Monday, January 18, 2010

The 1950s Princess - Part 2

Back for more on the 1950s princess. We move from Audrey Hepburn to Grace Kelly, from Princess Ann to Princess Alexandra in this post, but first have a look here, if you will, to the famous photo taken by Allan Grant at the 28th Annual Academy Awards in March 1956, available on the official Life magazine website. (It’s okay if you leave the blog for a minute. I’ll wait.)

(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.

They’re not terribly poor at all, but for a royal family, their prospects are considered bleak. Bleak enough so that when their cousin Alec Guinness visits, who is the direct heir to the throne after his mother Queen Agnes Moorehead, Kelly’s mother, Jessie Royce Landis (who just got finished playing her mum in 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.

“I don’t like the 20th Century,” sweet and slightly ditsy Great Aunt Estelle Winwood whines. She doesn’t know the half of it.

The movie is based on the Ferenc Moln├ír 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.

In this film Grace Kelly is poised and as beautiful as she ever appeared in any Hitchcock film, but this is a different look and a different performance altogether, and a character much less sophisticated. Always an actress who appeared to move with a dancer’s consciousness, and posed like a model, here she is controlled, intense, and minimalist both in movement and expression.   She seems entirely within herself, and even her younger brother jokes that nobody ever knows what she's thinking.

Her performance is spare and delicate, yet for all her stillness, she’s the one you end up watching in every scene she’s in. Perhaps she’s consciously keeping pace with the wonderfully nuanced performance of Alec Guinness.

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.

Perhaps the biggest paradox for this princess is that, though Mother is making her a nervous wreck with her constant instructions on how a princess is supposed to catch a husband and save the family, Grace really does want Alec to like her because she really does want to be a queen. Though reserved in nature, she is not passive. She is quite ambitious. But when they meet, she clumsily messes up, and it’s a downhill slide from there.

First, in a very funny and charming bit, she rises from her curtsey on being introduced to Alec Guinness, and, since he is bending over at the same time to kiss her forehead, she whacks the top of her head against his chin. The sound effects guy adds a nice, hollow-sounding, molar-loosening knock, and Miss Kelly puts her hand to her sore head and looks as if she would like the earth to open up and swallow her. Even drama could use a little slapstick now and then.

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.

Brian Aherne plays her uncle, a friar, who first notices the attraction between Jourdan and Grace, and tactfully tries to steer them away from making a commitment neither can really keep. Jourdan, hurt by Grace’s confession that he was invited to the ball only as a ploy to make Alec jealous, refuses to be dismissed and joins the family in the drawing room for insults and accusations at ten paces.

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.

Grace, who shifts radically from shy princess to queen-wanna-be, to girl experiencing her first crush, shoots a brief, exquisite, pleading look of misery to Brian Aherne that says “Did I just screw up as bad as I think I did?” Other actresses might have phoned this part in and played the princess like a milksop, or else overplayed it, entirely missing the nuances important to our understanding this character, who like many women brokered in marriage, like any statesman, is walking a tightrope of complicated diplomacy. But, Grace Kelly adds dimension to this gentle, troubled princess through what appears to be genuine empathy.

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.

“By the time we feel it, it’s already gone,” Aherne says. They don’t get it yet, but they will.  With what is for her a sweet, unaccustomed impulsiveness, she asks the handsome tutor his name and age, and wants to hear him say her name. She fusses over him, and succumbs to an entirely girlish crush, while he is awestruck that this vision he has adored and put on a pedestal is actually warm and human.

But Jourdan will soon realize that though they may have feelings for each other, their feelings are not on the same level, just as these two young people are not equal in society. Though she wants to run away with him against her family’s wishes, even packs her bags (again, it’s a princess thing), this time he rejects her. Poor Grace is rejected by every suitor she has in this film.

Another funny moment is when Brian Aherne, rushing to alarm the next morning, runs down the hall while scrambling into his friar’s robes, and we see, as does a surprised servant, that he wears a kind of pantaloon style underwear.
“Now you know!” he shouts at the servant, pulling his robes over his head.

The Queen has arrived, played with a funny mixture of the down to earth and splendid officiousness by Agnes Moorehead. She gets a good line too, remonstrating Grace’s little brothers, “Boys, behave yourselves. This is not a republic!”

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.

He recalls her father’s nickname for her, the Swan, and muses in his measured, beautiful Alec Guinness-brand speaking voice that the swan, remote and proud, must accept its fate to “be a bird, but never fly. Know one song, but never sing it until the moment of her death” while casting “cool indifference to the crowds along the bank.” When he next touches her hand tentatively, she does not flinch nervously this time, but lets him lead her back into that rarified world of the drawing room with mature resignation for her destiny, and not the childish fairy tale about princes and princesses she had wanted to believe.

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.

UPDATE:  Have a look at this post on the 1930 version of  The Swan called One Romantic Night with Lillian Gish


Caftan Woman said...

Wipe our feet? Homework? Geez!

TCM recently screened a 1930 version of the play starring Lillian Gish as a rather down-home sort of princess and Rod La Rocque as a caddish playboy of a prince. He had more growing up to do than she. Conrad Nagel was the adorable tutor.

Your description and understanding of the depth of Grace's portrayal is wonderfully written. She is an actress I grow to appreciate more and more.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Caftan Woman, so happy. (Extends white gloved hand.) So happy.

Thanks so much for your kind remarks. But dang, I missed that Lillian Gish version. Where was I? I would have loved to have seen that. Got to keep my eyes open for that one next time.

Caftan Woman said...

Caftan Woman accepts white gloved hand of Princess J and responds "Thank you so much" (hoping to channel the subtle sarcasm of Warner Oland).

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

You make-a me laugh, woman. I bow to your subtle Warner Oland sarcasm. I'd curtsey, but my knees crack when I do that.

J.C. Loophole said...

Part II is even better than Part I! Looking forward to the next installment - with baited breath, even.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

So happy, Prince J.C., so happy. I'm so glad you're looking forward to Part III. It's new and improved, and with fewer calories.

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