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Tag Archives: Russell Hicks

The Sea of Grass (April 25, 1947)

Elia Kazan’s The Sea of Grass premiered February 26, 1947, in Lincoln, Nebraska. It opened in New York City a day later, and went into wide release on April 25, 1947.

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.

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Scarlet Street (Dec. 28, 1945)

Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street immediately draws comparisons to Lang’s 1944 film The Woman in the Window. Released just a year apart, both films star Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, and Dan Duryea. Both films feature Bennett as a femme fatale, Robinson as a milquetoast man approaching old age who is desperate for some kind of excitement, and Duryea as a hustler and a punk who’s only out for himself. The two films share motifs; murder with sharp objects, city streets at night, painted portraits, and foolish old men ensnared by mysterious young women.

In terms of tone and plot, however, the two films are quite different. The Woman in the Window is a well-crafted tale of mystery and suspense in which a murder occurs early on, and the protagonist spends the rest of the film dealing with the consequences. It’s a good picture, but its impact is undercut by a cop-out ending (possibly necessitated by the Hays Code) that castrates the grim dénouement and breaks the most basic rule of maintaining audience engagement with a narrative. Scarlet Street, on the other hand, is grim and fatalistic, and its single, horrific murder doesn’t occur until near the end of the picture. Robinson’s character in Scarlet Street isn’t drawn into a suspenseful adventure in which he has to hide evidence and protect a woman’s honor, he’s drawn into a doomed romance with a heartless and conniving young woman, and he only realizes the trap he’s walked into until long after its jaws have clamped shut around him.

Scarlet Street opens on a scene of a party. It’s the kind of party we don’t see very often in the movies anymore. There are no women, and all of the men are dressed in tuxedos. Christopher Cross (Robinson) is receiving a gold pocket watch for his 25 years of service as a cashier in a bank. When Cross’s employer, J.J. Hogarth (Russell Hicks), stands up, he is clearly the man in charge; tall, commanding, and about to leave the party for a date with a blonde. Cross sits on the opposite side of the table and appears diminutive and meek. When Cross reads the engraved message on the watch, “To my friend, Christopher Cross, in token of twenty-five years of faithful service, from J.J. Hogarth, 1909-1934,” he seems genuinely touched by the line, “To my friend,” and pauses briefly after reading the words to smile. He is clearly a man with few friends.

He is also a man locked in a loveless marriage. We later learn that he married his landlady just a few years earlier, after her police detective husband died while trying to save a woman from drowning. Her late husband’s ridiculously large portrait hangs above the mantle in their living room, and Adele Cross (Rosalind Ivan) never misses an opportunity to unfavorably compare Chris with her “heroic” first husband.

On his way home from the party, Cross meanders through the rain-slicked streets of Greenwich Village. He sees a young man beating up a young woman under elevated train tracks, and he impetuously runs to her aid. His rescue attempt can barely be called heroic (he covers his eyes as he jabs her assailant with his umbrella), but it is still an act of courage, which makes what comes next so tragic.

Scarlet Street is based on the novel La Chienne (The Bitch), by Georges de La Fouchardière, which was adapted as a play by André Mouëzy-Éon, and as a film in 1931 by Jean Renoir. The French title pretty much sums up Kitty March (Bennett). She and her “boyfriend” Johnny Prince (Duryea) only care about money and the objects money can buy. As soon as Chris tells Kitty that he paints, she gets the idea in her head that he’s famous and rich, and that she’ll be able to squeeze him for all he’s worth. Of course, he only paints on Sundays as a hobby, but he initially lets her believe that he’s a painter, just as he lets himself believe her claim that she works as an actress.

This being a film from the ’40s, the words “pimp” and “prostitute” are never spoken, but if the viewer infers that Kitty is a prostitute and Johnny is her pimp, absolutely nothing in the film contradicts the idea. (And this was indeed their relationship in La Chienne.) It is clear that Kitty has no regular job, but she regularly ponies up money to give to Johnny. Johnny also has no visible means of support except the money she gives him. He hustles a little here and there, but it seems as if his main source of income is Kitty. At one point in the film she even states that she’s given him a total of $900 over a course of time, and that she’s still waiting for him to buy her a ring with that money. That’s an incredible amount of money for a woman with no job or inheritance to produce in 1945, unless she was tricking. Also, the fact that she’s giving him money that she then asks him to possibly spend on her implies a pimp-prostitute relationship.

The one-way exchanges of money and Johnny’s casual mention of various men from whom Kitty could get $50 for the night isn’t the only thing that marks Johnny as a pimp and Kitty as his whore. The casual way he slaps her around several times over the course of the film implies this, as well as the fact that he constantly refers to her as “Lazylegs.” Later in the film we even learn that Johnny was beating her up in the street at the beginning of the film because she showed up at the end of the night with less money than he expected.

The callousness of Johnny and Kitty and their pimp-prostitute relationship isn’t the only taboo this film breaks. Scarlet Street may very well be the first film made after Hollywood began enforcing the Hays Code that shows a character committing a murder that goes unpunished. Scarlet Street was distributed by Universal Pictures, but it was independently produced by Fritz Lang Productions, which may have given Lang more leeway in the way he presented his conclusion. On the other hand, the end of the film isn’t really about “getting away with murder,” since the hell the murderer is trapped in is worse than any earthly prison. It’s a bleak, existential ending, and one of the most tragic I have ever seen.