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Conspiracy Film: Keeper of the Flame

John Simkin

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In 1942 Donald Ogden Stewart began working with I. A. R. Wylie, who had just published a novel entitled, Keeper of the Flame, that had been inspired by the activities of Charles Lindbergh and the America First Committee. Stewart later recalled: "The Keeper of the Flame was perfectly made for my desire to contribute to an understanding of democracy's war by exposing the danger of un-Americanism within our own gates. The story begins with the five-star funeral in a small town of one of America's favorite sons, someone like, say, General MacArthur. Spencer Tracy is a New York reporter who has been sent to cover the event and attempts in vain to obtain an interview with the widow (played by Katharine Hepburn). Accidently they meet, and he becomes increasingly suspicious that the lady is not telling the true story about her husband's death. Finally he becomes convinced that in some way she was responsible (for the death of her husband)." Eventually she confesses that she had not saved her husband from the accident because "Her husband, the great national hero, had become the spearhead of a plot to overthrow the Roosevelt-like government and substitute a Mussolini-type dictatorship... The backers of this coup were a group in the extension of the power of the people a dangerous challenge to their own type of Free World. The plot had in those days strikingly believable parallels, including Hitler's successful takeover of his country with the backing of Krupp, Thiessen and other powerful Germans."

The film, Keeper of the Flame, directed by George Cukor, was screened for the Office of War Information's Bureau of Motion Pictures on 2nd December, 1942. The Bureau's chief, Lowell Mellett, was unhappy with the picture and disapproved of its anti-capitalist message. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer head Louis B. Mayer, also hated the movie, as he felt it equated wealth with fascism. Stewart claimed that Meyer "walked out in a fury" of the New York City premiere "when he discovered, apparently for the first time, when the picture was really about". Republican Party members of Congress complained about the film's left-wing message and demanded that Will H. Hays, President of the Motion Picture Production Code, establish guidelines regarding propagandization for the motion picture industry.

Stewart regarded Keeper of the Flame as "the most radical film of his that Hollywood could accept. The authors of Radical Hollywood: The Untold Story Behind America's Favorite Movies (2002) have pointed out: "Keeper of the Flame is a brilliant and badly underrated film, not only because Tracy draws out Hepburn step by step, raising her confidence in herself rather than breaking her down, but also because the familiar idea of rich and ruthless totalitarians attains here as high a statement ever made in a major film." Martha Nochimson, has argued in Screen Couple Chemistry (2002) that the film is a "truly provocative in that it was one of Hollywood's few forays into imagining the possibility of homegrown American Fascism and the crucial damage which can be done to individual rights when inhumane and tyrannical ideas sweep a society through a charismatic leader."

After the war the the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began investigating the entertainment industry. Attention was drawn towards Keeper of the Flame and by 1950 David Ogden Stewart was blacklisted. Unable to work in Hollywood he moved to London. As a result his passport was taken away and was unable to return to the United States. He died in London on 2nd August, 1980.


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Did you see the movie? I did and was not very impressed. Though it picked up towards the end the beginning was a bit slow with various extraneous side stories, by contrast the part about the plot was quick and rushed. I doubt Meyer walked out if he had it would have been in the last few minutes. Apparently Stewart previously had only worked on romantic comedies, Tracy and Hepburn normally did romantic comedies Cukor was best know for comedies, not surprisingly the movie started out trying to be funny and ended trying to be a political thriller and IMO the gear change didn't go very well. There were also huge holes on the plot.

I found a better quality copy here:


And the script is online:


Edited by Len Colby
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