In its day, The Country Girl (1954) was a real prestige production. It was nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director (George Seaton), and Best Actor (Bing Crosby). Grace Kelly won her only Oscar, beating out sentimental favorite Judy Garland for the not dissimilar A Star Is Born, while Seaton took home an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Today the picture is mostly forgotten, except by fans of its stars. Ironically, it's probably better remembered as the movie co-star William Holden dutifully plugs in a famous episode of I Love Lucy. Despite some interesting performances, this backstage drama about a self-deceptive alcoholic has dated badly. Looking at it half a century after it was made, the script is artificial, stagy, and the acting uneven, despite occasional flashes of emotional realness.
The story is simple: washed-up actor-singer Frank Elgin (Bing Crosby) is hired by Broadway director Bernie Dodd (William Holden) for the lead in his new play. The show's producer (Anthony Ross) is dead set against hiring the alcoholic ex-star but defers to Bernie's judgment. The film traces Elgin's struggles in the weeks prior to his show's opening. As Bernie tries to coax a performance out of his self-loathing lead, he finds himself at odds with Elgin's wife, Georgie (Grace Kelly), apparently a recovering alcoholic herself, whose domineering handling of her husband undermines Elgin's already tenuous confidence, or so it would seem.
The film was adapted from a Broadway play by Clifford Odets. The play enjoyed a fairly successful run beginning in 1950; it ran for 236 performances, and star Uta Hagen won a Tony for Best Actress. The film of The Country Girl was made at the crest of a trend in fifties Hollywood toward adaptations of proven Broadway shows and popular novels (and away from original screenplays). Though less acknowledged than the wide screen revolution of 1952-54, Broadway adaptations were yet another strategy by the industry to combat the growing popularity of television. Plays in the news were turned into prestigious "night out" events for burgeoning upper middle class audiences. These productions usually hedged their bets by casting top-drawer stars in the leads, whether they were right for the parts or not, and further insured their investment by casting both long-established and much younger new talent, hence 25-year-old Grace Kelly as 51-year-old Bing's husband.
Though Kelly and Crosby won excellent reviews, William Holden frankly acts circles around them both. Always an underrated actor, Holden is perfect as the intense if sensitive director trying desperately to prevent the whole show from unraveling. It's a Herculean task, and Holden expertly conveys just the right balance of frustration around Elgin and Georgie and repressed concern in the company of his producer. It's a complex part and Holden's up to the challenge.
Crosby, who had a kind of second career playing washed-up drunks looking for redemption, is okay but never completely believable. He can't pull off Elgin's most agitated moments, though Bing tries hard. That the film panders to Crosby's fans by reworking his part into a singer (Bing sings several songs) only serves to make it even more difficult to take either Bing or his character too seriously. Grace Kelly, looking matronly with dark circles under her eyes, is more of a surprise; she sheds her cool sophisticated blonde image playing a hard woman for whom years of living with a needy drunk have not been kind. Her performance is rather one-note, but it's not bad. Gene Reynolds, a longtime television producer-director (M*A*S*H) has a supporting part as a stage manager, while George Chakiris appears unbilled as a pick-brandishing dancer.
This reviewer hasn't seen the 1973 TV movie of the same name, but it's better cast with stronger actors in the Elgin and Georgie roles: Jason Robards was Elgin in this version, Shirley Knight was Georgie, and George Grizzard was Bernie. Another well-cast TV movie, this one from 1982, starred Dick Van Dyke, Faye Dunaway, and Ken Howard.
Kelly famously beat out Judy Garland for 1954's Best Actress Oscar, and it's interesting to note the similarities between the two pictures. Both featured songs by Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin, including one sequence where the star records a song in a studio and listens to it on playback. Both are about suicidal drunks who are bailed out of jail, etc., and yet in just about every way A Star Is Born is superior. It's more adult, more emotionally real.
Video & Audio
First things first: Paramount's DVD of The Country Girl is presented in the wrong aspect ratio. The DVD is full frame, but the movie, first released at the end of 1954, all too clearly was shot for widescreen exhibition. The titles are a dead giveaway: full frame there's an acre of empty space above and below the text. Conversely, in 1.77:1/1.85:1 format the framing of the actors looks just right, without the awkward remoteness of the full-frame version. Almost across the board studios fail to understand that by 1954 (and even before that on some titles), almost every non-'scope movie was shot for widescreen exhibition, and that even way back then generally this meant 1.85:1, though during 1953-55 theatrical aspect ratios did vary widely, from about 1.66:1 to 2:1.
Beyond this, the image is okay but unimpressive. There are more than a few scratches, even a splice or two, that might have been digitally removed were this not part of the label's no-frills budget line. To that end there are no alternate audio options other than standard English mono, no subtitles other than English (at least the songs are subtitled), and no Extra Features.
Fans of Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby, and William Holden will want to give this film a look. But despite this powerhouse of talent, this is one of those well-regarded movies that simply doesn't hold up.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.