Thursday, January 28, 2010
Moira Finnie’s vignettes at TCM's Movie Morelocks on what the celebratory end of the year is like at various periods in Hollywood, along with several terrific clips of old movie outtakes.
A penetrating commentary of “Triumph of the Will” at The Sun is Not Yellow.
Charles Lane appears in a series of episodes on early TV on Classic Television Showbiz. Any blog with Charles Lane in it has got to be good.
Monday, January 25, 2010
Thanks to J.C. Loophole of "The Shelf" for bestowing upon me the Kreativ Blogger Award. I’m honored by his passing this virtual pat on the back over to me, and now I’m duly responsible for giving recognition to seven other blogs.
And, I am required to list seven things about myself that people might find interesting. This is a bit of a chore. I am not interesting. I make a habit of it. But, I will however list some facts about me which you may at least read, if perhaps not find very interesting.
1. I invented the VCR. When I was a very small child, watching an old movie on TV, I was overcome by that sensation (no longer suffered by younger old movie buffs) of deep loss and almost overwhelming sorrow when the movie ended and I knew I might never see it again. Or at least, not see it for a few years. (In truth, decades have passed since I have seen some movies.) I imagined an invention that would allow me to see any movie I wanted anytime I wanted to watch it. I believe I even drew plans in crayon. It was to be a box, not a box that you would put on a shelf of your chipboard home entertainment center, but a cardboard box such as the kind I would sometimes crawl into and play inside. The viewer would sit inside this box and there would be a TV screen mounted on one wall. There would be two buttons. Push one button, and any movie you wanted would start playing on the screen. Push the other button, and candy would fall out of a slot underneath the screen. Snickers, Milky Way, a handful of Canada Mints (the pink kind), or what have you.
As an adult, I was disappointed that someone beat me to the patent office. I was also disappointed that the modern video recording devices do not have a slot where candy comes out. A basic design flaw.
2. I have a twin brother. No, we are not identical. He is male; I am female. (You have no idea how many times we have been asked that stupid question.)
3. I think Post-It notes are the greatest invention since the wheel.
4. Whenever I am watching a movie with written narrative on the screen, I read it out loud.
5. I really don’t mind when squirrels eat at my birdfeeder.
6. I have sung “The Trolley” song from “Meet Me in St. Louis” while riding on a trolley, and nobody else joined in. Life is not like the old movies.
7. Sometimes when phone solicitors begin a conversation with “How Are You Today?” I tell them I have a brain tumor, or that my gunshot wound to the chest is healing nicely, thank you. Then I hang up.
All right, that’s done. Now the seven bloggers I nominate for this nifty badge are:
1. Tony of “In the Valley”, whose photo essays are stunning, particularly his wildlife photos.
2. Mattenylou from “On Larch Lane”, who, like Tony above, chronicles everyday adventures in Western Massachusetts with evocative photos, and in prose with the soul of a poet.
3. Kate of “Silents and Talkies”, who punctuates her observations on old movies with exquisitely detailed original artwork.
4. To “Carole & Company”, for taking on the life and career of Carole Lombard with such magnificent expertise and faithfulness.
5. To Mark of "Where Danger Lives", for his interesting posts on film noir accompanied by swell posters.
6. To "Sidewalk Crossings", for intriguing analysis of classic TV shows as well as film.
7. To Richard of "Riku Writes" for his acerbic commentary on films old and new.
For those of you intrepid winners of this prestigious award (Black tie dinner to follow at the Elks Club), here are the rules should you wish to participate:
Copy the logo and place it on your blog.
Link to the person who nominated you for this award.
Name 7 things about yourself that people might find interesting.
Nominate 7 other bloggers, and post links to the 7 blogs you nominate.
Leave a comment on each of the blogs letting them know they have been nominated.
Thank you again, J.C., and congratulations to all those fine blogs listed here. Please go and read them.
Saturday, January 23, 2010
She wasn't the only one who spoke like that or looked like that. There were a distinct, select graduating class of them back then in the late 1940s and early 1950s, whose mannerisms and speech perhaps might have been studied, but always appeared genuine.
I like to remember her most as Ophelia in "Hamlet", her screen debut in which she played one of the oldest, most classic of troubled females and brought her down to human size just be being -- what was it? Eighteen years old herself at the time? Contrasting this, I like to remember her in "Guys and Dolls", singing with the gusto of her own natural voice and swinging on a lampost, being drunkenly kittenish with an unusually reserved Marlon Brando. She put on American girl bravado like she put on her Salvation Army-style costume, neither natural to her, but the playfulness, like the rest, seemed genuine.
Jean Simmons had many fans, and will continue to have many fans.
Thursday, January 21, 2010
This movie is a fictionalized account of a real-life woman who was rumored to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, the only one of the five children of Czar Nicholas II to have supposedly escaped death when the royal family was murdered during the Russian Revolution. Wandering about Europe under assumed names, this starving princess on the run lives a life in exile.
Anastasia, or Anna Anderson as she is also known, is not the only exile returning from self-imposed banishment. This movie marked the return to films of Helen Hayes, who had not made a movie in about twenty years, and had curtailed her theater and television performances somewhat in the aftermath of the deaths of her daughter from polio (mentioned in this previous post on polio depicted in films), and of her husband, writer Charles MacArthur.
