Although Grace Kelly famously told journalist Pierre Salinger in her last TV interview (completed less than ten days before her untimely death) that she didn’t believe she was accomplished enough as an actor to be remembered for that particular career, this gorgeous collection of six of Kelly’s most diverse, popular and award-winning films provides hours of evidence to the contrary.
While it features Salinger's aforementioned (and admittedly emotionally hard-to-handle) interview entitled Princess Grace de Monaco: A Moment in Time in this seven-disc set, Warner Brothers has also served up a plethora of the same film-school worthy bonus material previously released on other editions of each film for their inclusion here.
Additionally boasting a collectible envelope filled with lobby art, mini-posters, and promotional photos as well as a reproduction of the typed letter written to a Kelly biographer by her costar and longtime friend Bing Crosby in the late ‘70s that offers a personal remembrance of the star, WB honors a woman who was as well-loved by her fans as she was by her friends and family.
While it’s missing High Noon, Rear Window The Swan and a few others, it’s still a wonderful and otherwise largely thorough celebration of the talented Philadelphia-born beauty who wasn't content to just coast by on her looks.
Taking her craft seriously and seeking out work that matters over the course of a six-film portrait that spans from 1953-1956 (which I've opted to tackle chronologically one film at a time), Warner Brothers showcases an evolving artist in a highly recommended collection that's sure to be of interest to classic movie buffs and Grace Kelly devotees alike.
For a John Ford character, that moment of clarity that occurs when they move from the dream to the reality of their situation by pushing all delusion and bravado aside to reconcile what it is that they want with what it is that’s right is everything.
Having come face-to-face with their villainous demons (both internal and external) in a typical testosterone-fueled Ford fashion where they leave the thing holding them back at the crossroads and journey towards their filmic fate, it’s only once the men of Ford make that critical step that his films go from mere entertainment to something damn near mythic.
And even though Ford's 1953 endeavor Mogambo was a remake of Gone With the Wind director Victor Fleming’s lusty pre-code adventure Red Dust from 1932 (and saddled with a meaninglessly lousy title to boot), it’s this same dedication to character driven storytelling that makes Mogambo work so well.
Although it’s Clark Gable’s film on paper – as the visibly aged actor reluctantly reprised his role from the original Dust opposite a new bevy of younger beauties – intriguingly and quite surprisingly for man’s man Ford, it’s the women who steal the entire picture away from Gable in the form of Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly alike.
Working hard in roles that much like Gable (who only signed on to try and revive a fledgling career following back-to-back flops), that John Ford made no secret the stars weren’t his top choices to play with Kelly filling in for an ill Gene Tierney and Gardner taking Ford favored Maureen O’Hara’s place, the Mogambo actresses still raked in the award nominations following its release.
And while it was a true breakthrough for the post-High Noon Kelly playing the prim, buttoned up wife of an anthropologist who catches the eye of Gable’s big game trapper (following his fling with Gardner whom he’d dismissed with internalized virgin/whore prejudice), it’s in fact the tangible sex appeal of Gardner that makes Mogambo still sizzle more than sixty years later.
A Ford woman if there ever was one – tough talking, hard-drinking, quick-witted, and as ready to throw a bottle as she is to dive in the dirt, Gardner plays her cards close to her low cut blouses – never letting the men see her cry much less sweat, which is the polar opposite of Kelly’s sheltered damsel in distress.
Nearly mauled by a wild animal while naively walking in the African wild, it’s Gable who nearly mauls Kelly immediately after saving her life.
Picking her up like a ragdoll and gruffly setting her blonde hair free by removing a headscarf that he quickly lassos around her neck – it’s a move so unexpected that you can practically see Kelly’s breath catch as her eyes widen with newfound desire given the hot flush of lust and confused confidence that it arouses within her sensible housewife.
While Gable’s chemistry with Gardner smoldered early on in the first easygoing act of consensual coupling, it’s easy to see the shift in passion in that one memorable moment that nearly sets your television screen ablaze and wordlessly confirms the offscreen accounts that Gable and Kelly were involved in a romantic behind-the-scenes affair.
Nonetheless despite their heat, the Hays code frowned on the adultery that occurs even in the periphery of their depicted doomed romance. And perhaps owing to Kelly's conservative characterization and minimal dialogue, it’s the practiced, professional banter between Gable and Gardner that dominates this timeless love triangle picture that in retrospect obviously influenced Out of Africa, The English Patient, and The Painted Veil.
