Donald Ogden Stewart: Katharine Hepburn’s Secret Weapon in KEEPER OF THE FLAME (1943)

You may not recognize Donald Ogden Stewart’s name but if you are a classic film fan you’re probably familiar with his work. Stewart’s ability to write snappy dialogue and adapt popular plays for the screen made him one of the highest paid screenwriters in Hollywood during the 1930s and 1940s. And throughout his career, Stewart regularly worked with actress Katharine Hepburn. The pair made five films together including HOLIDAY (’38), THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (’40), KEEPER OF THE FLAME (‘43), WITHOUT LOVE (‘45) and SUMMERTIME (‘55). The last three titles are currently available to stream on FilmStruck and provide a fascinating look at the collaborative relationship between the successful screenwriter and accomplished actress who became lifelong friends during one of the most inspired and turbulent periods in Hollywood history.


Hooray for Hollywood!

Donald Ogden Stewart was born in Columbus, Ohio on November 30, 1894 into a wealthy and well-connected family. He attended Yale University and after graduating he spent a brief period in Naval Reserves before moving himself and his recently widowed mother to New York’s Greenwich Village. In this urban bohemia, Stewart’s writing really began to flourish with encouragement from his friend and fellow Yale scholar, author F. Scott Fitzgerald. Stewart found regular employment with Vanity Fair and in 1920 he released his first book, a clever satire titled A Parody Outline of History. Stewart’s book was so well received that it earned him a place at the Algonquin Round Table where his natural wit and charm impressed other literary giants including Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley. He also became friendly with Ernest Hemmingway who used Stewart as the model for the fictional character of Bill Gorton in his debut novel, The Sun Also Rises.

In 1924, Stewart married an attractive socialite named Beatrice Ames and the couple eventually settled in Hollywood where Stewart found regular employment with Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer. One of Stewart’s earliest screenwriting successes was DINNER AT EIGHT (’33), based on a play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, which poked fun at high society. As someone with a white-collar background who had firsthand experience mingling with wealthy American socialites, Stewart was particularly well-suited to help adapt DINNER AT EIGHT for the screen. His insider’s perspective would become an asset at MGM where he was regularly asked to help script films that satirized high society.


Working with Katharine Hepburn

Stewart and Hepburn first met during the original stage production of HOLIDAY in 1928. The play, written by Stewart’s friend Phillip Barry, was a Broadway hit and during its stage run Hepburn was an understudy for actress Hope Williamson who played Linda Seton (the character Hepburn would eventually play on screen). At the time, Stewart was mildly interested in acting himself and played the role of Nick Potter on stage (he was also the model for Barry’s original character). A decade later, Stewart and Hepburn were reunited on the MGM set for George Cukor’s film version of HOLIDAY (’38) but this time Stewart was working as a screenwriter and Hepburn was an up and coming actress. Although the film version didn’t find an appreciative audience at the time, it’s grown in stature since its release. Stewart has been credited for his sharp dialogue, which enriched the original text, and Hepburn’s interpretation of the jaded debutante Linda Seton is arguably one of her most enduring screen characters.

Despite the mixed critical reaction to HOLIDAY, Cukor and MGM brought Stewart and Hepburn together again to make THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (’40), which proved to be a smart decision for everyone involved. The film was a smashing success that earned Stewart an Academy Award for his screenplay and cemented Hepburn’s reputation as one of Hollywood’s brightest stars.


Political Activism

During his time in Hollywood, Stewart became deeply involved in various political causes. Although it’s evident from his early screenplays that he had always had a social conscience, the rise of fascism in Europe was a catalyst for his left-leaning radicalism. Stewart was a proud supporter of Roosevelt’s New Deal and embraced socialist causes after reading the work of British Labour politician John Strachey (The Menace of Fascism and The Coming Struggle for Power – An Examination of Capitalism). Having endured the Great Depression, Stewart was keenly aware of the destruction that unchecked capitalism had wrought and as someone who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he was compelled to reexamine his own privilege.

“It suddenly came over me that I was on the wrong side. If there was this ‘class war’ as they claimed, I had somehow got into the enemy’s army. I felt a tremendous sense of relief and exultation. I felt I had the answer I had been so long searching for. I now had a cause to which I could devote all my gifts for the rest of my life. I was once more beside grandfather Ogden who had helped to free the slaves. I felt clean and happy and exalted. I had won all the money and status that America had to offer – and it just hadn’t been good enough. The next step was Socialism… [I didn’t want to] stop dancing or enjoying the fun and play in life. I wanted to do something about the problem of seeing to it that a great many more people were allowed into the amusement park. My new-found philosophy was a confirmation of the good life. Not a rejection of it.”
– Donald Ogden Stewart, from his autobiography By a Stroke of Luck!

Stewart’s political awakening spurred him to become chairman of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League alongside longtime friend Dorothy Parker. He also became President of the League of American Writers, which was a branch of the CPUSA (Communist Party USA) that included Stewart’s friend, Ernest Hemmingway, among its members. His political activities put a strain on his marriage and he divorced his first wife in 1938 but eventually married fellow writer and activist, Ella Winter. Winter once said of her husband that “His sponsorship of so many committees and delegations gave rise to a satiric story: When President Roosevelt rose in the morning he would ring for his orange juice, his coffee, and the first eleven telegrams from Donald Ogden Stewart.”

