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Washed up singer/actor Frank Elgin has a chance to make a come-back when director Bernie Dodd offers him the leading role in his new musical. Frank however is very insecure, turns to alcohol and shuns even the smallest of responsibilities, leaving everything up to his wife Georgie who finds it harder and harder to cope with her husband's lack of spirit. Bernie tries to help Frank regain his self-confidence, believing that it is Georgie who's the cause of his insecurity. Written by
Leon Wolters <wolters@strw.LeidenUniv.nl>
In the ranking of American playwrights Clifford Odets is usually placed in the second tier behind Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller, Lillian Hellman and Tennessee Williams. His output was something less than theirs and his two best-known plays, Waiting for Lefty and The Country Girl, never quite reached the artistic pinnacle of say, Miller's Death of a Salesman or Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire. Nonetheless as a movie The Country Girl is a brilliant piece of work thanks in part to a fine adaptation by director and screenwriter George Seaton (Oscar for best screen adaptation, 1954) and sterling performances by Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby and William Holden. Seeing this for the first time I was almost as much impressed by Holden, who played a part very much in keeping with his character and with other parts he has played, as I was by Kelly and Crosby who both did 180 degree turns in type-casting.
Grace Kelly won an Oscar as the faithful, strong-willed, bitter, dowdy co-dependent wife of crooner Crosby who played a whimpering, guilt-ridden alcoholic. You have to see Grace Kelly in the bags-under-her-eyes make-up and spinster get-ups to believe it. She looks at least ten years older than her 25 years with a sour puss of a face and an attitude to match. I think she won best actress (over Judy Garland in A Star Is Born) partly because her appearance was so stunningly...different. (While I'm musing, I wonder if this was the film of hers that was banned in Monaco.) It would seem to be the height of creative casting to put her into such a role, yet she is excellent, wonderful to watch as always, her timing exquisite, her expression indelible, and her sense of character perfect. When she says to Holden, "You kissed me--don't let that give you any ideas," and then when we see her face after he leaves, loving it, we believe her both times.
Bing Crosby too is a sight to behold in what must have been his finest 104 minutes as a dramatic actor. He too played way out of character and yet one had the sense that he knew the character well. He was absolutely pathetic as the spineless one. (In real life Der Bingo was reportedly a stern task master at home--ask his kids.) Clearly director Seaton should be given some of the credit for these fine performances. When your stars perform so well, it's clear you've done something right.
The production suffers--inevitably, I suppose--from the weakness of the play within the play. Crosby is to be the star of a Broadway musical called "The Land Around Us." (What we see of the musical assures us it's no Oklahoma!) He's a little too old and stationary for the part, but of course he sings beautifully. (Painful was the excruciatingly slow audition scene opening the movie with Crosby singing and walking through a thoroughly boring number.) Holden is the director and he is taking a chance on Crosby partly because he believes in him and partly because he has nobody else. Naturally if Crosby returns to the bottle, everything will fall apart.
What about the nature of alcoholism as depicted by Odets? Knowing what we now know of the disease, how accurate was his delineation? I think he got it surprising right except for the implied cause. Crosby's character goes downhill after the accidental death of his son, which he blames on himself. Odets reflects the belief, only finally dispelled in recent decades, that alcoholism was indicative of a character flaw, as he has Crosby say he used his son's death as an excuse to drink. Today we know that alcoholism is a disease, a chemical imbalance. Yet Odets knew this practical truth (from the words he puts into the mouth of William Holden's character): an alcoholic stops drinking when he dies or when he gives it up himself. It is interesting to note that as a play The Country Girl appeared in 1950, the same year as William Inge's Come Back, Little Sheba, which also dealt with alcoholism. The intuitive understanding of alcoholism by these two great playwrights might be compared with the present scientific understanding. (See for example, Milam, Dr. James R. and Katherine Ketcham. Under the Influence: A Guide to the Myths and Realities of Alcoholism  or Ketcham, Katherine, et al. Beyond the Influence: Understanding and Defeating Alcoholism .)
Here's a curiosity: the duet song (best number in the movie; Crosby sang it with Jacqueline Fontaine) has the lyric "What you learn is you haven't learned a thing," which is what the alcoholic learns everyday.
And here's a familiar line, cribbed from somewhere in the long ago: Fontaine asks Crosby aren't you so-and-so, and he replies, "I used to be."
(Note: Over 500 of my movie reviews are now available in my book "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!" Get it at Amazon!)
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