Glenn Kenny: In his autobiography, Elia Kazan: A Life, the great director concludes the section chronicling the making of Sea of Grass thusly: “It’s the only picture I’ve made that I’m ever ashamed of. Don’t see it.” Having tied ourselves to the project of watching all nine motion pictures co-starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, we were not able to heed his advice. And having not heeded his advice and seen the picture, my inclination to protest “It’s not THAT bad” is tempered by my understanding of pretty much exactly why Kazan didn’t care for it. It’s all up on screen, although the ten or so pages in Kazan’s autobiography that detail just why he’s ashamed of it are persuasive and compelling and worth reading. In short, Kazan allowed himself to be eaten up by what he calls “the Metromill,” a system that you sometimes hear about the genius of, a system wherein so many of the particulars concerning the film had been decided on and contrived before Kazan himself even stepped on the lot. Henry James described (and I know you and our readers have heard this a million times before, sorry) the artist as an individual on whom “nothing is lost,” and reading Kazan’s plaints—he was irritated at the horses Metro was giving him for this 19th-century-set melodrama, complaining that they were too fat and cozy to be convincing as active farm animals—one feels the hand, understand the eye, of this artist, and he’s such a compelling writer that as he goes on about the difficulties posed by Sea of Grass, you empathize with him. And then he cuts off the discussion with a firm “Don’t see it” and that directive seems to carry the force of law.
But. As I say. We were obliged. And the film’s flaws aside, I have to say that what struck me particularly, at first, was how relatively daring this film seemed in terms of content. Consider that this 1947 film features a heroine who runs off from her (admittedly abusive and awful) husband and conceives and bears a child with another man, and is nevertheless, like, allowed to live, more or less. Not only does Hepburn’s Lutie do this, she does this with the most bitter enemy of said husband, Tracy’s Jim Brewton. It’s always bracing to see Tracy playing a bastard, although as is the convention with studio films about brawny, stubborn cattleman of the ‘40s and ‘50s, it’s made very clear that he is a Bastard With A Vision, yeah, yeah, whatever. And it is also odd to see Hepburn playing a character so largely tentative. Although as Lutie’s actions attest, when she ceases being tentative, it’s in a fairly big way.
I could speculate on what I thought Kazan’s relatively new-fangled notions about acting brought to the table with respect to the two stars, who had been doing it the Hollywood way for the better part of two decades apiece. (The actual age difference between Kazan and his actors wasn’t huge; he was nine year’s Tracy’s junior, and two years Hepburn’s.) But that would be projecting, to be honest. I remember at one point, Claire, you asking me why Kazan made a particular choice with respect to something, and I said. “I don’t know. If Martin Scorsese were here, he could tell us. Although actually, if Martin Scorsese were here, he would say,’What am I doing here? You two are in your pajamas.’” Do you remember your question?
Claire Kenny: I’m sorry to say, GK, I don’t remember my question. What I do remember is a lot of sitting on the sofa and moaning “Lord, when will this thing ever end?” For that reason I’m hard-pressed to explain why—but nonetheless compelled to admit that—I so thoroughly disobeyed Kazan by watching his non-masterpiece all the way through a second time, by myself. I’m still not clear how that happened…my intention in popping the disc back in for another go-round was to skim enough to refresh my memory regarding the smashing pioneer-woman gowns Walter Plunkett designed for Hepburn, about which I’d promised The Siren I would say a few words. And somehow I found myself unable to skip over one frame of a movie I hadn’t even much liked the first time. I can’t say that I liked it any better the second, but if it is in fact a failure (not really my place to say), it’s maybe all the more interesting for the nature of its failings. Among its biggest problems are length and scope—it’s both too short for the kind of epic sprawl it seems to want to capture, and too long for the relatively few major characters and details it provides. Three decades later, Conrad Richter’s novel might have looked like a natural fit for a TV miniseries, but it’s too trudging and unwieldy for this format—we’re offered glimpses of potentially rich conflicts and dramatic byways that are left unexplored, while we linger in scenes of extended exposition. But the outlines of something resonant and interesting and visually compelling and morally ambiguous are in place, and watching that promise sort of die on the vine is captivating in its own way.
