The Country Girl (1954)
“How far should a woman go…to redeem the man she loves?”
The Country Girl (1954)
Director: George Seaton
Cast: Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, William Holden
Synopsis: A director hires an alcoholic has-been and strikes up a stormy relationship with the actor’s wife, who he believes is the cause of all the man’s problems.
It’s tempting to complain that the vivacious 25-year-old Grace Kelly (Rear Window, The Bridges at Toko-Ri) was far too young to play the wife of 51-year-old Bing Crosby (Holiday Inn, Road to Bali), but the fact that they had an affair during the making of George Seaton’s The Country Girl more or less blows that complaint out of the water. Having said that, Bing wasn’t an alcoholic has-been like Frank Elgin, and Kelly was notorious for bedding her leading men, so their situations were just a tad different to that of Frank and Georgie Elgin.
As its title implies, The Country Girl is about Kelly’s character, but it’s Frank Elgin who sticks in the memory thanks to a riveting performance from Crosby and some keenly-observed writing by George Seaton (who also directs) from a play by Clifford Odets. Elgin was once a big-time singer with a contented wife (Kelly) and chipper young son, Johnnie (Jon Provost). But all that was destroyed in an instant when Elgin gazed lovingly at the plaque of his record company for a photographer instead of holding onto the hand of young Johnnie, who, with nobody to hold him back, ran straight into traffic. Unable to forgive himself for his son’s death, Elgin climbed into the bottle in an attempt to obliterate his guilt. He’s clean now, though, and has just won the lead role in a stage musical directed by Bernie Dodd (William Holden – Sunset Blvd, Network) who, for some poorly-defined reason, insists, over the objections of his backer (Anthony Ross), that Elgin is the only man for the job.
As Elgin’s wife tells Dodd during one of their many confrontations, her husband is a weak man. He’s riddled with insecurity and self-doubt, and the thought of the success of the show hinging on his performance is daunting enough for him to begin chugging on some 22% proof cough medicine. But The Country Girl doesn’t just rely on cause-and-effect for its impact. Some movies would feel that simply telling the audience of a character’s weakness and perhaps having them rub their lips while peering longingly through the window of a saloon would be enough to make their point, but The Country Girl burrows under the skin of Elgin to examine in close detail the character defects that gave rise to his condition. He not just weak, he’s frightened. He wants to be liked, and he’s desperate to please, so he tells people what he thinks they want to hear, and he’s as dependent on his patient but despairing wife as he is on the booze. In fact, he’s so pathetic that it’s difficult to like him at times, and we can understand Georgie’s air of weary resignation. That she doesn’t come to despise him for his weakness ultimately demonstrates the depth of her patience and love for him.
Fooled by Elgin’s elaborate, face-saving lies – which have just enough basis in fact to be plausible – Dodd convinces himself that Georgie is the cause of Elgin’s weakness. He’s the plain-speaking, no-nonsense type with a failed marriage in his past which colours his perspective of Elgin’s relationship with Georgie, and leads to a series of confrontations between them, often with Elgin skulking on the fringes like a frightened child. These moments are powerfully staged and written, and are complicated by an undercurrent of sexual tension between Georgie and Dodd that only slowly becomes apparent to both the audience and the characters. Although Elgin is often centre-stage, it’s this difficult, complicated relationship between Dodd and Georgie which is at the movie’s heart, and which provides a consistently adult examination of the strengths and weaknesses of all three characters. Even the soap-opera developments of the final act, which might have cheapened what has gone before, are handled in a subtle, low-key manner which illustrates the maturity of the characters.
(Reviewed 18th January 2016)
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