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Thursday, 19 November 2009

The Country Girl (1954)

Director: George Seaton
Stars: Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly and William Holden
TCM's star of the month for November 2009 is Grace Kelly, in celebration of what would have been her 80th birthday on 12th November.
When people think of Grace Kelly, they probably think first of Princess Grace of Monaco. If their attention is limited to movies, they probably think of Rear Window or High Society, depending on their personal taste. Yet it was this film, in the busiest year of her career, for which she won her Academy Award. That's always surprised me, not because I've seen it because I haven't until now, but because I've rarely seen it mentioned outside of idle wondering why it won out over all those other Grace Kelly roles in 1954. That was the year she made Rear Window and Dial M for Murder, for a start. There was Green Fire too, which is probably the least referenced film of her career, after her debut in 1951's Fourteen Hours, and The Bridges at Toko-Ri, which I've certainly seen mentioned a lot more often than The Country Girl. Now I've seen it though, I understand.

It's a Hollywood adaptation of a successful Broadway play from 1950 by Clifford Odets, and it didn't just come from Broadway, it was set on Broadway. We arrive at the theatre with the coffee to find Philip Cook and Bernie Dodd arguing. They're the producer and director of an adaptation of The Land Around Us, some sort of serious source material that they're turning into a quirky musical show, and they've been left in the lurch by their lead actor. They're up against it to find a replacement but Dodd has someone in mind, someone who can 'act while he's singing and sing while he's acting.' In fact he believes that he isn't just up to the part, he has the potential of being a revelation. The catch, as Cook points out, is that he's been living inside a bottle for quite some time.

He's Frank Elgin, in the appropriate form of Bing Crosby, here playing by far the most serious part I've ever seen him play. That's not a dig, because he nails a role that has some similarity to his own dark past. It's just refreshing to see him play a part with some actual substance behind it, someone who is more than up to the task at hand if only he lets himself be. He has some competition to play against though. Dodd, the man he's working for, is played by William Holden, who was riding high having won his first Oscar for Stalag 17 the year before. Dodd has troubles but they're all with other people: with Elgin, with Cook and with Elgin's wife, Georgie. Elgin's troubles are with himself and not all those troubles are obvious.

There are two huge successes here. One is the way that the story weaves a wonderful web of understanding and misunderstanding between the three lead characters. So often a film with three lead actors has two of them playing lead characters and the third just there for star value or because of some movie industry politics that we really don't care about. Yet this one is absolutely and intrically tied up in the way all three interact with each other, with every permutation covered. Elgin says one thing to Dodd and another entirely to his wife and he knows precisely what to say. Dodd hears precisely what he wants to hear and refuses to see things any other way, unwilling to know when he's being played. Georgie knows precisely when she's being played because she knows precisely that she's married to what she calls 'a cunning drunkard.'

It's a story that has us screaming at the screen at the misunderstandings but it's at the characters not at the writing. Even when we know we're hearing outrageous lies we can believe the reactions of those who believe them, however much we scream at them to see through them too. We scream too at the same people when those lies are unravelled and they get trapped in their own reactions. It's wonderful writing, by Clifford Odets who wrote the play and George Seaton who adapted it and directed it too. He was a lesser Hollywood director but he had made Miracle on 34th Street and he would go on to Airport, thus showing a notable versatility.

The other success is Grace because while I've always appreciated her talents as an actress I was powerfully surprised at how great she is here. When Jennifer Jones, who had been advertised in the role, backed out after becoming pregnant, a lot of people laughed at the suggestion of Grace Kelly taking her place. After all, while she was a prominent new name in the movies but one who epitomised the sort of role she had just stamped her authority on: the new elegant young blonde in Hitchcock movies. Picturing the same actress who had been so good in that vein in Dial M for Murder and Rear Window playing a serious dramatic role that oozes its stage origins and calls not only for some major acting chops but for her to look notably older than her mere 25 years was not an easy task. The Academy Award shut those critics up.

It's not entirely her achievement. She's dressed dowdily, her hairstyle is not one you'd see 25 year olds wear and the make up job is so well done that we know it's there but we can't see it, so there are a number of names who deserve recognition, but the rest is Grace Kelly. She slumps just a little, her voice is deeper than we remember and she rides close to the other side over the control she was so good at keeping in her other roles. In short, she's surprisingly believable, even with knowledge of that Oscar win hovering behind her every movement. A flashback scene where she's the sparkling young beauty that moviegoers were falling in love with in the early fifties only serves to highlight the difference between that persona and the character she plays during the bulk of the film.

It's a superb performance and it's one that will quiet the inner surprise I raised in my first paragraph. No, The Country Girl isn't the film Rear Window was, though it is a genuine classic, but it's certainly an acting challenge that I don't believe Grace Kelly took on at any other time in her brief five year screen career. It makes sense that it's the acting role of hers that got recognised. I'm just surprised that the film isn't remembered more for its other merits.

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