Stating the obvious: most people take great pleasure in idealizing their idols – which is why idols are idols.
Whether we're talking of gods, saints, prophets, or pop stars, the process is pretty much the same: flaws are expunged, deeds that never took place are turned into (at times miraculous) facts, the Pantheon of the Immortals becomes their abode following their earthly demise. (In some extreme cases – assorted gods, Elvis – the idol in question doesn't die, period.)
Grace Kelly, Turner Classic Movies' Star of the Month, is one of the lofty ones now dwelling in the aforementioned Pantheon. True, the flesh-and-bood Philadelphia-born (Nov. 12, 1929) woman (nee Grace Patricia Kelly) may have been quite different from the characters Grace Kelly the actress played in 11 Hollywood movies from 1951 to 1956, or from the always poised, meticulously madeup and coiffed fairy-taleish European princess seen at various public events. But no matter.
If you're an idol and you die without ever breaking any major Thou Shalt Nots in public – or in private, but in a manner that becomes public knowledge – then there's a very good chance (especially if death comes early) you'll be worshipped forever. Or at least “forever” in human terms.
Grace Kelly died unexpectedly on Sept. 14, 1982, at the age of 52, reportedly from injuries suffered in a car accident. (It's also been said that she suffered a stroke while driving; other stories had her underage daughter Stephanie driving the vehicle prior to the crash.) To this day, for the millions who continue to worship either Hollywood star Grace Kelly or Princess Grace of Monaco – or both – the actress-patrician remains the embodiment of class, beauty, sophistication, and aristocratic romance. Many among those will even assert that Grace Kelly was a great actress, though that would be really pushing it.
Yet, Grace Kelly did win an Academy Award for The Country Girl (1954), in what turned out to be one of the biggest upsets in Academy history. Despite Kelly's Golden Globe, New York Film Critics, and National Board of Review wins earlier that awards season, everyone everywhere just about knew that Judy Garland was going to take home the Oscar for her A Star Is Born tour de force.
But those forecasters should have realized the importance of seeing a glamorous actress “uglify” herself for the sake of art, as Kelly pretends to do in The Country Girl, playing the frustrated wife of alcoholic has-been actor Bing Crosby (above). Especially when her cardigan-wearing housewife of the black-and-white, George Seaton-directed melodrama is compared to the lovingly photographed beauty of two other 1954 productions, both in color and both directed by Alfred Hitchcock: Rear Window, with Kelly lusting after wheelchair-bound James Stewart, who may or may not have seen Raymond Burr commit a murder; and Dial M for Murder, a crime thriller in which Kelly is the victim of conniving husband Ray Milland.
The black-and-white/color contrast must have driven film critics and Academy members nuts. I mean, how could those blue eyes and that blond hair become light gray in the same year? What a remarkable acting feat! In fact, Kelly's New York and National Board wins were for her trio of performances, even though as far as I'm concerned the acting honors go to Thelma Ritter in Rear Window and to a pair of scissors in Dial M for Murder.
Now, it's clear that I don't find Grace Kelly the most fascinating actress in Hollywood history. Sticking to just Hitchcock's cool blondes, I much prefer watching Madeleine Carroll, Ann Todd, Eva Marie Saint, or Kim Novak.
Even so, I'd recommend every single film in TCM's Grace Kelly series, which kicks off this evening – albeit Kelly isn't exactly the chief reason for me to suggest any of them.
For instance, in Henry Hathaway's thriller Fourteen Hours (1951), she has a mere bit part, while Fred Zinnemann's first-rate Western High Noon (1952) belongs to Gary Cooper's lone sheriff, and the African adventure tale Mogambo (1953) belongs to Ava Gardner and other beautiful wild animals.
I'd have liked the revered Rear Window (above) infinitely better had Deborah Kerr played the James Stewart role (Kerr and Kelly would have made a beautiful – and much more believable – couple); Dial M for Murder is entertaining, though I probably shouldn't have been rooting for Ray Milland's heel; whereas The Bridges of Toko-Ri, Kelly's fourth 1954 release, is probably the actress' worst vehicle. That said, also in the film's cast are William Holden and Fredric March. It's the kind of stellar mix that movie lovers should check out at least once.
