In his review of the film in The New York Times on Friday, February 28, Bosley “The Grouch” Crowther referred to the film as “Metro’s new cow-or-plow drama,” which is the best and most succinct description of the film imaginable.
This was Kazan’s second film — his first was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), and Boomerang (1947), which I reviewed earlier this year, was his third.
The Sea of Grass is the story of a high-born St. Louis woman, Lutie Cameron (Katharine Hepburn), who marries a cattle baron, Col. Jim Brewton (Spencer Tracy), and leaves the comfortable world of high society for a rough-and-tumble life in a place called Salt Fork, in the Territory of New Mexico. Brewton legally owns very little of the hundreds and hundreds of acres over which his cattle roam, but he fought and bled for the land, and he’ll be damned if any pussy-footing sodbusters are going to come in and reap the rewards he feels he earned for himself. Brewton’s connection to the land is full of mystical reverence, and he’s distant from people, including his wife. Lutie is driven into the arms of Brewton’s mortal enemy, Brice Chamberlain (Melvyn Douglas) — a lawyer who fights for the rights of homesteaders — just long enough to wind up carrying Chamberlain’s child. Lutie returns to Brewton and bears him a second child, a son named Brock (they already have a girl named Sara Beth).
When Brewton discovers that he has been cuckolded, he gives Lutie a choice. She can either leave and take Brock with her, exposing him as a bastard, or she can leave alone and he will raise Brock as his own son. Tearfully, Lutie takes the latter option, and lives in exile. Sara Beth grows into actress Phyllis Thaxter, and Brock grows up into snivelling punk Robert Walker. Brock’s true parentage seems to be an open secret in and around Salt Fork, and he responds by drinking, gambling, sneering, and throwing lead into anyone who disparages him. He’s an early-20th-century rebel without a cause, and tragedy always seems right around the corner whenever he’s onscreen.
The Sea of Grass is based on the 1936 novel by Conrad Richter. Kazan was so attracted to the material that he specifically asked MGM if he could direct it. (Kazan was under contract with Twentieth Century-Fox at the time, but it wasn’t an exclusive contract, and it allowed him to work with other studios.) His vision was of an on-location shoot that would last months, featuring unknown actors with leathery faces and a grand sense of scale that would express the drama and sadness of a way of life in America that is dead and gone.
There are hints of this in a few scenes. The few sweeping shots of the pre-Dust Bowl prairie land of the Great Plains, with the gently rolling oceans of grass that give the film its title, are unspeakably beautiful. But for the most part, The Sea of Grass is a melodrama that’s soapy enough to wash your car with.
Kazan was restricted by the studio to shooting on soundstages, and he found directing Spencer Tracy nearly impossible. Tracy was in a bad way during the making of the film, and he was drinking heavily. His performance isn’t bad, but it’s muted and deeply subdued, as though he’s only partly present most of the time. Katharine Hepburn, on the other hand, is histrionic, and very nearly a haughty parody of herself. There are moments of great visual excitement in the film, such as a violent confrontation between homesteader Sam Hall (James Bell) and Brewton’s men during a windstorm. At more than two hours long, however, The Sea of Grass offers very little in the way of the kind of action I look for in a western, and the soapy drama it’s packed with is pretty turgid.