Friday 20 July 2007

The Sea of Grass (1947) Elia Kazan

Elia Kazan only directed 21 films between 1937 and 1976, but they include such luminaries as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, A Streetcar Named Desire and East of Eden. His reputation must be one of the highest of any director in the book, and here he has the dynamic team of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn to play with. Yet Kazan, in his autobiography, said 'It's the only picture I've ever made that I'm ashamed of. Don't see it.' Well. How bad could it be?

We kick off In St Louis in 1880 with the dynamic duo about to get married. Hepburn is Lutie Cameron, obviously a woman of breeding with elegance and beauty, but Tracy is a cattle baron called Colonel James Brewton who almost everyone in Salt Fork, NM seems to despise, not least Brice Chamberlain, played ably by Melvyn Douglas. The weird thing is that initially Chamberlain comes across as a liberal dogooder and Brewton seems to be the diehard conservative tyrant but it isn't long before it becomes apparent that he's really an extreme conservationist. So the battle in hindsight isn't between left and right wing, it's between left and further left.

Brewton loves the sea of grass of the title, the wide expanse of plains that swept across much of the west of what would become the United States. Chamberlain wants to pass it over to the families who want to settle it, so he's a man of the people even though he thinks 160 acres isn't much for a homesteading. Nowadays he'd be building estates full of Legoland houses two feet apart and no green anywhere. Yet Brewton wants to leave it as it is, empty of people and pretty much anything else, just as nature built it. Back in 1880 he'd have been a stick in the mud, but now he'd be one of the more radical members of Greenpeace, along with those who'd like to kill off nine tenths of the population and get rid of the internal combustion engine. Times sure have changed.

Spencer Tracy was never a bad actor because he was such a natural that the worst he could ever be was unnoticed. Here he's obviously struggling to find what his character is all about and gets stuck with standing there like a lemon for much of the time waiting for whoever he's talking to to do their bit. Katharine Hepburn has more of a part but not much of it really makes any sense, and of course being who she is she was never any good at playing weak. Melvyn Douglas is fine as Col Brewton's enemy and the man that Lutie finds her way to, but he's too bitter to really survive as a character, especially when he's proved wrong.

That's much of what should have made the film: that there's a turnaround in what makes the good guy and the bad guy, but the good guy wasn't good for long and the bad guy gave up before he could become the good guy. He should have become a dynamic character to lead the righteous resistance but he just turns into nothing. It's as if the scriptwriter didn't really know who the good guys or bad guys were supposed to be. All the issues that the plot could have explored are pretty much ignored or just thrown across a front page or two.

The melodramatic situations the characters find themselves in and the dialogue the actors have to immerse themselves in doesn't help. I really don't see this as quite as bad as Kazan suggested, but it's no peach, that's for sure. It's not bad per se, it's just a huge waste. By the time the dynamic Robert Walker turns up as Lutie's grown up second child (and nobody else has aged a day), it's too far gone for him to even attempt to save. The last half hour went by in a blur of blah.

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