Kazan Redux: Elia Kazan’s sophomore stumble: “The Sea of Grass”

Today, we’re going to re-review director Elia Kazan’s second film; “The Sea of Grass.” Looking back over his nineteen-film career, Kazan advised people not to bother watching just one of his movies and this is the one. A couple of thoughts after revisiting this film: 1) Did any actor have a more affected acting style than Katherine Hepburn? and 2) after several viewings of “The Sea of Grass,” I increasingly enjoy Robert Walker’s portrayal of spoiled bad boy, Brock Brewerton. The card game scene (begins at the 1:39:04 mark) where high-stakes gambler, Joe Horton (Douglas Fowley), repeatedly taunts Brock by calling him “Judge,” an unsubtle reference to his illegitimacy, is the highlight of this unexceptional film.

The review below was first posted on December 14, 2016 and has been slightly revised.

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The Sea of Grass
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn, Melvyn Douglas, and Robert Walker
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1947, 131 minutes

2 Stars

Bud Lighton, the producer of Elia Kazan’s debut, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” persuaded the young director to consider “The Sea of Grass” for his second film. Kazan was impressed by Conrad Richter’s 1936 novel and imagined the wonderful adventure he would have filming on-location on the Western prairie. But when he arrived at the fabled MGM Studio in Hollywood, producer Pandro Berman informed Kazan that the script, casting, and wardrobe were already in place. In addition, massive amounts of outdoor footage had already been shot. Kazan was told he would film entirely at the studio using the previously-filmed footage as rear-projection background. So much for shooting on location!

Plot

Lutie Cameron (Hepburn), a St. Louis high-society belle travels to New Mexico to marry cattle baron, Col. Jim Brewton (Tracy). Brewton’s disdain for homesteaders and his devotion to the prairie eventually drives a wedge between him and his new wife. Lutie turns to Brewton’s bitter rival, liberal crusading attorney (and future judge), Brice Chamberlain (Douglas), for comfort which results in pregnancy. Brewton becomes aware of his wife’s unfaithfulness and forces her to leave town and abandon her daughter and newborn son. Brewton raises the boy, Brock, as his own. With gossip about his illegitimacy constantly swirling around town, Brock Brewton (Walker) grows up with a boulder-sized chip on his shoulder, eventually running afoul of the law and dying in a shootout. Returning to New Mexico for a visit, Lutie learns of Brock’s death and reunites with Brewton and their daughter, Sara Beth (Phyllis Thaxter).

Commentary

Kazan was extremely critical of “The Sea of Grass” and often referred to it as his worst film. Tracy’s performance is cinematic sleepwalking and he’s thoroughly unconvincing in the role of a rugged outdoorsman. If Tracy wasn’t bad enough, the viewer is also asked to accept Connecticut blue-blood, Hepburn, as a happy transplant to the sleepy cattle town of Salt Fork, New Mexico. Her flamboyant costumes in such a setting border on the comical. Kazan later griped that Hepburn’s constant retreats to the movie set washroom to “freshen up” drove him up a wall until he finally gave up on both of his pampered stars. One of the few enjoyable performances in the film comes from Edgar “Uncle Joe” Buchanan as crusty cook, Jeff. This is the first of Kazan’s films to feature the “progressive crusader” character, a mainstay of several of his early movies.

After his dismal experience with the “The Sea of Grass,” Kazan would insist upon artistic control in subsequent films. Going forward, he would generally avoid spoiled marquee headliners like Tracy and Hepburn and shooting in the studio. Unlike his first effort, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” there are absolutely no distinguishing features in this movie that would characterize it as a Kazan project. In his 1988 autobiography, Kazan warned his readers not to see the movie. I have seen it, several times, and I second the motion. “The Sea of Grass” was released on DVD in 2011. No special features were included.

Trivia note: Tracy and Hepburn are one of film’s most fondly remembered acting teams. They made nine movies together, and “The Sea of Grass” was amazingly the highest grossing.

Additional thoughts from a believer’s perspective

The viewer will be struck by Colonel Brewton’s complete devotion to the prairie. The grassy plain comes before his wife and before the lives of the squatters who threaten it. We would call Brewton a pompous fool, but how often do we put the idols of our life ahead of the Lord?

Next up: “Boomerang” (1947)

25 thoughts on “Kazan Redux: Elia Kazan’s sophomore stumble: “The Sea of Grass”

    1. RE: glad I didn’t miss much!

      Nope, you didn’t miss a thing. It’s a pretty lame story and Kathryn Hepburn’s acting couldn’t be more artificial. But there were positive consequences. Kazan’s deep disappointment in this movie prompted him to start making demands of the studios and start developing his own style, which we’ll begin to see in his very next movie.

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    1. Thanks, sister! It’s interesting to see Kazan develop from film to film. He’s a fascinating character; a member of the American communist party in the 1930s and then testifying in Congress against his former comrades during the Red Scare, he was the most hated man in Hollywood. But he remained a Marxist and an atheist and enjoyed shining a spotlight on the hypocrisy and sinfulness (he called it “ambivalence”) of mankind. A desperate man with a lot of questions and criticisms, but no answers.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s about 20 miles west of us. My wife had lunch with her cousin at the place this past summer. Mostly sandwiches. My wife usually goes all-out by ordering surf-and-turf at these kind of special dinners, but that’s not an option these days.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Friday, just routine. I lost the 30 lbs. last Spring to get down to 184 but wanted to get down to 180 and did that recently. My doctor hounded me for twenty years to lose weight and when I finally did he was strangely indifferent.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Thanks! It’s much easier to keep on track when family or friends are also dieting and are there for mutual support and encouragement. Hey, that sounds like church and the WordPress Christian community!

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, Tracy had separated from his wife but wouldn’t divorce her because he was a staunch Catholic. But he and Hepburn had a 26-year secret relationship. All very hush-hush until after Tracy and his wife had died.

      Liked by 1 person

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