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Sunday 2 August 2009

The Swan (1956)

Director: Charles Vidor
Stars: Grace Kelly, Alec Guinness and Louis Jourdan

Grace Kelly has proved an interesting actress to watch. While she didn't make too many films, I've now seen more than half of them. OK, that only makes this number seven of eleven, but the principle still stands. What I've found is that she could be a great actress but she wasn't always. My theory has been that the better the actors she has to work off, the better she acts herself, and that suggests that she's going to a gem in this one because she's playing opposite no less a genius actor than Alec Guinness, himself right after The Ladykillers and right before The Bridge on the River Kwai.

It's 1910 and she's Princess Alexandra, hardly a stretch for an actress who had met Prince Rainier a year earlier and who would marry him to become a real princess precisely one week before this film was released in the States. Most bizarrely though she effectively plays Prince Rainier's part in this story and Louis Jourdan plays her. Because of the actions of Napoleon a century earlier, Princess Alexandra is an obscure princess in a Europe full of such things, but her distant cousin Crown Prince Albert has apparently checked out all the others already without finding one to marry and he's heading her way for a visit tomorrow.

Now Alexandra is really in love with her tutor, Dr Nicholas Agi, as played by the ever charming Jourdan, who often looks notably younger than his 36 years. There's not a hope in the world she'd admit that even to herself, but those with astute eyes can see it, such as Father Carl Hyacinth, her uncle who left the halls of privilege to become a monk fifteen years earlier. Her mother, Princess Beatrix, would never even let such a thought cross her mind and couldn't dream of anything more perfect in life than to see her daughter sit on a throne, so she does her level best to set everything needed in motion.

I should point out here that this is a comedy. It's not a riotous slapstick affair, far more of a subtle piece with drama, comedy and romance all interwoven together. Beatrix tries her hardest, Albert appears to want nothing to do with it and Alexandra and Nicholas gets stuck in the middle. The rest of the cast shuffle around them trying to focus in on what's actually going. As the film runs on, the centre of this whirlwind really start to play the game while everyone else gets even more confused.

The script is by John Dighton, based on a play by Czech author Ferenc Molnár that had been filmed before, as a silent in 1925, and it's full of opportunities for many of the characters not just to shine but to steal entire scenes. Estelle Winwood, as Symphorosa, Beatrix's aunt, gets most opportunity, as almost every line of dialogue she gets is a peach and she relishes every one of them. Most obviously, she gets to finish so many of her niece's lines with comments that Beatrix would rather have left unsaid. Jessie Royce Landis plays Beatrix and she sets such lines up with aplomb.

Brian Aherne gets his opportunities too, not just because in his monk's habit he looks utterly unlike anyone else in the film. Jourdan is superb as the confident tutor and utterly non-confident suitor, getting some great scenes in with Kelly and some even better ones with Guinness thrown into the mix too. Of course when Agnes Moorehead turns up as Queen Maria Dominika, she's all ready to steal the entire show in precisely the way and with precisely the class you'd expect, but Guinness is more than up to balancing her out. These scenes are masterful work by all concerned, and I wonder how much what the pair of them did helped to raise everyone's else game.

And back to Grace Kelly. As the intended focus of the film, she is utterly charming and every inch the princess that she would shortly become. I felt that she sleepwalked through much of High Society, the only film she made after this one, possibly because she was distracted by what else was happening to her in real life. Yet she must have been as distracted here, that same year of 1956, but she's as utterly alive as Princess Alexandra as she mostly wasn't as Tracy Samantha Lord. I wonder how she'd have carried on in the business had she not become a highly recognised swan herself.

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