But by far, the most conspicuous exile of the group is Ingrid Bergman. This film was considered her return to Hollywood after seven years in Europe when she caused a scandal by leaving her husband and daughter for her lover director Roberto Rossellini in Italy, and having a child out of wedlock by him. She was denounced from pulpits and in Congress, which may seem like something out of The Scarlet Letter today, but one must consider how famous, and how beloved a star Miss Bergman was in the United States in the 1940s. (Teenager Grace Kelly listed Bergman as her favorite actress.) In that conservative era, she was regarded by some as a betrayer of American morals.
In Anastasia, Ingrid plays the starving street person who opportunist Yul Brynner, a former general in the former czar’s former army, scoops up to feed, and nurse back to health, and train to impersonate the Czar’s daughter Anastasia, who miraculously escaped execution in Russia. There’s a fortune in the Bank of England for anyone who can prove to be the missing Romanov, and he wants some of it.
The plot, though based on the fact that there was such a woman who was rumored to be Anastasia, is fabricated. The characters played by Yul Brynner and his henchman did not exist. As we discussed in our two previous posts, fantasy and reality mix it up a bit in princess stories, and in this case, the truth loses.
The story is essentially not a documentary, but a romance, and not the kind between winsome princess and handsome commoner as in our two previously discussed films, Roman Holiday and The Swan, but a love for a country that has vanished, for the past that can never be reclaimed, and for life itself, which many Russian nobility discovered in exile after the Revolution. Both Yul Brynner and Ingrid Bergman have this passion for survival which makes them grasp at crumbs, hopes, and opportunities, and perhaps eventually, for each other.
Set in Paris, 1928, some ten years after the Romanov dynasty ended by abdication, and then execution, in Russia, this chaotic world is the aftermath of the staid world of Grace Kelly and Alec Guinness in The Swan, before World War I when middle European royalty were all pretty much related and maintaining the status quo was the object at hand, before the masses got ugly and demanded independence and revolution.
Anastasia has rather more in common with the post-World War II environment of Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, when what monarchies remained after the conflagration were upheld by ancient families sometimes ill equipped to guide their nations into the modern era. At least Audrey Hepburn had a country. Ingrid Bergman, in Anastasia has lost hers for good.
This world is established for us pretty quickly when we see a cab driver, a former nobleman, in the community of Russian exiles in Paris, being addressed as “Excellency” and haggling over a fare. Yul Brynner runs a nightclub. Here, the nobility survives by learning how the other half lives, unless of course, they managed to escape Russia with their fortunes intact, as in the case of the Dowager Empress, played by Helen Hayes.
The story is told partly with the romance of a fairy tale, and party with the skepticism of the modern age. On the one hand, we first see Ingrid Bergman attending the Russian Orthodox Church at the Orthodox Easter services, which plants a seed of her authenticity for us. But, Yul Brynner’s mercenary attitude toward her, coaching her in facts about her own life, and her obvious ignorance of many facts lead us to believe she is a fake. At other times, she knows things about Anastasia only Anastasia could know. We are never allowed to be certain about this woman. Later, Brynner will also become uncertain, and even Ingrid will not really know the truth. It will become a movie not about what she is, but what she wants to be.
Yul Brynner is fascinating in this movie, commanding, sexy, striding about with his military bearing, even when he bends to kiss a lady’s hand. When he does this, it is never with cloying obeisance, but as with the stiff drop of his head to indicate a bow to a gentleman, Brynner is a case for those who would show proper courtesy not to humble himself, but as a manner of maintaining his own prodigious dignity. It is beneath him not to display courtesy.
Like Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday, he is both part fairy godfather and part prince, though Anastasia will have another prince to deal with as well. Brynner also, like Peck, intends to exploit his princess, but Brynner is ten times more mercenary. He is ruthless, and knows much more about survival. He twists convention for his own means, and is more successful at this than either Gregory Peck and Louis Jourdan, perhaps because he is more ruthless.
Ingrid Bergman was about forty-ish when she made this film, playing a woman meant to be at least ten years younger, but she conveys this well, especially since her character, while troubled and beaten, is not fey or innocent like our other princesses. Her maturity, even in her bone weariness or in her most tormented expressions, is beautiful. She is sensual, in part because of her knowledge of life, just as Brynner seems more virile in his passion for survival.
When she first grasps Brynner’s scheme to turn her into Her Imperial Highness, the Grand Duchess Anastasia, she breaks down in hysterical sobs the first time she says her name. Names, it seems, are very important to princesses. They usually have so many titles, that a single name of significance might be a treasure. Grace Kelly implores Louis Jourdan to call her by her first name, wants to hear him say it. Audrey Hepburn wants to be called her nickname, Anya, by Gregory Peck, to hide her real identity.
When Ingrid is prepped and ready for a test, Brynner puts her on display to gain the official endorsement of the Russian community in exile, a part of establishing her legitimacy to the inheritance. A few accept her, with tears, as their monarch, but not enough. So, Brynner rolls the dice and opts for a big risk, to take her to see the matriarch of the Romanov family, now living in exile in her castle in Copenhagen. This woman is the Dowager Empress Maria, who is Anastasia’s paternal grandmother, played by Helen Hayes.