Still, the hard-won moments of clarity for Gable’s stern yet sensitive trapper, Gardner’s mistreated and misunderstood widow, and Kelly’s fragile housewife who gradually reveals she’s made of harder stuff than glass make it easy to see why Mogambo was one of the biggest hits of 1953.
A rare female anchored Ford film that garnered Oscar nods for both women, the forgettably titled Mogambo also gave Miss Grace Kelly her very first Golden Globe and more importantly paved the way for her future success starting with what was to become a very busy 1954.
Dial M for Murder (1954)
One of the reasons why I admire Alfred Hitchcock’s films so much is that they fall into that rare category of cinema where – as much fun as they are to view the first time around – they only get better the more familiar you are with them.
Like a song you’ve heard so many times that you know all the words to it, there’s always that one listen when you realize you’re just singing on autopilot. And that's precisely when the involuntary repetition helps free up your brain to finally appreciate the clever way the guitar interrupts the chorus or that half-beat change in tempo that gets your toes tapping along.
In a lot of ways, it’s like falling in love. For once you get beyond the surface level attraction of that lustful hormonal rush, you get to take a breather and fall in love all over again with who your beloved is as a person – in the way they hold the door for strangers, smile at children, or remember the way you like your coffee (or don’t) without being asked.
And it's the same with Alfred Hitchcock's cinema. Namely, Hitchcock’s films allow you to discover something new every time you watch them – essentially they’re the original Easter Eggs before DVD manufacturers inserted those into their films or added footage in the post-production process as gimmicky treats to sell more tickets, hawk more discs or get you to stay in your seat until the big reveal at the end of the credits.
Although Hitchcock wasn’t above gimmicks in his own work, his films were so richly layered by every department working in tandem to construct the same complex puzzle that you’ll never be able to solve it all (and nor would you want to) in your first, second or even third viewing.
Whether it’s learning how he used framing to hide clues in plain sights that will trip up a villain later or the way that characters suddenly change “archetypes” midway through the picture from damsel in distress to heroine or wronged/cuckolded husband to conspiratorial murderer, Dial M For Murder is one of his strongest works in an extraordinarily prolific decade of 1950s masterpieces.
Despite the glamour and textbook cinematography of To Catch a Thief’s Technicolor loveliness (reviewed below), the leisurely plotted work reveals its hand far too early on, leaving you to just lose yourself in the beauty and bask in the bright sunlight radiating from both the seaside setting and star power of Grace Kelly and Cary Grant.
Yet while Kelly’s role in her first Hitchcock collaboration is certainly diminished and damn near threatened in Dial M, she remains at the forefront of every scene – even those she’s not in due to the film’s complex, knotted structure which keeps the claustrophobic drawing room set stage-piece from its origins as a hit Broadway play for its big screen adaptation.
Transferring his own script from stage to screen, Frederick Knott’s tense work doubles back and then triples and trips on itself, bolstered by a constantly evolving narrative that’s spun like yarn from the mending basket of his wife by former tennis star Tony Wendice (Ray Milland).
Shortly into the film, Tony invites a stranger (Anthony Dawson) to his flat under the guise of buying a car. Yet in a succession of carefully strategic remarks and even more carefully structured shots, it’s quickly revealed that not only are the men not strangers but Tony has been planning the allegedly “spontaneous” evening for more than a year in advance in the hopes of blackmailing the man into murdering his unfaithful wife (Kelly).
However what Tony doesn’t count on in his intricately detailed plan is the wrong person winding up dead, the right police detective taking a personal interest in the case, and the fact that his wife’s lover just so happens to be a brilliant crime writer who spends his time drafting scripts not too dissimilar to the one that Tony has attempted to play out.
Like Hitchcock’s Rope, it’s largely set in one space but unlike the way that Rope was unraveled slightly by its reel-long ten minute takes that were “invisibly” spliced together (which made that production a bit too stagy), this one flies by in 2D as well as 3D, DVD and Blu-ray alike.
From the vibrant color motif of blood red (for the sultry, scarlet woman turned near murder victim Kelly) to the way it taunts us with close calls and foreshadowed clues, it’s such a brilliantly conceived mystery that it wasn’t until I saw it again for review in this collection for the first time in over fifteen years that I found new puzzle pieces to put together.
