Keeper of the Flame (film): Wikis


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Keeper of the Flame
Directed by George Cukor
Produced by Victor Saville
Written by Donald Ogden Stewart
Starring Katharine Hepburn
Spencer Tracy
Richard Whorf
Margaret Wycherly
Forrest Tucker
Darryl Hickman
Music by Bronisław Kaper
Cinematography William H. Daniels
Editing by James E. Newcom
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date(s) March 18, 1943 (1943-03-18)[1][2]
Running time 100 minutes
Country United States
Language English

Keeper of the Flame (1943) is a dramatic film from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.[3][4] Hepburn plays the widow of a famous civic leader who, prior to his death, had secretly planned a coup d'état against the government of the United States.[5][6] Tracy plays a former war correspondent who intends to write a flattering biography of the dead man, only to unearth a plot to cover up his true plans.[5][6] The film was directed by George Cukor from a screenplay by Donald Ogden Stewart.[7]


Plot synopsis

Stephen O'Malley (Spencer Tracy) is a war correspondent who leaves Europe and returns to the United States to write a biography of Robert Forrest. Forrest was an industrialist who founded a wildly popular patriotic boys' club known as the Forward America Association. Forrest recently died when he drove his car over a bridge on his property which had been washed out by a recent storm. O'Malley attends the funeral, which he finds to be artificial and staged. Forrest's secretary, Clive Kerndon (Richard Whorf), has a sinister air about him and is oddly reluctant to disclose even small details about Forrest's life.[5][6][8]

O'Malley meets Robert Forrest's widow, Christine (Katharine Hepburn), and after some time gains her confidence. Christine is the "keeper of the flame" honoring her husband's memory, and is determined not to let anything damage her dead spouse's reputation. O'Malley discovers that Forrest kept his elderly, mentally ill mother (Margaret Wycherly) a prisoner on his vast estate so that the press would not learn of her delusional state. He also discovers that Kerndon is lying to the press in an effort to continually build up Robert Forrest's reputation. O'Malley suspects that Kerndon and the Forward America Association are building toward some as-yet unknown event. O'Malley also learns that he is not permitted inside "the arsenal," a stone building near the Forrest mansion which served as Robert Forrest's office and library.[5][6][8]

One afternoon, O'Malley sees smoke coming from "the arsenal" and breaks in. O'Malley and Kerndon discover Christine Forrest burning what she claims are love letters. Kerndon leaves, but O'Malley challenges Christine's explanation. She breaks down, and admits that her husband was a fascist who was plotting with veterans' organizations and the Forward America Association to overthrow the government of the United States. Christine admits that her husband was not always a fascist, but became one during the Great Depression. She shows O'Malley papers which reveal how her husband (backed by ultra-wealthy, power-hungry individuals) planned to use race hatred, anti-union feeling, ethnic hatred, and antisemitism to turn various groups against one another in the U.S. in order to create the chaos that would let Forrest seize power. She believes that the Forward America Association still plans to overthrow the government. She also suspects that Kerndon knows she did not share her husband's political beliefs, and that her life is in danger.[5][6][8]

Christine further admits that she only discovered the plot the day before her husband's death. She went riding the next morning and discovered the washed-out bridge. She purposefully did not tell her husband about the bridge, feeling that a "clean death in the rain was the best thing that could happen to Robert Forrest."[9] O'Malley convinces her to help him write a book exposing Robert Forrest's plot.[5][6][8]

While Christine and O'Malley talk, Kerndon sets "the arsenal" ablaze. When the fire does not drive the two out into the open, Kerndon enters the building and shoots Christine with a pistol. He attempts to shoot O'Malley, too, but misses. Kerndon flees, only to be struck and killed by an automobile rushing to the scene.[5][6][8]

O'Malley writes a book titled Christine Forrest: Her Life, which exposes the Forward America plot, saves the country, and turns Christine Forrest into a national hero.[5][6][8]




Script and casting

Katharine Hepburn in 1943, the year Keeper of the Flame premiered.