Stewart’s activities brought him to the attention of the House of Un-American Committee, which accused him of aiding the Communist movement. He fought back and was forced to defend himself as early as 1938 in newspaper articles where he argued that the HUAC was “in themselves a threat to democracy” and mocked the organization’s support of “anti-labor, anti-Roosevelt causes.”


Radical Filmmaking

In 1943, Stewart got the opportunity to express his anti-fascist sentiments while working on the screenplay for KEEPER OF THE FLAME based on I.A.R. Wylie’s novel of the same name. The MGM production reunited Stewart with Katharine Hepburn as well as director George Cukor. KEEPER OF THE FLAME is a provocative slow-burn thriller also starring Spencer Tracy who plays a reporter trying to piece together the mysterious death of a celebrated American hero named Robert Forrest. Hepburn is Forrest’s wife who reveals that her wealthy patriotic husband, with help from other powerful men, was secretly undermining American democracy by subverting the free press and stirring up division. Her character explains that “They didn’t call it fascism. They painted it red, white, and blue and called it Americanism.”

“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…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.”
– Donald Ogden Stewart, By A Stroke of Luck!

There was tension on the set due to Hepburn being frustrated by Stewart’s changes to the script, which gave Tracy’s character a bigger role. But after some negotiations, they were resolved although Stewart continued to be aggravated by Cukor’s lack of passion for the project, which the director later called “fraudulent.” Despite this, Stewart thought the film was a creative triumph. Critics didn’t embrace it but the screenwriter was extremely proud of the final product and thought it was the most “radical film” of his career although it was greeted with suspicion.

When KEEPER OF THE FLAME was screened for the Office of War Information’s Bureau of Motion Pictures the Bureau Chief (Lowell Mellett) openly expressed his disapproval of the film’s anti-capitalist message and during its premiere producer Louis B. Mayer walked out of the theatre frustrated by the script’s suggestion that fascism was linked to American wealth and power. Republican members of Congress at the time were so outraged by the film (and others of its ilk) that they demanded that the President of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (William H. Hays) establish new guidelines against political propaganda.


End of a Career

Thanks to the fallout from KEEPER OF THE FLAME, Stewart’s reputation began to suffer but he continued working sporadically, and in 1945 he reunited with Hepburn and Tracy to make WITHOUT LOVE (‘45). WITHOUT LOVE was directed by Harold S. Bucquet and is based on another Philip Barry (HOLIDAY, THE PHILADELPHIA STORY) stage play. Stewart did a bang-up job of adapting it for the screen but the direction is a bit scattershot. Despite some missteps, Hepburn is particularly wonderful and gives a well-rounded lowkey performance as a melancholy young widow who enters a loveless marriage with Tracy only to discover that she really has feelings for him.

Other films followed including the Oscar-nominated LIFE WITH FATHER (‘47) but Stewart’s career ended abruptly in 1950 when his name was included in Red Channels, a right-wing, anti-communist booklet that became the basis of the Hollywood blacklist. Stewart, like many progressives and radicals at the time, was singled out for his political pursuits as well as his scripts which lampooned the rich or worse, accused them of anti-democratic warmongering.

Stewart refused to renounce his politics or name names so he and his wife fled the country in 1951 and settled in London. Hepburn followed the couple there, helping her friends set up home in Hampstead where she was rumored to have selected the curtains and carpet for their new residence. Stewart did very little writing after he left Hollywood but in 1955 Hepburn encouraged director David Lean to employ her old friend during the making of SUMMERTIME. Accounts vary about the extent of his contribution, but Hepburn clearly welcomed Stewart’s involvement. He understood the romantic concerns of the idle rich like few others and his sympathetic depictions of smart, difficult, and complicated women helped define Hepburn’s career. As a result, the screenwriter and actress remained friends until Stewart’s death in 1980 at age 85.

“Donald Ogden Stewart is a man who is willing to pay the price of his own passionate beliefs. He went in one quick step from being the highest-paid writer in Hollywood (Spencer Tracy and I were only two of his beneficiaries) to a man without a job.

This remarkable man was one of the great wits of the late twenties, thirties, and forties; the creator of laughter and delight in movies, plays, books, and high society. Yet he was direct and oversensitive to his fellow man. His life tells the story of the American style. . .He laughed his way to the top of the heap and looked down. Saw the bottom of the heap and thought ‘this is not fair.’ He forsook his giddy companions for serious thinking and had to leave the country of his birth.

He never regretted it, never moaned, never excused himself. He simply believed passionately. Donald Stewart considers himself lucky. This must have taken some doing. He’s my friend. I think I’m the lucky one.”
– Katharine Hepburn in her introduction to Stewart’s biography, By A Stroke of Luck!

by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally written for FilmStruck which published a heavily edited version of this article on 4/12/18 @