Some filming was done in Copenhagen and this, like filming in Rome during Roman Holiday adds to the realism of the setting and the story, but curiously, with a toy soldier-like royal guard marching in the streets, it seems storybook-ish again.
Brynner has dressed Bergman mostly in high-necked blouses and long skirts, pre-war style, which makes her stand out as an anachronism among other ladies in their late 1920s fashions, but then she is meant to be an illusion.
The illusion will get to be more than either Brynner or Bergman can bear the closer they get to reaching their goal of Grandmother’s acceptance. Their relationship takes erratic turns. After a nightmare, Ingrid receives no comforting like Audrey Hepburn’s overwrought princess. Brynner orders her to bed, like a strict father. In order to gain admission to Grandmother Helen Hayes’ inner circle, Brynner works his charm on Prince Paul, the old lady’s nephew who is financially dependent on her. Brynner expects Ingrid to work her charm on him, too, and practically prostitutes her to get playboy Prince Paul’s interest.
When the Prince takes the bait as Ingrid performs a champagne-inspired tipsy femme fatale act (where she ruminates on the realities of Cinderella), Brynner suddenly loses his enthusiasm for this whole charade. We suspect, though he never confesses it, that he might be jealous.
Brynner kisses her hand, as he has done with so many of his victims, but this time it is a real gesture of comfort and tribute to her as a lady and what she has been through, whether or not she is actually a Grand Duchess.
Martita Hunt pulls out all the stops playing the fluttery Baroness von Livenbaum, lady in waiting to Helen Hayes, and the gatekeeper to the old lady’s privacy. She gets some of the best lines and delivers them with aplomb.
“Russia!” she indulges in homesickness, “I am all of Chekhov’s three sisters rolled into one! I shall never get back there!”
When Brynner asks if her life here in exile with the Dowager Empress is happy, she retorts that with Helen Hayes, “Life is one eternal glass of milk!” (Shades of Audrey in Roman Holiday and her dreaded nightly glass of milk, “Everything we do is so wholesome.”)
Later, when difficulties arise the Baroness repeats her exile’s mantra, “Well, I survived the Revolution, I suppose I can survive this.”
She helps him set up a “chance encounter” with Prince Paul and the Dowager Empress at the Royal Theatre. The scenes filmed here are opulent and grand, and evocative of the life they must have known in Russia. Brynner, along with his white tie and tails, wears his now defunct Imperial Russian Army decorations. They are all playacting.
All but one.
“I have lost everything I have loved,” Miss Hayes declares, “my husband, my family, my position, my country. I have nothing but memories. I want to be left alone with them.” She refers to Bergman as an imposter, but sneaks a look at her through her opera glasses.
Helen Hayes decides at last to meet this woman calling herself Anastasia. It’s a great scene between her and Bergman, two serious actresses with a knack for playing off each other. Hayes was actually only about 55 or 56 when she made this film, only about 15 years older than Bergman, but she is as effective playing her grandmother as Ingrid is in playing younger.
Bergman seems more truly desperate to be believed than she did in earlier scenes when Brynner put her on public display for committees of exiles in Paris, and pleads with this woman she calls Grandmamma to accept her.
“We are most of us lonely,” Helen Hayes dismisses her, “and it is mostly of our own making.” It is a drawing room showdown, like in the The Swan, with verbal tactics because this film, like The Swan was derived from a stage play, and so what happens in confined places is far more intense than any obligatory outdoor scene.
Hayes’ transformation from skeptic to believer is skillfully arrived at and happens only by turns. Bergman’s piteous pleas for love, for acceptance, wears the old lady down. Grandmamma wants to remain resolute before this clever impostor, but the fear nags her, grows in her, that what if this is really Anastasia?
Miss Hayes finally embraces her and Ingrid sobs, hopeless and heartbreakingly as she did when she first said her own name, which is now official because Grandma says so.
“You’re safe, Anastasia,” Miss Hayes comforts her, herself in tears, “You’re with me, you’re home!” But then, the codicil to the inheritance of her heart, “But, oh, please, if it should not be you…don’t ever tell me.”
It is another reminder, a late-breaking bulletin that we are living in a more skeptical age.
But Prince Paul is only too happy to believe with no reservations, and he intends to marry her. Her inheritance will mean he can finally be independent of the old lady.
While Brynner, the man who pulled the rabbit out of the hat, is thoroughly sick of the whole business and just wants out. It’s like the old saying, “be careful what you wish for because you may get it.”
He is a bit jealous of her relationship with Prince Paul and angry at her, now that she is going to be presented to society and to the world as the Grand Duchess.
“They don’t care about you,” he barks, “They don’t care who is Anastasia so long as they can get some money and position in a world that is dead and buried, and should be!”
So far, he is the only exile from Imperial Russia who accepts the collapse of the Romanov Dynasty, and it seems to be his disgust over losing Ingrid that has convinced him he does not really want her to be Anastasia. Ingrid is having doubts of her own, now that she understands that even though she is certain of who she is, she will never be certain if she is loved for herself, or for her money and title.
