The Sea of Grass (1947)


Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5.  

USA, 1947.  Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.  Screenplay by Marguerite Roberts, Vincent Lawrence, based on the novel by Conrad Richter.  Cinematography by Harry Stradling Sr..    Produced by Pandro S. Berman.  Music by Herbert Stothart.  Production Design by Cedric Gibbons, Paul Groesse.  Costume Design by Walter Plunkett, Valles.  Film Editing by Robert Kern.  

Katharine Hepburn leaves the bustling city of St. Louis for the plains of New Mexico to marry a cattle baron (Spencer Tracy) who is something of a menace to the locals, resisting the burgeoning power of the federal government by shooting anyone who approaches his beloved acreage.  Homesteaders are looking to settle on his land, but he wants it all to remain a giant sea of grass upon which his cattle graze, insisting that plowing these fields will ultimately bring disaster to those who want to live there.   At home, Hepburn is lonely for company and, after an attempt at bringing friends close to farm a patch of land goes sour, she finds comfort in the arms of a lawyer (Melvyn Douglas) whose friendship ultimately destroys her marriage.  Elia Kazan wrote in his autobiography that this was the one film he regretted making and urged audiences not to see it (a film that, ironically, was the most profitable that Hepburn and Tracy ever made together), and while it’s no classic, his judgment is unnecessarily harsh: there have been way worse movies to be ashamed of, but there’s also no denying that a critical look at American capitalism with a western theme would be done much better in Giant.  What really makes the film insufferable is the miscasting of the leads, as any chemistry Hepburn and Tracy had on screen was usually in films that capitalized on their intellectual repartee, not the undercurrent of intense physical lust at odds with their good sense that here comes off as wholly illogical.  Hepburn excels in the film’s final scenes where she must make peace with her devastated life, but otherwise is playing a role that Gene Tierney would have suited far more, a chilly upper-crust veneer battling the sexual desire for her husband within, while Tracy playing a man whose greed overcomes his morality is something he never seems to believe he can pull off (and, to make matters worse, they both appear to be as bored as the audience watching the movie).  Robert Walker picks spirits up a bit in the final act as their grown son, while Douglas is the best of the bunch as the man who represents the encroaching influence of centralized power, trying to place a sense of law over the sprawling lawlessness of the wild west.

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