Recording movies to watch them later is an old habit, one I’ve had since I was reusing the same VHS cassette over and over again, watching and erasing films or television programs regularly. The age of the DVR (digital video recorder) is a great one for those of us who say, gosh, I want to watch that….later. And it is flatly amazing for those of us who find an awful lot of things we want to watch later.
Turner Classic Movies (TCM, which I’ll reference frequently) has incredible programming, and it was their annual “Summer Under the Stars” feature that sowed the first seeds for this blog. Scrolling through the schedule for this year’s event, I found this Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn western I’d never seen before, and I set it to record, along with a bunch of other films over several days. I started watching them in October, during my maternity leave. The first film I decided to watch was this one.
“The Sea of Grass” looks, on paper, like the sort of melodrama that ought to be an essential Tracy/Hepburn film. Most casual fans know their comedies better, or if they’re into “essential” films, they’ll cite Tracy’s final film, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” This one has the iconic duo and adds a young Robert Walker, Melvyn Douglas, a sprinkling of familiar character faces, and it was directed by Elia Kazan.
Kazan’s direction is what really jarred me at first. He made a Western? He made a Western with Tracy and Hepburn? When? How?!
This is 1947 and the blacklist is a thing of the future. Moreover, Kazan wasn’t terribly excited or proud of this movie, which according to the TCM buffer was something he had to do for the studio before he could let loose his controversial artistic flair with Gentleman’s Agreement. And if The Sea of Grass is buried under the weight of the Tracy/Hepburn legacy, it’s easy to see why. Fans would have expected very different things from the pair at this point in their careers. Both could do melodrama, yes, but Tracy was visibly uncomfortable on a horse. They spend most of the movie separated. And spoiler alert – Hepburn’s character cheats on Tracy’s. As far as Westerns go, it’s underwhelming to say the least. It’s shot on a sound stage, so the entire “sea of grass” referred to in the title is utterly lost. The budget was clearly spent on the stars involved, and probably Hepburn’s wardrobe (worth a look if you’re into historical costuming, since the film is set during the range war period of the 19th century).
So why watch this movie? Well, if you’re a completist, you’ll want to see what Tracy and Hepburn make of the script and plot. Their accomplishment here is that they elevate a script that might have been quite work-a-day in the hands of lesser actors. A practiced eye is going to notice Hepburn stretching her muscles a bit – she famously preferred “women’s directors” like George Cukor, and Kazan was decidedly not that – overall I think he gets more out of Tracy, but it’s interesting to compare this to other Katharine Hepburn roles and see how she handled them. Kazan’s most famous pictures are very male movies, and push the envelope in terms of style. This one has his stamp on it for sure.
The elephant in the room with all of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn movies is their offscreen relationship. Now, leaving aside the idea that their relationship, in itself a scandal, was trumped up to hide Hepburn’s true interests, you can’t really watch them together and not feel their chemistry come off in waves. I’ve seen a great many of their pictures together, and I have to say The Sea of Grass is perhaps the movie where they are least able to conceal or channel their feelings for one another. Sure, they almost always play a couple, and you hope that the fictional romances have that spice to them. But in my original Facebook post on this movie, I mentioned that watching Tracy and Hepburn here felt almost indecent. You feel as though you’re intruding on real private moments between them.
So, in the end, is this a watchable movie I recommend? I think so. It’s going to appeal most to fans of Tracy and Hepburn, and I recommend already knowing some of their other work. If you like lesser known movies of well-known directors, this fits. If you’re interested in movies made by blacklisted directors, of course, this fits for that as well. If none of that describes you, and you just want a movie to watch on a rainy day, I’d say if you like a touch of melodrama in your stories, sure, this could go on your list.
The Sea of Grass is available on YouTube, Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, and iTunes.