Episode 23 of 52: In which Tracy and Hepburn make a Western because why not?
A lone figure looks out over a vast, unending prairie. A wagon traverses rocky desert trails. Virgin land, a justice-seeking posse, a citified lawyer who brings civilization riding on his pinstriped coat tails. The Western dominated American film for over half a century with images like these. It stands to reason that two American stars and a director on his way to becoming a (controversial) American legend himself would take aim at the genre. The Sea of Grass, the resulting collaboration between Elia Kazan and the Tracy/Hepburn team, is an epic story covering multiple generations in the New Mexico Territory. It’s a Western, but not struck from the same heroic mould that John Ford was making them in Monument Valley. The Sea of Grass is meaner, more melodramatic, and ultimately a maverick mess of a movie.
The Sea of Grass comes so close to being a great film. Spencer Tracy plays Col. Jim Brewton, a rancher who’s spent his life herding cattle on the millions of acres of untouched prairie that spread across New Mexico. He marries a St. Louis girl named Lutie (Kate Hepburn), who loves him but can’t love his untamed wildlands (not a euphemism). She tries to bring the people to the prairie, or her husband home to bed, but she can’t tame nature or the Colonel. These are familiar archetypes to anyone who’s watched more than two Westerns: the Lone Hero and the Prairie Wife. He is the champion of the settlers, she is his pure-hearted moral compass. Right? Well sure, up until the part where Jim causes the death of a few farmers, and Lutie runs away to sleep with the Judge (Melvyn Douglas) and bear his illegitimate son. And that’s just in the first hour. Suffice it to say, John Ford would not approve.
Elia Kazan was a cynic, and the Western was not (in 1947 at least) a cynic’s genre. Despite the romantic cinematography (courtesy of Harry Stradling), the rolling prairies, and the Hollywood magic sprinkled over The Sea of Grass, at its heart the film is a cynical take on the Hero of the West trope. Colonel Jim Brewton is selfish and cruel. He runs his cows through crops and lets settlers starve in an attempt to keep his sea of grass “as God intended it:” free of people. He forces his wife out of town three times--once for over a decade. Worst of all: at the end, he’s still got the moral high ground. The farmers cause a drought, his wife cheats, and his son is killed in a firefight. All evils seem to be caused by the civilizing forces Brewton’s been trying to keep out. Col. Brewton’s righteousness sours from heroism to hubris, leaving the film feeling angry and overwrought.
The bitter tone of the film could be the product of a few things. Elia Kazan had an obvious distaste for romanticism--he’d make a career out of films deconstructing heroic characters in films like On The Waterfront and A Face In The Crowd. Tracy for his part gives a more-taciturn-than-usual performance as Brewton, often verging on downright cruel. Kate unfortunately wilts under this cruelty, leading to another lackluster role opposite her leading man. Then again, it may just be a case of working conditions bleeding into fiction, neither Tracy nor Hepburn nor Kazan made any secret of how little they enjoyed working together.
Speaking of love lost, I have to end on one absolutely bizarre observation: Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn never kiss in this movie. In fact, thinking back, they haven't locked lips since Woman of the Year, which was 5 years and 6 movies ago. Considering the fact that Tracy and Hepburn continue to top Best Romantic Couple lists, this totally stumps me. What shenanigans are (or rather aren't) going on here? They hug, they cuddle, but when the time comes to pucker up, here’s how Spencer reacts:
Ouch. That’s cold. Makes you miss that adorable cuddling gif from Woman of the Year, doesn't it?
Readers, give me your theories: what caused Kate and Spencer's PDA prohibition?
Previous Weeks: A Bill of Divorcement, Christopher Strong, Morning Glory, Little Women, Spitfire, The Little Minister, Break of Hearts, Alice Adams, Sylvia Scarlett, Mary of Scotland, A Woman Rebels, Quality Street, Stage Door, Bringing Up Baby, Holiday, The Philadelphia Story, Woman of the Year, Keeper Of The Flame, Stage Door Canteen, Dragon Seed, Without Love, Undercurrent
Next Week: Song of Love (1947) - In which Katharine Hepburn shows off her talented fingers.