The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Country Girl

Something about stars who died too soon endear themselves to audiences, actors like James Dean, Montgomery Clift, and Grace Kelly. In a movie career that lasted barely six years, Kelly made just 11 movies, more often than not playing a glamorous leading lady with style too spare. And why not? She is one of the most classically beautiful women to ever appear on the silver screen. But years before Charlize Theron figured it out, Kelly went completely unglamorous in a role that won her the only Oscar of her career.

The movie was 1954's The Country Girl based on a Clifford Odets play and also features some great performances from crooner Bing Crosby and always reliable William Holden. Fifty-plus years later, the film feels slightly dated and comes across as somewhat boring visually. It's a play turned into a movie that never left the stage for lack of a better description. But visuals aside, The Country Girl relies almost solely on the success of its three stars to make this movie memorable, and in that way it is a great success. Kelly won the Oscar for Best Actress, Crosby was nominated for Best Actor, and somehow Holden was snubbed a nomination for one of his best performances.

With just weeks to go before his play opens in theaters, director Bernie Dodd (Holden) is still looking for that ideal lead. He picks Frank Elgin (Crosby), a past his prime performer who's fallen out of the limelight after years at the top of his game. Dodd's producer and financial backer, Philip Cook (Anthony Ross), is not so convinced that Elgin is the right man for the job, but Dodd insists and demands and gets his way. Elgin has gone through some struggles over the years since the tragic death of his son, including a long stretch where he downed bottles of liquor as quick as he could find it.

But even with all these warning signs, Dodd continues to work with Elgin because he thinks he'll catch lightning in a bottle with his performance. As the opening day draws near, Dodd sees more and more how Elgin's wife Georgie (Kelly) controls her husband's life in almost every way. Then as a result, Frank seems to suffer, especially in his on-stage performances. But what Dodd is seeing is not the whole picture as Elgin puts up a brave front when talking with the director who stood up for him. When he's with his wife, Frank is a quiet, worried man who lacks any self-esteem and blames himself for their son's death (which is revealed in a flashback). Can director Dodd figure this out in time to save his show and job?

There are other background and supporting characters here and there, but Kelly, Crosby and Holden dominate the movie and a scene doesn't go by that at least two of these three aren't in. Kelly beat out Judy Garland, Dorothy Dandridge, Audrey Hepburn and Jane Wyman out for the Oscar, an award she fully deserved. The costuming department dulls down Kelly's beauty as much as possible, having her wear a large pair of glasses, putting her in quiet, dark clothes, and pulling her hair back. Filmed in black and white, Kelly looks like a mother in her mid 30s who has suffered through some horrific stretches in her life.

Her performance is solid throughout, but she takes it into another gear late in the movie in a confrontation with Holden's Dodd after Frank has started drinking again. Obvious SPOILERS but check it out HERE courtesy of Youtube several minutes into this clip. Too often, a beautiful actress or a handsome actor isn't respected for their acting abilities because they're just so nice to look at. And while Kelly was always a strong presence in her roles -- including her movies with Alfred Hitchcock -- her part in The Country Girl shows that she can handle a darker, meaty character. A fully-deserved Academy Award often remembered more for her beauty and style than acting ability.

As for her co-stars, Kelly had a ton of chemistry with both Crosby and Holden. She'd work with Crosby again in High Society two years later and with Holden the same year in The Bridges at Toko-Ri. Crosby is known for his singing and dancing ability more than anything (White Christmas is a personal favorite), but his boozing performer here is a less than pleasant fellow with his fair share of personal flaws. During the casting process, Crosby almost turned down the role because he thought he was too old, but the fact that he was significantly older than both Kelly and Holden works well in terms of the character. Just like Kelly, not your typical Crosby, but one that shows he was not just a song and dance man.

Now for Holden, who was probably one of the biggest male stars in Hollywood in the 1950s, with classics like Sunset Blvd., Bridge on the River Kwai, Sabrina, and Stalag 17 among others. Often criticized for basically playing a variation of...well, himself, he was the lone actor here not to get an Oscar nomination. To be fair, it was a loaded year, here's the 1954 nominees. As an audience, we see what the Elgin's marriage is like, but Holden's Dodd is in the dark. For all he knows, Georgie is a controlling, manipulative wife when really she's trying to protect her husband. But Dodd is always likable and sympathetic, a driven career man trying to avoid a flop of epic proportions.

A dated movie that is very 1950s, but in a good way. Youtube has it available in segments, starting here with Part 1 of 11. Filmed entirely on indoor sets, the movie won't lose any scope if you watch it on your computer. It's a movie that depends on the characters with nothing else to distract from a sometimes heartbreaking story about a couple struggling through their marriage and the director just trying to make a successful play. Highly recommend this one.

The Country Girl <----trailer (1954): ***/****

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