“Few screenwriters could’ve invented the story of Grace Kelly.”
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say there’s never been a movie star quite like Grace Kelly. Within the space of just 11 films, the actress won an Oscar and starred in a handful of bona fide classics on her way to becoming Hollywood royalty. Of course, the reason Kelly made less than a dozen films and retired from acting at the ripe old age of 26 is because she became *actual* royalty after marrying Prince Rainier III of Monaco.
With this new release, Warner Bros. has compiled six of Kelly’s movies — more than half her filmography — along with a documentary about her extraordinary life. (Which doesn’t even cover the fact that she inspired Mika’s most popular song.) The collection itself is a case of good news/bad news. We’ll get the bad news out of the way by saying this set of DVDs obviously doesn’t represent an HD upgrade for any of these films. In fact, each of the movies is already available on DVD, and it appears those previous releases have merely been assembled here. (The exception is the documentary, which includes Kelly’s rarely-seen last television interview.) The good news is the high quality of the films is largely unassailable.
I mean, if the “weak link” of the bunch— at least in my opinion — is 1953’s Mogambo, then I think we’re in pretty good shape. Legendary director John Ford (best known for The Grapes of Wrath and his collaborations with John Wayne) captured some impressive wildlife footage on location in Africa and wrangled a pair of starry leads in Clark Gable and Ava Gardner. However, the movie is probably best known for making Kelly — who had already appeared in High Noon — a movie star.
Mogambo is a Technicolor remake of the 1932 film Red Dust, which also starred Gable (and reinforces the notion that remakes are not exclusively a 21st century phenomenon). Gable plays big game trapper/hunter Vic Marswell, who fights and flirts with sassy showgirl Honey Bear Kelly (Gardner) before falling head over heels for Linda Nordley (Kelly), who arrives in Africa with her anthropologist husband Donald (Donald Sinden) to film gorillas.
Despite a happy ending that doesn’t feel totally earned and a trio of lead characters who aren’t terribly likable — the most sympathetic one ends up being the “floozy” — Gable still has enough roguish charm to generate sparks with both his female co-stars. (Gardner earned her only career Oscar nomination for this movie, while Kelly picked up her first.) I mean, all Kelly had to do was embody a credible (and superior) alternative to Gardner’s Honey Bear. In other words, we had to believe Vic would repeatedly ignore a woman who looked like Gardner, who was married to none other than Frank Sinatra at the time. Kelly pulls it off, giving us just enough of a glimpse at the conflicted heat beneath Mrs. Nordley’s haughty exterior.
Kelly plays another astoundingly striking wife — impossibly blonde hair, blue-green eyes — in an exotic land in 1954’s The Bridges of Toko-Ri. The Korean War drama casts Kelly as Nancy Brubaker, the wife of U.S. Navy Lt. Harry Brubaker (William Holden) a reserve officer called into active duty. The combination of being away from his family and former life — along with having to get fished out of the freezing ocean by rule-bending helicopter pilot Mike Forney (Mickey Rooney) — have made Lt. Brubaker extremely battle weary. He expresses his concerns to Adm. George Tarrant (Fredric March), who harbors affection for Brubaker because he reminds the older man of his son.
The Bridges of Toko-Ri — named after a strategically and symbolically important target for the U.S. Navy — has interesting things to say about the nature of war, most notably when Admiral Tarrant talks about men repeatedly getting stuck with the wrong war in the wrong place. It also has an amusing performance from Rooney as the clownish, self-destructive, dutiful Forney. What it doesn’t have is an awful lot for Kelly to do.
Here, the actress shares some solid chemistry with Holden (which will be revisited in a few paragraphs) but Nancy is less a fully-formed person and more a representation of what Brubaker left behind, as well as the potential despair active duty officers leave in their wake. Director Mark Robson had the cooperation of the U.S. Navy, and the film sometimes gets bogged down in procedural military sequences. (Although he didn’t have to stretch too far to make landing a jet onto an aircraft carrier seem like high drama; the movie earned its Oscar for Best Visual Effects.) The best part is the film’s thrillingly grim climax. Much of the movie takes place on board a massive aircraft carrier and among a multitude of Navy personnel. If nothing else, Kelly succeeds in standing out from the crowd.