Thanks to Kelly's Oscar win, The Country Girl is interesting as a historical curiosity – it's the sort of “gutsy” and “realistic” film adaptation of a respected stage play that was very popular among the filmgoing elite of the 1950s (e.g., Tea and Sympathy, A Hatful of Rain), but that I generally find both lame and artificial. Bing Crosby's drunk is about as convincing as Kelly's frumpish housewife (a role that should have gone to original choice Jennifer Jones), but that didn't prevent a number of Academy members from making sure Crosby, director George Seaton, and the film itself received Academy Award nominations. Seaton, in fact, did win an Oscar for his adaptation of Clifford Odets' play.
Green Fire, released at the end of 1954, is the only Kelly vehicle I haven't watched, yet. Her male co-stars, Stewart Granger and Paul Douglas, aren't among my favorites, but since the film is set in some movie-movie South American jungle and was directed by Andrew Marton (of the highly enjoyable King Solomon's Mines), it must at least be worth a look.
To Catch a Thief (1955) is Hitchcock-light. What makes this suspenseless comedy-adventure worthwhile is the film's cast: Cary Grant (above) is quite humorous as a maybe/maybe-not French Riviera jewel thief, while Kelly has a blast pursuing him and Jessie Royce Landis has just as big a blast as Kelly's mom. (Four years later, she'd be playing Grant's mom in North by Northwest.) Now, some find the Grant-Kelly chemistry erotically irresistible. I failed to notice it. Perhaps it's that unlike all those people with really kinky imaginations, when I see exploding fireworks in a movie all I can think of are exploding fireworks. That's it.
Charles Walters' musical-romance High Society (1956) is one of the best-remembered and most dearly beloved movies of the 1950s. There are Cole Porter songs, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Kelly herself singing the Oscar-winning ditty “True Love,” and an all-around, exuberant gaiety that feels as genuine as a three-dollar bill. Don't miss it if that's your pleasure.
Charles Vidor's The Swan (1956), Kelly's last film, is a great-looking production, but the approach to the story's themes – an ice-cold beauty that must thaw; duty vs. love vs. infatuation – feels a little stale at times. Estelle Winwood, however, is a hoot in a small supporting role, and both Jessie Royce Landis (once again as Kelly's mother) and Alec Guinness (right) are their usual charismatic selves.
Additionally, TCM will show Jean Masson's 32-minute documentary The Wedding in Monaco (1956) – I haven't managed to sit through more than five minutes of this one – and, of more interest, the 59-minute Studio One teledrama “The Rockingham Tea Set” (1950), in which a pre-Hollywood Grace Kelly plays a young private nurse who runs into some serious trouble while handling neurotic invalid Louise Allbritton. Future Oscar winner Franklin J. Schaffner (Patton, Planet of the Apes) directed.
Also, it should be noted that Grace Kelly, much like Kim Novak, Audrey Hepburn, Leslie Caron, Marilyn Monroe, and other young female stars of the 1950s, was frequently the love interest of men at the very least a good decade older than she was: Gary Cooper, Bing Crosby, Ray Milland, Cary Grant, and Clark Gable (in Mogambo) were all 20+ years older; Alec Guinness, William Holden, Frank Sinatra, Stewart Granger, and Robert Cummings (in Dial M for Murder) were more than a decade older.
So, Grace Kelly isn't one of my idols – mine, in fact, tend to be anything but Technicolor perfect. Yet, as a film lover I find it too bad that Kelly quit movies when she was only 27 years old. Perhaps in time she would have developed into a true actress; I mean, cool blonde Catherine Deneuve, whose career spans more than half a century, keeps getting ever more fascinating as the years go by.
