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
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!
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).
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.