In one mesmerizingly masterful sequence (aside from the memorable attack that’s among Hitch’s most suspenseful) wherein Milland plays his “friend” like a fiddle – introducing topics to lure the man deeper into the water he intends to drown him in unless he’ll swim with him in the deep end – we see Hitchcock at his most inventive.
Notice the way right before Tony goes in for the propositional kill that we see the friend’s pipe and brandy glass – subtly alerting us to the number of things he’s touched before some prints are wiped and others are not – and you'll notice a filmmaker’s noose begin to tighten.
And this helpless feeling of watching – in and of itself another Hitchcockian motif in Rear Window, Vertigo and beyond – is especially apparent in an overhead shot of the men staging the prospective attack before the guest does the same (ironically when Tony is on the phone as his wife will be the next night).
When juxtaposed with the director and heroine’s next collaboration, it’s a breathtaking reverse version of the sequence Hitch crafts in Rear Window as the helpless Jimmy Stewart watches Kelly in a killer’s clutches and discovers her power just as Dial’s men try to discover her weakness.
While I only wish that all three films that Grace Kelly had made with the Master of Suspense had been included in the collection (as well as her historic breakthrough in High Noon), Dial M is a marvelous movie that foreshadows so much, including the impact that the filmmaker's favorite blonde would have on Hitchcock as well as the audience.
The Country Girl was the second big screen adaptation of a Clifford Odets play to star William Holden after an early performance in 1939’s Golden Boy.
While I haven’t seen Boy, Girl bears much in common with Holden’s breakthrough Billy Wilder masterpiece Sunset Boulevard and other films that would follow including All About Eve and the masterful 1954 musical A Star is Born starring Judy Garland who lost her shoo-in Best Actress Oscar to Country’s Grace Kelly in a surprise win that was the result of a mere six vote lead.
Therefore in showing the dark side, insecurity, and overwhelming psychological rollercoaster ride endured by performers in a field where you’re up far less often than you’re down, this seven-time Oscar nominated effort may have been on trend for its post-World War II emphasis on realism in letting viewers behind the Oz-like curtain of the silver screen.
Nonetheless it remains just as potent and in some ways timelier than ever today in its depiction of gender manipulation, marital codependency and power-plays among alcoholics and their captive spouses (one or both of whom are sometimes used as crutches).
As such The Country Girl helped pave the way for the gritty docudrama depiction of similar terrain in the far darker Days of Wine and Roses by Blake Edwards and the Mike Nichols breakthrough of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf that would follow in the next decade.
Startling not only in its against-type casting, The Country Girl was particularly frank in its portrait of Frank Elgin (played by Bing Crosby), a former big time crooner and Broadway star whose world shattered when his son was killed in a split second accident that’s caused the guilt-ridden man to sabotage every opportunity that’s come his way.
Filled with self-loathing and self-doubt as well as a delusional inability to see that he’s drunkenly squandering his talent and has become likewise addicted to the darkly depressing comfort that comes from taking the easy way out, Frank has far too often laid the blame for everything that’s gone wrong on his long-suffering wife turned caretaker Georgie (Grace Kelly).
Looking nearly twice her age due to years of internalized battle scars which have taken their external toll on Kelly's appearance and the way she carries herself from her husband's emotional abuse – the full extent of which she’s often only half aware – Crosby's Frank has turned manipulation into an art-form.
While we’re initially kept in the dark, within the second act the filmmakers illuminate the audience to the ways Frank uses Georgie as a human shield to ensure that he’ll get what he wants without losing face or disappointing anyone in the process as part of his increasingly desperate modus operandi.
But unfortunately given his own pent-up raging post-divorce misogyny, Holden’s former fan turned director who’s recently gambled the two hundred thousand dollar budget of a big musical production around his former hero by giving Frank a role that could potentially put him back on the map falls for Crosby’s victim act hook, line, and sinker.
Using it to his advantage, Crosby’s Frank baits his new acquaintance with Holden by dangling Kelly's Georgie out on the hook to get devoured alive until he reaps the right amount of adoration and attention that he requires.
And the skill with which he so easily slides into the subversive role makes it easy to see why Crosby received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in one of his most multilayered, maddening, yet melancholy performances that makes you feel as frustrated, angry, and heartbroken as the characters do onscreen.
