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Tag Archives: Ruth Nelson

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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Humoresque (Dec. 25, 1946)

In a recent NY Times interview with David O. Russell, the director of the Oscar-nominated biopic The Fighter (2010), he compared his star, Mark Wahlberg, to John Garfield. Russell said that — like Garfield — Wahlberg is “always kind of in character, because it’s always him in some way.”

Garfield might seem as unlikely a choice as Wahlberg to play a concert violinist, but Humoresque never tries to pass Garfield off as something he wasn’t. His character, Paul Boray, spends his boyhood in what appears to be New York’s Lower East Side, in an immigrant family that has neither the time nor the money for classical music. (Garfield was born Jacob Julius Garfinkle, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, and grew up in Brooklyn and the Bronx, where he was enrolled in a school for difficult children.) At a high society party, a tipsy young woman refuses to believe Boray when he tells her he’s a violinist. She pegs him as a prizefighter, and refuses to believe he even knows what end of a violin the music comes out of. “It comes out of the middle,” he responds. (Garfield would, however, play a boxer in his next film, Body and Soul.)

There are plenty of hoary cliches in the early sections of the film. Bobby Blake plays Boray as a child. His immigrant father (J. Carrol Naish) works hard and always has his eye on the bottom line, while his mother (Ruth Nelson) is more sensitive, and grows to believe in Paul’s desire to play music. All of these scenes are pretty laborious.

Perhaps director Jean Negulesco wanted to be explicit about how a rough young man from the slums could become a dedicated concert musician, but all of the scenes of Boray’s childhood are less effective than a short sequence later in the picture in which the adult Boray storms out of a recording studio after being forced to cut a major chunk from a piece for radio time. He returns to his apartment to play alone, and the wildness of his music is reflected in a herky-jerky montage of chaotic city streets and teeming masses of people.

Long stretches of Humoresque are told through music, which is beautifully played by violinist Isaac Stern, but there’s plenty of snappy dialogue, too. When Boray gets in an argument with his friend, accompanist, and mentor Sid Jeffers (played by pianist and wit Oscar Levant), Jeffers tells him, “You’ll do all right. You have all the characteristics of a successful virtuoso. You’re self-indulgent, self-dedicated, and the hero of all your dreams.” Boray responds, “You oughta try a few dreams yourself, it might make you less cynical. When I look at you, I know what I want to avoid.” (And to give you an idea of the rapidity of the dialogue in the film, that exchange takes place in less than 12 seconds.)

The plot, such as it is, kick in around the 30-minute mark, when Joan Crawford shows up as Mrs. Helen Wright, a myopic, dipsomaniac socialite with a sharp tongue. Her husband is a cultured, sensitive man, but — by his own admission — very weak, and as soon as Helen takes an interest in Paul and his career, tongues begin to wag.

Garfield and Crawford have great chemistry, and both are good enough actors to give their relationship depth. It’s unclear for a time exactly what each wants from the other, but her alcoholism and his deep-seated anger make for plenty of stormy scenes. At one point, Paul blows up and yells at her, “Well, you didn’t do any of this for me, really. You did it for yourself, the way you buy a racehorse, or build a yacht, or collect paintings. You just added a violin player to your possessions, that’s all.”

In Bosley Crowther’s review of Humoresque in the December 26, 1946, issue of the NY Times, he wrote, “The music, we must say, is splendid — and, if you will only shut your eyes so that you don’t have to watch Mr. Garfield leaning his soulful face against that violin or Miss Crawford violently emoting (‘She’s as complex as a Bach fugue,’ Oscar says), and if you will only shut your ears when folks are talking other such fatuous dialogue, provided by Zachary Gold and Clifford Odets, you may enjoy it very much.”

I love Crowther’s reviews. Maybe if I’d been around when he was writing them I would have resented the stranglehold he had on public perception, but in retrospect they’re fantastically entertaining. I liked Humoresque more than he did, but I don’t disagree with his assessment. One has to take into account his longstanding hatred of Joan Crawford, of course, but by the time the credits rolled I was more moved by the music than by any of the vacuous melodrama.