When next we see her, she is dressed in her long formal white gown with her decorative sash, and a tiara to indicate she is royalty. She looks rather like Audrey Hepburn in the opening ball sequence of Roman Holiday, and we realize this is where we came in. The 1950s princess, an illusion of the romantic past, on the precipice of an uncertain future.
The comic lady in waiting Baroness von Livenbaum adds her own indictment to the post-war era, making an observation that travel, among other things, is not as elegant as it once was.
“They don’t know how to make baggage nowadays,” she gestures to her opulent formal gown, “Imagine trying to fit this into a nasty little modern suitcase. The times aren’t made for elegance.”
The 1950s American suburban princesses might agree. In the next decade, their long, wide skirts with petticoats, their tiaras will disappear for a sleeker, more modern look. In another generation, their daughters will abandon hats and gloves. Their granddaughters will dress, and speak, and act so casually that the line between casual and formal will be forever blurred, and the formal will largely become unknown and irrelevant. And, as Baroness von Livenbaum comically mourns, but could never predict, the luggage will diminish to a carry-on plastic baggie.
As Helen Hayes advises Ingrid Bergman, “The world moves on…and we must move on with it or be left to molder with the past. I am the past. I like it. It’s sweet and familiar, and the present is cold and foreign. And the future? Fortunately, I don’t need to concern myself with that. But you do. It’s yours.”
What she is doing is saying goodbye, though Ingrid doesn’t realize it yet, and giving her permission not to be Anastasia anymore if she doesn’t want this. Here, we have the great twist on the princess stories. In our first two films, Roman Holiday and the The Swan, the two sad princesses give up their romances with commoners to attend to their duties to their families and their countries. But Ingrid has no country, and it’s easier to do whatever you want when no one else is affected.
She has the luxury to do what Audrey and Grace do not; so she takes the opportunity and makes like a princess: she runs away. We mentioned in the two past previous posts how running away seems to be a princess thing. We are meant to assume she has run off with Yul Brynner, and hang the inheritance and the title.
Helen Hayes, asked how she will explain this to everybody waiting in the ballroom below, in their uniforms, and flowing gowns and tiaras. Miss Hayes, the no-nonsense Dowager Empress Grandma, responds,
“Say? I will say, ‘the play is over. Go home.’” It is a fantastic ending line, and though I have not seen the stage play performed, I’ve always wondered if the actress “broke the fourth wall” and addressed the line directly to the audience.
The contrasting of reality and fantasy, after all, is part and parcel to examining the 1950s princess.
Reality, as well as a gesture to the romantic images of the past, plays a part in the real-life aftermath of the mystery of Anastasia. Many examinations were made of the woman known as Anna Anderson who claimed to be her, books written about her, and compelling arguments made pro and con for decades as to whether she was really Anastasia. She bore similar physical characteristics, her handwriting was supposedly very similar, but in a world without modern forensics, mystery and legend rule the day.
Grand Duchess Anastasia in her teens.
Until the day comes, of course, when modern forensic science steps in. This happened in the 1990s, when, after the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics crumbled into independent states including a reborn Russia, uncertain of its present or future, but seemingly more willing to deal with its past. The remains of the murdered Czar Nicholas II, his wife and three of his children were found in 1991, and through DNA testing something infinitely more useful but less romantic than the propagation of legend was revealed, that one of them was Anastasia. The woman known as Anna Anderson was, indeed, an imposter.
Two children were still missing, and their remains were found in 2007, 16 years later, in another location, and positively identified in 2008 as Anastasia’s sister Maria and her brother Alexei. It takes some stories a very long time to unravel and get to the ending. Their being separated from the other bodies may have been the genesis of the rumors of an escaping Romanov child, Anastasia or one of her siblings (there were various rumors), but we know with certainty now that none of the royal family escaped assassination.
Czar Nicholas II and his family. Anastasia is far left.
That is the efficient reality to the legend, but there occurred as well an official, even romantic gesture to the past. The first group of remains of the royal family were taken for reburial at the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in St. Petersburg, where all the Russian emperors are buried, the new Russian government seemingly willing to bypass several decades of Communist condemnation of Russia’s imperial past.
Even the remains of the Dowager Empress, the Grandmamma, who died in 1928, the year chosen for the setting of the movie Anastasia, were exhumed in Denmark in 2006 and re-interred with her husband, Czar Alexander III in the Cathedral in St. Petersburg as well. This most resilient exile at last came home.
Ingrid Bergman, the exile in disgrace who made her reappearance in American film with this performance in Anastasia didn’t actually return to the U.S. quite yet. The film was made in Europe. She won her second Oscar for it, and her pal Cary Grant accepted it for her. It wasn’t until Miss Bergman appeared at the Academy Award ceremony in 1958 as a presenter that she made her first public return to Hollywood. She was given a standing ovation. All returning exiles should be so fortunate.
At the end of her life, Ingrid Bergman suffered from cancer (though bravely continued working), and died in August 1982, followed only a few weeks later by the death of Princess Grace. We are always saddened when we lose film favorites. For those who are too young to remember, that August and September was a bit of a shock for film buffs, and pretty tough for Cary Grant, who worked with and was close to both these actresses.
