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Katharine Hepburn finally met her match both personally and professionally in Spencer Tracy. Both red-headed and strong willed, they were already involved in a romantic relationship in the summer of 1942 when they began filming their second film together, Keeper of the Flame (1942), a drama about a widow of a man believed to be a hero who tries to hide the fact that he was in reality a fascist.
During production of the film, as Barbara Leaming wrote in her book Katharine Hepburn, Hepburn doted on Tracy to everyone's bewilderment, "The sight of Tracy and Hepburn at close range made people uneasy. On the set of Keeper of the Flame, they appeared to exist in a world of their own. To watch them together was to wonder why this fierce, independent woman had so totally subordinated herself to Tracy's will. She fussed over him incessantly, as if unable to keep still. She combed his hair. She arranged his collar. She wiped his face. She massaged his temples. She made certain he was comfortable and had everything he needed. No detail escaped Kate's attention so long as it concerned Spencer's well-being. There was seemingly no limit to her devotion. She closely monitored every fluctuation of his chronic melancholy. She was producer, director, wardrobe mistress and makeup lady all rolled into one. She was warm, effusive, and loving. There could be no doubt that she worshipped him...Tracy, for his part, appeared to take Kate for granted. At times, he barely responded to her powerful presence. He showed no gratitude or affection. When he did take notice of her, he treated her as a sort of 'backward little girl'. She reacted to his abuse with a tight, tense smile that was enough to break one's heart."
Tracy was a married Catholic and his wife was prominent in the Los Angeles area because of the John Tracy Clinic the couple had set up to help deaf children like their son for whom the clinic was named. Tracy would not divorce her and out of respect for Louise, both Hepburn and Tracy made a point of keeping their relationship as private as possible. The press even left them alone, something which is almost incomprehensible in an era where the media pokes its cameras into every aspect of a celebrity's personal life. Hepburn never discussed their personal relationship publicly until after Louise Tracy's death, but it was an open secret in Hollywood.
As for Keeper of the Flame, there were problems from the start, especially concerning Donald Ogden Stewart's script. Patrick McGilligan wrote in his biography of the film's director, George Cukor, George Cukor: A Double Life, that "Stewart fought to adapt I.A.R. (I for Ida) Wylie's novel, which had been purchased in unpublished form by MGM, as a kind of testament to Stewart's own sincere political convictions. The novel was willfully oblique, but Stewart shaped his film script into a pointed political drama, underplaying the love story. However, there was resistance to Stewart's uncharacteristically meaningful script from, of all people, Katharine Hepburn. She wanted more romance, and to return to the sense of the book, where the male character was an 'impotent eunuch," according to Stewart, "who plays sad love scenes."
Stewart wrote to his wife, the journalist Ella Winter, to complain that Hepburn was undercutting his script. "I created an intelligent male with action as his keystone...Is it not interesting that Miss H., not being an active character in the story, is Goddamned if there will be an active male in the same story?" Hepburn took her fight to the studio heads. "Stewart felt that Hepburn's stand was not really about the script ('it is for control'), he felt she had betrayed him 'dirtily' by appealing to her 'real enemies', 'The Top Bosses'."
Stewart also felt betrayed by Cukor for not standing up for his script, which Cukor admitted harmed the film. As Anne Edwards wrote, "Cukor later commented, 'The story was basically fraudulent,' and Kate 'had to float in wearing a long white gown and carrying a bunch of lilies. That's awfully tricky isn't it? And doesn't she give long, piercing looks at his [her husband's] portrait over the mantel? Well, I think she finally carried a slightly phony part because her humanity asserted itself and her humor. They always did."
Script problems aside, there was no denying the Hepburn-Tracy chemistry in Keeper of the Flame, and reviewers took note. "[T]he two principal players, Mr. Tracy and Miss Hepburn, give Keeper of the Flame its full values, goes without saying. They are a beautifully matched team as witness Woman of the Year , and they bring to the current business their finest efforts " ( The New York Morning-Telegraph March 19, 1943), with special praise given to Tracy's "restrained convincing characterization that holds the discursive script together." ( Newsweek , March 22, 1943)
Producer: Leon Gordon, Victor Saville
Director: George Cukor
Screenplay: Donald Ogden Stewart, I.A.R. Wylie (novel)
Cinematography: William Daniels
Film Editing: James E. Newcom
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Bronislau Kaper
Cast: Spencer Tracy (Steve O'Malley), Katharine Hepburn (Christine Forrest), Richard Whorf (Clive Kerndon), Margaret Wycherly (Old Mrs. Forrest), Forrest Tucker (Geoffrey Midford), Frank Craven (Doctor Fielding).
BW-100m. Closed captioning.
by Lorraine LoBianco
Katharine Hepburn by Barbara Leaming
Spencer Tracy: A Bio-Bibliography by James Fisher
A Remarkable Woman: A Biography of Katharine Hepburn by Anne Edwards
Spencer Tracy: Tragic Idol by Bill Davidson
George Cukor: A Double Life: A Biography of the Gentleman Director by Patrick McGilligan