Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Country Girl

"The Country Girl" (George Seaton, 1954) I'm not a fan of Clifford Odets' writing, feeling it unnatural and stagy—a view of the world only from Odets' smart-ass head—good ideas gussied up with painful patter of the eye-rolling variety, everybody on their last nerve. The best approach to Odets is with an editor's pen and skilled actors and George Seaton used both in his acclaimed adaptation of "The Country Girl."

The story of a Broadway director (William Holden) trying to revive the career of an alcoholic—and worse, stage-shy—actor for his show, has a canny, even inspired look at human psychology behind it, but a little too much of the passive-aggressive "I'm insulting you with honeyed words" gambit that the playwright brought to his later works. Seaton cuts almost half the dialogue, and by employing Bing Crosby spackles the holes with Harold Arlen-Ira Gershwin tunes for the crooner to sing. A slight alteration of director Bernie Dodd's play to be more of an "Oklahoma!"-style production, and Seaton glides over the dramatic gullies with a musical bridge. It pays off gang-busters, as well, as one particular tune haunts Crosby's Frank Elgin, effectively replacing the negative demons in his head with song.

Grace Kelly got the Oscar for her performance (taking the statue away from Judy Garland for "A Star Is Born" prompting Groucho Marx to wire Garland the consoling cable: "It's the biggest robbery since Brinks!"), but it's not her best performance (They rarely are). Kelly's natural Philadelphia blue-blood bearing still shines through, no matter how much they down-key the make-up, or how drab the wardrobe, and her first big confrontation scene with Holden feels like amateur night. She gets progressively better and is at her best with no dialogue at all.

Holden, on the other hand, has just enough acid bile in his stomach to regurgitate Odets and make it seem like he thought it up himself—Holden could make "pretentious" sing like gospel, and Odets must have seemed like a skip in the park for him.

But the revelation is Bing Crosby and his portrait of a self-loathing, weak man who isn't happy until the rest of the world agrees with what a louse he is. Crosby has enough corn in his dossier that he knows how to sell musical fluff, but here he digs deep and the displays of emotion over his face are tough to watch. Crosby, used to playing the relaxed reed in the breeze, shows a dark side that undercuts all the self-assurance he peddled over his long career. It's amazing and painful to watch, and shows the gifts contained in Bing Crosby on both sides of the entertainment spectrum, where he not only could sing the blues, but also show what's left when the music stops.

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