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On Her Birthday, A Meditation on the Work and Life of Grace Kelly

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Grace Kelly would have turned 83 today, which only highlights the tragic fact that she's been gone exactly thirty years now.

When I heard of her untimely death all those years ago, I remember thinking what most of her public must have thought: that her life had been just as dramatic and eventful as any of her films.

Her ascendancy from Grace Kelly to Her Serene Highness, Princess Grace Of Monaco was the stuff of storybooks (and a newspaper editor's dream) in 1956, yet without the "happily ever after" part.

Not to say she was miserable. Over the years, she remained active and visible in a variety of good causes, and she did much for her principality. She had three children, and her marriage to Prince Rainier endured.

Yet inevitably her royal position stifled and isolated her.

She was tempted more than once to get back on-screen, most notably for Alfred Hitchcock's Marnie in 1962, but without the support of her husband and her subjects, that simply wasn't going to happen.

What of her film legacy? First, the obvious: in movies as in life, she left us too soon. Her film career spanned just six years and a total of eleven films.

Over that short period, however, Grace was very busy indeed.

She played opposite much older actors, and fell in love with more than one of them -- specifically, Bing Crosby and William Holden. She paid a stiff price for these public romances, as the tabloid press had her mating with practically all her co-stars.

She won an Oscar in the time-honored tradition of impossibly beautiful actresses showing they can act by playing frumpy and against type, for 1954's The Country Girl.

And most memorably, in just two years and three films, she became Hitchcock's iconic template for the cool blonde beauty in need of romance or rescue -- or both.

Grace Kelly always wanted to be an actress, and there was both passionate desire and cool calculation in that. She was not only gorgeous physically -- she had innate star quality. And she knew it.

Just watch her film debut in the solid noir suspenser Fourteen Hours (1951), starring Richard Basehart. She's not on for long, but when she is, she squeezes everyone else out of the frame.

Then there's her breakthrough role in High Noon (1952). Though she seems ridiculously young for Gary Cooper, you could understand him riding out of town just for her.

Grace came back into my own world rather suddenly about a week ago, when I sat down to screen the newly released 3-D version of her first Hitch outing, 1953's Dial M For Murder.

Watching her in 3-D made her come alive again for me, and I was struck by how, in the role of an adulteress targeted for murder by her own husband, she was able to blend sexuality with vulnerability, even innocence.

I've listed my own favorite Kelly pictures below... the two that fall just short of making it (1953's Mogambo and 1956's High Society) suffer the same drawback: they are both remakes/re-workings of earlier films which are markedly superior:

Mogambo is a re-tread of 1932's Red Dust, a long unavailable Gable/Harlow classic just released (bewilderingly) with positively no fanfare on Warner's on-demand Archive Collection.

High Society is a musicalization of The Philadelphia Story, which boasts swank Newport scenery and a hummable Cole Porter score. Still, even with Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong on-hand, it fails to recapture the freshness and zing of the earlier film.

Watch Grace and fall in love again. You'll remember she was a princess for millions long before she went to Monaco.

High Noon (1952)- Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) is set to retire with his young Quaker bride Amy (Kelly) when word comes that outlaw Frank Miller is arriving on the noon train to settle an old score with Kane (he put Miller away). In fact, three of Miller's accomplices are already awaiting his arrival there. Everyone, including Amy, tells Kane to leave, but he knows he can't. When Will asks his supposed friends and neighbors to stand beside him against the fierce Miller, everyone turns him down. As the clock ticks its way towards noon, Kane realizes he must face the outlaws alone. Fred Zinnemann's stark revenge tale, told in virtually real time, packs enough intensity into eighty minutes to carry two movies. It's suspenseful in the extreme, but also a morality tale, powerful in its simplicity, about the courage to make difficult, principled choices, even when those around you take the easy way out. This offers obvious parallels to the prevailing McCarthyism of the time (writer Carl Foreman was indeed blacklisted), but symbolism aside, this remains a trim, altogether brilliant western, with veteran star Cooper creating the quintessential authentic Western hero.

Dial M For Murder (1953)- Set in the posh preserves of London, "Dial M" delivers the recurring Hitchcock theme of evil found in unexpected places and people, often close to home. Ray Milland plays smooth, conniving Tony Wendice, a husband who wants philandering young wife Margot (Kelly) out of the way, and pays someone to attempt the job, which is botched. Will dogged Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams) find a way to expose the wily Wendice, who has not given up on his mission? Re-made several times, (most recently as A Perfect Murder with Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow), Hitchcock's original has never been surpassed. The casting is inspired, with Milland the essence of oily smugness as Tony, and Williams blandly British as Hubbard. Hunter and quarry thus play off each other perfectly. And then there's the lady who causes all the fuss: Grace, in her first of three roles for Hitchcock. She is so stunning here that the very concept of doing away with her seems like a particularly egregious crime. Robert Cummings is also on hand as Mark Halliday, the other man, who strategizes with Margot and Hubbard on how to implicate Tony. Don't miss that ending!

