Thursday, 12 November 2015

The Wonderful Grace Kelly Blogathon: "The Country Girl" (1954)

Theatrical release poster
Directed by George Seaton, The Country Girl (1954) begins in a Broadway theater, where stage director Bernie Dodd (William Holden) convinces his reluctant producer Phil Cook (Anthony Ross) to cast Frank Elgin (Bing Crosby) in their new musical show. Once a successful male lead, Frank now has a reputation as a troublesome alcoholic and lives in a rundown apartment with his wife Georgie (Grace Kelly), a dowdy but still youthful "country girl" who seems to have lost all her promise in life. Frank is hesitant about Bernie's offer at firsy, but Georgie advises him to take the role and do his "level best." Frank eventually agrees, figuring that he can quit the show if things go wrong.

During rehearsals, Frank has trouble concentrating and fears he will not be able to learn his lines in time for the Boston try-out. When Bernie asks him if he is having problems at home, Frank confesses that Georgie has been "a hopeless drunkard" with suicidal tendencies ever since their young son died unexpectedly. In an attempt to give her life new purpose, he says, he made her feel that he needed her in his work, though she soon became possessive and domineering, driving Frank himself to alcoholism. Convinced that Georgie is the reason for Frank's career decline, Bernie strongly criticizes her for not encouraging her husband and later blames her for every problem that happens during the show. When Frank goes on a drinking binge and ends up in jail, however, Georgie tells Bernie that it was actually Frank who attempted suicide after their son died while in his care. Humiliated when he learns the truth, Bernie apologizes to Georgie and kisses her, admitting that his hatred of her was merely a cover for his attraction. Against all odds, Frank sobers up and the show is a hit when it opens on Broadway. With Frank's self-respect and stature restored, Bernie believes that Georgie is now free to leave him, but she chooses to stand by her husband instead.

Georgie Elgin: He hates himself. Consequently, he'll do or say anything to be liked by others. People like Frank ought to have two votes and they can mark their ballot democratic and republican. That way, everybody would love them.

George Seaton, who began his Hollywood career as a contract writer for MGM, had been writing and directing films in partnership with producer William Perlberg since 1939. The pair worked together first at Columbia and then joined 20th Century Fox in the early 1940s, delivering the hits The Song of Bernadette (1943) and Miracle on 34th Street (1947). In the early 1950s, they moved as a team to Paramount, where they established their own production company that turned in two pictures a year, with Seaton being credited as both writer and director in most of them. Seaton and Perlberg's customary practice was to first finalize the screenplay and then to cast it. "We produce each script on paper as we believe it should be done and then go out to find the players," Seaton later explained. "We'll pay the money to get the parts played right and we won't start a picture until we feel we have the right people."

In early March 1951, Paramount acquired the screen rights to Clifford Odets' hugely successful play The Country Girl, for which Uta Hagen had won a Tony Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Georgie Elgin, the title role. Seaton began working on a preliminary script for The Country Girl in December 1952, while still filming Little Boy Lost (1953) with Bing Crosby. By mid-1953, Paramount had signed Jennifer Jones to co-star with Crosby as her alcoholic husband and William Holden as the New York stage director. A few weeks before production began, however, Jones announced that she was pregnant. Her husband, producer David O. Selznick, told the studio that they could use Jones if they could complete the picture before her condition began to show, but Seaton and Perlberg realized that the risk was too great and decided to replace her with Grace Kelly, who was under contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Grace Kelly as Georgie Elgin
When Kelly read the script for The Country Girl, secretly sent to her by Perlberg, she knew that Georgie Elgin was the part that would both challenge and establish her as a serious dramatic actress. However, MGM flatly turned down Perlberg and Seaton's request to loan her to Paramount, as Dore Schary wanted her for the adventure drama Green Fire (1954). After Kelly told Metro that she would quit if they did not allow her to star in The Country Girl, the studio finally agreed to the loan in exchange for a fee of $50,000 and the guarantee that she would appear in Green Fire immediately after the Perlberg-Seaton film wrapped. "I felt I just had to do this picture, because it had a really strong part," Kelly later said. "It was my chance to be more than a supporting character for the leading men. I had always worn beautiful clothes, or beautiful gowns or lingerie, or there were dramatic and colorful backgrounds. This was something different and I worked very hard on it."

 Bing Crosby, who had the right of approval for his leading ladies, did not want Kelly cast as his wife. In fact, he almost withdrew from the project when he discovered the identity of his young co-star, telling the studio that she was "too inexperienced, too glamourous and too pretty" for the role of Georgie. Thanks to the expert skills of famed costume designer Edith Head, who succeed in transforming the beautiful Grace Kelly into a depressed and plain housewife, Crosby eventually gave in to Perlberg and Seaton's decision to cast her. Still, the first week of filming was not easy, as Crosby and Kelly did not get along well. After seeing the initial rushes, Seaton insisted on reshooting their scenes and things started to work from then on. Reportedly, Crosby told Perlberg and Seaton, "I'll never my open my mouth to you two again. I'm sorry I had my doubts about her. She's great." Two years later, Crosby and Kelly were reunited in the musical High Society (1956).

Bing Crosby and William Holden
Crosby's casting as the weak, duplicitious Frank Elgin was a marked departure from his well-established screen persona as a casual and relaxed crooner. To ensure that it was not as great a change as it could have been, the character, originally conceived by Odets as a straight dramatic actor, was converted into a Broadway musical comedy star so that Crosby would have the opportunity to sing. Seaton has indicated that the decision to cast Crosby in The Country Girl resulted directly from his performance in Little Boy Lost, a post-World War II drama marketed by Paramount as his "first straight dramatic opus."

