Judge Diane Wild explores that rarest of rare genres: the musical melodrama.
How far should a woman go to redeem the man she loves?
In a time before Halle Berry and Charlize Theron, Grace Kelly (To Catch a Thief) won the Oscar for frumping up in 1954's The Country Girl. Her performance is more than a bad hairdo and unflattering clothes. She uses her trademark aloofness to great advantage as the brittle Georgie Elgin, a woman whose love for her husband has been buried by years of living with the "cunning drunk" he has become.
Her costars are no lightweights either. Bing Crosby (White Christmas) took on an unusually dramatic role to play her husband Frank, while William Holden (Sunset Blvd.) forms the other point in the unexpectedly poignant romantic triangle.
Facts of the Case
Director Bernie Dodd (Holden) needs a star, a great singer with acting chops, for his Broadway play. Frank Elgin would be perfect—if he weren't a has-been and an alcoholic on the verge of a bender. But Dodd wins the casting battle against producer Phil Cook, who wants a safer choice. "Why can't you be satisfied with a good, reliable, adequate, normal, sober actor?" Cook asks. "Because he'll give you a good, reliable, adequate, normal, sober performance, and that's not what people pay to see," Dodd replies. (He actually says "that's not what people pay $6.60 to see," but the quote loses its effect when you realize that, these days, people pay more than $6.60 to watch Gigli).
For Dodd, even worse than Elgin's alcoholism is that he comes with his overbearing wife Georgie, who also acts as his manager. When the play is staged in Boston to prepare for its Broadway run, tensions mount between Elgin and Georgie, and Georgie and Dodd. When it becomes obvious that it's Elgin who's manipulating both of them, Dodd discovers his frustration with Georgie might hide frustrated attraction.
Based on a play by Clifford Odets (who was blacklisted in the McCarthy era and was the inspiration for the title character in Barton Fink), The Country Girl often feels staged, but it's nonetheless a compelling drama with a satisfying psychology that unravels gradually.
Dodd constantly feels the need to prove himself, so he is desperate to mount a successful play and to force a great performance out of the unreliable Elgin. He is also divorced from a manipulative woman who always hoped his next play would be a flop so she could prove she loved him even though he was a failure.
After seeing Elgin tiptoeing around Georgie, it doesn't take much to convince Dodd that she is domineering and bitter. Elgin recounts the couple's sad history—Georgie tried to commit suicide after their young son died, then became consumed with drink and jealousy. In order to give her a purpose to life, Elgin let her act as his agent. She stopped drinking, and Elgin began. "That figures," Dodd says. "You were the weak one now. That's what she wanted."
Movies from this era often have disturbing undertones—or overtones—of misogyny, and The Country Girl plays like a prime example. "They all start out as Juliets and end up as Lady MacBeths," Dodd says at one point. But when the relationship between Georgie and Elgin is explored further, it's obvious that something else is going on.
Elgin not only feels responsible for his son's death, he is terrified of failing and desperately wants to be liked. He sets Georgie up to be his mouthpiece in order to express his negative thoughts, projects his own suicide attempt and drinking history on her, and forces her to be the glue that holds him together. She desperately wants her own life, but out of loyalty and love for her husband, she smoothes his way and keeps him on the path of sobriety as much as she can.
Both Crosby and Holden display an affecting vulnerability, but in dramatically different ways. Their performances hold the movie together, making a true love triangle where the viewer is as torn as Georgie is. Cynical Dodd is attracted to Georgie's steadfastness, while realizing that quality doesn't work in his favor. Elgin's easygoing exterior masks a terror of the responsibility for his career and his marriage. Crosby's character isn't entirely believable throughout, but the late-plot lapses don't quite derail the movie.
The transfer is substandard, even for a movie of this age. Numerous scratches spot the image, and contrast is poor. The audio, on the other hand, is mercifully free of pops and hisses, allowing for clear dialogue and musical numbers that showcase Crosby's performances and a special appearance by chanteuse Jacqueline Fontaine. The songs are mostly forgettable, however. There are no extras.
The Country Girl is that rare genre—a musical melodrama. Despite Crosby's singing talents, the musical element doesn't hold up well. The melodrama succeeds largely because of the chemistry between the three stars and the occasionally stiff but mostly effective dialogue by Odets.
Paramount is guilty of slapping together a bare-bones DVD release of a classic film. The dream cast is acquitted.
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