Rear Window (1954)- After breaking his leg on the job, photojournalist Jeff Jeffries (James Stewart) must pass the sweltering New York summer looking out his apartment window -- into his neighbors' windows -- and his natural nosiness causes him to study a battling couple across the courtyard. When the woman disappears, Jeff suspects her husband, Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), of foul play, and enlists his adoring, high-society girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Kelly) to help him investigate. One of the most celebrated films in history, this classic takes its time, but once the tension starts building, it doesn't stop until the heart-pounding conclusion is upon you. "Window" was new peak for Hitchcock in blending the story of a crime that may have happened with the dark side of human obsession -- in this case, voyeurism. The movie also marks a high point for James Stewart, who would be remembered as Hitchcock's most human and vulnerable hero. And who can resist the bewitching Grace?

The Country Girl (1954)- When Broadway director Bernie Dodd (William Holden) loses his lead for a musical set to open in three weeks, he takes a chance on washed-up alcoholic singer Frank Elgin (Bing Crosby). Though Dodd is committed to boosting his shaky leading man's confidence with a combination of pep talks and tough love, he feels constantly thwarted by Elgin's cold, cynical wife, Georgie (Kelly), whose manipulations threaten to deep-six his production. Adapted from the Clifford Odets play, George Seaton's searing, melodramatic story of a twisted menage à trois boasts three superb performances: Crosby as the self-loathing, destructive crooner, Kelly as his morose, long-suffering wife, and Holden as the strapping, misogynistic director who slowly learns the truth about both of them. Crosby rightly earned an Oscar nod for his convincing turn as a sad-sack boozer, but it was Kelly who took home a statuette for her radically unglamorous role as Georgie, a part first intended for actress Jennifer Jones. "Girl" is a poignant backstage drama that remains true to its tortured heart.

The Bridges At Toko-Ri (1955)- Set in the Korean War, navy flyer Harry Brubaker (Holden) has an enviable problem: he's too good at what he does. Having manned a bomber in the Second War, Harry aches for family and home, and his beautiful wife Nancy (Kelly) wants him back too. Still, it seems there is one sensitive flying mission only Harry is equipped to handle: to blow up the bridges at a strategic spot called Toko-Ri. Will Harry succeed, and make it back to tell the tale? Mark Robson's handsome film is equal parts war movie and romance, with gorgeous Technicolor and an A-list cast. The macho, magnetic Holden fits his part like a glove, and his love scenes with Kelly pack real heat (the on-set romance was real). The always stellar Fredric March projects both authority and humanity as Rear Admiral Tarrant, a man keenly aware that he's sent too many young men out to die. And look for the irrepressible Mickey Rooney in a fun, feisty turn as Mike Forney, a pint-size sailor who can't stay out of love-or fights.

To Catch A Thief (1955)- On the sun-drenched French Riviera, someone is relieving rich women of their precious jewels, and all the evidence points to retired cat burglar John Robie (Cary Grant). Reluctant to sit still for questioning, "The Cat" evades investigators who show up at his luxe villa and -- with the help of London insurer H.H. Hughson (John Williams) -- cozies up to wealthy American widow Mrs. Stevens (Jesse Royce Landis), who he believes may be the thief's next victim. Robie's only hope for clearing himself will be to expose his imitator -- that is, if Mrs. Stevens's knockout daughter Francie (Kelly) doesn't distract him too much! Filmed in VistaVision by Oscar winner Robert Burks, Hitchcock's swanky, breezy suspense film takes a simple idea-one cat burglar on the tail of another-and spins it into cinematic gold. With his customary wit and sexual innuendo, the director positions tanned star Grant on a collision course with the resplendent Kelly, who never looked more ravishing as spoiled heiress Francie, especially in a wide-brimmed white sun hat and bathing outfit Jackie O might have coveted. When they kiss, there are literally fireworks on-screen, a technique Hitch used to keep the censors from snipping his film. You'll have a lot of fun catching this "Thief."


The Children Of Theatre Street
(1977)- Princess Grace narrates this intimate look at the world's most famous school of dance, the Kirov Ballet School in Leningrad/St. Petersburg, and the young children who dedicate their minds and bodies to the rigorous training required to master classical 19th-century techniques. Peering into the corridors and classrooms of this illustrious institution, we glimpse the hopes, fears, and heartaches of three fledgling professional dancers and their instructors, many of whom are former ballet stars themselves. We also learn about the grand tradition of the school itself, which matriculated Nijinsky, Nureyev, and many other notables. This candid, lovingly made 1977 tribute to the Kirov strivers who make big sacrifices to attend the legendary training ground of Balanchine is a sheer delight, both aesthetically and narratively, letting us peer into a highly disciplined world of pure art where expectations are high and the weight of tradition almost oppressive. With Kelly's warm, vivid narration providing the context and translations, we watch as 20 students out of 1000 are carefully selected according to predetermined physical requirements, then spend close to a decade mastering their dance skills. You can't help feeling anxiety and excitement watching one graduating ballerina make her heart-fluttering debut on the Kirov stage after months of punishing practice. "Street" is a tremendously enjoyable, behind-the-scenes look at greatness in the making.

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