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"I was too dumb to quit," said director Elia Kazan of his second feature film, The Sea of Grass (1947). While he had an inkling during pre-production that this was to be a messy shoot, he tried to persevere as best he could, though in the end his instincts were right: this is not only the least "Kazan-like" of his movies, but it's the weakest of the Tracy-Hepburn vehicles. The problems Kazan faced can basically be boiled down to (1) a studio-imposed production schedule, and (2) severe conflicts between the director and his stars.
The movie's plot is best described as a western-set soap opera with Katharine Hepburn as a St. Louis lady who marries New Mexico cattle baron Spencer Tracy, only to find out that he is tyrannically battling the homesteaders who have been settling on his land (which is known as "the sea of grass"). Turned off by her husband's methods, Hepburn has an affair with his enemy, Melvyn Douglas, which produces a son. She and Tracy get back together, and the illegitimate son eventually grows up as a ne'er-do-well (Robert Walker), leading to more tragedy and melodramatic conflicts.
Kazan was so attracted to this story that he specifically asked MGM to let him direct it. He was under contract to Fox at the time, where he had directed his 1945 debut A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but it was not an exclusive contract and he was free to work for other studios if he wanted. What drew him to The Sea of Grass, he told interviewer Michel Ciment, "was the size of the classic American story" and "a feeling...that when history changes, something wonderful is lost." Kazan envisioned spending months on location a la Robert Flaherty, and making an almost anthropological film using unknown actors whose "faces are like leather." What he got instead was a typical studio movie with huge stars on a soundstage.
Meeting with MGM producer Pandro S. Berman, Kazan discovered that the studio planned to shoot the film almost entirely on the lot with rear-projection images of rolling grass and hills. "It became apparent," Kazan told Ciment, "that none of the picture was going to be shot on location - and it was a picture about grass, country and sky! Now, if I had been knowledgeable, strong, confident, if I had protected my own dignity, I would have quit. But somehow I was trained not to stop, to find the best solution possible." When the final script came in, it too was not quite to the director's liking, but there was little Kazan could do. He had yet to make a serious name for himself in Hollywood, and his clout was limited.
All accounts of The Sea of Grass stress the disharmony on set between Kazan and his two stars. Tracy was suffering from drinking problems and under-acted. Hepburn was primarily interested in controlling Tracy's drinking and overacted. Kazan's Method approach did not work well with Tracy's more instinctive style, and they clashed, with Hepburn arbitrating the confrontations. In her biography Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Leaming wrote, "Kate insulated Spencer from pressure that might drive him to drink. Concerned solely with keeping him sober, she encouraged him basically to walk through the film. Shrewdly, she made it impossible for Kazan to say a word about Tracy's listless performance. Hardly would he finish a take when Kate's voice resounded through the set: 'Wasn't that wonderful? How does he do it? He's so true! He can't do anything false!' Kazan was defeated."
Co-star Melvyn Douglas echoed these observations in his autobiography. Kazan, he recounted, was intimidated by his two stars. He would "work into the night preparing for the next day's work, soaking himself in the script, only to be confronted in the morning by genial Spencer Tracy, who would arrive, throw himself into a chair and casually memorize his lines. Kazan seemed to want bursts of energy and an undertone of malevolence out of the actor; Spence projected a heavy, relaxed authority. He was wonderfully skillful but, finally, did not do what the director requested."
For his part, Kazan found Tracy a far cry from the unknown, leathery face he had desired: "I found that he did not like horses and horses did not like him. He is supposed to play a man who spends most of his time on a horse. He was rather plump, not a western type... not at all, in any way, like the type he was being asked to portray."
As for Hepburn, Douglas wrote that "though playing a lady from St. Louis who was virtually being ground into the plains, she seemed reluctant to put aside her star's glamour. Each time she emerged from the dressing room, she had on a fresh new frock, a costuming scheme to which she steadfastly clung in spite of several confrontations with her director." Kazan told Ciment of this: "All the dresses were very nice, but not at all lived in... The effect of the picture was a lot of pretty illustrations."
Douglas poked some fun at himself, too, recalling that after three years away from movie cameras, he was nervous and "could barely ride a horse." When the movie came out, he received a fan letter that requested he "leave the heavy emoting to Laughton" and return to being "gay, debonair Melvyn."
Early in production Kazan got an amusing lesson in the MGM studio philosophy. He had just shot a scene between Hepburn and Douglas in which Hepburn cries. Kazan was proud of the way it turned out; Louis B. Mayer, however, was not. Kazan went to see the studio chief. "She cries too much," Mayer said. "But that is the scene, Mr. Mayer." "The channel of her tears is wrong." "What do you mean?" pressed Kazan. "The channel of her tears goes too close to the nostril, it looks like it is coming out of her nose like snot." "Jesus, I can't do anything with the channel of her tears!" Kazan exclaimed. "Young man," replied Mayer, "you have one thing to learn. We are in the business of making beautiful pictures of beautiful people and anybody who does not acknowledge that should not be in the business."
Producer: Pandro S. Berman
Director: Elia Kazan
Screenplay: Vincent Lawrence, Marguerite Roberts, Conrad Richter (novel)
Cinematography: Harry Stradling, Sr.
Film Editing: Robert Kern
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Paul Groesse
Music: Herbert Stothart
Cast: Spencer Tracy (Col. James Brewton), Katharine Hepburn (Lutie Cameron Brewton), Robert Walker (Brock Brewton), Melvyn Douglas (Brice Chamberlain), Phyllis Thaxter (Sara Beth Brewton), Edgar Buchanan (Jeff).
BW-123m. Closed captioning.
by Jeremy Arnold