The Country Girl (1954, George Seaton)

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Oh, the curse of the movie you’ve made fun of your entire life turning out to be one you really enjoy, and the embarrassment that results. In my defense, the reasoning behind my scoffing at The Country Girl sort of stands: it won Grace Kelly, probably one of the most beautiful human beings ever captured on film, her only Academy Award. Fine and dandy, except that Kelly — best known up to this point for her stony, incongruous role in High Noon — was an actress who so clearly reached her peak in the films she made for Alfred Hitchcock. Without Hitchcock, we might not even have sufficient evidence that she could do much acting, but in all three of those films she crafts a luminous, unforgettably seductive and complex screen image. In the year she made Rear Window — that’s Rear fucking Window, one of the most sublime works of art of the twentieth century — to reward her for a Bing Crosby movie called The Country Girl seems laughable. Even against Dial M for Murder, the concept seems silly.

But Kelly is very good in this film, embodying a stronger variation on her rational, suspicious presence in High Noon but now with an even more troubled, ominously imbalanced marriage. She doesn’t sigh and yet her face does somehow; she doesn’t roll her eyes but her voice does. And her burning eyes, weary beyond her years, could make any audience member regret his or her part in placing her in this thorny situation, a sham marriage to a once-beloved singer, now living on a dead-end street with a crack up in the ceiling. It’s not Lisa Fremont, but it’s an impressive performance in its small way. It’s less of a surprise that William Holden is splendid, playing one of his very best unvarnished assholes, a cantankerous theater director ranting unstoppably until someone shuts him up with a slap, a kiss or an unearned concession.

Bing Crosby is less compelling, and unfortunately the film mostly revolves around him. Crosby was always a better singer than an actor, and when writer-director George Seaton (who’d previously given us Miracle on 34th Street) instructed him to behave as a sort of defeated cuckold, he seems to have really taken it to heart, presenting his alcoholic ex-superstar Frank Elgin as a cartoonishly maudlin wino. He’s Chaplin’s Tramp without the “funny” part, and his self-destructive, dishonest behavior puts him on a plane with Ray Milland in Lost Weekend and Fredric March in A Star Is Born on the continuum of unintentionally hilarious Hollywood sadsack performances. That said, at least part of the point of his role here is that he’s kind of a shrimp, which gives it a leg up on his all-but-intolerable presence in Leo McCarey’s Going My Way.

The wound in Elgin’s heart has to do with the way his formerly all-encompassing careerist impulses led to the death of his young son (thanks to a contrived bad-photo-op faux pas); the guilt shared between Elgin and wife Georgie swelled up and then formed a permanent gulf between them, as one and then the other took turns sort of giving up. As Elgin stands on the verge of being rediscovered by staid chauvinist Bernie Dodd, the classic showbiz capitalist so familiar in movies from this period (all that’s missing are the cigars), he generates packs of lies about his wife burdening him to allay blame for his own transgressions and failures. In reality, Georgie’s doing the best she can for an ungrateful, clingy husband, something that eventually dawns on Dodd, leading to a grave series of life decisions for all involved and a hell of a lot riding on a good solid opening night; isn’t there always?

The modern audience is likely so accustomed to circa-1950s films that are straightforward in their sexism and skepticism toward women doing anything besides washing the dishes that it will be a challenge for them to power through the stuff early on that seems extremely misogynistic, much of it pouring from the all too sharp-tongued William Holden — but that’s what makes the film so interesting. It is, I assure you, not promoting the views espoused by Bernie Dodd, and it turns the tables on the audience in a quite interesting way. For its first two thirds, the movie cleverly plays on strong-female stereotypes as it unravels the web of enabling and deception that goes on within the central marriage, against the backdrop of a ramshackle, possibly doomed stage production. It’s no All About Eve, not by a longshot, but it’s nice that it sinks its teeth into some interesting characters and keeps undercutting the audience’s expectations while not becoming full-on cynical.

Unfortunately, the entire movie is nearly derailed by an absolutely ludicrous third-act twist — that it ends up wrapping it up fairly neatly is no excuse for this absolutely worthless sideline, which asks us to buy far too many things that violate well-established aspects of these three characters. Drop that nonsense and this becomes a top-drawer, economical melodrama about toxic relationships, neediness, and crippling self-doubt. In essence, I’m really surprised — but I wish I was even more surprised, which I almost was. Luckily, the film this yearns in its best moments to be would be made in the far stronger abusive-relationship chronicle Love Me or Leave Me, another shocking ’50s film about the horrors of psychological manipulation within marriage. But it’s certainly refreshing, even with all its missteps, that Seaton’s film feels as modern and challenging as it does.

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