Tuesday 17 July 2007

Keeper of the Flame (1942) George Cukor

Robert Forrest is a national hero, it seems, both as a soldier and as a man, fronting an organisation called Forward America. His death at the beginning of the film is the catalyst for everything else that follows, after his car rushes off a bridge in a thunderstorm. Spencer Tracy plays Steve O'Malley, a writer reporting on the death and legacy of the hero and he soon finds out that it's not as straightforward as it might initially appear.

This was the second pairing of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, after the highly successful Woman of the Year, Hepburn's previous film. It also reunited her with director George Cukor who had made the two films before that, two of her very best films too, Holiday and The Philadelphia Story. This one was a different animal to be sure, a dark drama with only a little journalistic wit to lighten the mood, courtesy of Audrey Christie as a colleague of O'Malley's called Jane Harding. The script is clever, not just in the main thrust of the film but even in astute dialogue between O'Malley and secondary characters like the taxi driver Orion Peabody who is a joy to watch, courtesy of actor Percy Kilbride.

Anyway it's a Tracy/Hepburn movie, but it doesn't seem that way for a while because Kate doesn't appear for at least 25 minutes and even when she does, as a grieving widow, she really doesn't impress. Certainly Tracy stays dominant through her first scenes, even after he leaves the screen. She soon finds her usual power, in a much darker role than she usually played, but it remains secondary to Tracy's in this film. The only time she dominates him is when they're on horseback and he looks completely out of place while she makes it seem as natural as sitting down in her favourite armchair.

As much as it's a serious film and a dark one, it's one with secrets. There are plenty of layers here that O'Malley gets to unravel slowly but surely, and they provide an almost gothic flavour to the proceedings. There's a crazy old mother hidden away in another building, old Mrs Forrest, played with emphasis by Margaret Wycherly, who believes that her son was murdered, but talks to him anyway. She makes herself noticed here just like she did in White Heat, as Jimmy Cagney's mother ('I'm on top of the world, ma!'). There's a secretary who keeps trying to divert O'Malley's attention and a whole slew of mysterious documents that get burned before they can be read.

In other words there's something going on and O'Malley wants to know what. His journey of discovery is our story. It's a powerful one and very much a product of its time, 1942 being wartime even for Americans and starting, a few years after everyone else, to see the ugly truths being exposed in Europe and what they might mean for the rest of the world. I wonder how this film was received back on original release. I didn't buy much of the ending which turned into melodrama.

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