(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.