And then as you mention, the casting against type and racy-for-the-era content make this noteworthy as a kind of curiosity. I had a hard time getting a read on Hepburn’s Lutie, and all that frantic, unfocused energy—was the nervous pitch of her performance meant to be a character choice? Though I don’t want to fall too far down this particular rabbit hole, part of the fascination with the movie is trying to figure out just what she’s going for. Hepburn’s characters are always grounded in her own sharp and relentless intelligence, and it’s as if here, she decided the character was more instinct than intellect, and had no idea how to work with that—her version of a non-brainy girl was someone with 25% more breath in her voice, or something.
I’m not sure I so much agree with you on the Jim Brewton character—yes, Bastard With a Vision, but I don’t think The Vision was meant to significantly mitigate his general awfulness. It seemed more like the ultimate expression of said awfulness, inasmuch as he was basically a land-drunk mercenary determined to keep his neighbors impoverished. It’s true that he had the almighty fall-on-your-knees-miraculous ability to identify the plains as better suited for grazing than farming, but then he also had a corresponding conviction that figuring this out meant that he deserved all the cattle. So though the character does have a few stray sympathetic qualities, he wasn’t especially ambiguous.
Glenn Kenny: What’s interesting to remember is that there were likely DOZENS of films not dissimilar to Sea of Grass churned out by MGM and other studios year in, year out all through the supposed Golden Age of Hollywood moviemaking, and the reason this picture is remembered at all is because of a particular confluence of talent it brought together. Clearly that confluence of talent did not succeed in creating a work that transcended its generic constraints and/or the studio house style, so to speak. But the collaboration seen in this context certainly does point to a sense in which our perspective on film history gets skewed. Necessarily skewed, I’d say, as one literally can’t see everything.
In any event, beyond the non-transcendence, and this might have been what helped hook you in on that second viewing in the first place, there are the incidental pleasures of the house style, which was responsible in a sense for the costumes you mention. From my perspective, they have mostly to do with the casting. Melvyn Douglas is a pretty strong counter to Tracy; nice to see him facing a strong male presence, certainly spruces up the narrative. Also welcome are glimpses of Harry Carey and Robert Walker. For lovers of older films, these faces/personalities resonate a particular way, and their welcome charisma and ability makes a slog such as this something less of a slog.
Claire Kenny: Absolutely agreed—the casting is exceptional, particularly in the case of Douglas, who makes trouble while staying just on the clean side of smarmy.
But back to those costumes, at last…Plunkett’s lovely work on this is particularly noteworthy for highlighting the dual challenges of a costume designer: serving a film and a character while also serving the body and physical presence of the actor. Katharine Hepburn’s lean, angular frame is not naturally suited to lacy frills or the calico homespun-homesteader look, but Plunkett ingeniously solves this issue by keeping her gowns very structured—instead of a lace collar, a pleated ruff; instead of a shawl, a trim, military-inspired jacket. A bell sleeve is balanced by a slender skirt, and the drama of more voluminous dresses is tempered by dark colors. This attention to details of tailoring, with firm grounding in the period’s style, lets Plunkett make Hepburn look at home even in white eyelet. White eyelet! While “Walter Plunkett aces period design!” isn’t going to read as big news to anyone who loves film costuming, a moment’s recognition, please, for the wise technician inside the artist.
And that is…way more than I intended to say about this movie, which I watched 100% more times than I meant to, and probably will not watch again. Right? We’re not watching this again, are we?
Glenn Kenny: No. We are not. Next we will treat Frank Capra's State of the Union, which stars, beyond Hepburn and Tracy, our favorite Jessica Fletcher portrayer Angela Lansbury, boiiii!!!!! And we'll have that posted in way fewer than eight months, we promise!