May 9, 2011

7 The Films of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, Part 2

The Sea of Grass (1947)
Director: Elia Kazan

The fourth movie Tracy and Hepburn made together is a Western, a nineteenth-century family saga that will remind many of Giant. As the film opens, Lutie Cameron (Hepburn), a young woman from St. Louis, is engaged to Jim Brewton (Tracy), the owner of a huge cattle ranch in New Mexico. When Jim sends a message saying he can't leave the ranch to come to St. Louis for the wedding, that they will have to be married in New Mexico, it's clear where his priorities lie. Once in New Mexico and married, Lutie finds herself in an environment she has trouble adjusting to. Jim is involved in a legal dispute with homesteaders, the kind of conflict that fuels so many Westerns, and is willing to go to any lengths to prevail, even acts of brutality. When his brutality harms a farming couple with whom Lutie has become friendly, forcing them to abandon their homestead, it becomes too much for her and she leaves Jim and her young daughter and goes to Denver.

In Denver the lonely and emotionally vulnerable Lutie runs into Brice Chamberlain (Melvyn Douglas), the lawyer who represents the homesteaders in court and is Jim's bitter enemy. After a one-night stand with Brice, Lutie returns home, contrite and pregnant, and gives birth to a son, Brock. When Jim accidentally finds out the truth about Brock and Lutie refuses to support him in his illegal range war with the homesteaders, he asks her to leave. She goes back to St. Louis and except for one brief visit doesn't return to the ranch until many years later, after her children are grown. Her daughter Sarah Beth (Phyllis Thaxter) has become a sensible young woman, but Brock (Robert Walker) has grown into a surly, impulsive young man with a hot temper. Out of concern for him she finally returns, only to find that he is a fugitive wanted for murder. Brock's tragic outcome proves to be the act that finally reunites the now middle-aged couple at the end of the film.

The Sea of Grass was the second movie directed by Elia Kazan, right before his social issues pictures of the late forties and A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway. As such, it doesn't bear the stylistic stamp of his later, better-known films. (Kazan was not pleased with the film. "It's the only picture I've ever made that I'm ashamed of," he writes in his 1988 autobiography.) One thing it does have in common with his later work, though, is the quality of the acting, no surprise since Kazan was a former actor and in late 1947 would become a co-founder of the Actors Studio. Attention is often focused on Robert Walker's flavorful performance as the bad boy Brock, and his acting here is certainly an eye-opener, one of his few early performances that hint at the greatness he was to achieve later in his career as the loopy Bruno in Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train. Still, Tracy and Hepburn hold their own against his more showy role.

One hardly associates Spencer Tracy or Katharine Hepburn with the Method, yet both excel under Kazan's direction. Tracy eschews the relaxed affability he made appear so effortless, instead tapping into the hardness of earlier roles like those in Man's Castle and Fury. His Jim Brewton is a man driven by ambition to create an empire and by ruthlessness to hold on to it at any cost. He is obstinate, domineering, and unforgiving, a man who demands unquestioning loyalty from Lutie and when he doesn't get it drives her out, then redirects his love for her to overindulgent affection for his children. Jim isn't exactly an unsympathetic character, but his flaws do make him a hard one to like completely.

Like Tracy, Hepburn also avoids what comes easily to her. In her straight dramatic performances, she often seemed self-conscious and overly earnest. Her brittle acting style—especially as she aged—was better suited to comedy or to seriocomic parts where she turned her screen image to her advantage by poking fun at it. Toning down her mannerisms, she convincingly portrays Lutie, who ages some twenty years during the picture, by skillfully balancing the character's strength and vulnerability. It's one of Hepburn's unsung performances and lingers in the memory long after the film is over. The range wars plot might be familiar and the personal relationships at times close to soap opera, but the acting can't be faulted. Of the Tracy-Hepburn films, this is the dark horse, the film most likely to rise in one's estimation on repeat viewing.