Princess Grace visits the idol of her teen years, Ingrid Bergman, during Miss Bergman's stage appearance in Captain Brassbound's Conversion 1971 or '72? Photo credit unknown at this time.
Both Bergman and Kelly were famous protégés of Alfred Hitchcock. The director had turned to Grace Kelly to be his new representative “cool blonde” when Bergman fled in her self-imposed exile from Hollywood. Anastasia was made the year Grace Kelly, in turn, fled Hollywood for life as a real princess, but Hitchcock evidently did not look back to Ingrid Bergman for inspiration. She was after all, in her early forties now, and perhaps the great master of suspense found no sexiness in that.
We have a drastically different view of aging and sexiness today. I half expect to read in People magazine one of these days that 40 is the new 16.
All three actresses, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, and Ingrid Bergman, were iconic figures of their era, and played their melancholy princess roles with degrees of innocence lost, sadness swallowed, and futures faced with resolute purpose. How much of a prototype they represent for all the American suburban princesses watching them, and copying them in style whenever they could, is debatable.
In the case of Audrey and Grace at least, their images leaped from just movie magazines onward to fashion magazines, women’s general interest magazines and Life and Look. As idolized as Hollywood stars have ever been, even since the silent film days, few have made that leap to mainstream icon, making any kind of Hollywood endorsement irrelevant.
The reality behind the illusion.
The ladies who would eventually trade tulle dresses with “skirts that whirl forever” as the New York Times ad referred to in Part 1 of this series put it, to simple sleeveless sheath dresses in the next decade perhaps also, like these movie princesses, found themselves facing unimaginable futures with resolute purpose. A generation later, their restless daughters would take their own futures and chances for happiness in their own hands, sans gloves, changing society a great deal in the process. Perhaps even a revolution.
We end this series on the 1950s princess with the interesting remark, applicable to these each of three film princesses, Ann, Alexandra, and Anastasia, made by one of Grace Kelly’s biographers, Robert Lacey, in Grace (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, NY, 1994) who surmised that one of the questions most wanted to be asked over the years by journalists of Princess Grace was,
“Are you happy?”
Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century. Her newspaper column on classic films, Silver Screen, Golden Memories is syndicated nationally. Her new book, a collection of posts from this blog - Hollywood Fights Fascism - is available here on Amazon.
Monday, January 18, 2010
(Back already? Great. I missed you. Wipe your feet.)
Though there seems professional tension implied in the photo, this backstage shot of Audrey and Grace both with their attention diverted toward someplace off camera were not in competition. They were both presenters that year, and friendly with each other. Both were recent previous Oscar winners. There was no competition between them. There was plenty of room for more than one princess in the 1950s, an era which seemed to thrive on them.
In another month, Grace Kelly would travel to Monaco to marry Prince Rainer III in a wedding that was a media explosion. About a week after the wedding, the film The Swan premiered, likely a tactic by the studio to garner as much publicity as possible for their movie starring Grace Kelly about a princess being courted by a prince. As we mentioned in discussing Roman Holiday in the previous post, for the 1950s princess, reality and fantasy frequently crossed swords. In this movie, so do Grace Kelly and Louis Jourdan.
The 1950s princess in this case was the very real Her Serene Highness Princess Grace of Monaco, but the character Grace Kelly played, Princess Alexandra, was a product of a long ago time when the media did not go to the wedding. Unlike Audrey in Roman Holiday and Ingrid in Anastasia, and unlike Princess Grace in real life, Grace Kelly’s character in this movie did not have to contend with the press. For princesses, this is a real fairy tale.
Set in a pre-World War I middle European country that, like Audrey Hepburn’s country in Roman Holiday is not named, the setting is storybook fantasy, and yet tinged with reality by references to European history and politics, and by our foreboding with knowledge that this (imagined) idyllic Europe will very soon be set afire in World War I.
Grace Kelly’s character, Princess Alexandra, lives with her mother, her great aunt, her two younger brothers, and a bushel full of family retainers in a country mansion/palace where, because their kingdom was taken from them by Napoleon in the previous century, they are considered the poor country cousins of their royal clan.
To Catch a Thief) pins the family pride and fortunes on Grace marrying Crown Prince Alec Guinness.
There’s also the tutor to her younger brothers on staff, played by the jaw-droppingly handsome Louis Jourdan. Spark fly. Protocol gets trampled on. Drama ensues.
This is the era where many of Europe’s dynasties drew their last breath (in some cases literally as we’ll see in the film of our next post), an era where the elegant Empire style dress made a brief resurgence (speaking of Napoleon), and where real-life monarchs like Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II and Russia’s Czar Nicholas II, who were cousins, addressed affectionate letters to each other as “Willi” and “Nicky”, but who in a few short years would be sending their armies out to slaughter each other.
The movie is based on the Ferenc Molnár play, and like most good stage plays brought to the screen, is left mostly intact and entirely crisp and literate, and funny, with the story told through characterization and dialogue more than physical action. Where Roman Holiday, created for film, is an action-packed romp through Rome, The Swan barely leaves the drawing room. But that’s where the all the drama is.
