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Sunday, August 3, 2014

GRACE KELLY COLLECTION -- DVD review by porfle

Although widely regarded as one of the leading Hollywood actresses of all time, Grace Kelly always struck me as a nice but rather unexciting presence. This is probably why I never sought her out but simply happened to see her in various movies that I was going to watch anyway, such as Alfred Hitchcock's REAR WINDOW and other such familiar titles as HIGH NOON and THE COUNTRY GIRL.

These three, in fact (out of a total of eleven), are the only Grace Kelly movies I'd seen before tucking into the 7-disc DVD set GRACE KELLY COLLECTION (2014) from Warner Home Video, which includes MOGAMBO (1953), THE BRIDGES OF TOKO-RI (1954), DIAL M FOR MURDER (1954), THE COUNTRY GIRL (1954), TO CATCH A THIEF (1955), and her final film, HIGH SOCIETY (1956). (Disc 7 contains her final interview, entitled "Princess Grace De Monaco: A Moment in Time.")

After that last filmic effort, her seemingly charmed life of rich girl turned model turned Oscar-winning actress (not to mention former Girl Scout) reached its storybook peak when she met and married Prince Rainier in 1956 and became Princess Grace of Monaco.

As in Hollywood, Her Royal Highness lived up to her name, exuding...well, "grace"...while giving birth to three children and being beloved by her subjects (all the while still courted in vain by Hollywood) until her tragic death in a car crash in 1982.

"I came to success very quickly," she once said, according to IMDb. "Perhaps too quickly to value its importance." While probably true, she seemed to "find herself" in her second life away from the tinsel-strewn decadence of Hollywood. But her cool beauty and elegant demeanor remain for film fans to appreciate in the movies that she left behind. Thanks to this DVD collection, I'm finally beginning to appreciate her considerably more myself.

In MOGAMBO (1953), her third film (for which she received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role), Grace Kelly plays Linda Nordley, the timid, pampered wife of anthropologist Donald (Donald Sinden), with whom she has traveled to the wilds of Africa in search of gorillas to study. Their guide is a rough, uncouth big-game hunter named Vic Marswell (an aging but still great Clark Gable) who traps animals for circuses and zoos.

Vic is currently semi-involved with the darkly beautiful Eloise Y. Kelly (a gorgeous young Ava Gardner), a soiled-dove city gal marooned in Vic's wilderness compound after being dumped there by a duplicitious maharajah. But the arrival of the Nordleys creates a heated love triangle between Vic, Eloise, and the unhappy-in-marriage Linda--whose skittish vulnerability prompts burly Vic to become hopelessly smitten--turning their gorilla-country expedition into a jungle soap opera.

Along with the slow-moving and only mildly engaging melodrama, virtuoso director John Ford gives us plenty of breathtaking African scenery in glorious Technicolor. Authentic African tribespeople and locations lend the production an air of authenticity that helps offset the hokey "forbidden love" story, as does our simple enjoyment in watching the appealing Gable and Gardner injecting a little life into things.

Grace Kelly, meanwhile, inhabits her flighty character to a tee, which viewers will probably find either endearing or annoying. Your reaction to this remake of the 1932 Clark Gable-Jean Harlow film RED DUST may fall along similar lines. Personally, I prefer the similarly-themed Howard Hawks comedy-adventure HATARI!, but found MOGAMBO to be a passable time-waster which, thanks to Africa and Ava, looks terrific. Gable and Kelly, however, are hardly a romantic screen couple for the ages.

Director Mark Robson's THE BRIDGES AT TOKO-RI (1954) finds Grace in a role which barely gives her enough screen time to make an impression. She plays Nancy, the wife of fighter pilot Lt. Harry Brubaker (William Holden), currently assigned to an aircraft carrier in order to help fight the Korean War.

Nancy brings their two daughters to Tokyo to meet the carrier when it docks and give Harry a pleasant surprise, but their romantic reunion is interrupted when he must leave to rescue buddies Mickey Rooney and Earl Holliman (who saved Harry's life that very day when his jet went down in the freezing ocean) after the two helicopter jockeys land in the brig. With little to do otherwise, Grace's best moment in the film is when her family ends up bathing nude with a Japanese family (as per local custom) and the result is a charming intermingling of disparate cultures.