State of the Union (1948)
Director: Frank Capra

Tracy and Hepburn's next movie, State of the Union, was a political comedy-drama based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by the renowned Broadway writing team of Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Tracy plays Grant Matthews, a self-made millionaire industrialist, and Hepburn his estranged wife Mary. Matthews is having an affair with Kay Thorndyke (Angela Lansbury), a newspaper publisher with a Lady Macbeth complex who wants to use her newspaper empire to promote him to run against Harry Truman as the Republican candidate in the 1948 presidential election. (At the time Truman was considered a sure loser. This is the election remembered for the photo of the triumphant Truman holding up a newspaper with the headline "DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.") Matthews is a political amateur running as an anti-politician with an idealistic message of togetherness and cooperation. (Sound familiar?) As Jim Conover (Adolphe Menjou), the slick political adviser Kay hires to mastermind the campaign, puts it, Matthews has the "rare combination of sincerity and drive the common herd will go for."

When his handlers insist they need his wife and children to create the right image for the campaign, Matthews is persuaded to reconcile with Mary. At first she doesn't understand that the reconciliation is a publicity gimmick. After she does, she stays on board to make sure Grant remains true to his political ideals. Matthews soon finds himself in the middle of a complex tug-of-war. He is caught between his wife and his mistress, both of whom want to be the main influence in his campaign as well as in his personal life. He's also caught between staying true to his principles, as Mary urges him to do, and the pandering to special interests that Kay and his advisers tell him is necessary to get the nomination. Things reach a crisis as Grant appears to have sold out to assure his nomination and the film moves toward its climactic sequence, a national radio-television broadcast in which Grant will lay out the policy platform Kay and company have devised for him. When Grant finally sees the toll the betrayal of his principles has taken on a dismayed Mary, what will he do, and what will be the ultimate state of their own union? Integrity or compromise? Mary or Kay?

It's easy to see what drew Capra to this project. An exploitative press, political chicanery, the corrupting influence of money and power, a main character caught in the conflict between idealism and compromise—these are things found in so many of Capra's movies. The hero, Grant Matthews, is an ordinary man enmeshed in a process he doesn't fully comprehend and can't control; the villains are the pompous, the hypocritical, the humorless, the greedy, and the power-hungry. In Capra's hands this material may become another version of his well-worn populist hokum, but it's impossible to resist. Despite all the references to politicians of the time whom few modern viewers are likely recognize, many things in the movie haven't dated at all. References to subjects like tax rates, inflation, economic depression, the dire state of housing and medical care, defense readiness, globalism, and whispering campaigns still seem surprisingly relevant. And the film's cynical view of politics is right in tune with current attitudes.

Of all the Tracy-Hepburn movies, this one seems the least tailored to their familiar screen personalities. Indeed, neither was Capra's first choice. He wanted either Clark Gable or Gary Cooper for Grant, and Claudette Colbert was actually cast as Mary before a dispute over her contract (she insisted that she not be required to work past 5 p.m.) caused Hepburn to step in just two days before filming began. Yet Tracy and Hepburn do great work for Capra. Tracy's everyman quality is well suited to the self-made man motivated more by the desire to serve than by ambition, and he strikes me as more believable presidential timber than the macho Gable or the impassive Cooper. Hepburn's role is clearly secondary to Tracy's, and she seems content to defer to him for a change. Any of a number of actresses could have handled her part capably, but one thing Hepburn puts across more convincingly than another actress might have done is the enthusiastic idealism of Mary, a quality Hepburn was particularly adept at projecting. The cast is rounded out by Lansbury (22-years old playing 40), Menjou, Van Johnson as a wise-cracking reporter commenting from the sidelines, and in smaller parts familiar faces like Raymond Walburn, Margaret Hamilton, and Charles Lane.



  1. R.D. ,

    I think STATE OF THE UNION proves the more things change, the more they seem to stay the same, at least in politics. Tracy fits the role here perfectly. I cannot imagine Gable or Cooper capturing the everyday man the way Tracy manages to convey. Tracy seems more vulnerable, therefore he comes across as more of an everyday person.

