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The Royalty on Film Blogathon: «The Swan» (1956)

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Charles Vidor, The Swan (1956) begins in 1910 in a Ruritanian kingdom in Central Europe, where Princess Beatrix (Jessie Royce Landis) is eager to make a match between her daughter, Princess Alexandra (Grace Kelly), and a distant cousin, Crown Prince Albert (Alec Guinness), in order to regain a throne that was taken from her family by Napoleon. When the prince arrives with his imperious mother, Queen Maria Dominika (Agnes Moorehead), for a four-day visit with Beatrix and her family which also includes her aunt Symphorosa (Estelle Winwood), her brother Father Carl Hyacinth (Brian Aherne) and her two younger sons, George (Van Dyke Sparks) and Arsene (Christopher Cook) — he prefers sports and shooting activities to time with Alexandra.

In a measure of desperation, Beatrix forces Alexandra to show interest in Dr. Nicholas Agi (Louis Jourdan), the family's handsome young tutor, to make Abert jealous and stimulate a proposal for him. Nicholas, who has been secretly in love with Alexandra since his arrival at the palace, eagerly accepts her invitation to escort her to the ball in Albert's honor. When Nicholas expresses his devotion to Alexandra, he is deeply hurt and offended to discover that he has been used as a device to propel her into another's arms. She regrets her complicity and realizes that she has some feelings for him, but he refuses her affections. Taken aback upon learning about this situation, Albert insults Nicholas, who decides to leave the following morning. Alexandra, still ecstatic about her first experience of love, sneaks into Nicholas' room and asks to go with him. Distrusful, Nicholas declares that she cannot abandon the shelter of her family and was mistaken in his attraction to her. Although Albert encourages them to reconcile, despite his emergent feelings for Alexandra and the probable family retribution, Nicholas leaves the mansion alone. As Alexandra watches his carriage ride off, she accepts that it is only with Albert that her own aspirations and her family's destiny can be attained.

Prince Albert: Think what it means to be a swan: to glide like a dream on the smooth surface of the lake and never to go to the shore. [...] There she must stay, out on the lake: silent, white, majestic. Be a bird, but never fly. Know one song, but never sing it until the moment of death. And so it must be for you, Alexandra: cool indiference to the staring crowds along the bank. And the song? Never.

Born in Budapest in 1878, Ferenc Molnár is arguably the most renowned playwright to come out of Hungary. He was internationally celebrated at the height of his fame in 1920s and 1930s for his sophisticated drawing-room comedies and elegant satirical dramas that combined bitter cynicism with witty dialogue. Molnár's first great success came in 1907 with the play The Devil (Az ördög), about the pretty young wife of an elderly, jealous banker and her former artist boyfriend, whom the husband hires to paint her portrait. Two years later, he wrote Liliom, a touching human drama set in Budapest's contemporary underworld. Doubtless Molnár's most famous work, Liliom was been filmed several times, notably in a French production directed in 1934 by Fritz Lang, starring Madeleine Ozeray and Charles Boyer in the title role as a carousel barker on a path to redemption.

Returning home after serving as a war correspondent during World War I, Molnár penned The Swan (A hattyú), a comedy in three acts about a princess from an unnamed Central European kingdom, torn between duty and romantic love. Translated into English by Melville Baker, The Swan ran for 255 performances at the Cort Theatre on Broadway between October 1923 and June 1924. Eva La Gallienne starred as Princess Alexandra, the swan of the title; Stanley Kalkhurst played Prince Albert, her husband-to-be; and Basil Rathbone played the dashing tutor Nicholas Agi, with whom she falls in love. In 1925, Famous Players-Lasky brought the play to the screen in an 85-minute silent version with Frances Howard, Adolphe Menjou and Richard Cortez in the main roles. The film was later remade with sound under the title One Romantic Night (1930), directed by Paul L. Stein and starring Lillian Gish as Alexandra her talking picture debut Rod LaRocque as Albert and Conrad Nagel as Nicholas. Marie Dressler played Alexandra's mother, Beatrix.