Grace gets second billing here but it really belongs to Fredric March as Rear Admiral Tarrant, who takes an interest in Harry since the young pilot reminds him of his son who was killed in WWII. March is excellent portraying the wisdom and compassion of an officer with the responsibility of sending Harry and his fellow pilots on a highly dangerous mission to knock out the titular target (which could hasten the end of the war) while agonizing over their possible fate.

This film was produced during that magical Hollywood era when they could still make war pictures that were stirring and patriotic (instead of cynical and downbeat) while still exploring the human side of the soldiers involved--particularly their psychology and that of their loved ones, often encompassing feelings of disillusionment and isolation, with even a little existentialism thrown in.

"Militarily, this war is a tragedy" Admiral Tarrant laments at one point, while Brubaker (nicely played by a vibrant young Holden) feels cheated that this new war has forced him to give up the life he'd begun to forge after having already served in WWII.

Rooney and Holliman, two of my favorite actors, also give solid performances as the intrepid helicopter rescuers. They figure prominently in the film's exciting conclusion which, after some tense action aboard the aircraft carrier, comes to a head during the final thrilling raid on Toko-Ri.

This sequence is loaded with incredible aerial footage and top-notch special effects (reminiscent, I thought, of the rebel fighters' attack on the Death Star in STAR WARS) and is topped by a harrowing firefight on the ground in which the lives of our heroes are in grave jeopardy. THE BRIDGES OF TOKO-RI may not be one of the all-time greatest of war films, but it's a solid, affecting effort that should remain in your memory for some time.

Grace Kelly's first association with Alfred Hitchcock came in 1954 with DIAL M FOR MURDER, adapted by Frederick Knott from his own stage play. The theatrical origins of the story are apparent since Hitchcock made little effort to hide them--indeed, he probably considered the limited locations (most of the action takes place in a single apartment) a challenge along the same lines as LIFEBOAT and ROPE.

In one of the disc's bonus featurettes, "Hitchcock and Dial M", Peter Bogdanovich relates that in directing the film Hitchcock didn't feel the need to "open it up" cinematically, fearing that this would interfere with the play's intricate construction.

And he finds enough with which to busy himself artistically to keep things visually interesting while briskly moving the dialogue-driven plot along--in particular, since the film was originally released in 3D, Hitchcock seems inspired to explore the possibilities of this novelty device without resorting to the more obvious gimmicks.

Ray Milland is at his slimy-smooth best as former tennis pro Tony Wendice, now living with wife Margot (Kelly) in a luxurius apartment in London. The arrival of an old friend from the USA, Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings)--with whom Margot once had an affair--helps set into motion Tony's plan to murder Margot for her money and blame it on a blackmail scheme gone wrong.

To carry out the murder, Tony hires a cash-strapped con man named Lesgate (Anthony Dawson, who, as "Professor Dent", was famously executed by agent 007 in the first James Bond film, DR. NO). Their lengthy dialogue scene in which Tony lays out his plan in intricate detail is talky, almost static, yet Hitchcock and his able cast manage to bring the script to vivid life as we hang on every word.

The actual murder scene is executed (so to speak) with exquisite suspense, helped in no small part by Grace Kelly's outstanding performance as the frantic victim. Later, during the investigation, the introduction of a new character in the form of Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams, whom many baby-boomers will recognize as Sebastian Cabot's replacement in the TV series "Family Affair") turns DIAL M FOR MURDER into a crackerjack investigative procedural reminiscent of "Columbo" in that the actual culprit arrogantly underestimates the detective. The resulting cat-and-mouse game of wits makes this suspense thriller one to savor.

A busy year for Grace, 1954 would bring what was arguably her greatest success as an actress--namely, the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Georgie Elgin in director George Seaton's Best Picture contender THE COUNTRY GIRL. Bing Crosby snagged a Best Actor nomination as Georgie's alcoholic husband Frank. (The movie received seven nominations in all.)

