For part one, go here.
Glenn Kenny: I have to admit two things about Keeper of the Flame: first, that I’d never seen it, and honestly had barely even heard of it before encountering it in this collection. And that given the descriptions of it I looked at almost directly before viewing it, I kind of dreaded it, George Cukor behind the camera or not. Come to think of it I’m not sure why I dreaded it, since theme-wise, it bears a certain resemblance to a couple of pieces of political-sociological pulp of which I’m kind of fond, for instance, Gabriel Over The White House. Before I get ahead of myself, lemme describe the picture. The followup to the popular and Oscar-winning (for Best Original Screenplay, of all things; Hepburn got a Best Actress nom) Woman of the Year is not romantic comedy, not even vaguely. You’d think maybe it would, what with Cukor directing and a script by Donald Ogden Stewart (who adapted both Holiday and The Philadelphia Story for the screen). But no. This is a Great-Man-With-Feet-Of-Not-Clay-But-Potential-Fascist-Steel melodrama, with an intriguing twist: the Great Man is never seen. True, as it were, to the film’s title. The flame is the heroism and ideals of the never-seen Robert Forrest, a national hero for we-never-learn-what-exactly. Forrest meets his death in a spectacular auto crash, and the vultures of the press descend on the town wherein his compound is situated, but only one, Spencer Tracy’s former war correspondent Stephen O’Malley, is crafty enough to make it into the manse, where he meet’s Forrest’s widow Christine (Hepburn, of course), the titular keeper of the flame—or is she? Soon O’Malley finds all manner of creepiness under all manner of rocks, including a surly groundskeeper (Howard DaSilva), a worshipful uptight amenuensis (Richard Whorf, in a sinister variation, coincidentally, of Dan Tobin’s character in Woman of the Year, or so it seems when you watch the two pictures in close temporal proximity) and Forrest’s loony mom (Margaret Wycherly). We learn that at the time of his death Forrest was working on a project to…Make America Fascist. And the truth about him has to come out! But there are powerful forces working to suppress that truth!
The material, as you see, has a lot of contextually fascinating resonances to it. Some consider the film to be a pronounced critique of the isolationist politics and suspicious fellow-travelling of Charles Lindbergh, a theory bolstered somewhat by the film’s stubbornness in withholding just what it was besides wartime valor that made Robert Forrest such a renowned national hero. I’ve read a latter-day consideration of the film that posits the scenario could conceivably have provided some inspiration for Philip Roth’s alternative-history novel The Plot Against America. This is the sort of thing I should be all over, but in fact I was kind of scared that the film it would resemble most would be another Tracy-starrer, 1933’s The Power And The Glory, a Great-Man-With-Feet-Of-Clay picture with an excellent pedigree; its writer Preston Sturges pointed out that its narrative innovations, more or less ignored at the time, were similar ones to what Citizen Kane would be praised to the skies for less than a decade later. That may be true, but it’s also a demonstration that if your innovations don’t resonate on the screen, they don’t resonate period, and The Power and the Glory is so thoroughly pedestrian in its mise-en-scene and overall direction that one recalls it as a real slog. And for some reason I was worried that Keeper of the Flame would be that as well.
Claire Kenny: You and I are on just the same page here, in terms of the film both confounding our expectations of content, and exceeding our expectations of quality. I know that we both relished the viewing, and found this satisfying, and satisfyingly ridiculous (in the way only a really juicy melodrama can be), for probably much the same reasons. The main difference in the way we approached the film is that you were a far better student than I--the only "advance reading" I did was the copy on the DVD box, which left me with the same dread you mention, which I likewise shortly found myself unable to justify. You mention the pervasive creepiness, but what I felt more was suspense. We know as soon as Tracy shows up that there is Something to Investigate, but the big bad truth about Robert Forrest is a long time emerging--is he a wronged man who was killed by his wife's lover? was he involved in shady business dealings? is Hepburn protecting him or herself?--and the buildup is entirely delicious. It's then jarring in the best kind of way (although giant clues pop up throughout) when his secret turns out to be the Big F. In the context of the time especially, a threat of fascism surely couldn't have been much scarier, but it's such a high-minded plan to make fascism the villain of a popular entertainment--and since Forrest himself is never seen, fascism really is pretty much literally the villain. As dated as this feels (I'm entirely conditioned by the movies I've grown up with to expect the shameful secret to be something sordid and very physical, like incest or serial murder or a gimp with a ball gag in the basement), it's more a delightful relic of its time than a wilted old bouquet in the manner of, say, Woman of the Year.
Glenn Kenny: Yes, exactly. A lot of the delight has to do with the pacing. The themes and characterizations and their treatment are a, true, a bit creaky and antiquated and all, but the picture itself really moves right along. Tracy as always gives great Man-of-Integrity value, and Tragic Heroine was never really a problem for Hepburn, so they’re both very enjoyable here. (The supporting cast is also impeccable; DaSilve always gave good sinister grump, and could turn that into fundamentally warm decent guy on a dime; I didn’t mention some good early Forrest Tucker action, he plays a menacing relative of a character). What’s odd, or maybe admirable, is that there are not even subtextual sparks between them in their interplay (their characters do not become romantically entangled in this picture, making this unique in their canon); he’s all do-the-right- thing, she’s all torn-between-love-and-disillusionment-and-duty-but- duty-to-what, and they don’t have any opportunity to connect in any other way. Claire, did you find this alienating/off-putting, or did the anomaly add to the fun?
Claire Kenny: Well, I’ll tell you, GK, I actually don’t agree with the premise that there were no sparks between them—though now I’m starting to doubt myself and wondering if I saw things just because I was expecting to find them there? Definitely, there was not the overt romantic involvement of their other films, but I nonetheless thought that an undercurrent of sexual tension was inherent in the way their characters were set against each other: as an investigator bound on uncovering the secret Hepburn felt compelled to keep, Stephen was her antagonist; at the same time, as the one person in the world of the film with the wherewithal to reveal the truth that Christine didn’t really want to hide, he was her rescuer. As archaic as that whole damsel-in-distress/white-knight setup is, Christine’s conflict about her own role creates the classic push-pull at the heart of all romantic friction. I’d say the anomaly here—other than the fact that a real romance never comes to fruition—is that the classic Tracy-Hepburn battle is one of words, while Keeper of the Flame trades more in wordless stares and meaningful pauses. I was happy if unsurprised to find that they could handle this form of interaction just as skillfully as they manage pages of banter.
Up next: 1945's Without Love, the DVD of which happens to include one of Glenn's all-time favorite Tex Avery cartoons, Swing Shift Cinderella. Not sure if that will also be subject to discussion. "Um, pardon me miss, I'm lookin' for the dame they call..."