In 1943 the United States was fully engaged in desperate wars in Europe and the vast Pacific. Film studios around the world were churning out movies in support of their troops, their national ideology and their coming victory.  From London to Berlin to Moscow and Tokyo portraits of brave patriots and demon-others were shown to civilian and soldier alike.  Desert Victory from England, Ukraine in Flames from the Soviet Union, Momotaro: Sacred Sailors and Kurosawa’s The Most Beautiful from Japan only begin the list.  Leni Riefenstahl in Germany was already widely known for her Triumph of the Will and Olympia.

Hollywood produced its share of such movies, from short documentaries such as Women in Defense (1941), directed by John Ford and narrated by Katherine Hepburn, to longer, scripted, narrative driven dramas, such as Back to Bataan (1945) with John Wayne and Antony Quinn.  Hundreds were written, filmed and shown. (For a couple of lists see: Wiki; IMDB.)

One of the most remarkable, not for its story-telling quality but for its contrary message, was Keeper of the Flame. Filmed in 1942, within months of the novel of the same name by I.A.R. Wylie, it was directed by George Cukor and starred Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy — just then beginning their tempestuous affair.

Shot in rich black-and-white, and with many other tell-tales, it reminded critics then, and viewers now, of the path setting Citizen Kane of 1941. Beginning with quick wise-cracking male-female scenes then becoming popular (see Cukor’s 1949 Adam’s Rib for example, also with Tracy and Hepburn,) and moving to noirish themes of a rainy-night death and a strangely uncommunicative wife, it seems to fit into a comfortable Hollywood genre film.

Tracy is Steven O’Malley, a tell-no-lies war-reporter, who has returned to write a glowing biography of Robert Forrest, a ‘hero the nation needs.’  From first mention, Forrest, more to audiences then than now perhaps, is clearly modeled on Charles Lindbergh and his “America First” movement.  The much-loved Forrest had founded “America Forward.”  O’Malley soon begins to suspect all is not as the public has believed.  Through some friendly gestures to a young boy, devastated by his hero’s death, O’Malley finds his way into the Forrest mansion where an overbearing secretary and a reluctant to talk widow, Christine Forrest (Hepburn,) deepen the mystery.

Somewhere, about mid-film, the sleuthing and growing attraction between O’Malley and Forrest get derailed to eventually be jettisoned for a long monologue by Hepburn, revealing the perfidy of the America Forward movement.  Although we are denied the tension and gradual discovery of “home grown fascism” in favor of a curtain-closing reveal, and shoot-out, at least the phrase is actually uttered.  Not only that, wealth and fascism are suggested to be entwined.  Louis B Mayer, head of the MGM studio producing the film, reportedly stormed out of the theater when he heard that. 

At first, Cukor and his screen writer, Donald Ogden Stewart  were happy with their work. Later, neither remembered it as their best:  “leaden … a wax work quality,” said Cukor; “tedious, wooden, and heavy-handed,” Stewart. (For interesting details of the filming and its controversies, begin here.)

While it might be more interesting to us today as a period piece, or as film history, than as a great representative film, it is quite amazing that, in time of war, with Fascists abroad, in Italy and Germany, and a strongly similar Japanese nationalism, a movie pointing to fascism in America itself, was scripted, filmed and released. For that alone, it is worth an evening – not as entertainment only, but as some history-forward viewing.

The Author, I.A.R. Wylie, is a revelation in herself.  Yes, Her: Ida Alexa Ross Wylie.  Not only were moves made of some thirty of her stories, she was an early suffragette, and unashamed companion of women. In her autobiography My Life with George: An Unconventional Autobiography, George is in fact her own alter-ego.  Her female friends often called her “Uncle.” A forgotten woman and writer worth some memory rejuvenation.

I.A.R.Wylie, 1928

In Keeper of the Flame, the novel she wrote, (available on Amazon-Kindle for $3.03,) O’Malley is not brave, saucy and bold, but impotent.  (I’ll let you know what more I discover as I read it!)  You can find the movie at Amazon, and likely other on-line sources.

More importantly than movie viewing, of course, is to keep eyes and ears alert for charismatic leaders today, promising satisfaction and well-being through discipline, order and a movement of like-minded citizens.

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More Reviews

At Tipping My Fedora 

Bosley Crowther, NY TImes, 1943