Mess or Masterpiece?
Keeper of the Flame
Sample critical reaction: "A significant failure." --Time
In early 1942, critics and audiences alike were captivated by the odd-couple pairing of brisk New Englander Katharine Hepburn and easy-going Midwesterner Spencer Tracy in MGM's Woman of the Year. Although the pair's subsequent 26-year romance was never publicly acknowledged during the married Tracy's lifetime (thanks to the amazing cooperation of the press), the palpable sparks between the two actors leapt off the screen. The public demanded more, and MGM, expert at creating long-lasting on-screen teams (Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, William Powell and Myrna Loy), eagerly complied, hurrying the second Hepburn-Tracy pairing into production. Keeper of the Flame hit screens in December 1942.
No one knew what to make of it. It was Tracy-Hepburn vehicle, but romance wasn't at the center of Keeper--instead, the film fastened on the evils of fascism lurking in America. The result disappointed and confused many; even the film's director, George Cukor, dismissed it as "a waxwork affair." Keeper very nearly sank the fabled screen team before it had begun. Even today, most Hepburn-Tracy devotees don't embrace it.
But Keeper of the Flame is more than just a fascinating, dated curiosity. Based on an I.A.R. Wylie (itself very loosely modeled on the exploits of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst), the film opens just after the mysterious death of a nationally beloved mogul, Robert Forrest, and the suspicious behavior of his aloof widow, Christine (Hepburn). Investigative reporter Steven O'Malley (Tracy) hopes to unearth the "real story" behind Forrest's death but instead comes to realize the much darker goings-on during his life. Gradually, O'Malley discovers that Forrest sponsored a number of pro-fascist groups under the guise of patriotic organizations, which he hoped would help sweep him into the Oval Office. Christine's cover-ups and evasions are intended to preserve American idealism at the height of the global struggle against fascism.
Although Keeper's script, by Hepburn stalwart Donald Ogden Stewart, admittedly falls into periods of talkiness (always a danger in politically themed films), Cukor creates a compelling, unusually grim look that suggests impending doom, a mood not even costume designer Adrian's sumptuous outfits for Hepburn could lift. The funereal tone, while at odds with circa-'40s MGM's usual bubbly fare, evokes what the film really is: a mystery and, eventually, a horror story, something audiences of the day never fully grasped. The darkness is further heightened by the unfulfilled romantic tension between Christine and O'Malley, but the fact that Hepburn and Tracy's characters never come together doesn't disappoint; rather, it lends an edge to their scenes and intensifies the inevitable tragedy.
For all its dark seriousness, Keeper of the Flame actually has more in common with the sophisticated wit of Woman of the Year than with Hepburn and Tracy's next film, the fluffy, romantic Without Love (which, not surprisingly, audiences adored). Keeper presented Hepburn and Tracy as adults in a complex world--something Hollywood was not much in the habit of allowing, even during the somber days of World War II. With MGM's lush production values, a fine supporting cast, and a challenging script, Keeper of the Flame remains an underappreciated oddity in the Hepburn and Tracy oeuvre.