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

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

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 told Kazan the script, casting, and wardrobe were already complete. 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 (Katherine Hepburn), a St. Louis high-society woman travels to New Mexico to marry cattle baron, Col. Jim Brewton (Spencer 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, Brice Chamberlain (Melvyn Douglas), for comfort which results in pregnancy. Lutie abandons her newborn son and a daughter and returns to St. Louis while Brewton raises the boy as his own. With questions about his legitimacy constantly floating around town, Brock Brewton (Robert Walker) grows up to have 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 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. From today’s perspective, Brewton treats Lutie more like his child than his wife. My, things have sure changed in 70 years, right ladies? 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 qriped 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. The only likeable performance in the entire 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 many 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, several times, and I second the motion. “The Sea of Grass” was released on DVD in 2011. No special features were included.

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

Additional thoughts from a believer’s perspective

Just a couple of things. 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?

Lutie has an affair with Chamberlain, resulting in the birth of Brock, and then leaves Brewton, abandoning her two children. Wow! It’s hard to have any sympathy for such a character, especially back in 1947. Audiences must have been absolutely scandalized at the time. But we’re all sinners and none of us can gloat about our goodness.

Advertisements

Elia Kazan’s first film: “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”

A Tree Grows in Brooklyntgb
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Dorothy McGuire, James Dunn, Joan Blondell, and Peggy Ann Garner
Twentieth Century Fox, 1945, 128 minutes

Elia Kazan’s growing reputation on Broadway came to the attention of Hollywood studio mogul, Darryl. F. Zanuck, who tapped the 35-year-old to direct “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” which was based on Betty Smith’s popular 1943 novel.

Plot

Thirteen-year-old, Francie Nolan (Peggy Ann Garner), and her younger brother, Neeley (Ted Donaldson), live in a Brooklyn tenement in 1900. Their mother, Katie (Dorothy McGuire), struggles to keep the family afloat as their father, Johnny (James Dunn), an alcoholic, squanders his sparse paychecks at the corner saloon. Johnny still dreams of being a famous singer but only finds irregular employment as a singing waiter. But he and Francie have a loving bond. In addition to having to deal with her alcoholic husband, Katie tries to shield her children from the influence of her free-spirited sister, Sissy (Joan Blondell). Officer McShane (Lloyd Nolan), the neighborhood flatfoot, assists the Nolans on a several occasions and takes a private shine to Katie.

Katie loves Johnny but has become hardened and embittered by his failures. She finally confronts him and brings his pipe dreams crashing to the ground. When Francie, a bright girl, desires to attend a better public school in a nicer neighborhood, Johnny makes the arrangements by telling school officials she has moved in with relatives. It is the one thing Johnny can do for his daughter even if it is dishonest.

When Katie becomes pregnant, she moves the family upstairs to a cheaper, less desirable apartment to save money. Johnny is so distraught he sits down at a piano left behind by the previous tenant and sings a tearful rendition of “Annie Laurie,” acknowledging the broken promise of his marriage.

The Nolans enjoy a few festive moments on Christmas Eve before Katie informs Johnny that Francie must drop out of school and go to work to help support the family. Crushed by the thought of Francie having to give up her dreams, Johnny walks out into the frigid winter night in search of steadier work.

After Johnny goes missing for a week, the family discovers he died of pneumonia after working as part of a subway tunnel digging crew. Although he was a drunk and a failure, the neighborhood deeply misses the affable Johnny, much to Katie’s amazement. The saloon keeper offers the Nolan children part-time jobs, enabling Francie to stay in school. While in labor, Katie reaches out to Francie and makes amends for her past coldness. Francie and Neeley graduate from grammar school and Officer McShane proposes to Katie, offering the security Johnny was never able to provide the family.

Commentary

“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” is a thoroughly enjoyable film and a remarkable directorial debut for Kazan who relied heavily on renowned cinematographer, Leon Shamroy. The cast is top-notch. Peggy Ann Garner is a complete delight in her Oscar-winning portrayal. Jimmy Dunn was also awarded a well-deserved Oscar. Dunn was a washed up alcoholic in real life and was basically playing himself in the role. Kazan did Dunn a favor by offering him the part but demanded he abstain from booze during the shooting. Dunn’s “Annie Laurie” scene is extraordinary. Dorothy McGuire gives a fine performance as the tough-as-nails matriarch although Kazan later complained the convent-raised actress was too refined for the part. McGuire had a reputation for being a bit of a diva on the set as Peggy Ann Garner reflected much later; “Kazan had a marvelous quality. He even knew how to handle Dorothy McGuire, and there was a certain way you had to handle that lady.” Joan Blondell is an audience pleaser as the coquettish Sissy, who nags her sister to cut Johnny some slack. Even young Ted Donaldson is enjoyable as the grumpy Neeley. The settings and the performances are thoroughly realistic and evoke the rough and tumble environment of 1900 Brooklyn with its immigrant enclaves. Writers Tess Slesinger’s and Frank Davis’s script also received an Oscar nomination. Although Kazan later dismissed “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” as sentimental corn pone, the young director did a wonderful job telling a heart-warming story, which appealed to war-time audiences and was the studio’s third-highest grossing film of the year.

“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” amazingly is not available in the USA as an individual DVD but it is included as one of the fifteen films in the Elia Kazan Collection box set (2010). An interesting commentary is provided with analysis from Richard Schickel, Kazan, Ted Donaldson, and Norman Lloyd. Special features also include “The Making of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn” documentary along with “An Appreciation of Dorothy McGuire.”

Additional thoughts from a believer’s perspective

“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” pays homage to human determination and perseverance despite adverse circumstances, symbolized by the tree growing through the cracks of the tenement’s courtyard. But attitude and ambition don’t always guarantee worldly success. The Irish/Austrian-American Nolans seem to have a certain amount of religion in their lives; there’s nightly perfunctory Bible reading (an unusual practice for a Catholic family), Francie’s prayers for her father, and a pious Catholic ceremony at Johnny’s grave side with the priest offering prayers for a merciful judgement. But Jesus Christ is not present in the hearts of these characters. When Francie’s teacher proclaims Keats’s, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” the girl wonders out loud if her father’s love (beauty) compensates for his egregious faults (truth). The teacher is befuddled by the question, leaving the viewer to decide the answer. The film insinuates that Francie will grow up to be a successful writer. But then what? In God’s great plan, worldly success is as short-lived and as unfulfilling as Johnny’s tragic life. The Nolans, director Kazan, screenwriters Slesinger and Davis, and author, Betty Smith, are all searching for truth and beauty outside of life in Jesus Christ. It is only in Christ that we find everlasting happiness, beauty, and truth.