Sunday, March 17, 2013

Director Spotlight #13.2: Elia Kazan's The Sea of Grass

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t.  This edition’s director is one of cinema’s finest directors of actors, Elia Kazan.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 17/D

How do you follow a critically acclaimed debut? If your name is Elia Kazan, you follow it with soul-crushing disappointment. According to TCM, Kazan was deeply passionate about this film and asked MGM if he could direct it. They allowed him, but his vision of a Robert Flaherty-influenced on location shoot were dashed when the studio gave him an unsatisfying script, demanded that he shoot it on the studio backlot, and forced him to cast Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in the lead roles. The result was a film that Kazan would later call “a terrible picture” and “the only picture I’ve ever made that I’m ashamed of. Don’t see it.” I was obliged to check it out because I’m covering all of his films, and all I can do is agree with Kazan: this is a terrible movie, almost totally without interest to Kazan fans, and it should be avoided.

Lutie Cameron (Hepburn) marries cattle baron Col. Jim Brewton (Tracy) of Salt Fork, New Mexico. Lutie has befriended a number of settlers and farmers in the town, but Brewton is a cold, tyrannical man unwilling to allow them to settle on his land. When a pregnant settler loses her baby after she saves her husband from Brewton’s men, Lutie is furious with an unmoved Brewton and takes a trip to Denver, where she has an affair with his more upstanding rival Brice Chamberlain (Melvyn Douglas) and conceives a son. Lutie is eventually forced out of Brewton’s home as he raises the illegitimate child, Brock (Robert Walker), who grows up to be a troubled and reckless young man.

There’s a lot of potential in this story, especially under Kazan’s direction. It works with a number of his pet themes- social conflict, capitalism, alienation, sex, generational conflict. It was a project Kazan had a great amount of passion for. It theoretically could have allowed him to break out of the cramped interiors of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and allowed him to follow in John Ford’s footsteps as an auteur of American Realism. None of that happened. Instead, the film feels like a conventional Hollywood melodrama. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it doesn’t jive with Kazan’s naturalistic style, and aside from a few well-staged scenes it feels impersonal. Worse, the vast scope and ambition of the story feels like it’s been cut down considerably, as if it’s trying to fit Gone with the Wind into two hours running time. Years pass without us getting a sense of time or place, while the actual moment-to-moment business is an absolute crawl.

The film is also distressingly backlot-bound. Plenty of great movies have been shot on sound stages, but it might be a good idea to shoot a film about the open plains and fields outdoors. Instead, we’re forced to endure Tracy and Hepburn walking alongside clearly fake outdoor sets and unconvincing rear-projection of grass fields from stock footage. This footage was no doubt wonderful when originally shot, but it just looks awful when two actors are put up against it. Kazan is also defeated by a sentimental score, which goes for deep feeling but is far less moving than the quietest moments of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

The film might work better if the cast seemed more engaged, but Kazan’s method-influenced style is like oil and water when thrown in with classic Hollywood stars like Tracy and Hepburn. Make no mistake: this was a great duo, and they were undoubtedly some of the finest actors of their time. But neither of the two responded well to Kazan’s attempts to bring out more emotional work, and they certainly weren’t the unknown actors that Kazan had originally intended on working with. This certainly isn’t helped by the fact that Tracy was having one of his periodic bouts with alcoholism and Hepburn was more focused on her man making it through the day than giving a good performance. Hepburn’s own work would qualify as one of her rare weak performances, too fussy and focused on looking proper than embodying the tough earth mother that the character calls for. Still, she’s better than Tracy, who never looked less engaged or invested than in his somnambulant turn here. A role that requires a hard, nasty, emotionally volatile turn instead gets a blandly calm one. Supporting players Walker, Douglas, and Harry Carey fare slightly better, but it’s no good when the leads clearly don’t care.

This job thoroughly defeated Kazan, who would later relate a story about a rare scene that he was happy with, involving Hepburn’s emotional breakdown, only to be chastised by Louis B. Mayer. I’ll credit TCM for this story, which is just too good not to end this entry with:

"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."

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Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

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