William Holden's back and bursting with energy in the role of Bernie Dodd, a hot-shot Broadway director who ignores his backers' misgivings by wanting to hire the washed-up Frank for the lead role in a new musical despite his potential unreliability. After a successful audition, insecure Frank disappears when he discovers he's up for the pivotal part instead of a simple supporting role. Bernie tracks him down to convince him that he can handle it--but can he?

As Frankie's mousey wife Georgie, Grace Kelly gains extra critical cred by toning the glamour dial way down. In fact, she's probably as close to "dowdy" here as our future princess could possibly get without going full Jane Hathaway. (Bernie evens chides Georgie for trying to hard to look plain.)

Since their young son (a pre-"Lassie" Jon Provost) was killed while in Frank's care, the distraught dad has been on a downward spiral that Georgie's tried her best to stop even if it means overly protecting him to the point of being domineering, of which Bernie accuses her. When the play's early notices aren't exactly glowing and Frank starts hitting the bottle again, it becomes apparent to Bernie that Georgie's influence over her husband may have been more crucial than he suspected. Not only that, but more secrets about Frank's past come to light which convince Bernie he's got a much bigger problem on his hands than he ever imagined.

Grace not only holds her own next to both Holden and a very effective Crosby, but spars expertly with them in several emotionally-charged exchanges that really give her acting skills a workout. Any reservations I might've had about her getting by mainly on girlish good looks and an elegant charm are put to rest watching her make the most of this demanding role. One thing's for sure after the fadeout--she deserved that Oscar. THE COUNTRY GIRL skirts the line between pathos and bathos and ends up just on the right side of it with a satisfying conclusion which rewards our emotional investment in it.

Hitchcock rears his familiar head again (see if you can spot it) in TO CATCH A THIEF (1955), a smoothly sophisticated vehicle in which some of the director's favorite actors get to engage in shadowy intrigue laced with coy dialogue and wry witticisms.

The French Riviera forms a gorgeous backdrop for this tale of a reformed cat burglar, John "The Cat" Robie (Cary Grant), trying to prove his innocence after a new rash of daring jewel thefts put him under intense police suspicion. How to do that, you ask? Simple--he hangs around some of the most likely future targets at the most expensive beachfront hotel, hoping to catch the unknown thief in the act.

Not surprisingly, the most prominent potential victims turn out to be lovely playgirl Frances Stevens (our own Grace Kelly) and her mother Jessie (Jessie Royce Landis, who'd play Grant's mother in NORTH BY NORTHWEST), who is practically dripping with priceless jewelry at all times. It's not hard to guess that John and Frances will form a mutual infatuation, especially when she figures out his true identity and excitedly expresses interest in joining him in his next heist.

As a refined but irreverent heiress living the life of leisure, Kelly is as far removed from THE COUNTRY GIRL as one can get. But her seductive playgirl is cool as a champagne cocktail despite an effort by the actress to loosen up. Even in the heat of passion, she's as flawless and silky-smooth as the sumptuous frosting on a wedding cake.

Not that I mind, of course--what man wouldn't want to romance such a woman at least once in his life? And especially a man who happened to be as impossibly handsome and effortlessly suave as Cary Grant?

Indeed, in addition to the delectable mystery and giddy suspense which Hitchcock (as expected) handles like the virtuoso that he is, one of the irresistible attractions of TO CATCH A THIEF is seeing two of the most beautiful people in Hollywood history having a ticklish go at each other with postcard-pretty France as their playground. Hitchcock's having fun here, and he wants us to have fun, too. And we do.

Wrapping up both Grace Kelly's career and this DVD set in fine style is her final film, HIGH SOCIETY (1956), MGM's musical remake of THE PHILADELPHIA STORY which starred Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, and James Stewart. The film was rushed into production since Grace was already preparing to marry Prince Rainier and leave showbiz forever, and her cinematic swan song ended up breaking box office records upon release.

As "Tracy Lord", Grace is back to being a pampered rich girl, only moreso--she's on pins and needles planning her upcoming wedding to some stiff named George Kittredge (John Lund) whom we know doesn't have a chance in hell because Tracy's cutely tomboyish li'l sister Caroline (Lydia Reed, pretty much a Virginia Weidler clone) doesn't like him and prefers Tracy's easygoing ex-husband C.K. Dexter-Haven, or "Dexter" (Bing Crosby), whom Tracy rejected because, among other negligible reasons, he chooses that awful lowbrow jazz over serious music.

