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Essential: THE SEA OF GRASS (1947)

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Katharine Hepburn’s character is on an adventure in this sweeping drama. She first appears when her train arrives in Spencer Tracy’s town. We glimpse her surroundings and in a courtroom scene, we are shown the type of conflict her new husband (Tracy) creates. He’s a wealthy landowner who wants to run homesteaders out of the area. She seems to overlook some of this in the beginning, but the basic idea is in evidence. The land, a vast sea of prairie grass, is his property the way she’s his property, too.

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When she arrives at her new home she meets the men employed by her husband. These guys include a territorial cook (Edgar Buchanan) who provides comic relief as well as a good deal of compassion. From this point the plot moves swiftly. A woman she befriended on the train to New Mexico has a husband who is filing a claim on some of the land Tracy covets. This sets up an obvious battle, and Hepburn tries to get Tracy to rethink his approach with outsiders.

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Meanwhile we have Melvyn Douglas as a lawyer turned judge who calls himself Tracy’s natural enemy. Douglas is politically and legally at odds with Tracy’s plan to retain control over the land, and he helps the homesteaders. At the same time a romantic triangle develops between Douglas, Hepburn and Tracy. Hepburn was 40 when she made this picture but is meant to play younger. Tracy looks older.

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In some ways Tracy’s land baron character in this story is similar to the role he played later in Fox’s BROKEN LANCE. In that film he had grown-up sons. In this film he has a daughter who grows up on screen and is played by Phyllis Thaxter. There’s also a second child, a son who is not Tracy’s, but is fathered by Douglas. He’s played by Robert Walker.

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The story is a period drama that combines elements of the western genre with soap opera. There are some excellent moments, like the part where Tracy’s men attack the husband of Hepburn’s friend and kill him during a raging blizzard. And there’s a sequence where Walker kills a man, then tries to run off but is shot by pursuers during an intense manhunt. He ends up dying in Tracy’s arms.

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SEA OF GRASS feels like a film Republic might have made with John Wayne and Vera Ralston. It also feels like a pro-environmentalism picture. The idea of protecting the land is of utmost importance. Maybe Tracy and Hepburn do not seem like the most logical choices to play the lead couple. Though it wouldn’t necessarily have been any different if MGM had used Greer Garson or Walter Pidgeon. Mostly this is a well-produced film and its enormous success with moviegoers seems to validate the effort that was put into making it.

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THE SEA OF GRASS will air on TCM the 2nd of January.

Essential: WITHOUT LOVE (1945)

It felt like they beefed up the male lead character probably to suit someone of Tracy’s caliber. And especially if he was going to receive top billing. But of course, this is really Hepburn’s picture, based on a play written for her by Philip Barry.

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Curiously the title is mentioned once, maybe twice, in the dialogue. But given the stars’ abundant chemistry, we can’t really believe these two don’t instantly like each other when they meet despite the fact Hepburn’s character is supposed to be haughty, even rude, towards him. That is until she learns who he is, some important scientist her father had admired.

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I got the impression that when Hepburn’s character discussed her father in scenes it was actually Hepburn using the dialogue to talk about her own real-life father. And memories of a first husband came from Hepburn’s own memories of her earlier one-time marriage. It seemed like a form of method acting without contriving to be anything more than honest genuine heartfelt emotion. Such is the beauty of a Hepburn performance.

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I also got the impression there was a lot of sadness inside Hepburn, even in her most radiant, most effervescent moments. This becomes noticeable when you spend time with her on screen. I would say she’s Tracy’s equal in any scene, and that in some ways, she’s a better actor than he is. There’s greatness in her smallest movements and emoting.

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The two stars are aided by the film’s strong supporting cast. Felix Basserman has a thankless role as a research boss who oversees Tracy’s experiments in Hepburn’s basement. He provides his customary good cheer. Patricia Morison is excellent in a showy supporting role as a society type. Then there’s Keenan Wynn who plays a relative of Hepburn’s and is involved with Morison. Wynn’s character is a hapless drunk who seems to find himself, and a life with love, by the end of the picture. Lucille Ball is on hand too. She plays a working woman who gets Wynn, though why she saw him as remotely worth her time for two-thirds of the narrative is anyone’s guess.