We may note here as well as we did in this earlier post on Grace Kelly and live TV, that she first appeared in an abbreviated version of this play as the same character on live television in 1950.
It’s a remarkable change from her previous film, To Catch a Thief where she is bold, cool, and sexually aggressive, and her next film after this one, High Society, where she plays the feisty patrician Tracy Lord restlessly juggling former and future husbands.
Here, Grace Kelly is vulnerable and anxious, except with the tutor, who she treats with curt dismissiveness to maintain the distinction between their places, until she falls in love with him and must ultimately deal with his rejection.
Her scenes fencing with him are rather striking. It’s fun to see warrior Grace, in all seriousness, jabbing a rapier at Louis Jourdan with the panache of Errol Flynn, while M. Jourdan grasps the tip of her blade and touches it to his heart, showing her how best to wound him. She will figure out how to do that by herself, but it won’t be with a sword.
Incidentally, her mumbled greeting to Guinness just before she smashes heads with him is, “So happy,” echoing Roman Holiday and Audrey Hepburn’s greeting in formal introductions. (The next time you are introduced to someone, try saying this instead of “Hi.” Note the reactions. I don’t often give homework on this blog, so humor me.)
Afterwards, left alone on the terrace, Alec touches his hand tentatively to Grace’s, and she jerks it away in a moment of tense surprise, which she immediately regrets because he takes it for rejection. He spends the rest of the visit ignoring her, and she is humiliated.
Then Mother comes up with the idea of using the handsome tutor to make Alec jealous. At the ball, Alec Guinness is more interested in playing the orchestra’s base viol than in asking her to dance. Grace hijacks a carriage and, like Audrey in Roman Holiday runs away (running away, or at least wanting to, must be a princess thing), but Louis Jourdan goes with her and brings her back. Where, after all, is she really going to go?
The rest of the film is bittersweet when the drawing room becomes a battleground between the resentful tutor, when, after confessing his love for Grace, is told he was used as part of her mother’s plan to marry her off to the prince, and Alec Guinness, whose vague and self-involved prince begins to wake up to the equal passions of anger, jealously, and desire.
After both he and Grace figuratively lose their innocence by chugging a couple of goblets of wine, he turns the drawing room into a verbal and very literate version of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. At the end, only he, Grace, and Uncle Brian Aherne are left standing.
Perhaps the genuine empathy sprang from her secretly being courted in real life by a prince herself at the time this was filmed, and what must have been a lot on her mind.
Mr. Aherne offers words of comfort, but when both Jourdan and Grace have confessed their puppy love for each other, he will warn them to adjust to the loss of that first rapture pretty quickly.
“You’ll never be as happy as you are now.” It’s rather like the realization Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck experience after their swim in the river in Roman Holiday when they discover the rapture of their love when it is already too late.
“Now you know!” he shouts at the servant, pulling his robes over his head.
Grace, thoroughly shaken by the events, is lost and must find her way emotionally and psychologically back to what being a princess means. When she tells Alec Guinness off for his rudeness and selfishness, he has softened both his jealousy for the tutor and his lack of attention to Grace. He is reformed, but with unaccustomed humility, attempts to woo Grace not with flattery, but with the truth. He allows that he is no great match, but delivers a speech at the end of the film that is both beautiful and sad.
Audrey Hepburn’s princess had to give up her true love for her responsibility as princess. Grace Kelly’s princess had to give up more than her first love, but all prior notion of what true love must mean in order to be a queen. Hardly the stuff of traditional fairy tales.
The phrase about casting “cool indifference to the crowds along the bank” is an interesting one, and we might consider the media glare as part of the crowds along the bank for modern princesses. Cool indifference rarely works anymore, it only attracts the tabloids, but perhaps neither does any other attitude for maintaining one’s privacy and security.
Back to the blending of fantasy and reality. We might well think of the not-so-coincidental timing of the release of The Swan to coincide with the royal wedding in Monaco. We might also muse that many biographers and pundits credit HSH Princess Grace with catapulting Monaco onto the world stage and keeping it there as one very small nation garnering a chunk of world stature it did not previously possess, not only by virtue of her fame as an iconic film star, but by her personal involvement in the welfare of Monaco.
Like Audrey Hepburn’s princess in Roman Holiday, Princess Grace did her bit to “improve trade relations,” promoted tourism, culture, and established and was active in a number of foundations and charities that continue to this day. She left Monaco a better place.
Decades later, it has been noted that tourists, sometimes thousands per day, still visit her gravesite. How much of this adoration because she was the actress she was, or because she was the princess she was, who can say? Her lasting fame, more than other fashion icons, more than other actresses dying before their time, more than other royal figures, is because she was both.
It is only a coincidence that the star-crossed lovers of The Swan, Alexandra and Nicholas, share the names of the ill-fated Czar Nicholas II and his wife, but that leads us into our third and final post on the 1950s princess. Come back Thursday for a look at Anastasia with Ingrid Bergman as a princess who really existed…and yet, maybe not.
As an aside, have a look a this fun interview with Sir Alec Guinness, who relates the famous “tomahawk story” in which he and Grace Kelly pulled the same prank on each other for decades, that all began during the filming of The Swan.
