Of all the films done by Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy (except, possibly, "Sea Of Grass" and their last film, "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner - the latter for a different reason), "Keeper Of The Flame" was the great downer among the Hepburn - Tracy romps. "Sea Of Grass" has a portrait of a ruthless western cattle baron played by Tracy, whose happiness is marred by Kate's dalliance with Melvyn Douglas and the actual provenance of his "son" Robert Walker (who dies in his arms). "Guess", of course, was saddened by the decline in Tracy's health, visible in several scenes, and that last moving speech about his passions for Hepburn remaining even in his old age. But "Keeper" ends with Hepburn's death. As pointed out elsewhere on this thread it was rare for Hepburn to die in her film ("Christopher Strong" and "Mary of Scotland" come to mind as exceptions preceding "Keeper"...few came afterward too).
Actually "Keeper of the Flame" is more than just the sole tragic film of the Tracy - Hepburn series. It is their only joint attempt at a film noir. It is also a thinly disguised discussion of one of the most controversial heroes of 20th Century American History: Charles Augustus Lindbergh.
Robert Forrest is a great national hero, whose very existence gave the reporter Steve O'Malley (Tracy) a warm, glowing feeling when he was abroad, studying the mess in Europe and Asia. With people like Forrest at home, O'Malley felt that America had nothing to fear about it's security and freedom. Then, like most Americans, he was shocked and saddened to hear that Forrest was killed in a car accident on his estate. He is sent to the estate on an assignment, and intends to do a bit of personal research to give a proper final magazine monument to his hero's memory. But he meets Forrest's widow Christine (Hepburn) and finds that her behavior is odd - and not very upset at the death of the great man. He notes her interest in her cousin Geoff Midford (Forrest Tucker), which seems too close for decency. Also he notes how Forrest's "agreeable" secretary Clive Kerndon (Richard Whorf) acts with a degree of secrecy and even threat towards Christine.
"Keeper Of The Flame" never really makes Forrest an exact copy of Lindbergh. After all, the "Lone Eagle" was still alive in 1942, and capable of suing MGM. But it leaves at least one "Lindbergh" trace in Forrest's background, which most people would not notice unless they read the recent novel by Philip Roth "The Plot Against America". Roth has the Republicans, in 1940, nominate Lindbergh to run against FDR, and Lindbergh wins. This keeps us out of World War II, and it turns our country into a neo-Fascist state. In actuality, Lindbergh was suggested as a Vice Presidential candidate to run with Wendell Wilkie, but he did not get that nomination. If you listen to Whorf's dialog, at one point he is willing to allow Tracy hear a recording of Forrest's speech at the 1940 convention rejecting that nomination.
But there is no mention of how Forrest became such a national hero - certainly nothing about aviation. And there is no mention of any children with Christine who got kidnapped and murdered. As I said, the studio did not want to be sued. But the unpleasant experience of Lindbergh's American First crusade, culminating in his notorious "Des Moines" speech where he hinted at Jewish influence to push the U.S. into war, was sufficient to make the character of Forrest stand for only one other American.
The slow revelation of Forrest's true character, his egomania and arrogance - his embrace of fascism for power, and his huge following with other malcontents is done well. Of course, today, seeing the film and knowing it's reputation, the effect of the slow revelations is not as effective as in it's original release in 1942. Best moment in this is Margaret Wycherley's as Forrest's senile mother - but a senile woman whose character is as bent as her son's. Notice her comments about the size of houses.
Hepburn's performance, of the two leads, is weaker - she does show her everlasting intelligence as Christine, but little of the passion that guides her to do what she has to do. Tracy is better - he is a true believer in the cult of Forrest, and his disillusionment is painful ("Robert Forrest...what happened?"). But for my money it is Whorf's performance which is the best, because of his quiet fanaticism in protecting the great man's secret, and his menace towards Hepburn. If one only thinks of Whorf as Sam Harris in "Yankee Doodle Dandy" (which he made the same year), this performance is a revelation of his strength as a dramatic actor. Whorf had a short life (he died in the 1960s), and gradually became a film and television director. He could have remained a very effective dramatic actor.
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