolina Museum of Art was amazed by the film’s topicality; they were stunned silent as Christine revealed her husband’s hidden plans for the nation.

Spencer Tracy by James Curtis, Katharine Hepburn: A Remarkable Woman by Anne Edwards, Katharine Hepburn by Barbara Leaming, George Cukor: Master of Elegance by Emanuel Levy, George Cukor: A Double Life by Patrick McGilligan, Gowns by Adrian: The MGM Years 1928-1941 by Howard Gutner, Those Angry Days by Lynne Olson