Thursday, January 14, 2010
Roman Holiday (1953), The Swan (1956) here, and Anastasia (1956) here. There are similarities, and there are differences, but there may yet be a thread that links the three films, the three stars, that possibly has to do with the last years of a lumbering paternal Hollywood machine, and society at large in the last decade or so before feminism became a social force. Maybe you have some thoughts about this. I look forward to your comments.
It could be said that the 1950s was an era obsessed with princesses. The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 marked a profound response by media and fascinated commoners around the world newly linked by fast developing communications technology.
What part the backwash of World War II could have had in this fascination is intriguing. There are several factors to consider. First, in the United States at least, there was a fairy tale aspect to the swarm of returning veterans building suburban dream houses for sweethearts who had waited for them, women who had now left the grind of the war plant to set up housekeeping in long planned for and idealized homes of their own with modern gadgets. Peacetime at the end of several years of hardship, worry, and terror, was the happy ending. Americans have always been addicted to happy endings.
Home, and the children who followed in the happy ending, were considered primarily feminine concerns, a woman’s realm, but the post-War woman seemed determined to avoid being the kind of household drudge she may have regarded her mother. Gadgets and modern appliances were part of the modern woman’s campaign to keep her station elevated, but there was something more. It had to do with fashion, and icons, which perhaps had to do with advertising.
The film begins with a kind of Citizen Kane jolt of realism with a pseudo-newsreel opening. Audrey Hepburn, as Princess Ann, attends various functions on a European tour to promote trade for her tiny country.
Roman Holiday. It has all the adventure of the many location films produced in the 1950s and afterward, but there’s a subtle post-war European just-getting-back-on-their-feet quality to this film. It’s not just a travelogue; it’s a look into ordinary lives that are not terribly hip despite the Vespa scooters.
Like our cliché American not needing to know which country the princess comes from because we will likely be ignorant of it anyway and who cares (when Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier III of Monaco, Americans went scrambling for their atlases), is the occasional reference to the Italian lire as being extremely devalued compared to the American dollar. On a few occasions, Gregory Peck flips through large bank notes worth thousands of lire and notes with a smirk it is worth about a dollar and a half. Such commercial observations brings the fairy tale and the travelogue to a halt.
Its being shot in black and white probably adds to this suggestion of realism compared to later films of this similarly lighthearted vein shot in Italy, like Three Coins in the Fountain (1954) and Summertime (1955), which were more like picture postcards with a plot. (Ten-year-old Jackie Coogan remarked on a visit to Rome and an audience with the Pope in 1924 that Rome was "the best place in the world for shooting pictures, after Hollywood." Out of the mouths of babes.)
Roman Holiday is occasionally delicately swept aside by the fairy tale. Audrey Hepburn plays the reverse of Cinderella. She is a princess overburdened by the responsibility of representing her tiny country and runs away to escape her troubles and wander the city as an ordinary person. Her tour guide is Gregory Peck, who is partly her fairy godfather and partly her charming prince. By the end of the film, Miss Hepburn’s character changes from a sad girl to a sadder-but-wiser woman of authority. The story is at turns funny, romantic, occasionally breathtaking.
But the ball is dreary for a young person. Retiring for the evening in the ornate bedroom of her country’s Roman embassy, Audrey stands on the enormous bed, moping and brushing her hair, dressed in a voluminous and somewhat old-fashioned nightgown, looking like a pouting child, “I hate all my nightgowns and all my underwear, too.”
She is overwhelmed and overtired, depressed and anxious, ready for a breakdown, as every moment in her life is booked up. Her youth, her charm is perhaps her beleaguered country’s ace in the hole. She is sent on the public relations tour, doing the work of seasoned diplomats, but completely unarmed for the rigor of being both politician and icon.
Margaret Rowlings plays the Countess, her lady in waiting who has the charge of Audrey and, like the rest of the staff, plays her role with splendid warmth and tightly controlled comedy. Needing to get the nearly hysterical girl calm, she first pleads,
The phrase "your highness", as much as it is a respectful grand gesture, will always carry a glint of dismal foreboding in all these three films, a reminder of the limitations of being a princess.
She is remorseful, “I’ll bow, and I’ll smile, and I’ll improve trade relations!” but asks if she can keep just one light on when the doctor gives her a sedative and puts her to bed, like a child again. But, the child will run away, as children sometimes will, (and something princesses occasionally seem to do, as we’ll see in our next two posts) dressed and clutching her white gloves, before the sedative knocks her out, and will return in 24 hours a princess of maturity and authority.
But if this had been filmed in the 1930s, the golden age of screwball comedy, we likely would have had a different story. We would have had a studio back lot Ruritanian setting, not the real streets and warm velvet night of Rome. We would have had more Cinderella and less trade relations. We would have had a different ending. This is the 1950s when life, and especially princesses, has to be taken more seriously. After World War II and the atomic age, you can’t really go back to fairy tales and believe them.
More great moments: The funny bit when loopy Audrey, being taken home by him, is about to knock on a neighbor’s door and he grabs her wrist just in time.