Grace Kelly's make-up test for The Swan
In 1950, rising young star Grace Kelly was cast as Princess Alexandra in an abbreviated television version of The Swan produced by CBS as part of the drama series Actors Studio (1949-1950). Directed by Georgian-born David Pressman, the 30-minute episode co-starred George Keane as Albert and Alfred Ryder as Nicholas. Around the time of her Academy Award win for her performance in George Seaton's The Country Girl (1954), Kelly met with Dory Schary, then head of production at MGM, and proposed the idea of making a film version of The Swan, with her reprising her television role. Schary said he would think about it and, shortly afterwards, presented the project to her agent, Jay Kanter, as if it were his own idea. In April 1955, Kelly signed the renewal of her option papers and agreed to return to Metro for The Swan, scheduled for production that autumn. Kelly found that she had a deep understanding of Alexandra "a woman I thought I really had under my skin," as she later said.

MGM initially hired Rex Harrison to play Prince Albert, but scheduling conflicts with the play Bell, Book and Candle forced his withdrawal from the project. Joseph Cotten was announced as his replacement, before Alec Guinness took the role. A veteran of the London stage and World War II, Guinness made his film debut in David Lean's Great Expectations (1946), based on the novel of the same name by Charles Dickens. He gained widespread recognition with a series of popular comedies produced by the London-based Ealing Studios, including Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), wherein he played eight different characters, The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, and The Man in the White Suit (1951). The Swan was Guinness's first American picture; the following year, he would receive an Academy Award for his performance in Lean's Best Picture winner The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), co-starring Kelly's former leading man and lover, William Holden.

Louis Jourdan and Grace Kelly
To play Nicholas Agi, MGM selected French actor Louis Jourdan, whose first American film was Alfred Hitchcock's The Paradine Case (1947). When Germany invaded France in May 1940, Jourdan was assigned by the Nazis to a work gang and spent a year cutting wood, building roads and digging ditches. Upon his release, he was ordered to report to the movie studios where French film production was restarting. "They didn't want pictures," Jourdan later recalled, "they wanted propaganda. They permitted no freedom, and, where there is no freedom, there can be no art." He subsequently fled to the unoccupied south, reuniting with his family in Cannes, where he began making films. Jourdan is perhaps best remembered as Leslie Caron's co-star in Vincente Minnelli's Gigi (1958). 

The role of Princess Beatrix was given to Jessie Royce Landis, a prolific stage performer both on Broadway and in the West End. The Swan marked the second film in which she played Kelly's mother, having recently done so in Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief (1955). The other main royal character in the story, Queen Maria Dominika, Albert's mother, was played by Agnes Moorehead, a sough-after radio actress during the 1940s and 1950s, who made her screen debut in Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941). This was one of a handful of aristocratic/royal roles that Moorehead portrayed throughout her motion picture career; the others included Baroness Aspasia Conti in Mrs. Parkington (1944), for which she earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, and Countess Zoe in Her Highness and the Bellboy (1945). Moorehead had previously appeared in Kelly's film debut, Fourteen Hours (1951), but the two actresses did not have a single scene together in that picture. They also have no on-screen interaction in The Swan.

Charles Vidor, Grace Kelly and Louis Jourdan on the set
To direct the film, MGM hired Molnár's fellow Hungarian Charles Vidor, whose credits included Cover Girl (1944), Gilda (1946), arguably his most famous film, and Love Me or Leave Me (1955). The script was penned by British writer John Dighton, who had also been responsible for the aforementioned Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Man in the Suit, the latter earning him an Academ Award nomination, two years before gaining a second one for Roman Holiday (1953). The sumptuous backdrop of the castle was designed by veteran art director Cedric Gibbons, while the elegant costumes were created by Helen Rose, who also made Kelly's wedding dress when she married Prince Rainier of Monaco.

