On screen, cool, refined, and seductive

With James Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window," 1954. What a showcase for Kelly: As a ritzy high-fashion career girl, she displays her porcelain beauty; a sexiness restrained but hinting at something wilder; intelligence, perfect elocution, and a determined independence.
With James Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window," 1954. What a showcase for Kelly: As a ritzy high-fashion career girl, she displays her porcelain beauty; a sexiness restrained but hinting at something wilder; intelligence, perfect elocution, and a determined independence. (Paramount Pictures)
Posted: October 28, 2013

It's a sweltering summer evening in New York. A man with his leg in a cast is asleep in his wheelchair, oblivious to the din outside.

He awakens to find a young woman, blond, with bright blue eyes, standing over him, red lipstick, a string of pearls around her neck, in the most elegant of black and white gowns. She plants a kiss on his lips. Is she a dream? An apparition?

No, simply Grace Kelly, making her entrance in Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, asking James Stewart - as the hobbled photojournalist soon to believe he has witnessed a murder - how his leg is ("Hurts a little"), his stomach ("Empty as a football"), his love life ("Not too active").

Rear Window, released in 1954, is the second of three films Kelly made for Hitchcock. It's a showcase for the Philadelphia-bred actress, not just because she gets to whirl in and out of Stewart's apartment (he's L.B. "Jeff" Jefferies, a prize-winning photographer) in a dizzying succession of glamorous Edith Head-designed outfits, but because the role of Lisa Carol Fremont, a ritzy high-fashion career girl, finds Kelly wielding all her weaponry: her cool beauty, to be sure; a sexiness that was restrained but that hinted at something wilder (watch her swooping down for that kiss!); the intelligence; the girls'-school enunciation; a determined independence.

But here's the thing: Kelly, who was 12 when she starred in her first school play at East Falls' Ravenhill Academy, and who went off to New York when she was 17 (against her father's wishes) to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, may not have been the greatest actress Hollywood had ever seen. But she wasn't just another pretty face (OK, the prettiest "another pretty face"). In her six-year, 11-film career, Kelly made her characters real, projecting emotion from the inside out, not the other way around.

They certainly aren't all great films, but Kelly's stature as a movie icon isn't just about the way she looked. It was about the way she acted, too.

She started on stage and segued into live television before making the inevitable trek to Los Angeles, where John Ford, among others, saw her MGM screen test. Her first film role was in Henry Hathaway's suicide melodrama Fourteen Hours (1951). Kelly, with a tight pearl necklace and a pert hat, is a wife filing for divorce, meeting with her lawyer - but displaying distraught second thoughts. Hers is one of a circle of supporting characters in the orbit of Richard Basehart - a guy out on the ledge of a building, threatening to jump.

As the story goes, Gary Cooper, who had worked with Hathaway, dropped by the set and noticed Kelly. In her second film, the western classic High Noon (1952), she is his leading lady - the pacifist Quaker bride of the marshal of Hadleyville, in the New Mexico territories. She persuades Coop's Will Kane to turn in his badge, but then one of Kane's old nemeses, a criminal released from jail, comes back to exact vengeance, and the marshal has to pick up his badge - and his gun. The innovative real-time western, directed by Fred Zinnemann, finds Kelly's Amy Fowler torn between her religious beliefs and her love for a man. The choice she makes is pivotal.

In John Ford's Mogambo (1953 - yes, he remembered that screen test when Gene Tierney dropped out), Kelly is a married woman, a socialite, who goes on safari in Africa and falls for the big-game hunter played by Clark Gable. Ava Gardner isn't exactly uninterested in the guy, either, and a triangle configures: Gardner running hot, Kelly running cool, and the former warning the latter about Gable: "You know, this is no Sir Galahad who loves from afar. This is a two-legged boa constrictor." A two-legged boa constrictor with a mustache, that is. Kelly was nominated for a supporting-actress Oscar for her work.

