Yet another example of the prevalent trend of turning plays into film adaptations, director George Seaton took Clifford Odett’s eponymous work and plugged in three stars to carry the weight. Without question, the allure of The Country Girl is purely the trifecta of stars it assembles. Yes, it’s stagebound but the talent is certainly present.
William Holden is sturdy even intense when he needs to be as stage director Bernie Dodd, intent on recasting his new play The Land Around Us after his initial choice didn’t pan out. It’s a tough break but if they get it together, there’s still enough time to right the ship before the opening. He willingly takes a chance on a has-been named Frank Elgin (Bing Crosby) even fighting for him despite the criticisms of his producer. He has visions of what the man was and could be again, not the pitiful mess standing before him.
Holden slides relatively easily into the role based on prior expectations. This might be due in part to his work with Billy Wilder. The dark edges of Sunset Blvd. (1950) and Stalag 17 (1953) create almost a seamless continuity that fit with this narrative as well.
It’s the other two names on the marquee who might well surprise some viewers. It has song and dance like High Society (1956) made two years later, but this is an entirely different beast, functioning as an embittered drama more than anything else. Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly appear as you’ve rarely seen them before, if ever.
Elgin, for one, is a hopeless alcoholic, his confidence is shot, and he and his wife live in a humble flat getting by on his demeaning work doing radio jingles. It’s a far cry from the audience he used to command. I’ve never seen Crosby in anything so daring, even detrimental to the image that he cultivated his entire career.
The man puts up a happy-go-lucky facade for everyone else as his wife sees him slowly deteriorating from nerves and alcohol abuse behind closed doors. But by being a people pleaser he’s constantly tearing up his wife’s reputation with his lies. Because this is a story where the wife gets turned into a villain.
But Grace Kelly stands bravely in opposition to the tall tales her insecure husband spins about her in the presence of others. Because it’s true he has projected all his fears and shortcomings onto her. She is in most regards everything he is not. There’s nothing flashy in her portrayal. It’s not the usual image of Grace Kelly, alluring elegance head to toe. The ultimate shorthand comes when we are introduced to her wearing glasses, those objects meant to conceal beauty behind their frames.
This is a movie of all sorts of misconceptions and little white lies cultivated by Elgin. He is the source of all the marital strain and hopelessness in his life, failing to let go of past trauma and bounce back. Critics make or break it for him. His skin is paper thin and his liver is getting doused night after night. The only chance he has is the stability of his wife and even she is brought to her breaking point. No thanks to him.
The most interesting theme making its way through the story stems from Bernie as he takes on righteous indignation against Mrs. Elgin, a woman he believes to have sucked her husband dry of all he has to offer. His continual clouded judgments are a testament to seeing only what he wants to see. Because the man is always the truth-teller and always right. It is the female who causes strife and selfishly stretches the truth due to insecurities and petty jealousy. It’s an easy enough narrative to write and for a man to swallow, horribly regressive as it is. But it’s just this version of the story that unearths these underlying biases.
Upon reevaluation, Mrs. Elgin is a far more nuanced and stalwart woman than Dodd would have ever given her credit for. He’s also rightfully humbled in the realization he made a grave error in judgment.
By the picture’s end, he’s in love with this woman he once wrote off — the faithful wife of his star — and that could be the final twist of The Country Girl. He really wants it. She shares an affection for him too, no doubt. But that’s just it. She is a loyal wife and stays by her husband’s side in his successes just as she did throughout all his failures. We look at such behavior and through a modern lens, it seems needlessly sacrificial.
What does she owe him? Why should she forego what makes her fleetingly happy for a man who gave her more heartache than joy as of late? Is this just another instance of the subservient woman being kept down? These are certainly valid opinions. However, one could make the case more vehemently still this woman, this country girl, is driven by a sense of goodness, of sacrificial love, and a moral framework allowing her to perceive the situation with immense lucidity. This is a way she might bless her husband.
If marriage is to still stand for anything, we would expect the same from her husband if ever the tables were turned. That he might be willing to reciprocate for her someday. In this regard, it’s a moving reminder of the bonds of matrimony. Grace Kelly though less extravagant gives one of the most quietly assured performances of her meteoric career which blooms into a boon of emotional sensitivity. She never ceases to captivate.