Filmed in Eastmancolor in the CinemaScope widescreen process, The Swan began production in late September 1956 at the MGM studios in Culver City. Shortly after arriving in Hollywood to make the film, Guinness met James Dean outside an Italian restaurant called the Villa Capri, the young actor's favorite. Dean introduced himself and then asked Guinness to take a look at his brand new sports car, a silver Porsche 550 Spyder. "The sports car looked sinister to me," Guinness later wrote in his autobiography. "Exhausted, hungry, feeling a little ill-tempered in spite of Dean's kindness, I heard myself saying in a voice I could hardly recognise as my own, 'Please, never get in it.' I looked at my watch. 'It is now ten o'clock, Friday the 23rd of September, 1955. 'If you get in that car you will be found dead in it by this time next week.'" Exactly seven days later, on September 30, Dean was killed in a tragic car accident on his way to race in Salinas, California.

Filming at the Biltmore House in North Carolina
From Culver City, the cast and crew of the The Swan flew to Asheville, North Carolina to shoot both interior and exteriors scenes at the palatial Biltmore House, the largest private home built in the United States. In 1889, millionaire George Washington Vanderbilt II commissioned prominent New York architect Richard Morris Hunt to model the Biltmore on the French châteaux of the Loire Valley. When finished in 1895, this "residential extravaganza" featured four acres of floor space and 250 rooms, including 34 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms and 65 fireplaces. Below ground level, there was a swimming pool, a gymnasium and a bowling alley, in addition to the servants' quarters and kicthens. The 125,000 acres of gardens and parklands were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the creator of New York's Central Park.

The team spent six weeks at the Biltmore estate, secluded from the rest of the world. More than anyone else working on the picture, Kelly was delighted by the majestic house and would regularly rave about it, calling it "heavenly [...] like a real palace." She and Vidor, who would die of a heart attack just four years after making The Swan, understood each other well and she felt comfortable under his guidance. Guinness, on the other hand, not happy with his role in the film. "I simply couldn't see eye to eye with Vidor over anything," he said, "and although he didn't squabble we both sulked a bit and button-holed other people to complain. The result has been lousy performing on my part neither one thing nor the other." However, Guinness did become quite fond of both Kelly and Jourdan: "I can't tell you what a sweet lot they are," he wrote to his wife Merula, "absolutely easy and fun without being bitchy and gay without getting drunk." Like Kelly, Guinness was also religious and even accompanied her to Mass on one of the first Sundays in North Carolina. On their evenings off, they could frequently be seen playing Scrabble with Landis.

Louis Jourdan and Grace Kelly during filming
Before the first scenes were filmed, Schary had summoned assistant director Ridgeway Callow to  a meeting and instructed him to treat Kelly "like a star." Unsure of what that meant, Callow simply decided to treat the actress "the way he would treat a good friend who had a difficult assignment using practical jokes to relax her, and refusing to behave as if she were... well, a princess." Callow later recalled: "We gave her a dog's life on the picture, and she loved every minute of it. We short-sheeted her repeatedly in her hotel room when we were on location in North Carolina. We played many tricks on her, she played many tricks on us, and after the picture was over, she wrote a note to Dore Schary, saying that she enjoyed the picture tremendously. We played more tricks on her than anybody we ever worked with. She certainly was not temperamental. She wasn't regal at all she kidded around all the time." 

Photographer Howell Conant, who documented the making of The Swan in a series of color pictures for both MGM and Kelly, also recalled her sense of fun. For instance, when Guinness received a cheeky letter from a fan named Alice, she had "Alice" page him repeatedly in the hotel lobby. But there was another side of Kelly that autumn; according to Conant, she was "remote, quiet, pensive." During the film breaks, she often sat to the side, knitting or reading a book. Guinness, too, noted her demeanor: "Sometimes I saw her waiting in the wings, just starring into space. When I asked her, 'Grace, are you alright?' she came right back, but flinched every time, as though she'd been fully lost in thought." Kelly's colleagues naturally assumed that her moments of reserve had to do with concern over next picture, High Society (1956), a musical remake of The Philadelphia Story (1940), co-starring Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra.