One of those hyperactive romantic comedies brimming with "comic complications", HIGH SOCIETY tries so hard to be lighthearted it tends to be lightheaded at some times, and turgid at others. Bing, of course, comes off as smooth as molasses and just as thick--it's fun watching him try to be "breezy." He does have that voice, though, and we can't blame even the great Louie "Satchmo" Armstrong (he and his band serve as the story's Greek chorus) for wanting to jam along with it.

Grace, meanwhile, has that coltish quality Peter Bogdanovich was aiming for when he cast Cybill Shepherd in AT LONG LAST LOVE (although in Cybill's case the word "horsey" might be more apt), breathlessly reciting wisecracks and pithy exclamations while hitting all her marks as though running the bases. She isn't quite "funny" as much as she's simply formidable, although when things veer more toward the dramatic she handles herself with aplomb.

Helping to round out the stellar cast are Frank Sinatra and Celeste Holm as correspondents for a cheap gossip rag who've been allowed to cover the wedding lest a damning story about Tracy's father Seth (Sidney Blackmer) be printed. They, too, are obviously meant to be together, so of course Frank will fall for Tracy while Celeste fends off the advances of Tracy's elderly Uncle Willie (Louis Calhern).

In turns amusing and tiresome, HIGH SOCIETY is a harmless way to pass some time in between worthwhile moments such as Bing and Grace dueting on "True Love", the hit song that earned them both gold records. The Cole Porter score itself isn't one of his most stellar achievements--the song and dance interludes seem rather shoehorned in at times--but it's kind of fun anyway. The same can be said for the film as a whole.

The title of the set's seventh disc, "Princess Grace De Monaco: A Moment in Time", is tragically ironic since she would be gone only ten short days later. Producer-director Robert Kline and journalist Pierre Salinger went to Monaco to interview the princess in her natural surroundings, encountering a still-lovely woman who seemed happy, confident, and at peace with herself.

She speaks at length and with great pride of Monaco, which she describes as "a little wedge between Italy and France that has managed to survive all the upheavals of history." Also discussed are the challenges of parenthood, the differences between American and European cultures, why monarchy can be beneficial, etc. Interestingly, Salinger dwells less upon the expected show business questions in favor of exploring Princess Grace as a person who exudes wisdom and intelligence.

As an actress, Grace Kelly often came off as such an "ice goddess" that it made her moments of warmth even more appealing. And there were more of these than I previously suspected, denoting the range and versatility of an actress who played a sheltered, sexually-naive prig in MOGAMBO, a devoted wife and mother in THE BRIDGES AT TOKO-RI, a two-timing spouse-slash-victim in DIAL M FOR MURDER, a plain-Jane pillar of domestic integrity in THE COUNTRY GIRL, a jet-set playgirl in TO CATCH A THIEF, and a romantically-confused heiress in HIGH SOCIETY. Warner Home Video's GRACE KELLY COLLECTION gives us all of these personas, and, like Grace Kelly herself, they're worth getting to know.

Special features:

Mogambo--theatrical trailer

The Bridges at Toko-Ri--theatrical trailer

Dial M for Murder--"Hitchcock and Dial M", "3D: A Brief History", theatrical trailer

The Country Girl--none

To Catch a Thief--commentary by Peter Bogdanovich and Laurent Bouzereau, "Writing and Casting To Catch a Thief", "The Making of To Catch a Thief", "Alfred Hitchcock and To Catch a Thief: An Appreciation", Edith Head: The Paramount Years", theatrical trailer

High Society--"Cole Porter in Hollywood: True Love", premiere newsreel, radio ads, Tex Avery cartoon ("Millionaire Droopy", 1956), trailers for this and "The Philadelphia Story", production notes (text)

Plus: thirteen colorful mini-posters and production stills and Bing Crosby's personal remembrance of Grace Kelly

Format: Multiple Formats, Box set, Collector's Edition, Color, Dolby, NTSC

Language: English

Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only.)

Official WB Shop
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Street date: July 29


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