The script was based on an unpublished book by I.A.R. (Ida) Wylie.[7] RKO Pictures bought the book in outline form in April 1941, but encountered casting difficulties and sold the rights to MGM in December 1941 for $50,000.[10] But a day or two after MGM obtained the rights, MGM Vice-President Eddie Mannix realized the source material was political and tried to kill the film.[7] But after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Mannix relented and the production went forward.[7] Once the film went into production at MGM, the book was published by Random House in April 1942.[11] MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer assigned the script to Donald Ogden Stewart—one of his favorite screenwriters.[12][13] Mayer's choice seemed unusual, because up to that time Stewart had written only light romantic comedies featuring wealthy East Coast socialites.[13] But Mayer felt Stewart's strongly leftist political leanings would enable him to turn out a better screenplay.[13] Stewart approached the project with gusto. "I wrote an adaptation from a novel that tells about the fascist mice who are nibbling away at our country while we're busy fighting a good war," he said.[14] Stewart believed Hollywood had punished him for years for his political views, and felt vindicated by the assignment.[15] "Here was my compensation for the sabotage of my radical attempt to do my bit...," he later wrote.[16] The script was the one he was "most proud to have been connected with" during his entire career.[16] Stewart, however, had extensive problems adapting the novel for the screen, and filming—originally due to begin in June 1942—was delayed for several months while he worked on the screenplay.[3][17][18] Stewart consulted with the Bureau of Motion Pictures in the U.S. Office of War Information, an agency of the U.S. federal government created in June 1942 to promote patriotism and warn the public about domestic spying.[19][20]

Spencer Tracy had been cast as the male lead in the film just days after MGM purchased the rights to the novel.[21] George Cukor was chosen to direct in late April 1942 because he had dealt well with troubled and headstrong actors in the past, and Tracy was considered a difficult actor to direct.[3][22] Bronisław Kaper, who had come to MGM in 1935 from Nazi Germany, was assigned to compose the film score.[23] William H. Daniels was named the cinematographer.[24]

Katharine Hepburn joined the cast in mid-April 1942 after Stewart sent her a copy of the unfinished script.[4][25] Hepburn was fascinated by the character of Christine,[4] and felt that doing the film would be a way of contributing to the war effort.[7] MGM executives did not want Hepburn attached to the picture, feeling it was an inappropriate follow-up for her (first) previous pairing with Tracy in Woman of the Year (which had been released in January 1942).[4] But Hepburn insisted, and MGM gave way. Hepburn's involvement caused additional problems with the script, however. Since sending Hepburn an early draft of the script, Stewart had toned down the novel's love story, built up the O'Malley role, and emphasized the action.[15] Hepburn was troubled by the new drafts, and asked for more romance.[15] Although Hepburn had spent much of the prior year searching for scripts with equally strong male and female parts for her and Tracy,[3] she now asked that the O'Malley role be restored to the function it served in the novel (where O'Malley is impotent, troubled, and despairing of love) and her own part expanded.[15][26] Film producer Victor Saville threatened to resign if the changes were made, and Spencer Tracy supported him.[7] The changes were rejected.

Nonetheless, the script still had numerous problems, and Stewart refused to recognize these shortcomings.[3] In late summer 1942, Cukor brought in Zoë Akins, one of his favorite playwrights and screenwriters, to help with the script.[3] Victor Saville worried that Stewart was basing more and more of the script on William Randolph Hearst, one of Louis B. Mayer's best friends, and that this might torpedo the picture.[7]

As script work continued, casting on the film (which had been delayed months) went ahead in mid-1942. Richard Whorf was cast as the villain, Clive Kerndon, in early June.[17][27] Frank Craven, Audrey Christie, Horace Meek, and Donald McNally were all cast in mid-July.[28] Pauline Lord was cast in late July,[29][30] and Darryl Hickman added in early August.[31] Craven, whose character was not initially specified, was given the role of Dr. Fielding in early August.[32] Forrest Tucker and Percy Kilbride were the last members of the cast hired.[33] Phyllis Brooks tested for a part in the film in mid-June,[34] but was not cast. A search was even made for the voice of Robert Forrest.[35]

