Archive for February 7, 2020

Country Matters

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 7, 2020 by dcairns
Chris Schneider’s back!
Nineteen fifty-four was the year of, among other things, A STAR IS BORN versus THE COUNTRY GIRL. Both had leading ladies — Judy Garland, Grace Kelly — in competition for the “Best Actress” Oscar. And both were dramas-with-songs where the songs were written by the same team, Harold Arlen (music) and Ira Gershwin (words).
“Harold Arlen?” you ask. Utterly first-rate composer, of a stature with Porter and Gershwin and Kern, yet sporadic luck as far as movies are concerned. High-points would be THE WIZARD OF OZ and the ‘50s STAR IS BORN. And then there’s THE COUNTRY GIRL.
Perhaps THE COUNTRY GIRL Is a shade less rewarding than STAR IS BORN — I’d attribute it to the difference between directors George Cukor (STAR) and George Seaton (GIRL) — yet the distance ain’t *that* huge. Both deal with people in the performing arts. In COUNTRY GIRL, that means a former star (Bing Crosby) attempting a stage comeback with the help and/or hindrance of his wife (Grace Kelly) and young director (William Holden). Both feature an older male (here Crosby) threatening to self-destruct via alcohol. Both even contain a faux-calypso ad jingle to be recorded — though these days one only finds the STAR IS BORN jingle among the “extras.”
The Oscar went to Kelly, of course, though I — while no Judy Partisan — would call Garland the more deserving. Kelly’s eye-popping for dramatic effect is a bit strenuous, and her telling Holden “Why are you holding me? I said, *why* are you *holding* me?” shortly before their kiss is the stuff of Imogene Coca comedy. Yet one can understand how Kelly’s dowdiness-for-virtue, in the early reels, yielding to an Edith Head party dress at the end would appeal to Oscar-think. There’s an affecting two-shot, too, of Kelly hiding her face from eager Crosby to disguise the pain at Holden’s accusations.
“To me you’re as phony as an opera soprano!” jeers Holden.
WHAP! goes Kelly’s hand on Holden’s face.
“Did I forget to tell you I’m proud?” she responds.
(Note to Oscar-conscious screenwriters: be sure to include one moment where the character asserts his/her worth.)
It’s all a well-heeled adaptation, with sharp-ish moments, of a 1950 Clifford Odets’play, one which won a “Best Actress” Tony for Uta Hagen. Only it’s smoothed-out, in an up-market ‘50s Paramount sort of way. There’s still startling animal imagery in the dialogue (“What’d I bring you, a basket full of snakes?” Holden asks Kelly), but the sudden epithets are gone. We have to wait till Odets-written SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS to hear Barbara Nichols call Tony Curtis “Eyelashes.” Holden no longer refers to Kelly as “Lady Brilliance.”
There’s a different sort of music, though, in the Arlen & Gershwin numbers. They recapitulate the STAR IS BORN trick of using apparent pop-songs to talk about the characters singing them. Just as “Gotta Have Me Go With You” was about James Mason’s need for Judy Garland, the spieler number here (“It’s Mine, It’s Yours”) is about the need to believe, no matter what, in Crosby’s ability to make good. A duet with a barroom chanteuse (“What you have learned is, is: / You haven’t learned a thing” sings Crosby) is about falling off the wagon and the dubious possibility of change.
Foggy memory brought me to COUNTRY GIRL with inaccurate notions of the plot’s resolution. Not to offer “spoilers,” but … let’s just say there’s a special category of ‘50’s drama wherein ill-advised romance is resolved by one character pursuing another in long-shot. PICNIC, f’rinstance, or the PAL JOEY movie. Or what we find here.
Kelly is proficient, if a bit flat-out and obvious; Holden gives the sort of sharp-edged, cagey performance that’s no surprise to anyone who’s seen SUNSET BOULEVARD; and Crosby’s hollow-eyed, anxious performance is the biggest surprise of all. A friend likes to quote John Ford on RED RIVER to describe Crosby here, and I’ll second that: “I never knew the son-of-a-bitch could act!”
One misses, among other things, the Gene Allen designs and the Skip Martin arrangements of STAR IS BORN. Also whatcha call directorial style. But there are definite virtues to this COUNTRY GIRL— including its glimpses of populist musical theater and those who made it in the age of Rodgers and Hammerstein.
THE COUNTRY GIRL falls short of A STAR IS BORN, in other words, but not *that* far short.
*
The cast for THE COUNTRY GIRL includes, as David Cairns would say, Lisa Fremont, Father Chuck O’Malley; Joe Gillis; and Deputy Charlie Norris … along with cameos by Ursus and Anita’s Bernardo.