Think about it; just imagine what Luis Buñuel might have come up with for Grace Kelly in the '60s and '70s had she been daring enough to star in one of his films. (The very unBuñuelesque Marnie and The Turning Point were offered to Kelly; one can only wonder what the more mature actress/woman would have brought to those films.)
Grace Kelly would have turned 80 next Nov. 12.
James Stewart, Grace Kelly in Rear Window
Turner Classic Movies' Grace Kelly series continues this Thursday, Nov. 12, with three of Kelly's biggest hits, all from 1954: Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, and The Country Girl. Kelly, who died in 1982 following a car accident in Monaco, would have turned 80 on Nov. 12.
Some consider Dial M for Murder a minor Alfred Hitchcock effort. Personally, I find it more enjoyable than Hitchcock's revered Rear Window. Part of the reason is a pair of deadly scissors found in the former but not in the latter; yet, I'd say that the chief reason is that neither one of Kelly's leading men in Dial M for Murder is James Stewart. Instead, she's paired with Ray Milland – who wants her either dead or behind bars for life – and Robert Cummings.
Some consider Rear Window to be Hitchcock's masterpiece. As so often happens, I disagree. Not that I have such a high regard for the other Hitchcock favorite, Vertigo; the fact is that the director's films I like the most are usually (though not always) the ones that critics deride as mere studio productions, e.g., Rebecca, Lifeboat, Stage Fright – none of which features James Stewart making love to a good-looking blonde half his age.
Rear Window, in which a wheelchair-bound Stewart may or may not have seen a murder, is also studio fare – movie stars, a happy ending, a conventional narrative – though, admittedly, Hitchcock and cinematographer Robert Burks, both of whom were nominated for Academy Awards, do use color creatively. Yet, bright reds or no, I find Rear Window neither very suspenseful nor very insightful. And not for a second could I believe that Grace Kelly and James Stewart were or might ever become a couple. Kelly would have fared better pairing up with either Wendell Corey or Thelma Ritter, who, as usual, steals the film from the nominal stars. (Come to think of it, Ritter got star billing in this one.)
”The wonderful thing about Grace,” James Stewart later recalled, “was that she was just completely at ease with her lines. The emphasis was always in the right place, and this came from her. I remembered that very vividly … Absolutely fascinating woman. This was only her fifth picture.”
“Fascinating” is also the term New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther used to describe Kelly in his Rear Window review. As for the thriller itself, Crowther wrote, “Mr. Hitchcock's film is not 'significant.' What it has to say about people and human nature is superficial and glib. But it does expose many facets of the loneliness of city life and it tacitly demonstrates the impulse of morbid curiosity. The purpose of it is sensation, and that it generally provides in the colorfulness of its detail and in the flood of menace toward the end.”
In The Country Girl (in a role originally offered to Jennifer Jones), Kelly is paired with Bing Crosby, playing an alcoholic has-been actor about to make a comeback, and William Holden, as the man who tries to rescue Crosby's dipsomaniac. As Crosby's frustrated wife, Grace Kelly won a best actress Oscar for consenting to wear shabby clothes and to appear in a black-and-white film. George Seaton directed and wrote the adaptation from Clifford Odets' play.
Kelly began her film career playing a bit part in a 1951 thriller. In the next two years, she was promoted to second leads. Thanks to Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, and The Country Girl, by early 1955 Grace Kelly had become a Hollywood superstar.
Photo: Turner Classic Movies
Schedule and film synopses from the TCM website:
5:00pm Dial M for Murder (1954)
A straying husband frames his wife for the murder of the man he'd hired to kill her.
Cast: Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, Robert Cummings, John Williams Dir: Alfred Hitchcock C-105 mins
7:00pm Rear Window (1954)
A photographer with a broken leg uncovers a murder while spying on the neighbors in a nearby apartment building.
Cast: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Wendell Corey, Thelma Ritter Dir: Alfred Hitchcock C-114 mins
9:00pm The Country Girl (1954)
While trying to help her husband make a comeback, an alcoholic singer's wife fights her love for another man.