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Ball comes across well, in an Eve Arden sort of way, but seems too important to be playing a supporting role. Maybe in her early days at RKO this sort of part might have suited her, but at this stage, Ball was a star in her own right. Quite frankly, she seems miscast, though I did enjoy her friendship scenes with Hepburn which felt real. The movie is a bit too long at almost two hours. But the slower scenes do give us substantial glimpses into wartime marriages. Ones without love, ones with love; and ones that probably fall somewhere in between.

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WITHOUT LOVE airs occasionally on TCM.

Essential: KEEPER OF THE FLAME (1943)

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For those used to seeing Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in comedies, the somber tone of this story might be a bit of an adjustment. It’s still a worthwhile film to watch. Hepburn has a lot of emoting to do as the widow of a well-loved man (maybe he was too loved?). It’s never said what the late Mr. Forrest’s greatest achievements were in business or the world of politics, but he made a powerful impression on many.

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There are lines about hero worship and people idolizing a dead man. Whenever the writer is stuck on how to convey Forrest as a figure from beyond the grave, characters suddenly lapse into speeches about how wonderful he was and everything he did for the masses. Forrest is a Christ figure they deify incessantly at the beginning, then eventually demonize before all is said and done.

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The best casting in the picture seems to be a real Forrest– Forrest Tucker– as Hepburn’s moody cousin. He’s handsome and mysterious. One wonders if Forest Tucker was director George Cukor’s mentee (read that as you like), but he does give a convincing performance. The other assignments are handled with equal skill. I particularly liked Donald Meek as an inn proprietor who knows everyone’s business B.F. (Before Forrest) and A.F. (After Forrest). If S.Z. Sakall had been cast in this role he would have been all cuddly; but Meek gives it just the right amount of shrewdness.

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It’s a thought provoking picture that seems in several ways to be Metro’s version of CITIZEN KANE. But there is no sled in this one. It’s not about a dying man’s last words. It’s about what everyone says after he’s gone.

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The death of Hepburn’s character near the end seems a little too much and is obviously meant to increase the tragedy. And the coda where we learn Tracy wrote her life story instead of her husband’s story feels rushed if not appropriately ironic. Hepburn starts out as the title character, the original keeper of the flame; but Tracy becomes the title character at the end, the new keeper of the flame.

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KEEPER OF THE FLAME will air on TCM the 29th of December.

Essential: WOMAN OF THE YEAR (1942)

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It’s a slow moving and methodical film, a lot slower than expected. It’s more of a character study. Two character studies. It could’ve been called MAN OF THE YEAR just as easily as it’s called WOMAN OF THE YEAR. Like PAT AND MIKE, or MIKE AND PAT, which one comes first doesn’t really matter since they are so equally played. Though perhaps Hepburn’s character is written a bit better than Tracy’s character might be.

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Hepburn specifically wanted Tracy for her costar. It would be the first of nine motion pictures they made together. Hepburn had just come off her smash hit THE PHILADELPHIA STORY and was eager to prove her comeback was no fluke. She seems to be co-directing and quasi-producing this picture. Sometimes she stands off to the side in the shots watching/willing the character players to do their very best. It gives the film something different, something extra.

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Hepburn’s quite luminous, more feminine, in this picture than she is in other studio assignments. Because she is so glam in this role, one almost has a hard time believing nobody married her character before Tracy came along. The aunt, played by Fay Bainter, has also not been married. In that case we have a gal who’s older and very much set in her ways.

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Bainter and Hepburn had previously costarred in 1937’s QUALITY STREET, which was also directed by George Stevens. As the plot moves along the audience expects the aunt to get together with Hepburn’s widowed father (Minor Watson). But it is still impressive how economically this takes place. Without words Hepburn’s father grabs hold of the aunt’s hand during a public event. The camera then cuts to Hepburn looking on and noticing the loving act, even if she is not yet able to fully comprehend or approve. It’s a marvelous scene.

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A wedding sequence occurs shortly afterward, and it is just as marvelous to watch. We glimpse the older couple’s vows reflected on to Hepburn who’s at a crossroads in her relationship with Tracy.  This is probably the best part of the whole film. All the repressed emotions of both women are finally released.