  2. John, you hit the nail on the head with your comment about the resemblance between the politics of this 60+ year old movie and today's. I hadn't seen this in many years and remembered all the references to the politicians of the day as being interesting in a historical way. But I was genuinely surprised at how undated the portrayal of the whole political circus was and at how many of the issues alluded to in the movie are still major ones today. I knew about Hepburn being a replacement for Colbert but had no idea Tracy wasn't the first choice for his role until I started writing the post. He seemed so perfect for the role, and as I wrote, I really couldn't picture either Gable or Cooper playing it so successfully.

  3. R.D., I've been wanting to comment on this for a couple of days, but couldn't due to Blogger being down. I really appreciated your in-depth review of 'Sea of Grass', which I think tends to be underrated - must agree with you on the excellence of the acting, as you say, showing the way forward to other Kazan films. It's refreshing to see a film where the central couple fall out because of something real, ie their increasingly divergent views on politics and their local community, rather than the sort of far-fetched misunderstandings which are so often the reasons for couples parting in movies. I like the fact that all the way through you can argue things from the viewpoint of either Tracy or Hepburn (though Tracy is such a hard character in this) and also that the other man isn't just a baddie.

    I wasn't so keen on 'State of the Union' when I saw it, as it seems a bit like a weaker version of some other Capra films with the rehashed theme of the popular figure being exploited by people with sinister aims of their own - but do take your point of the politics being relevant to today. Yet another film I should probably see again! Looking forward to part 3.

  4. Judy, thanks for your as always thoughtful comments. (That was a major annoyance with Blogger being down, especially as I was working on a post and continued, thinking they would be back online shortly. I couldn't save my work and had to take special pains not to lose it!) Some good observations on the relationship between Tracy and Hepburn in "Sea of Grass." When I saw this again awhile ago after several years, it struck me as better than I remembered, especially Hepburn. The Tracy-Hepburn films tend to focus on a relatively brief period in their lives, whereas this one follows their marriage over a number of years and that in itself sets it apart from their other films. I agree that "State of the Union" does in some ways seem like a project Capra tried to mold in the image of his previous films and therefore isn't entirely a Capra movie even though there are obvious resemblances. It's another one I liked better on rewatching.

    Next week I'll be writing on John Ford's "Stagecoach" for the CMBA Classic Films of 1939 Blogathon. I plan to return to the Tracy-Hepburn films in two weeks and finish up the series the week after that.

  5. Thanks, R.D. - glad you didn't lose your post! I will look forward to reading your piece about 'Stagecoach', such a great film, and one which I saw fairly recently.

  6. I recently watched "Sea of Grass" for the first time. I wasn't expecting too much, an online acquaintance had warned me against it. But I was pleasantly surprised. It was a change of pace for Tracy and Hepburn, and I found that interesting. You're right, it is reminiscent of "Giant" - though the tone is very different. I was watching for Robert Walker as much as Tracy/ Hepburn and early Kazan. I'd seen "Vengeance Valley," and wanted to see the other film before "Strangers on a Train" in which he played a heavy.

    I haven't seen "State of the Union" for quite a while, but have a few thoughts about it. Most of all, it is hard to imagine Angela Lansbury was so young - she was quite convincing as an older woman - plus her character seemed to eerily prefigure her role in "The Manchurian Candidate." It's also interesting to note that Adolphe Menjou, who'd cooperated with HUAC in 1947, was cast as a slick political operative here. I've read that he and Hepburn did not speak to each other at all on "State of the Union" outside the scenes they shared.

  7. Eve, thanks for your thoughts. "Sea of Grass" is quite different from any of the other Tracy-Hepburn movies. I don't associate either of them with this kind of Western saga, but they didn't seem out-of-place here at all. They are reason enough to watch the movie, but that the movie gives them so much to work with and requires them to stretch their customary screen personas is a good indication that there's more to it than just Tracy and Hepburn. Capra always had a knack of casting his supporting players so appropriately, and "State of the Union" is no exception. Lansbury's character did foreshadow her part in "The Manchurian Candidate" (my favorite performance of hers), a woman with the same obsessive ambition for vicarious power but without the creepy element of that later film.