In terms of her movie career, Kelly is probably best known for the three films she made with Alfred Hitchcock and for becoming, in many people’s minds, the quintessential Hitchcock Blonde. Their first collaboration was 1954’s Dial M for Murder, which sees Kelly try out her third consecutive wife role (and second British accent following Mogambo) in this collection. Kelly stars as Margot Wendice, the wealthy English wife of former tennis star Tony Wendice (a chillingly calculating Ray Milland). Margot is carrying on a secret affair with American mystery writer Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings). Then again, it’s probably not much of a secret since Tony finds out about it and enacts an elaborate plot to have his wife murdered.
After the African safari of Mogambo and the high-flying action in The Bridges of Toko-Ri, this film is as claustrophobic as you can get. Practically all of Dial M for Murder takes place in the Wendice’s London flat, which Hithcock frames with characteristic flair and ingenuity. (The director also frames his own signature cameo with flair and ingenuity.) When you combine that visual presentation with the leisurely complex screenplay by Frederick Knott (adapting his own play) the result is an enthralling contraption. Given everything that goes gloriously wrong, Hitchcock seems to be laughing at the hubris of someone thinking they can pull off a perfect murder.
It also helps that the performances are largely top-notch. Milland turns in career-best work as the conniving husband who should objectively be the sympathetic figure. Halfway through the film, English actor John Williams butts in as a cheerily intrusive inspector. On the other hand, Cummings is a bit of a lightweight, both in terms of going toe-to-toe with Milland and being a worthy romantic match for Kelly’s Margot. Speaking of Kelly, her pure, posh presence is once again almost dazzling enough to make you forget each of the main characters is guilty of something.
Like many incredibly gorgeous actresses after her, Kelly won her Oscar for a non-glamorous role. Even if 1954’s The Country Girl weren’t filmed in black & white, the movie’s stark presentation of a desperate alcoholic would’ve probably drained the color out of the frame. Kelly doesn’t actually play the alcoholic; instead, she’s Georgie Elgin, the wife of down-on-his-luck performer Frank Elgin (Bing Crosby). Frank gets a chance at a comeback when director Bernie Dodd (William Holden) lobbies hard to get Frank cast in his latest stage production.
Although Kelly gave strong performances in the films we’ve already covered in this collection, this is the first time she truly transcends the “wife” archetype. The fact that Georgie’s strength makes Frank feel weak is an essential part of the story. A lot of the credit goes to writer/director George Seaton’s Oscar-winning adapted screenplay, but Kelly also deserves kudos for convincingly disappearing into the role of an embittered woman desperately clinging to her ability to love.
She’s matched step-by-step by an excellent Crosby — whose song-and-dance skills take on a melancholy undercurrent — and Holden, who pushes and pulls wonderfully with Kelly. Bernie and Margo compete to protect Frank while barely noticing that he’s pretty intent on destroying himself. The Country Girl is a powerful look at the intense insecurity many artists and performers feel. It also captures the notion that being on stage is the easy part; it’s living the moments in between that get them in trouble. I’d never even heard of this film before I saw it as part of this collection, and I consider it quite a find.
On the other hand, I’d very much heard of 1955’s To Catch a Thief and was happy for the opportunity to sit down and watch it again. True confessions time: Cary Grant is my favorite of the classic Hollywood leading men, so seeing him paired up with a Kelly — looking livelier and more beautiful than ever, thanks in large part to legendary designer Edith Head’s impeccable costumes — was a match made in movie heaven. (Unfortunately, Rear Window — the Hitchcock/Kelly collaboration sandwiched between Dial M for Murder and To Catch a Thief — is not included in this collection. It’s arguably their greatest team up.)
