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« Review: A Million Ways to Die in the West | Main | Twins: Eva Green and... »
Wednesday
Jun042014

A Year with Kate: The Sea of Grass (1947)

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.

Cowboys and cynics after the jump...

He'd approve of this shot, though.

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 DivorcementChristopher 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.

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Reader Comments (12)

This is a minor entry in the Hepburn/Tracy canon and it's justifiably obscure. The script is long winded and not terribly deep. As far as the performances of the duo: Spencer Tracy is right at home as the rigid man whose pride works to his detriment but Kate seems uncomfortable in her role and it doesn't really fit her. At this point in her career she seems to be playing women who require a wounded dignity but her tough resilience is at odds with that, again as with Undercurrent Margaret Sullavan would have been much better suited to the part.

The basic structure of the film works against what was always so special about the pair and that's their interaction, for great swatches of this they are far apart. It makes sense for the story but undermines their interplay. As far as their kissing or lack thereof goes neither were really the cuddly overly affectionate types in their careers, perhaps neither was comfortable with kissing scenes and therefore worked out their scenes to avoid them. Since neither was known for being unwilling to make their feelings and opinions heard that seems a definite possibility.

Robert Walker, who whether playing a hero or villain always elevated a film by his presence, injects some much needed life in the picture but he shows up late in the proceeding and is gone much too soon.

One thing I noticed: Phyllis Thaxter's striking resemblance to both Hepburn & Tracy as the pair's grown daughter, a very good piece of casting. She really does look as if she could be their child.

The best performance in the whole show comes from the reliable Edgar Buchanan as the family standby, his involvement with the others is one of the few parts that doesn't feel artificial. The usually reliable Melvyn Douglas is defeated by his stick figure character. The pace of the film is too slow, this being an early film for Kazan he still had some learning to do, and by the end it became a trial to sit though. Perhaps that was a factor in the dissension between them.

I didn't think the film overall was awful but it's a miss. Song of Love next-Yikes! Just one more pallid film before we get back to the good stuff with State of the Union.

June 4, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

I need to see this. Somehow never heard of it, and everything I'm reading here makes it sound like a movie I'd (at least) appreciate.

June 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Paul Outlaw, it's a ponderous movie but if you're really curious it's available on YouTube and Amazon Instant Watch for rental. I happen to love westerns (even the bad ones) so I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Are you a fan of westerns?

June 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

Anne Marie, I used to hate Westerns almost as much as I hated war movies when I was a (city) kid, but Red River, Johnny Guitar, Giant, Glenn Ford and Sergio Leone put me on the road to Western appreciation and I've loved them for years. The personnel on this one makes it a must-see, even if it isn't first-rate.

June 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Paul, this story shares a few themes with Giant. Multigenerational cattle ranching family and whatnot. ;)

June 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

That did occur to me reading your article. ;-)

June 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

I'm telling you, I just can't with these 40s movies of Kate. I remember them all as being so slow. I have to admit that I don't think I've seen Sea Of Grass. Is it blasphemy for me to say I can't wait for Kate to ditch Tracy and move on to some other co-stars? Give me Bogie and Burt, etc!

Dave, I agree with you that the 40s movies are slooooow, but having just watched Song of Love for next week, I don't think it's a Spencer Tracy problem so much as a generally terrible movie problem. Paul Heinreid doesn't do much better than Tracy.

What's been frustrating for me doing research is that utter mediocrity of her career at this point is generally covered up with a "but she was in looooove" narrative in her biographies.

June 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

I agree that Tracy isn't the problem, but for whatever reason her movies didn't get much spark again until she started being paired with others. It probably forced writers to get more creative.

Frankly, I'm surprised she somehow avoided being labeled boxoffice poison again. I LOVED when you showed us how much money her movies did or didn't make in the 30s. I hope you can do that again for the 40s. Things do perk up again around Adam's Rib and Pat and Mike, but it's just like Kate in the late 30s, maybe too little too late?

The Metro pictures are by and large a rough lot, from what I've read only the ones with Tracy made money, but she had Mayer's respect. In that famous group photo of MGM stars she has favored position on one side of him, front and center. Mayer's other pet, Greer Garson, is on the other side.

That was one great thing about old Hollywood, they were in it for the money but they also would gamble on prestige pictures to elevate their reputations and understood those might not be the money spinners that their bread and butter films were. However sometimes they got lucky and earned both respect and coin.

June 5, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

joel6 - i think to some extent we still see that, just on a smaller "specialty division" scale. People who bankroll oscar bait... they're spending a lot of money for reputation and prestige and bragging rights and to keep talent happy.

June 5, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I think it's time for another box office graph.

June 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

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