Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Grace Kelly-High Society

I happen to think that Grace Kelly is the single most beautiful woman ever to have appeared in motion pictures. I came to this conclusion when I saw her in a big-screen revival of TO CATCH A THIEF in the early eighties.

Here's a piece I wrote in 2009 on Grace and her final film from my now-defunct blog, YOU'RE ONLY AS GOOD AS YOUR LAST PICTURE.

Grace Kelly-High Society

It's hard to think about Grace Kelly the movie star. That image is supplanted in one's brain by the more lasting image of Her Serene Higness, Princess Grace of Monaco, a role she essayed for 25 years--far longer than her 6 year film career. Still, fully half of her dozen theatrical releases from the early 1950's can be legitimately referred to as classics and in most of those cases due in no small respect to her appearance in them. She was an Academy Award winning actress and quite possibly the most naturally beautiful woman ever to appear on the big screen.

Grace Kelly's Philadelphia family had progressed into high society by the time she came along in 1929 and most members were not thrilled with her later choice of a theatrical career. One of her early stage appearances was, in fact, in a version of the popular play THE PHILADELPHIA STORY. The PHILADELPHIA STORY, in one way or another, would figure throughout the rest of her life.

In 1940, THE PHILADELPHIA STORY was a movie that actress Katherine Hepburn had fought to have made as a starring vehicle for herself. The resulting Oscar winner was a delightful, sophisticated screwball comedy that more than holds up even today. Hepburn plays Tracy Lord, a somewhat cold, divorced society woman about to be remarried when her ex unexpectedly shows up with a reporter and a photographer to sell tabloid coverage of the big event. While still harboring obvious feelings for the ex-husband (played charmingly by Cary Grant), Tracy finds herself surprisingly drawn to the easy-going reporter (played by Jimmy Stewart). Hilarity, as they say, ensues.

Grace was just eleven years old when THE PHILADELPHIA STORY came out. A decade later, after quite a bit of television, she began her own film career reluctantly, not wanting to abandon her beloved live performances. Her second film would be Fred Zinneman's prestigious, award-winning, iconic western HIGH NOON with Gary Cooper. According to some sources, she fell right into the anything goes Hollywood lifestyle, having affairs with both Zinneman and Cooper during the shooting.

Ava Gardner, married to Frank Sinatra during this period, co-starred with Kelly and the aging Clark Gable in MOGAMBO a year later. Gardner had a wild woman reputation and by all accounts did her best to drag Grace into it whilst filming on location in Africa...apparently with some success. Upon returning to Hollywood, however, Kelly met another who would mold her into a real movie star.

Much has been written about the psychological aspects and implications of director Alfred Hitchcock's relationship with Grace Kelly and in most versions, Kelly herself comes off as fairly oblivious to them. Whatever the truth, the relationship worked to make her into a true movie star starting with DIAL M FOR MURDER in which she's a woman attempting to fight off an attacker hired by her own husband and leading directly into REAR WINDOW where she plays sidekick to PHILADELPHIA STORY's wheelchair-bound James Stewart (who would become her lifelong friend and deliver the eulogy at her funeral).

Kelly then fought for the title role in THE COUNTRY GIRL, a downbeat, black and white film co-starring aging crooner Bing Crosby (note the trend to cast Kelly opposite older male co-stars) as a has-been alcoholic entertainer. It won her the Academy Award for Best Actress. By some accounts, Crosby had already been sleeping with her--along with actresses Inger Stevens and Katherine Grant--in the wake of his wife's 1952 death. In 1957, Grant would be the one he would ultimately marry.

A year later, teamed by Hitchcock with yet another aging actor, PHILADELPHIA STORY's Cary Grant, Grace Kelly made what would be another pivotal film in her brief career--TO CATCH A THIEF. Grant was cajoled out of an attempted retirement to play opposite the much younger Grace in what many often cite as some of the sexiest flirting scenes in film history. Like his former co-star, Stewart, Grant also would become a lifelong friend and would later appear with Princess Grace in what may have been both his and her final television appearance. TO CATCH A THIEF would also lead indirectly to her meeting Prince Rainier of Monaco.

In another bit of foreshadowing, Grace next appeared in THE SWAN, being courted by an older Prince (played by Alec Guinness). In her by then rather public private life she was being courted by, and eventually became engaged to, Prince Rainier. Soon enough she would become a real-life princess. But first...there was one more movie.

Grace Kelly eschewed high society for an acting life that eventually brought her to, of all places, HIGH SOCIETY. Made in 1956, this musical version of THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, the play and film that had already affected her life in so many ways, was a crowd-pleaser of the highest order. With its basic story intact, the addition of Technicolor, songs by the great Cole Porter and a rare instance of perfect casting and perfect timing, HIGH SOCIETY glows as both a musical and a comedy.

Frank Sinatra, still riding high from his 1953 comeback in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, forms a winning combination with both Kelly and his old musical rival, Bing Crosby. In one of his trademark affable performances, Der Bingle, once again more than 25 years Kelly's senior, brings their off-screen chemistry to the fore and works well as her character's true love.
In fact, the Oscar-nominated song on which Crosby and Kelly duet, True Love, is a highlight of the film and became a lasting favorite with the crooner, being trotted out again and again over the years in concerts. On a live album version toward the end of his life, daughter Mary Frances comes out onstage to sing the female part and Crosby adlibs, "Hello Grace."

In spite of that star power, as in the original, this is the story of Tracy Lord (inspiration for the name of later adult star Traci Lords) and her journey from ice goddess to warm, loving woman on a mildly manic wedding day. Although certainly no Katherine Hepburn, Kelly makes the part her own by playing upon her own background and perceived film personality as a rather cold performer. The contemporary publicity regarding her engagement to the Prince (her engagement ring in the film is reportedly her real one from Rainier) no doubt brought an extra level of interest to the picture. Her storybook wedding the following year put an end to her beloved acting career.

HIGH SOCIETY is also the final completed film of veteran character actor Louis Calhern who plays Uncle Willie. Calhern had made his movie debut in 1921. Although he had begun another film afterwards, he died during production and had to be replaced.
Bing Crosby continued his long and successful show business career for another two decades before dropping dead on a Spanish golf course after winning a round of golf. Sinatra would soon transform into his "Chairman of the Board" persona becoming a more powerful and influential person than ever but a more controversial one, too.

Grace Kelly became Princess Grace, a beloved figure to residents of Monaco and the world. It wasn't really a storybook life but then is there such a thing? From the beginning, the Prince banned all of her films from being shown in Monaco, apparently preferring his people not to think of her as an actress. In 1962, Alfred Hitchcock was said to have successfully lured Grace back into the fold to appear in MARNIE, in the role eventually filled by Tippi Hedren. Most sources indicate that she let the will of her people prevail and bowed out.

As herself, she introduced and/or narrated a number of arts or charity related films and televison shows in the ensuing years including the 1966 all-star anti-drug movie, POPPIES ARE ALSO FLOWERS and 1977's THE CHILDREN OF THEATRE STREET. The director of the latter, Robert Dornhelm, was working on a little-known and uncompleted project called REARRANGED with the Princess at the time of her death in 1982. Some sources indicate that it was to have been a return to acting but probably not.

In less than a decade as a movie star, the beautiful, willful, sophisticated and funny Grace Kelly climbed ever upward with few missteps and left Hollywood on a very high and popular note. The woman who had wanted little to do with high society ironically reached the pinnacle of her chosen career in HIGH SOCIETY. As her life changed so dramatically after that, Grace Kelly--as Princess Grace--would become the very definition of high society.

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