Cast: Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, William Holden, Anthony Ross Dir: George Seaton BW-104 mins
Grace Kelly is once again the focal point of Turner Classic Movies' Thursday evening schedule. And as far as I'm concerned, next Thursday, Nov. 19, is going to be the most interesting of the Grace Kelly evenings this month.
The reason for that is simple: TCM will be showing the one Kelly feature I've yet to see – the Colombian-set adventure drama Green Fire (1954), co-starring Stewart Granger and Paul Douglas – and two of Kelly's pre-stardom television vehicles that I've also yet to see – “The Rockingham Tea Set” (1950) and “The Kill” (1952), both made for the Studio One anthology seriesand both directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, best known for Planet of the Apes and Patton (for which he won a best director Academy Award).
In Green Fire, Kelly plays a coffee plantation owner, a role originally intended for Ava Gardner and later Eleanor Parker. The drama revolves around the conflict between the coffee grower and a mining engineer (Granger) bent on extracting as many emeralds as he can from a nearby mountain.
“In the working out of a solution,” Bosley Crowther remarked in the New York Times, “Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, who wrote the script, have built up enough situations to keep the show moving briskly for an hour and a half. There are native game competitions, skirmishes with bandits, mine cave-ins and eventually the dynamiting of a mountain to fill the CinemaScope screen.”
What that dynamited mountain is going to look like on television I don't know. A blown-up anthill? Apparently, film audiences at the time weren't that impressed with the explosion, as Green Fire was reportedly the only Grace Kelly vehicle to lose money. Even so, some bad movies get badder – and more enjoyable – with the passing of time. So, I'd say this one should be worth a look.
Directed by Mark Robson, the Korean War-set melodrama The Bridges at Toko-Ri is the worst Grace Kelly film I've seen. (Some bad movies get even worse with the passing of time.) Her role – that of William Holden's wife – is small, but it's impossible not to recommend a movie that features three top stars like Kelly, Holden, and Fredric March. (Mickey Rooney is also in it.)
Take a look at The Bridges at Toko-Ri. If need be, take lots of fridge and shower breaks. Or play with your dog or cat. Or read a book while watching it. But do check it out.
In “The Rockingham Tea Set” Kelly plays a nurse at odds with both neurotic invalid Louise Allbritton and some pesky ghostly apparitions, while in “The Kill” Kelly plays opposite Dick Foran in the role of a former big-city dweller whose new neighbors are some nasty country folks. Nina Foch co-stars. To the best of my knowledge, both productions are hard to find. So, don't miss them.
Photo: Courtesy Turner Classic Movies
Film schedule and synopses from the TCM website:
5:00pm Green Fire (1954)
An emerald prospector clashes with a beautiful plantation owner in South America.
Cast: Stewart Granger, Grace Kelly, Paul Douglas, John Ericson Dir: Andrew Marton C-100 mins
7:00pm The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954)
Two jet pilots forge a lasting friendship while fighting the Korean War.
Cast: William Holden, Grace Kelly, Fredric March, Mickey Rooney Dir: Mark Robson C-103 mins
9:00pm The Rockingham Tea Set (1950)
Ghosts interfere with a young nurse's love life.
Cast: Grace Kelly Dir: Franklin J. Schaffner. Black and white. 59 mins
10:00pm The Kill (1952)
A persecuted newcomer falls under suspicion when one of his tormentors is killed.
Cast: Grace Kelly Dir: Franklin J. Schaffner. Black and white. 59 mins
Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra in High Society
Turner Classic Movies' Grace Kelly series comes to a close with a screening of the actress' last three films: Alfred Hitchcock's comedy-adventure To Catch a Thief (1955), co-starring Cary Grant; Charles Walters' musical High Society (1956), a remake of The Philadelphia Story (1940) with Kelly as the woman between Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby; and Charles Vidor's romantic drama The Swan (1956), in which Kelly has to make up her mind between plebeian Louis Jourdan or blue-blooded Alec Guinness.