Principal filming and post-production

Principal filming began the last week of August 1942. The entire picture was filmed on a sound stage, with no location shooting.[7] Hepburn had already begun her extramarital affair with Spencer Tracy,[1] and the production was notorious for the ways in which Hepburn doted on Tracy.[3] Tracy drank heavily during the shoot, and Hepburn was his constant guardian, nurse, maid, and gofer during this time.[1][3][4][7] She tried to keep him out of the bars, assisted him when he was drunk, reinforced his ego, and ran lines with him.[1][3][4][7] But Hepburn herself continued to be upset by the script, and dealt with this problem by isolating herself from friends and family in order to concentrate on her interpretation of the role.[3] Cukor, who often promiscuously indulged his homosexuality, may also have carried on a sexual affair with actor Forrest Tucker during the production.[1][15][36] Nevertheless, the production was a smooth one. Filming was going so well that in the middle of the production Cukor asked Hepburn to talk to Judy Garland in an attempt to convince Garland of the need to sober up.[1] In order to add realism to the production, Cukor consulted with and brought onto the set reporters from United Press for advice on how newspapermen would handle Forrest's funeral. Based on their critiques, Cukor changed the scene in the village hotel's bar so that instead of drinking and talking about the funeral, the reporters get to work drafting articles on their typewriters. The script, too, was changed to permit the bartender to make a quip about reporters working rather than drinking.[37]

Reshoots occurred in September and October. Katharine Hepburn returned to Hollywood in early September for retakes,[38] and Pauline Lord was called back in early October.[30] Hepburn divorced her husband, Ludlow Ogden Smith, during the reshoots.[39]

Although James E. Newcom was the film's editor, Cukor had final cut on the film.[1] Pauline Lord's scenes were deleted from the picture, and her name did not appear on cast lists.


The film was screened for the Office of War Information's Bureau of Motion Pictures on December 2, 1942.[5] The Bureau's chief, Lowell Mellett, was unhappy with the picture and found it heavy-handed.[40][41]

Keeper of the Flame premiered at Radio City Music Hall on Thursday, March 18, 1943.[1][2] The premiere served as a fundraiser for the Outdoor Cleanliness Association (a group dedicated to public lighting and enforcement of trash laws).[42] The premiere did not go well: MGM head Louis B. Mayer stormed out, enraged at the way the film seemed to equate wealth with fascism.[5] It opened in Los Angeles at Grauman's Chinese Theatre on Thursday, April 1, 1943.[43]

Keeper of the Flame made its Australian premiere at the Metro Theatre in Melbourne in June 1943.[44]

MGM promoted Spencer Tracy for an Academy Award for Best Actor[45] but he was not nominated.

Keeper of the Flame made its American television debut in March 1957.[46]


The film generated some political controversy. Republican members of Congress complained about the film's apparently leftist politics, and demanded that Will H. Hays, President of the Motion Picture Production Code, establish guidelines regarding propagandization for the motion picture industry.[36][47][48]

Although the film was held over for a fourth week at Radio City Music Hall (most films lasted a week),[20][49] it did not do well at the box office nationally and is considered the least successful of the Hepburn-Tracy films.[8][50]

Critical reaction at the time was mixed. While at least one reviewer felt the film was reminiscent of motion pictures like Citizen Kane and Rebecca,[51] Hedda Hopper called it "Citizen Kane with all the art scraped off".[36] Bosley Crowther, writing in The New York Times, concluded that while the first half of the film was very good, the latter half felt slow and failed to deliver emotional punch.[51] Crowther called the film "a courageous and timely drama" and praised Tracy and Hepburn for performances that featured "taut solemnity".[52] But the script seemed uneven dramatically ("...the nature of this story is a murder mystery and yet the interest is centered much more upon the dead man than on the hunt"), and a critical problem was that the audience "is informed much sooner than the journalist what the nature of Forrest was, and the story drags while we wait for the journalist to catch up."[52] Crowther still enjoyed Cukor's direction, which he felt sustained mystery even when little existed.[52] Like Crowther, the Chicago Tribune and other critics pointed out that the picture seemed slow.[53] The Hartford Courant, meanwhile, raved about the film: "Hepburn and Tracy have given us a great film in Keeper of the Flame... Great because of the courage and daring it took to make it, the magnificent production it has been given, the excellent acting within it, and the exciting, tense story it contains."[54] Generally speaking, the film was better received in the eastern half of the United States.[55]

