Country Matters

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.

6 Responses to “Country Matters”

  1. ehrenstein47 Says:

    I AM a Judy Partisan. However you don’t have to own a CD of the 1961 Carnegie Hall concert and play it constantly to object to this awards travesty. Grace Kelly in “Country Girl” winning over Judy Garland in “A Star is Born” is why for a great number of us the Oscars are a joke. Kelly was a fashion plate glamour star. Perfect for Hitchcock in “Rear Window” and “To Catch a Thief.” But in order to Catch and Oscar she totally de-glammed herself. Pathetic! This isn’t acting, it’s make-up!

    Hitch adored Grace for not only her beauty but the licentiousness just beneath its gleaming surface. This was well-known in tinsel- town. According to my friend the late great Hank Moonjean (“Dangerous Liasons”) “Grace was no snob. She’d sleep with the director, she’d sleep with the writer, she’d sleep with the cameraman — hell she’s sleep with the Grip!” Out on the wider world everyone knows Marilyn Monroe began her career as a “Five O;Clock Girl.” Few know that Grace was Round The Clock.

    I like her best in “The Swan” where she’s co-starred with Van Dyke Parks.

    A for Judy, Renee Zellweger is set to win the Oscar they wouldn’t give to the real Judy. Renee’s OK. But she can’t match THIS!

  2. #OscarsSoMeaningless because they don’t compare like with like. Obviously Grace Kelly is a better Grace Kelly than Judy Garland could be, and vice versa, but that tells us very little. And so the Award for Most Acting goes to Renee Z, because this kind of strange contest rewards bravura impersonations of celebrities or disabilities or, better yet, celebrities with disabilities. Not to take anything away from RZ (haven’t seen the movie), other than the sense that the prize means anything.

  3. ehrenstein47 Says:

    And that in turn brings up Ralph Bellamy’s FDR in “Sunrise at Campobello” which is screening on TCM as I post. I’m certain he was nominated for playing Our Great Crippled POTUS.. An enjoyably stilted film with Greer Greer in top form and a brief turn by Patrick Tilden Close as one of the Roosevelt kids. He played te part on stage as well. Patrick had both a Mam and Papa Rose who pushed him into The Bi but he never relly ade it there because he was both bohemian and bipolar. His best work is in Andy Warhol’s “Imitation of Christ” in which he plays the title role supported by Taylor Mead, Ondine, Brigid Berlin and Nico. Patrick spent his last years driving a cab in L.A. which he greatly enjoyed.

  4. chris schneider Says:

    The thought occurs to me that THE COUNTRY GIRL may have another lying flashback, STAGE FRIGHT-style. I noticed that Ira Gershwin’s book, LYRICS ON SEVERAL OCCASIONS, refers to the flashback as being set in the ‘30s — though the look, in standard ‘50s practice, is strictly contemporary (mid-‘50s). Then I remembered that the dialogue which refers to the accident, associated with the song “The Search Is Through,” says that it occurred in the 1940s. What we see is Crosby being photographed holding up the record label’s disc while the kid wanders away and the soundtrack is filled with skidding brakes and screams. But Kelly, in a late scene, talks about Crosby taking the kid on an expedition and letting him wander away. Whose version is correct?

    Shortly before we hear the car brakes we hear Crosby, in the song, singing “At last the breaks!” A, shall we say, fraught incident.

  5. ehrenstein47 Says:

    Speaking of Der Bingle, I really adore him in “High Time” a marvelous Blake Edwards comedy that’s played constantly on the Fox movie channel. He plays a 50ish retired businessman who decide to get himself a college education. But not just that — he wants the whole college experience. And so he becomes the favorite of a class that includes Richard Beymer, Tuesday Weld and Fabian. Hi romantic interest however is an age-appropriate French teacher played by Nicole Maurey — fresh off Bresson’s “Diary of a Country Priest.” Bing sings “The Second Time Around” and it’s all just lovely.

  6. Ah, I acquired that one and was wondering whether to check it out! Although My Sister Eileen, by Edwards’ buddy Quine, is also vying for attention.

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