Easily Kelly’s most challenging role, not only for having to hide her beguiling beauty in the well-composed black and white cinematography that adds a level of emotional vertigo via frames that distribute the scale and placement of actors unevenly so that some easily and subconsciously dominate others but also in the way she constantly holds her own in some extraordinarily stressful showdowns. As such, The Country Girl showcases Kelly’s evolving range as a performer in a career she would set aside just two years later for her future spouse.
Historically Girl’s two Oscars (for Kelly and adapted screenplay by its writer/director George Seaton) were easily overshadowed by the Academy Award success of Odets’ friend Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, which also in its own way addressed people who’ve been pushed aside by family and ambitions and must rely on the truth to help them move forward.
But when viewed in retrospect, it’s easy to see the way that he set out to elaborate on some of those same themes that had obsessed Kazan in Waterfront and Odets in Girl when he began working on his own similarly character driven realism soaked screenplay adaptation of Ernest Lehman’s novelette Sweet Smell of Success just three years later.
The Bridges at Tokyo-Ri (1954)
“All through history, men have had to fight the wrong war in the wrong place, but that’s the one they’re stuck with,” Frederic March’s Navy RADM George Tarrant advises a Naval Reserve Officer and Lieutenant Aviator Harry Brubaker (played by William Holden) in The Bridges at Tokyo-Ri.
An Oscar-winning adaptation of then-newsman James A. Michener’s tale of the Korean War VF-51 naval aviators that became the loose basis of his ’53 novel, Bridges was directed by Home of the Brave helmer Mark Robson.
Released the same year as another Michener adaptation Men of the Fighting Lady, Bridges was given an unprecedented amount of cooperation by the U.S. Navy that not only offered filmmakers the use of a whopping 19 ships but they actually taught Holden (who wanted to honor his fallen WWII pilot brother) how to taxi a fighter plane on an aircraft carrier.
Naturally hard-hitting in its authenticity, Bridges was that rare war picture that placed realism above all else including both military PR woes and Hollywood contrivances.
Filling the work with colorful characters and details that while on the surface seem far too unbelievably unique to be true (but in reality proved to be rooted in fact), Michener’s Bridges confirmed that there’s no substitute for reality to ensure that even the most minor of personalities stand out.
This is especially apparent in Mickey Rooney’s against-type supporting turn as a larger than life helicopter rescue pilot who dons a leprechaun green top hat and scarf as opposed to the standard issue Navy uniform – preferring the extra boost of courage and confidence his self-designed role as a near caped crusader gives him in helping men cheat death – which comes vividly to life in Robson’s Bridges.
Released before the wounds of two wars had yet to fully heal, Bridges refuses to sugarcoat the harsh realities of such a complex and devastating war.
A study of character that didn’t shy away from bitterness and anger, we’re introduced to Holden’s married "everyman" husband and father who – having barely picked up the pieces of his life following service in WWII – finds his new reality and routine interrupted when he’s thrust back into a much more taxing series of missions without the benefits of global allies or clear cut strategies.
As the story begins, the life of Holden’s Brubaker gets saved by Rooney just in time for a surprise visit from his wife (Grace Kelly), who used her father’s political connections to pack up her young daughters and reunite with her husband in Tokyo for as little or as long as they have time to spend together.
But before the young family can celebrate, Kelly is given the worst kind of welcome speech from the grieving March who – since losing his own son in the service and seeing the way it shattered his family – warns her right away about this new type of war and the harsh realities that may await her in the future.
And it’s only begun to sink in for Kelly when Holden is scheduled to fly a mission that – while it might hasten the end of the war – will also make him and many others sitting ducks.
A crucial and necessary assignment that doesn’t make it any less dangerous, Holden’s men are tasked with taking out a handful of bridges in plain sight of enemy aircraft fire (and many on the ground below on the other side who’ve been long waiting for them to attempt this flight), which will leave the Americans with nowhere to hide.
An overlooked classic, much like Frederic March’s superlative The Best Years of Our Lives, The Bridges at Tokyo-Ri put a human “everyman” face on America’s latest global military conflict.
And while Kelly has a relatively minor part opposite her Country Girl co-star Holden, the film’s generosity of spirit, utter refusal to romanticize the grim realities of war (particularly in its subtle yet powerfully devastating pro-soldier/antiwar message) manages to depict the men’s courageous bravery alongside the utter futility of warfare.
