Prolific gay Hollywood director George Cukor was labeled a “woman’s director” early in his career. The term was partly a homophobic slur, but it also points to his success with actresses, particularly strong-willed or “difficult” stars, from Joan Crawford to Marilyn Monroe.
Cukor is also known for his collaborative directing style. He never wrote or altered scripts, for example. Instead, he assembled the best production team he could find, and worked congenially with all, encouraging input and respecting the talent he had gathered. He concentrated most fully on his actors, feeling their work is what most gave a film its sense of credibility and emotional power.
Cukor’s relationship with Hepburn was particularly fruitful. They worked together on ten films and were lifelong friends. Hepburn’s strength and wit paired perfectly with Cukor’s actor-intensive directing, and both shared a preference for privacy in their personal lives.
- A Bill of Divorcement (1932) – her first film
- Little Women (1933)
- Sylvia Scarlett (1935)
- Holiday (1938)
- The Philadelphia Story (1940)
- Keeper of the Flame (1942)
- Adam’s Rib (1949)
- Pat and Mike (1952)
- Love Among the Ruins (1975)
- The Corn is Green (1979)
Because this is a noir blog, I’ll use the picture closest to noir in style and subject that the two worked together on for my discussion, Keeper of the Flame.
Plot with Spoilers: Spencer Tracy is a determined journalist and Katharine Hepburn is the wife of a national hero who died under mysterious circumstances when his car drove off a bridge in this thriller/romance. Increasing intimacy between the intrepid reporter and the seemingly devoted widow brings out the truth: the dead man was not the next Abraham Lincoln, as his wife had envisioned him, but a budding fascist dictator. When she learned of his true nature, his wife let him go unwarned to his death. The lesson the film teaches at this crucial historical moment is vital (the US having recently joined forces with the Allies in WWII) is vital, as are several telling scenes and supporting characters, including a disdainfully presented patriotic Scout organization, a fanatically devoted male secretary, and the demented mother of the deceased.
Politically inflected noir melodrama is perhaps the best (if bulky) label for this second and arguably least compelling film pairing of Tracy and Hepburn. The cinematography emphasizes the darkness of the mystery. The love-hate relationship Hepburn shows as the widow of a “great man” helps us identify her with the trapped “good wife” of noir. And Tracy is a stand-in for the noir gumshoe.
Beyond the casting of Hepburn and direction by Cukor, Keeper of the Flame is also a collaborative effort in other ways. First, Hepburn persuaded Louis B. Mayer (MGM) to make the film and then to cast Tracy as the male lead. (She had just begun an affair with the married, alcoholic Tracy and wanted to keep her eye on him while bringing them together on the set.) She was particularly drawn to the fact that Cukor was chosen to direct. This would be his first and only overtly political film.
We can see in particular the way Cukor worked collaboratively with Hepburn in that Keeper of the Flame originally had no love plot. Hepburn had Cukor’s respect and his ear, and he agreed to the romance subplot as a way of strengthening the widow’s motivation to finally reveal the truth about her husband.
Though it has its merits, reviews were not strong for the film, and even Cukor had to admit the weaknesses of the film, from the wooden if believable performance by Tracy to the occasional phoniness of Hepburn’s emotional displays. And the limits of filming all scenes (both indoor and outdoor) on sound stages cannot be denied.
Perhaps the best that can be said for this intriguing but lesser effort is that it led to Cukor’s greater success with the Gothic-noir film Gaslight (1944), and, several years later, to Adam’s Rib, a return to the longstanding Cukor-Hepburn collaboration as well as a triumphant second take on the Cukor-Hepburn-Tracy trio.
This post is a contribution to CineMaven’s Symbiotic Collaborations Blogathon.