Keeper of the Flame (1943)
Keeper of the Flame (1943)

Genre: Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 40 min.

Release Date: March 19th, 1943 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: George Cukor Actors: Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Richard Whorf, Margaret Wycherly, Forrest Tucker, Frank Craven, Horace McNally, Percy Kilbride, Audrey Christie




obert Forrest dies in an automobile crash (off a rain-soaked, weakened bridge) on a dark and stormy night. Since he was a celebrated war hero, the nation is in mourning, commemorating the man’s legendary exploits and beloved decency. As a patriotic Forward America Association gathering marches through the downpour, journalist Steven O’Malley (Spencer Tracy), formerly of the Berlin press corps, arrives in the States in the city of Ashburton to attend Forrest’s funeral. He’s joined by longtime reporter pal Jane (Audrey Christie), who warns about the difficulties of trying to get near Forrest’s widow, with whom Steven wishes a meeting to write an article about the larger-than-life figure.

Forrest’s private secretary, Clive Kerndon (Richard Whorf), confirms the reclusive widow’s wishes for privacy, as do the tall metal bars of the main gate, which keep out visitors at Forrest’s palatial estate, where Steven goes to snoop. But that doesn’t stop the expert investigator, who manages to sneak his way onto the grounds and through the scene of the accident. And when he finally makes it to the front door of the house, he walks right on in. Despite the eventual face-to-face confrontation, widow Christine Forrest (Katharine Hepburn) turns O’Malley away without any details about her husband.

Of course, Christine’s tight-lipped reception betrays a wealth of secrets, which Steven is bound to dig into. But this element of mystery is slow to surface, creating a bit of a drag as the handful of characters who knew the Forrests remain deceptive and enigmatic. In many ways, “Keeper of the Flame” is something of a precursor to “The Third Man,” and mildly derivative of “Citizen Kane,” as the newspaperman interviews friends, family, and acquaintances to discover who the man behind the myth really was. And, expectedly, a dark undercurrent mars the fantasy of his eminence.

With such an abundance of noirish shadows, vague conversations, and continuous brooding, the film is anything but a standard vehicle for Hepburn (having recently appeared in slapstick masterpieces like “Holiday” and “The Philadelphia Story”), and even an odd collaboration for Tracy, having just starred alongside Hepburn in “Woman of the Year.” The quirky dialogue and effervescent love story of those aforementioned romantic comedies are nowhere to be found here, substituted with smoldering expressions, conspiratorial attitudes, and sardonic commentary by cabbie Orion (played by the very recognizable Percy Kilbride). Although “Keeper of the Flame” is designed to be a dramatic thriller (from the novel by I.A.R. Wylie), its lack of opportunities for gushy chemistry between Tracy and Hepburn is unfortunate (even Hepburn’s usual glamor is downplayed for pervasive melancholy).

“You look as happy as if you’d discovered a body in a trunk.” Answers are kept from the audience for so long that virtually all interest wanes; even as the truth draws nearer, it’s shrouded in enough obscuration that the big reveal can’t possibly satisfy the hype. And since every role is steeped in somberness, it’s no surprise that the conclusion is equally downbeat – and unsatisfying, particularly as the revelations pose a propagandistic, artificial quality, as if more focused on imparting a national sentiment than telling an engaging story.

– Mike Massie

  • 3/10