Thursday, November 25, 2010

THE SWAN (MGM 1956) Warner Archive Collection

The last work that Grace Kelly committed to celluloid before becoming Her Serene Royal Highness of Monaco was for director Charles Vidor in The Swan (1956); a remake twice removed from its source material by Ferenc Molnar. A sort of grandly operatic riffraff that MGM had once excelled at during the 1930s, The Swan tells the tale of a conflicted young woman who must choose between the duties of a Queen and the passions of a woman - placing one above the other in order to secure her family's future place within the monarchy.

MGM had already successfully adapted this Ruritanian romance under its original title in 1925, then again in 1930 before effectively retiring the rather conventional story once and for all. However, in 1954 Grace Kelly was the invited guest of Prince Rainier aboard his yacht. Their whirlwind romance that followed seemed a matter of life imitating art so perfectly that MGM could not resist pulling this old chestnut out of mothballs for one final bow.

In a nutshell, this version of The Swan has everything going for it. Its top flight adaptation by John Dighton lightly treads on Molnar's masterpiece with a renewed sense of humour that is quite refreshing at times. The film's sweeping score by Bronislau Kaper is befitting of a future princess with aptly lush orchestrations. The outstanding cast includes not only Kelly in the title role, but also super stars Alec Guinness and Louis Jourdan as her amiable suitors.

Princess Alexandra (Kelly) is the daughter of a minor branch of the European aristocracy, betrothed to her cousin Prince Albert (Guinness) - a man whom she neither loves nor, in fact, has met since the two were children. The princess' two brothers, George (Van Dyke Parks) and Arsene (Christopher Cook) are attended to in their studies by Dr. Nicholas Agi (Louis Jourdan); a handsome tutor whose progressive teachings promise to be the harbingers of real romantic chaos later in the narrative.

The princess' mother, Princess Beatrix (Jessie Royce Landis) is a delightfully scheming scatterbrain, determined to have her family restored to the good graces of Queen Maria Dominika (Agnes Moorehead) even at the expense of her own daughter's true happiness. The rest of the family includes dotty spinster aunt Symphorosa (Estelle Winwood) and uncle, Father Carl Hyacinth (Brian Adherne); a true man of the cloth and the one calming and intelligent voice within this otherwise unhinged family.

A marriage between Albert and Alexandra will restore the family to the throne taken from them by Napoleon. However, all is not as easily won - especially when Albert seems to take an interest in everything except Alexandra; from shooting duck and engaging in a spirited game of football with the princes to interrupting a ball given in his honour by playing the bass fiddle with the orchestra. To urge an inevitable proposal from Albert, Beatrix coaxes Alexandra to pretend in a romantic interest in Nicholas. But this rouse backfires when Nicholas mistakes the Princess's sudden affections as legitimate overtures to romantic love.

Alexandra spurns Nicholas upon learning of his infatuation, but then succumbs to his charms. Albert, learning of their genuine affections declares that once he is King he will allow the family to return to France, despite Alexandra's obvious desire to run away with Nicholas. An impatient Dominika arrives the next afternoon to learn whether or not there will be a royal marriage. Realizing how prescient and perilous the future of the monarchy is, Nicholas leaves the manor without his true love. Albert returns to Alexandra's side, declaring that she is like a swan - serene upon the waters, yet evermore a goose on dry land.

The Swan does have its spirited moments, mostly procured from the fine ensemble acting throughout. The screenplay takes itself just seriously enough to be engaging and involved but never weighted down. Grace Kelly is very much the storybook princess and, in retrospect, there is a sublime blurring of the lines between this fictional story and Kelly's own fairytale reality that was soon to follow.

True enough, the stronger talents of Alec Guinness are slightly wasted in this featherweight melange, but in the few moments where it is required, his presence adds depth and resonance to what is, by far, an outrageously farfetched and glossy bauble. Louis Jourdan is appropriately contrite and always fun to look at. In the final analysis, The Swan is worth another glance on home video - it's blunted poignancy nicely framed in surface sheen and stylish accoutrements a la the old MGM style.

This Warner Archive burn on demand edition of The Swan is advertised as 'remastered' and to be certain the film has obviously had some minor work performed on it in preparation for this release. However, the Cinemascope image remains rather softly focused throughout. The palette of Eastman color severely pales in comparison to true Technicolor.

At times the palette is quite muddy with browns and beiges being the most dominant. Flesh tones are often pasty pink or washed out entirely to almost ghostly white. This isn't a particularly engaging home video presentation and that's a shame, considering all of the splendid art direction and vivid cinematography by Joseph Ruttenberg and Robert Surtees. The audio is a 5.1 remastering of the original Cinemascope six track stereo and is appropriately crisp and bombastic in spots. There are no extra features on this disc - not even the film's original theatrical trailer.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)






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