Speaking of the brave military action, Tokyo’s impressively seamless editing of battle footage blended with manufactured movie magic to create bravura flight sequences garnered Robson’s film a well-deserved Academy Award for its jaw-dropping special effects that still resonate with viewers more than six decades later.
Yet as exciting as it is, ultimately it’s the people of Bridges instead of its titular mission that we’re sure to take with us from the film as we realize – in any number of scenes from displays of soldier camaraderie to March’s anger-filled speeches – that even though it was set in Korea, stories like Bridges are still taking place in any number of modern military conflicts to this day.
To Catch a Thief (1955)
(Original Review for Paramount Centennial Collection; Published 4/7/09)
Similar to the Paramount Centennial Collection release of Stanley Donen’s visually arresting Funny Face in a dynamite example of the studio’s 1950s highly-expensive but amazingly vivid VistaVision process — Paramount’s sixth offering in the collection serves up what is arguably Alfred Hitchcock’s most gorgeous work—To Catch a Thief.
And intriguingly while both films take place in France and therefore make the most of the VistaVision technology— To Catch a Thief (which earned a Best Cinematography Oscar), much like Funny Face is best appreciated on a purely aesthetic level as opposed to a cinematic one.
As dizzyingly romantic as a first kiss with the right person and as intoxicating as French Bordeaux, Thief is made all the lovelier by its two legendary leads, Cary Grant and Grace Kelly.
Like Funny Face, we are dealing with another May/December romance with the fifty year old Grant and twenty-five year old Kelly but unlike the awkward coupling of Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire in Face, the one in Thief is the purest visual definition of Hepburn and William Holden’s lackluster post-Sabrina reunion — Paris When it Sizzles. For in Hitch's hands, Grace Kelly and Cary Grant sizzle indeed.
Except that in Hitch’s film, nobody bursts out into song or wears white socks with black shoes and he replaces the Cinderella tale which blended philosophy and fashion photography with his quintessential and recurring plight of the falsely accused wrong man and moved the action to the French Riviera.
Hitchcock — much like Hepburn did with Face's Astaire—had to lure his star out of retirement as Cary Grant had decided once again to call it quits (following some amazing turns for the director, most notably in Notorious).
Eventually, however the Master of Suspense got his way in screenwriter John Michael Hayes’ adaptation of David Dodge's novel about a retired jewel thief who (fittingly for Grant) finds himself forced back into action when another cat burglar moves in on his territory and uses our hero’s old modus operandi.
As John Robie, Grant manages to infuse what even Alfred Hitchcock confessed to Francois Truffaut in Hitchcock/Truffaut was “a lightweight story” (223) with his trademark sophisticated wit.
Having atoned for his days spent ridding spoiled rich women of their pricey jewels by becoming a hero of the French Resistance, Robie grudgingly realizes he must clear his name by fingering the real culprit that's been framing his old alter ego “The Cat” by trying to stay one step ahead of the crook.
And fortunately for us, he puts his old tricks to new use when he zeroes in on the woman who would most likely become the next victim of the thief —the bold, sassy and embarrassingly wealthy Ms. Jesse Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis) — who in typical Hitchcock fashion we realize boasts the most priceless jewel of all in the form of her gorgeous daughter, Frances (Grace Kelly).
While Grant easily slides into the role of Hitchcock's perpetually innocent man, Kelly — who had worked with the director previously on the films Dial M for Murder and the masterful Rear Window — was the epitome of Hitchcock's cool blonde.
Seemingly icy on the outside but just as bold and sassy as her mother once you get her alone, it's the stuff of great seductive cinema to watch the regal Grace Kelly put the moves on Grant in a way that shows the classic icon (then fifty years old despite his scripted thirty-five year old character) completely thrown off balance by the overwhelmingly dynamic flirtations come-ons of the insatiable, lustful Kelly.
Furthermore, she’s the one to kiss him first before he knows what’s hit him and proceeds to chase him in a hot and very atypical (for the 1950s) display of gender reversal as the male becomes the pursued instead of the pursuer that begins in Hitchcock’s thinly disguised cinematic analogy of their consummated orgasmic lovemaking in the famous fireworks sequence (Peter Bogdanovich’s Who the Devil Made It?; 524).