Cukor himself was highly dissatisfied by the film. "I suspect the story was basically fraudulent," he told an interviewer.[56] Like many critics, he felt that "as a piece of storytelling, the unfolding of a mystery, the first half of Keeper of the Flame is a damn good show",[57] but the rest of the film had substantial problems. He praised Spencer Tracy's work, saying: "Tracy...was at his best in the picture. Subdued, cool, he conveyed the ruthlessness of the reporter sent to investigate Forrest's death without seeming to try. He was ideally cast in the role, grimly and skeptically exploring the secret of the dead boys' club hero who was in fact a rampant fascist."[58] Hepburn, he felt, was hindered by the role and her approach to it. "It was Kate's last romantic glamour-girl part, and she acted with some of that artificiality she'd supposedly left behind at RKO. That first scene, floating into a room in yards and yards of draperies with these lillies—well, it was all far, far too much. I don't think I really believed in the story, it was pure hokeypokey, and her part was phony, highfalutin."[59] He particularly disliked Hepburn's entrance in the film, with the long dress and lillies. But he felt Hepburn did her best: "That's awfully tricky isn't it? And doesn't she give long, piercing looks at his portrait over the mantel? Well. I think she finally carried a slightly phony part because her humanity asserted itself, and her humor. They always did."[60] Overall, though, Cukor felt the film was leaden, and that it had "a wax work quality".[61] Even screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart eventually came to feel the film was "tedious, wooden, and heavy-handed".[16]

More recently, critics have reassessed the film positively. These reviews note that the film is a good example of the type of anti-fascist films produced in America early in World War II.[8] One film historian has concluded that Keeper of the Flame is "truly provocative in that it was one of Hollywood's few forays into imagining the possibility of homegrown American Fascism and the crucial damage which can be done to individual rights when inhumane and tyrannical ideas sweep a society through a charismatic leader."[62] Others have pointed out the film's "...astonishing...bold effort to shape American public opinion."[63] Other authors have noted that the film is different from other anti-fascist films of the period in that it clearly links wealth and fascism and points out the ways in which patriotism may far too easily be turned toward fascist ends.[8]

The technical quality of Keeper of the Flame been highly praised since its release. William H. Daniels' cinematography and lighting design has been described as lush and virtuosic.[64] Daniels received accolades from his peers for his work on the film.[24] Other historians have pointed out that the film's score is particularly good. For example, one review noted that the music goes silent during the climactic scene in which Katharine Hepburn reveals her secrets to Spencer Tracy—an effective and unexpected emotional tactic.[65]


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  19. ^ "Early in the summer of 1942, the [OWI] had been asked to 'supply the thinking' for the picture, one of the few pictures to deal with the threat of domestic fascism. ... Keeper of the Flame did indeed reflect the war aims of OWI..." See: Koppes, Hollywood Goes to War: How Politics, Profits, and Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies, 1990, pp. 94, 96. "O'Malley confronts Christine Forrest with evidence that she let her husband be killed when she could have saved him, and she finally admits her guilt and justifies her action by speaking of the real nature of Robert Forrest and the Forward American Association. In the long speech that she makes the thinking of the OWI and the convictions of the screenwriter merge to produce the only real political analysis of the film." See: Neve, Film and Politics in America: A Social Tradition, 1992, p. 69. "Another film that regurgitated OWI propaganda was M-G-M's Keeper of the Flame, the least watchable movie that Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy made together." See: Harmetz, The Making of Casablanca: Bogart, Bergman, and World War II, 2002, p. 290. "Regardless, Donald Ogden Stewart (with input from the Office of War Information) wrote Keeper of The Flame (1942), starring Spencer Tracy..." See: Ehrlich, Journalism in the Movies, 2005, p. 80. "Recent research has disclosed how liberal and internationalist-minded censors of the bureau, headed by Lowell Mellett, a former Scripps-Howard editor, worked with the studios, script by script, to coax Hollywood in the direction of a more high-minded view of the conflict. George Cukor's Keeper of the Flame (1942), released at the low point of the first wave of racist war pictures, represents the first appearance of a Hollywood message film that sought to establish a commanding—and, more important, a respectable—leadership position vis-à-vis the American people." See: Starr, Kevin. Embattled Dreams: California in War and Peace, 1940-1950. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003, p. 162. ISBN 0195168976
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