I wouldn't call any of those three films a masterpiece, but both To Catch a Thief and The Swan have their own particular charms. In the former, Grace Kelly is at her most relaxed as a young woman pursuing Cary Grant (who was old enough to be her father) throughout the French Riviera. Kelly has a blast as the predatory female (as moralists, prudes, and the pathologically correct crowd would put it), while Grant is quite funny as her prey. Though not one of Hitchcock's best, To Catch a Thief is perfectly watchable all the same.
The Swan, Kelly's last film before leaving Hollywood for Monaco, is a little too stately for its own good. That said, this adaptation of a Ferenc Molnar play boasts the presence of Alec Guinness (right), who's always worth watching even when not at his best, in addition to Jessie Royce Landis (Kelly's mother in To Catch a Thief) and Estelle Winwood, who liven things up whenever they're on screen. As a plus, the production values – cinematography by Joseph Ruttenberg and Robert Surtees; production design by Cedric Gibbons and Randall Duell – are superb.
High Society, like other sacred Hollywood cows such as The Wizard of Oz, the 1959 Ben-Hur, and It's a Wonderful Life, simply doesn't do it for me. I find the film's exuberance as forced as Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby's “effortless” crooning or Kelly's stilted imitation of Katharine Hepburn in the original.
I'd have enjoyed this color musical much better had they cast, say, Cary Grant (the star of The Philadelphia Story) and Gary Cooper vying for Kelly's hand, or William Holden and Glenn Ford, or Tyrone Power and Errol Flynn, or even myriad second-rank leading men, from Steve Cochran to Steve Brodie, regardless of their vocal-chord abilities.
Or better yet: Grace Kelly, Lizabeth Scott, and Rita Hayworth – with Cary Grant in the Celeste Holm role – all under the direction of Luis Buñuel or perhaps Henri-Georges Clouzot, working from a screenplay by Jean-Claude Carrière. Now, that would have been a subversive masterpiece on gender relations and upper-class mores and marriages. And like so many great subversive films of years past, it would have been a total flop upon its release and today it would be all but forgotten.
A curiosity: High Society both was and wasn't nominated for an Oscar in the best motion picture story category. I mean, High Society did get a nomination, but not this High Society. Enough Academy members – film experts all – voted for the 1955 grade Z Bowery Boys production thinking they were selecting the 1956 grade A MGM musical. Never mind the fact that High Society was a remake of The Philadelphia Story to begin with. But then again, those are the people who two years earlier gave Broken Lance a best motion picture story Oscar even though that was a Westernized remake of the 1949 crime-family drama House of Strangers.
By the way, the Bowery Boys screenwriters, aware that the Academy couldn't really mean to give them an award, withdrew themselves from the balloting.
And to end this article on a positive note. Best original story or no, Kelly, Crosby, Sinatra, and Holm fans shouldn't miss High Society on Thanksgiving evening. All others should watch The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.
Photo: Courtesy of Turner Classic Movies
Schedule and film info from the TCM website:
5:00pm To Catch a Thief (1955)
A retired cat burglar fights to clear himself of a series of Riviera robberies committed in his style.
Cast: Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, Jessie Royce Landis, John Williams Dir: Alfred Hitchcock C-106 mins Letterbox
7:00pm High Society (1956)
In this musical version of The Philadelphia Story, tabloid reporters invade a society wedding.
Cast: Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Celeste Holm Dir: Charles Walters C-107 mins Letterbox
9:00pm The Swan (1956)
On the eve of her marriage to a prince, a noblewoman falls for her brother's tutor.
Cast: Grace Kelly, Alec Guinness, Louis Jourdan, Agnes Moorehead Dir: Charles Vidor C-108 mins Letterbox
11:00pm Wedding in Monaco (1956)
Exclusive footage captures the wedding of Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier.
Cast: Grace Kelly, Prince Rainier of Monaco. Dir.: Jean Masson. Color. 32 mins