Enter Hitch, the famous filmmaker famously obsessed with icy blondes, casting Kelly as the wife Ray Milland plots to get rid of in Dial M for Murder (1954). Set in London, and shot on the Warner Bros. soundstages in Burbank, this ridiculously suspenseful thriller again finds Kelly as a Mrs. in love with another man - this time a writer, an American, played by Robert Cummings. (She wears a long red gown for their adulterous clinch.) Milland's Tony, a British tennis pro, thinks he has come up with the perfect scheme to get his wealthy wife, Margot, out of the picture, but he wasn't banking on her ability to writhe from a hit man's grip and wield a pair of scissors.

In The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954), adapted from the James Michener novel, Kelly is the weepy wife to William Holden, a Navy reserve pilot called back to service for the Korean War. Mark Robson's movie is more about the machinery of war than the machinations of a marriage, but the heat betwen Holden and Kelly was palpable.

Holden and Kelly are reteamed for the overwrought The Country Girl (1954), George Seaton's black-and-white adaptation of Clifford Odets' Broadway hit. Bing Crosby is the third part of the triangle - an alcoholic actor given a second chance by his friend, the stage director played by Holden. Kelly is Crosby's wife - grim and weary, and blamed by Holden's Dodd for her husband's troubles. Of course, Dodd falls for Kelly's Georgie, and the whole thing gets very messy. And very melodramatic. But Georgie Elgin proved golden for Kelly - Oscar gold. In a big surprise, she took home the 1955 Academy Award for best actress, beating out Judy Garland for A Star Is Born (and Dorothy Dandridge for Carmen Jones, Audrey Hepburn for Sabrina, and Jane Wyman for Magnificent Obsession.)

In Green Fire (1954), Kelly is a coffee-plantation owner in Colombia. She meets up with Stewart Granger, who discovers an emerald mine up in the hills - and also discovers that he has fallen for the beautiful young caffeinista. There is drama in the plot, but not much of it translates to the screen.

In her third and final collaboration with Hitchcock, To Catch a Thief (1955) - set on the French Riviera, and featuring scenes in which she drives a blue Sunbeam convertible on serpentine hillside roads near the one where the princess would have her fatal accident - Kelly is a regal American heiress, outfitted in the latest couture (again, Edith Head). She meets a retired cat burglar whose retirement is called into question when valuable jewels go missing. The to-and-fro between Grant and Kelly is spirited, seductive, snappy, and sophisticated. Star power, beaming in the Cannes sun - and the Côte d'Azur moon.

Charles Vidor's elegant romantic comedy, The Swan, was released on April 28, 1956. (Alec Guinness and Louis Jourdan, one a rich royal, the other a handsome tutor, vie for her affections.) Ten days earlier, Kelly and Monaco's Prince Rainier III were wed in a civil ceremony in the Palace Throne Room. In her penultimate film, Kelly is the princess of a small European country. And now she was in real life, too.

Kelly's final film was High Society (1956), Charles Waters' musical remake of The Philadelphia Story, jazzed up (songs by Cole Porter) and transplanted from the Main Line to Newport, R.I. Bing Crosby, Kelly's Country Girl costar, is the Cary Grant character, Frank Sinatra is James Stewart's, and Kelly is Katharine Hepburn's socialite Tracy Lord. Kelly seems at times to be doing Hepburn - when she's drunk and hung over and torn between her ex, C.K. Dexter Haven, and the earnest reporter Mike Connor, there to document her wedding.

The actress is not quite sensational (though Sinatra tells her she is, while serenading her), but she fits right in with the high-society crowd. And she shows grace, because, well, she is Grace.


Grace Kelly's Films

y High Society (1956)

y The Swan (1956)

y To Catch a Thief (1955)

y Green Fire (1954)

y The Country Girl (1954)

y The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954)

y Rear Window (1954)

y Dial M for Murder (1954)

y Mogambo (1953)

y High Noon (1952)

y Fourteen Hours (1951)


srea@phillynews.com

215-854-5629

@Steven_Rea

www.inquirer.com/onmovies

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