“Is this the elevator?” she wonders at his dingy one-room apartment with sleepy dignity. She speaks with precise diction, and gentle awareness of her difference to people who are not royal.
“I’ve never been alone with a man before, even with my dress on. With my dress off, it’s most unusual.” Her line is delivered in a manner not coquettish, just pondering, which makes it all the funnier.
“Your royal highness?”
“Yes, what is it?” she sleepily responds, and we sense Peck’s triumph because he’s now sitting on the story of the year. In a way, we share his glee, because she is a real princess, and we hear the soft mist of some middle European folk theme playing in the background, which we associate with the young princess. She is who she is. As royalty, she is her own destiny.
But we don’t really want them to be one of us. We want them to be special, perhaps only so we may exploit them.
Another interesting play on reality versus fantasy is that throughout their day’s adventure together of sightseeing in Rome, Mr. Peck pretends not to know she is a princess, and allows her to pretend not to be one. Ostensibly, his motive is to catch her with her guard down, but as the day progresses, it becomes a kind of courtesy they extend to each other, not to shatter their pleasant outing with the hard truth. This is much better than if she had revealed at the beginning she is a princess out for a spree. It is a secret we share with both of them separately. We, too, want to see her let her hair down, but we don’t want to see her hurt.
More fun moments: the cleaning woman played by Paola Barborni berating Audrey in Italian for her loose morals, having found her wrapped in a towel in Gregory Peck’s bathroom. Also the janitor, who suspiciously frowns at Mr. Peck when he thinks Audrey is a prostitute.
Though the movie is less concerned with the setting than the plot, we do get glimpses of the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Coliseum. We get a more profound view of what it is like for a princess, who never carries money, to have her hair cut or buy an ice cream. She is helpless in the real world, princesses are. We have to take care of her, shelter her. Keep her as an inspiration, a muse, but never let her do for herself. Keep her from being independent, but for her sake or for ours? How many sheltered 1950s American suburban princesses brooded over the same thing about themselves?
Her first independent action, in having her hair cut, is to change her own appearance. She wants to be different, even if only the illusion of being different.
Back in his apartment, she is in his paisley bathrobe, primping in his bathroom, waiting for her clothes to dry, where the disapproving cleaning woman had earlier accused her of naughty things. Gregory Peck has changed into dry clothes, a freshly knotted tie around his neck, because real men wear ties.
They listen to a radio bulletin about the sick princess. The palace has issued a fake report hiding the fact that she is missing. It seems a modern touch, this simple spin doctoring, this manipulation of the media. It is her first inkling that people are worried about her, that others might suffer for what she has done.
We learn the Princess has been taught to cook, and sew, and clean, and iron as part of her education. “I just haven’t had a chance to do it for anyone.” She never will as a princess, unlike her American suburban princess counterparts.
They nearly confess both their love for each other and their real identities, embracing with longing and desperation, but with an ultimate self discipline that keeps them from doing either. What they share will end forever the moment they talk about it, and they know that.
“Were I not completely aware of my duty to my family and my country, I would not have come back tonight, or indeed, ever again.” Her commanding voice shakes at the last bit with barely repressed emotion. She dismisses them, not with haughtiness, but with the authority that is her birthright, that she has discovered, ironically, by running away from it.
She is left alone in her room with its baroque accoutrements, walking in a stately manner to the window, not galloping there as a curious child like she did only the day before.
Arnold pleads, “She’s fair game, Joe. It’s always open season on princesses.”
What might have been written as a comic line carries a hard and unsavory truth to it. Princess Diana would one day discover that, too.
Perhaps the grandest moment of the film is the end, when all the press meet in the ballroom of the embassy where the Princess will hold a press conference. She shows up, her staff in tow, no longer in her fairly princess evening gown, but dressed for business, a 1950s variation on the Juliet cap planted on the top of her short hairdo, a modern stateswoman.
Comforted by his gesture of gentlemanly discretion, the Princess deviates from the script when she admits that her favorite city on her tour has been Rome, “I will cherish my visit here as long as I live.” It is a grand declaration, and a personal one. Then, alarming her staff, she presses the flesh with the (real) journalists, just so she can touch Peck one last time. Mr. Albert slips her the candid photos in an envelope. He will keep their secret, too.
For all its dignity, it is one of the most romantic moments in the film.
Then she moves down the line, and we see him swallow with emotion. The press, captivated, applauds her act of humanness. She has won them over with a handshake. She has done her diplomatic mission by being what people want her to be: a Princess, and yet one of them. A fine line to walk.
Had this been filmed in earlier decades, they might have ended up together, either she giving up her throne or he being discovered to secretly have been a prince all along. Or, a combination of the two. After all, Britain’s King Edward VIII gave up his throne for the woman he loved a generation earlier, but still got to remain a Duke. Having one’s cake and eating it, too.
Had the movie been made in later decades, we might have none of the nobility (not of bloodlines but of spirit), or the heartbreak of self denial. Self denial has long been out of fashion.
Come back next Monday for Part 2 of the 1950s Princess when we have a look at Grace Kelly in The Swan here, which she made while, unknown to her colleagues on set, she was being secretly courted by a prince.