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