Despite this, some of Alfred Hitchcock's comments about female sexuality and especially American female sexuality of the time are still quite upsetting and degrading to women around the globe (and for proof I’d urge you to check out not only Hitchcock/Truffaut but Peter Bogdanovich’s Who the Devil Made It? as well).
Nonetheless, the one thing he excelled in both terms of creativity and—as Grant’s Robie calls “efficiency” was in working around America’s film censorship code to make his covert, understated, and metaphorically laced films even sexier than most “hot and heavy” Hollywood films that leave absolutely nothing to the imagination.
As Hitchcock told Truffaut, “Sex on the screen should be suspenseful, I feel. If sex is too blatant or obvious, there's no suspense,” which is a valuable lesson that young directors could still learn from today… of course, before he continued onto confess,” You know why I favor sophisticated blondes in my films? We’re after the drawing-room type, the real ladies, who become whores once they’re in the bedroom,” (224).
While admittedly most female and a good number of males will both simultaneously chuckle and roll their eyes with the realization that he was ultimately “all talk,” in that department, Hitchcock knew how to make sex accessible to both genders by arguing again pretty stereotypically, “that it's generally the woman who has the final say on which picture a couple is going to see. In fact, it's generally the woman who will decide, later on, whether it was a good or a bad picture.
"On condition that it's not displayed by a person of their own sex, women will not object to vulgarity on the screen,” Hitchcock continues, informing Truffaut of the way he’d tried, “to build up Grace Kelly, in each picture between Dial M...[and Rear Window so then ultimately in] To Catch we made her role a more interesting one,” (226).
Again, sharing that the fashionable yet forgettable Thief was made “in a rather nostalgic mood,” Hitchcock couldn't pass up the opportunity to work in a “final note [which] is pretty grim,” (Truffaut, 226) by seasoning the inevitable final clinch and talk of a happily every after marriage with his typically subversive sense of humor in regards to holy matrimony.
In a side note, Peter Bogdanovich intriguingly notes in comparison of Thief with Ernst Lubitsch’s jewel thief plotted romantic comedy Trouble in Paradise by discussing the similitude between the two including “how well” Hitchcock had learned from "the Lubitsch touch" despite the fact that each film “is distinctly the work of the man who signed it."
Moreover, Bogdanovich continues that although (as similarly I feel that) To Catch a Thief is beautiful, nostalgic fun indeed, it’s a minor film in his oeuvre and one that desperately lacked Lubitsch’s “far superior script,” (33) despite some of the brilliant double entendres and quick jests layered throughout by Hayes who put his radio background to excellent use.
Still of interest for Hitch's most ardent fans, Thief looks better than ever in yet another superlative offering from the Centennial Collection that makes each scene set in the Riviera practically sparkle like every grain of sand even in DVD form (and especially when played on an upconvert or Blu-ray player). Additionally, this edition is filled with extras that should be of interest to fans of Hitch and his stars.
Moreover, the bonus material includes the featurettes served up in Paramount’s most recent 2007 special edition along with the feature length commentary with Hitchcock Film Historian Dr. Drew Casper, an intimate look at the personal side of Hitch in USC Film School’s annual “A Night with the Hitchcocks,” a great piece about Film Censorship in America, galleries, an Interactive Travelogue, and more.
It is especially noteworthy for bringing Grant back out into the limelight for yet another comeback (in addition to a fine future collaboration with Hitch in the far more revered North By Northwest) and as one of the final films of Ms. Kelly before she became Princess Grace (and thus wasn’t available to star in Marnie as Hitch had originally conceived).
However, the film is made far more eerie and bittersweet given her fast car-chase sequence and her tragic ending in real life. Therefore, in the end, To Catch a Thief is perhaps best appreciated for the star power of its incandescent leads rather than as a comparable work of Hitchcock’s as his ultimate VistaVision masterpiece Vertigo would eventually follow and embody the man at the peak of his filmmaking powers.
Despite this, some doubted the onscreen chemistry of Grant and Kelly—which ultimately postponed the film’s release. However, as it was recorded in Evenings With Cary Grant (co-written with Nancy Nelson), he quickly “came to realize,” that the woman to whom he would become a “devoted friend” was “much more than a pretty face,” noting that although he appreciated all of his leading ladies, it was Ms. Grace Kelly whom he called was “the most memorable and honest actress” with whom he’d ever worked, citing her “serenity and calmness” (184).