I always felt that Bing Crosby was more than just a crooner. I think that he did a very creditable job in Little Boy Lost, but during that film, I could see that this man had a depth to him that he didn't want to admit. Having that experience with Bing in Little Boy Lost, I felt that he was just right for Country Girl.
(George Seaton) 
  
The Country Girl meant so much to Crosby that he immersed himself completely in his role. Before production commenced, he asked Seaton to compose a detailed biographical sketch of Frank Elgin, starting "right back at the cradle, to tell [him] about his parents, his boyhood, his friends and companions, where he went to school and how he got into show business." Crosby read Seaton's "dossier" very carefully and went over Odets' play several times until the character was "card-indexed, analyzed and blue-printed." Crosby was particularly careful with his pivotal drunk scene, in which Frank finds himself in a Boston jail after a night of binge-drinking. While he was known off-screen as a heavy drinker, he achieved the realistic effect of that sequence completely sober. Crosby's mother happened to be present when the scene was filmed and walked off the set disgusted, believing that her son was actually drunk.

Holden, Kelly and Crosby in a publicity still
Although their relationship did not start in the best of terms, Crosby and Kelly became romantically involved during the making of The Country Girl. William Holden, who had began an affair with Kelly while working with her in The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954), discovered he had a rival when Crosby asked him not to interfere. Holden agreed, though a few days later, after Kelly broke Crosby's heart by refusing his marriage proposal, he resumed his own romantic pursuit of her. Kelly was hesitant to restart an affair with a married man, but Holden was very persuasive and she fell madly in love with him. Kelly was so serious about Holden that she took him home to Philadelphia to introduce him to her family. Despite the unpleasant welcome Holden received from Kelly's father, the affair went on secretly and an apartment in West Hollywood that she shared with a girlfriend became their love nest. 

Holden and Kelly would arrive at and leave the studio separately and be careful to avoid suspicion by not spending time together on the set or in their dressing rooms. Soon, however, their tryst became public and stories about their romance began to appear in several gossip columns. Confidential, for instance, described Kelly as "a femme fatale who would go for married men only," while Hedda Hopper claimed that she was a nymphomaniac. Kelly was so distressed that she even saw a psychologist after The Country Girl finished filming. Eventually, Holden left Kelly; although he was deeply in love with Kelly and wanted to marry her, Holden had no intention of divorcing his wife Ardis. Those close to him quote him as saying, "If I were to lose Ardis, I would lose everything."

Kelly and Holden at the 27th Oscars
The Country Girl premiered in Los Angeles on December 11, before opening at the Criterion Theatre in New York on December 15, 1954 to overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times, for instance, called it "one of the fine and forceful pictures of the year," applauding the performances of all the cast, especially Bing Crosby, whom he described as "the most striking thing about the film." Grace Kelly, too, received her fair share of praise. In the same review, Crowther highlighted the "quality of strain and desperation she puts into the battered, patient wife." 

At the 27th Academy Awards in March 1955, The Country Girl received seven nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Crosby), Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction (Black and White) and Best Cinematography (Black and White). George Seaton took home the statuette for his script and Grace Kelly received from William Holden's hands the Oscar for Best Actress. The film lost in all the other five categories to Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront (1954). Kelly's win came as a huge surprise, as most people felt that Judy Garland would win for her performance in A Star is Born (1954). NBC had even sent a camera crew to Garland's hospital room, where she was recuperating after the birth of her son Joe, in order to conduct a live interview with her if she won. When Kelly won instead, Groucho Marx reportedly sent Garland a telegram stating that it was "the biggest robbery since Brinks."

While I love Grace Kelly and think that her performance in The Country Girl might be the finest of her career, I tend to agree with Groucho's assessment. That, of course, does not mean that The Country Girl is not a brilliant film, because it genuinely is, in great part due to its three outstanding leads. Bing Crosby is an absolute revelation. For someone who had only seen him in light-hearted musicals, I was blown away by his performance. The frankness and honesty he brought to the role made the film ever more powerful and credible. Grace Kelly is another revelation. She proved that she was a lot more than just a pretty face and showed a kind of depth and emotion that I had not seen in her before. As for William Holden, he is clearly the weakest of the three, but still delivered a fine performance. To sum up, The Country Girl is an excellent picture, one that will certainly make you look at Grace Kelly (and Bing Crosby) with different eyes.


This is my contribution to The Wonderful Grace Kelly Blogathon hosted by The Wonderful World of Cinema. To view all the other wonderful entries to the blogathon, click HERE.

  

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SOURCES:
Going My Way: Bing Crosby and American Culture edited by Ruth Prigozy and Walter Raubicheck (2007) | Grace Kelly of Monaco: The Inspiring Story of How an American Film Star Became a Princess by Jennifer Warner (2014) | High Society: Grace Kelly and Hollywood by Donald Spoto (2009) | William Holden: A Biography by Michelangelo Capua (2010) | TCMDb (Article) | The New York Times review

1 comment:

  1. Great article! Very informative and pleasant to read. :) I had the chance to see this film on big screen! I must say, this is really one of the best on-screen actors trio I've ever seen. They are just so talented and I think William Holden should have been nominated for an Oscar too! Thanks a lot for your participation to the blogathon, and don't forget to read my entry as well. :)
    https://thewonderfulworldofcinema.wordpress.com/2015/11/12/a-pair-of-blue-eyes-grace-kelly-and-william-holden/

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