Grant stars as John “The Cat” Robie, a retired(?) jewel thief living in the south of France. When someone pulls off a series of robberies using The Cat’s methods, Robie is naturally the prime suspect. To prove his innocence, Robie decides to try and catch the new thief in the act. But to do so, he has to get close to tempting targets, like wealthy American socialite Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis) and her daughter Francie (Kelly, playing someone conspicuously unmarried for a change). Will Robie catch the “copy-Cat” in time? Or is it all a ruse to cover his own tracks? To be honest, I didn’t really care that much.
That’s because the true delights of To Catch a Thief lie elsewhere. It’s in Hitchcock’s energetic, loose direction. (The filmmaker found time to play in the shadows, but he also made what is probably the sunniest movie of his career.) But it’s mostly in the sparkling banter between the two stars. By this point, Grant had already sparred on screen with the likes of Rosalind Russell, Katherine Hepburn, and Ingrid Bergman. But he found something special in his only collaboration with Kelly, who was his effortless equal in authority and aplomb.
Both sides of Kelly’s screen personality — the elegant imperiousness that irresistibly melts away to reveal warmth and humor — come to bear in 1956’s High Society. Within the context of this collection, Kelly’s role as a bride-to-be who regularly spars with her ex-husband/neighbor is interesting. Rather than playing another wife, she’s someone who’s already been married and is obsessed with learning from her mistakes before marching down the aisle again. Kelly stars as Tracy Samantha Lord, a wealthy socialite who is about to marry a boring, well-to-do gentleman named George Kittredge (John Lund).
Her ex-husband is jazz musician C.K. Dexter-Haven (Bing Crosby), who didn’t take their marriage seriously enough for Tracy’s taste. On the eve of her new wedding, Tracy is forced to allow tabloid reporter Mike Connor (Frank Sinatra) and photographer Liz Imbrie (Celeste Holm) to cover her wedding in order to block an embarrassing story about her father. The musical-comedy also features a score and songs by Cole Porter along with Louis Armstrong and his band as a Greek chorus of sorts. (Louis laments Dexter’s blunders with Tracy.)
High Society marks Kelly’s last screen appearance; the film was released three months after her real-life wedding to Prince Rainier. The actress briefly shares a duet with Crosby, but mostly cedes the musical heavy lifting to her more seasoned leading men. (Kelly does look like she’s having a blast when Tracy pretends to be the sort of rich ding-dong Mike can’t stand.) The Porter tunes are catchy and the romantic entanglements are amusing enough, but this lightweight comedy — a musical version of The Philadelphia Story — is basically about how every man wanted to marry Grace Kelly.
Of course, the man who did marry Kelly was Prince Rainier and she lived out the rest of her life as the Princess of Monaco. Kelly died suddenly in September 1982 after suffering a stroke while driving and crashing her car. The documentary “Princess Grace de Monaco: A Moment in Time” is dated July 22, 1982 and is billed as Kelly’s last televised interview. The largely uninterrupted 51 minute conversation with journalist Pierre Salinger was mostly meant to fill in the perceived blanks in Kelly’s life after she left Hollywood.
Here, Kelly talks about life in Monaco (the country’s entire population apparently fit at a single, grand banquet table), her family (Kelly had three children at the time of her death), and the feminist movement (she was a fan of the results in the U.S., if not necessarily the methods). Kelly is unsurprisingly measured in her responses. The most striking part comes toward the end, when Salinger asks her how she wants to be remembered. The question seems to catch her a bit off guard. Kelly is modestly dismissive of her movie career — she didn’t believe she’d accomplished enough to be remembered as a great actress — and says she wants to be remembered as a decent, caring human being.
The documentary is nice complement to the films, as are the handsome art cards and the effusive Bing Crosby letter collected in this package. But the bottom line is the movies in this collection are not any different from what you’ve already seen. What Warner Bros. has done is helpfully gathered a cluster of them in a handy package. Personally, I think the price is right — Amazon is currently offering the collection for less than $20 — if you don’t own or haven’t experienced them yet.
Mogambo: 3 out of 5
The Bridges of Toko-Ri: 3.5 out of 5
Dial M for Murder: 4.5 out of 5
The Country Girl: 4.5 out of 5
To Catch a Thief: 4.5 out of 5
High Society: 3 out of 5