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WOMAN OF THE YEAR will air on TCM the 18th of December.

Essential: OUT OF THE PAST (1947)

This film is described as a moody crime yarn. I think it goes out of its way to be moody to the point of bleakness. Did Mitchum’s character really have to die at the end? Wasn’t it enough that Greer died, so he could return to the more wholesome girl he loved?

Mitchum’s character is given lines near the end he’s bad and deserves Greer. But I didn’t find him to be that bad. Kirk Douglas’ character was no good and is the one who deserved Greer. I did find it interesting that Virginia Huston’s good girl ended up with Richard Webb’s protector he-man, but only by default, not by choice.

Some of the third act felt like it had things edited out. So we had to guess why Mitchum was with Greer at the end and didn’t leave her. The whole set-up is a lousy one. Lousy for Mitchum and lousy for viewers.

He knows going into it that she’s already shot a man (Douglas). So why doesn’t he seem to worry that she’s a real threat to him as well? Is he that dumb? We’re told how smart he is as a detective. But he’s really stupid when it comes to women, especially ones who’ve done criminal things that he’s been hired to track down? I don’t believe it.

Dickie Moore’s deaf mute seemed like a gimmick. How did his impairments serve the plot? Now if the role had been designed to facilitate the hiring of a deaf actor that would be understandable, but Moore was not deaf in real life. He could’ve just as easily played his scenes with dialogue and nothing would’ve really been any different.

Nothing’s dirty or grimy in this film. All the cars are shiny and the streets are perfectly clean, even the streets in Mexico are ultra clean (which were obviously streets on the RKO backlot). The gas station Mitchum runs is spotless. I’ve never been to a gas station in my life that was ever so neatly arranged and tidy. No sight of dropped tools or oil spilt on the ground. Dickie Moore’s clothes are neatly pressed, like they’d just come back from a dry cleaner, hardly any evidence he’d been working on cars or fixing leaky things. I can see why people like this film, because it is still an entertaining piece of hokum. But it lacks realism at almost every turn.

Essential: VALLEY OF THE ZOMBIES (1946)

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Ironically there are no zombies in this film, but that shouldn’t keep audiences from enjoying it. VALLEY OF THE ZOMBIES is one of Republic’s more entertaining B-horror films. It starts when a man in a black cape climbs on top of a roof  where the office of Dr. Rufus Maynard (Charles Trowbridge) is located. He soon enters the doctor’s office and asks for blood, because he is desperately in need of some. We learn he’s a former mental patient named Ormand Murks (Ian Keith) who died in 1941.

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Murks had a brain disorder and while he was locked up he would request blood transfusions. Apparently his death has not curbed his appetite for such things. It is suggested that Murks is a zombie, but he’s probably a vampire. Since Dr. Maynard has no more blood in the refrigerator Murks gets it from the next available source– the doctor himself. The scene where he approaches Maynard in order to extract blood from him is quite horrifying. It isn’t shown how he takes the blood, just that he takes it. The weird “transfusion” results in Maynard’s death.

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Maynard’s handsome young assistant, Dr. Terry Evans (Robert Livingston) tries to figure out what happened. Evans is in love with an attractive nurse (Adrian Booth). Despite there being no discernible motive, a dimwitted police detective thinks they teamed up and killed Maynard. There’s a great interrogation scene when the nurse and young doctor are questioned at the local precinct. They’re released due to lack of evidence, but decide to solve the murder to clear themselves of any suspicion.

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Livingston, who normally starred in B westerns at Republic, is quite good as the innocent doctor in this suspenseful tale. Booth (sometimes billed as Lorna Gray) worked across genres and seems to enjoy playing a woman scared of her own shadow. Together, the leads are very appealing. Philip Ford’s direction gets the job done, and the story is aided immeasurably by Reggie Lanning’s chiaroscuro lighting. In fact Lanning’s skill as cinematographer reminded me of John Alton’s work from this period.

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There are haunting images and eerie music, along with plenty of ironic dialogue and jolts to keep viewers on the edge of their seats. The story’s running time is only 56 minutes so it all moves rather quickly and there are no dull moments. VALLEY OF THE ZOMBIES was made during a time when horror seemed more innocent but was just as deadly and gruesome as ever.

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