And one viewing of To Catch a Thief is enough to make you realize that it’s precisely that “serenity and calmness” that adds the surprising fire-power to the scenes where she proves that in addition to being an intelligent and pretty face, she wasn’t above going after the man she wanted, even if she did think he was a jewel thief.
High Society (1956)
The king of helming retirement pictures as well as the movies that helped announce an artist’s return to the spotlight, in the films of director Charles Walters people were often saying hello and goodbye to Hollywood offscreen and taking their introductory or final bows vicariously onscreen in the frame.
From Fred Astaire’s comeback picture (filling in for and as a personal favor to Gene Kelly) opposite Judy Garland in Easter Parade and directing Cary Grant’s last screen lead role in the underrated Walk Don’t Run, perhaps the hello and goodbye he’s most famous for helming is Grant’s To Catch a Thief costar the future Princess Grace of Monaco’s final film High Society.
Following Society, Kelly walked away from Hollywood at the height of her fame – leaving for “True Love” which was ironically the name of the Gold Record winning song (the sole one that she would sing as a Bing Crosby duel in this Philadelphia Story musical remake) that was written by the legendary songman and then-retired composer Cole Porter.
But as you guessed, Walters managed to coax Porter out of a retirement of nine years to write what would become a smash successful bestselling soundtrack in the film wherein Kelly wore her heart on her sleeve throughout the production by wearing the Cartier engagement ring she’d received from her Prince in the movie. And much like the costumes and Kelly, the diamond’s beauty dazzles and catches plenty of light in the vibrant Technicolor production.
Unfortunately the overall adaptation of Philip Barry’s 1939 Broadway play loses its sparkling wit in its translation from the first George Cukor 1940 cinematic interpretation to this one in 1956.
Whereas the fast-talking screwball showmanship of Cukor’s original classic somehow made each well-rehearsed scene feel like it had been improvised on the spot by its core ensemble of Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn and Kelly’s Rear Window star Jimmy Stewart, this odd amalgam of blue blooded high society life and a hot jazz soundtrack feels strained from the start.
Not helped by comparisons to the vastly superior, organically sexy and admittedly logic-strained plotline of the Midsummer Night’s Dream style chaotic original wherein a Philadelphia beauty must consider no less than three future husbands in the span of twenty-four hours, whereas Philadelphia gave itself over to the mad rhythm of the script’s conversational jazz, the updated “jazz” film doesn’t do the same.
In High Society, the actors never truly sell you on the premise or their respective characters as the film’s pacing only magnifies its problems – making the film feel nearly twice as long, even without considering its roughly fourteen second average shot length.
Though Kelly and Bing Crosby were well-matched in The Country Girl, there’s an icy formality and noticeable detachment here to their scenes that makes you wonder if rumors of a previous offscreen affair between the two – now reunited with Kelly’s stop-sign sized engagement ring – had altered their formerly easygoing rapport.
Stolen away by Frank Sinatra and Celeste Holm's charm (they'd worked together before in The Tender Trap) as well as Porter’s music which is brought to life by Crosby and Sinatra in one great duet by the two crooners who likewise didn’t click onscreen or off, another saving grave of Society is in the film-long cameo of Louis Armstrong and his band.
While Kelly tries her best, comedy was not the Oscar winner’s strong suit and she’s far too cerebral in a role that demands Hepburn’s spunk and willingness to fall flat on her face. And although Kelly does come to life very nicely in a poolside scene opposite Sinatra that remains a favorite of mine in both film versions, earlier on in the movie, her anger at her philandering father which is transposed into playing the press for a fool mostly comes off as bratty instead of playfully sassy.
Bogged down by its meandering running time and a few too many sequences where we’re told things through songs we might have been better off seeing as flashbacks, while the previous production was a more literal translation of Barry’s play – unfortunately for Kelly fans – it’s this new configuration that feels that much more staged.
As such, you have to wonder what kind of sparks would’ve flown with Kelly paired up opposite her Hitchcock costars in the form of Thief’s Grant and Window’s Stewart (if they would’ve done a straight remake Mogambo style and had the men reprise their role as Gable did in that film).
Nonetheless as it stands, the musical mishmash High Society is a beautifully attempted yet ultimately flawed, fond farewell to an actress who in our eyes will always remain as flawless as the diamond given to her by her own true love.
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