In The Sea of Grass, a cultured Katharine Hepburn leaves big town St. Louis to marry a New Mexican cattle baron Spencer Tracy. When Tracy’s character, who spends more time with his cattle and prairie than his lonely wife, is unable to accept the inevitable settlement of the west, Hepburn is drawn to Tracy’s nemesis, a lawyer (later a judge) played by Melvyn Douglas, who assists homesteaders pressing their land claims against Tracy’s violent control over government-owned land.
Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn are my all-time favourite recurring on-screen couple (followed by Myrna Loy & William Powell, then Bogey & Bacall). Over 25 years they made nine films together. This, their fourth, was the seventh I’ve seen – and my least favourite.
Their performances were generally fine, though spotty in some places. Hepburn’s is better than Tracy’s, who seemed to be phoning-it-in in too many places. I don’t think Tracy was convincing as a cattle baron. Any number of actors of that era would have been a better choice. Gary Cooper and Clark Gable come immediately to mind. Too much of the plot is not believable. Much does not make sense.
The movie’s overall problem lies in the directing. It doesn’t hang well together. It comes off as too long, too ponderous and boring – though it does pick up a bit in the second half where Phyllis Thaxter plays quite the credible daughter of Hepburn. In his autobiography, the film’s director Elia Kazan said of the film: "It’s the only picture I’ve ever made that I’m ashamed of. Don’t see it." Understandable.
Without spoiling the plot of the movie, the movie is somewhat of a parallel to the real life tragedy experienced by Tracy and Hepburn. Owing to his Christian faith, Tracy refused to leave his wife for his true love, Hepburn. Instead, they carried on an affair for most of the rest of their lives with Hepburn living and dying alone – having never married, having never had children and having never been able to live with the man she loved.
For those new to Hepburn and Tracy, I suggest starting with Adam’s Rib (1949), then Pat and Mike (1952). Only after watching those two, I suggest seeing the seminal Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) – their last movie together and Tracy’s last movie period. He died shortly after it was made.
Ultimately, The Sea of Grass is only for the died-in-the-wool Tracy-Hepburn fans like me that want to survey the entirety of their otherwise superlative body of work.