Too close to the fire

I recently had the pleasure of viewing again a classic movie that I had not seen in years, and I still marvel at just how current the message of the movie really is, even after 65 years.

“Keeper of the Flame” is a 1942 MGM feature starring two of Hollywood’s biggest names of the era, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, whose cinematic chemistry is on full display and adds texture to the suspenseful tale of the mysterious death of politician Robert Forrest.

In this tale, based upon an unpublished novel that I really wish would have been, Tracy stars as renouned international reporter Stephen O’Malley and Hepburn as the widow Christine Forrest. After learning of the untimely death of Forrest, whose car crashes into a ravine after a bridge collapse, O’Malley determines to write a (hagiographic) biography of the wildly popular candidate.

As O’Malley works his way into the Forrest family compound, a mystery begins to build about the events surrounding the recent tragedy. He is faced with confusing comments from the servants he meets, and is initially rebuffed by the grieving widow as he attempts to find out more about the man behind the image. This starts his internal struggle of trying to align his feelings of admiration of the deceased with what he is learning from those closest to him, while at the same time coming to grips with his growing suspicions that the “accidental” death was anything but accidental.

Ultimately, O’Malley begins to unravel a bigger mystery, and begins to see something that he at first doesn’t want to believe: Robert Forrest, patriotic American everyman, has more affinity for tyranny than for liberty. This revelation, and his deepening relationship with Christine Forrest who begins to trust this “honest man” and reveal more about the real Robert Forrest, carries some interesting commentary about the American character, the faith of the American people, and the seductive desire for power that comes with the rejection of God’s authority.

One of my favorite scenes occurs when O’Malley is conversing with Forrest’s executive assistant (called a secretary in this early 40’s dialogue) about the assistant’s future now that his employer would no longer be requiring his services. The assistant asks if O’Malley could help him locate a new position. O’Malley refers to a firm in New York, and the assistant asks what the firm does. The answer: They manufacture “rousing affirmatives” in the form of positive public relations via manipulation of the media for their clients; these “rousing affirmatives” are the responses of the general masses of the American public to the managed message, and ultimately to the carefully crafted image of the person. The assistant reacts as if he might have been just bitten by a snake, which deepens the mystery.

Without revealing the final plot device, I will leave this review to say that the character Robert Forrest will look familiar to many, especially those who pay attention to national politics. The dialogues, one about how people need those to look up to, and another about the dangers of hero-worship replacing our due worship to God, are remarkably poignant in this postmodern era. Given that in 1942 the world was beginning to come to grips with real tyranny in the forms of many national leaders makes this movie all the more a stunning indictment of the idea of “pure democracy.”

This movie was re-released on VHS (sorry, can’t seem to find any DVD edition forthcoming) in 2000. It is available at some online outlets, but it’s slightly expensive. If you can find a copy at your local library (or don’t mind shelling out up to $30 for a VHS copy), then take the opportunity to see a rare example of Hollywood (perhaps) unintentionally speaking deep truth.