Grace Kelly and Alec Guinness in a publicity still
The reason for Kelly's "atypical solitude" was clarified after The Swan was completed. During the film's production, no one in America knew that, in late October, Prince Rainier III of Monaco had privately decided to ask Grace Kelly to be his wife. The two had met at the Cannes Film Festival in April 1954 and had since been carrying an "epistolary romance." Rainier had everything she had ever loved in a man, but by marrying him she would have to leave acting to fullfil her responsibilities as wife of a head of state. In the end, her love for Rainier spoke louder than her love of acting. On December 28, 1955, he put to her the question that had prompted his long journey to New York two weeks before. Kelly's answer was short and simple: "Yes." The official proclamation of their forthcoming nuptials was made on January 5, 1956. Two weeks later, she began filming High Society, which became her final picture.

The Swan had its world premiere in Los Angeles on April 18, 1956. This date was not accidentally selected by MGM; on that same day, in the Palace Throne Room of Monaco, took place the civil wedding of Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier. The following day, a religious ceremony was performed at Saint Nicholas' Cathedral, in a widely publicized event attended by 700 guests, including Kelly's former co-stars Ava Gardner and Cary Grant. On April 26, the film's East Coast opening was held at Radio City Music Hall in New York. Critical reviews were universally positive. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times described The Swan as "a slender and charming fable, as soft as a summer breeze [...] the whole production is a masterpiece of the designers' and the costumers' work, and is as easy to look upon for almost two hours as it is pleasant to listen to."

Grace Kelly in particular was much praised for her performance as Princess Alexandra. The critic for the Los Angeles Times commented, "If my any chance The Swan should be Grace Kelly's final picture, then this remarkably successful star will have attained a lustrous culmination to her movie career." In turn, The Hollywood Reporter stated in the their review that "she will be the girl who stood right on the threshold of becoming the next Garbo." Although The Swan was not the final film she made, it was the perfect "swan song" for a regal movie star who became Her Serene Highness, Princess Grace of Monaco. Louis Jourdan later said of her: "There was an innate aristocracy, [an] elegance about her. Not only comportment and manners, but also in thinking, in being. It has been a cliché to say that Grace Kelly looked like a princess. But she did."


This post is my contribution to The Royalty on Film Blogathon hosted by The Flapper Dame. To view all entries, click HERE.

Alec Guinness: The Authorised Biography by Piers Paul Read (2003) | Grace: A Biography by Thilo Wydra (2014) | High Society: Grace Kelly and Hollywood by Donald Spoto (2010) | The Films of Agnes Moorehead by Axel Nissen (2013) | Louis Jourdan during World War II | TCMDb (Notes) | The New York Times review


  1. A wonderful and fascinating look at the inside-out of a film that feels like it's made of gossamer. It really was the perfect role for Grace Kelly at the perfect time.

  2. Your history and background is incredible and fascinating! I've never seen this one before, but really want to well as some of those early films with Alec Guinness you mentioned!

  3. Hello Its Emily- Thank you so much for writing in my blogathon- It means a lot to me! THis post was so informative- I learned so much- Grace Kelly is my favorite actor and I just think its fantastic to see her play a princess- before she became a real one. Grace makes this movie the gem it is- and if another lead actress played the part- it might be now just another run of the mill film forgotten by many. I always enjoy reading your posts as they are so well researched and assembled so nicely! Thanks so much and wonderful writeup about one of my favorites! X Emily

    1. Hi Emily! Thank YOU for hosting such a wonderful blogathon. I really enjoyed writing this article, so I'm really happy that you liked reading it. :)

  4. Marvelous post! I loved all of the stories, which surprisingly I hadn't heard before. I adore Louis Jourdan, but I don't know that much about him so your info was most interesting. Good job!


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