Friday Film Review: The Swan
The Swan (1956)
Genre: Historical Dramedy
Here’s a golden oldie, or moldy oldie if you don’t care for it. The movie is based on a play written by Ferenc Molnar and was filmed twice before this final one was made. It’s Grace Kelly’s next-to-the-last film made before her marriage to a real Prince and she never looked lovelier.
It has always been the overriding ambition of Princess Beatrix (Jesse Royce Landis who also played GK’s mother in “To Catch a Thief”) to see her daughter Princess Alexandra (Grace Kelly) become a Queen. Their family was forced from the throne of their tiny middle European country by Napoleon (whose name Princess Beatrix will not allowed to be mentioned in her presence) and she’s aware that it’s probably their last hope to regain some stature by cementing the ties between their dispossessed family and their cousins, the reigning royal family headed by Queen Maria Dominika (Agnes Moorehead) and her son and heir Prince Albert (Alec Guinness).
When Beatrix gets word that Albert is on his way to visit them, she immediately pulls out all the stops and whips the palace staff, and her family, into a frenzy in order to present Alexandra in her best light. But after Albert arrives for his short four day stay, he spends more time duck hunting, inspecting the modern dairy and with Alexandra’s younger brothers than with the slightly shy Alexandra. What’s a mother on a deadline to do? Use a little old fashioned jealousy, that’s what.
She instructs Alexandra to invite the boys’ young and handsome tutor Dr. Nicholas Agi (Louis Jourdan) to the final night ball in the hopes that it will spur Albert to a proposal. Instead, to her horror, things backfire as Agi, emboldened by this chance of which he never dared dream, confesses his secret love to Alexandra. Now whom will she choose?
As I’ve seen mentioned in other reviews, the plot for this story is obviously dated even by the fifties. The world it depicts was long gone even then – either during WWI or by the end of WWII. But while I’m watching it, I try and lose myself in what it shows as still existing among a people who have no clue that their way of life is in its twilight. And yet, the film does hint at what is to come.
It’s all about the differences in classes – the old class of royalty who are shown doing little beyond ceremonial duties and being instructed in how to “be royal” and the rising middle class who will take over due to their drive, education and ambition. We see the best and the worst of both classes and are left to decide on our own if Alexandra makes the correct decision or not.
There is a great deal of dry comedy throughout the story which Alec Guinness pulls off in style. But he also shows great tact, after an initial spell of pique, in dealing with Alexandra’s conflicting feelings. Another surprisingly fun character is Symphorosa (played by Estelle Winwood) whose pithy one liners often embarrass Beatrix as she’s trying to make a good impression on Albert. Agnes Moorehead is regally grand and imperious in a role that had little time on screen but which she made the most of.
Landis beautifully balances Beatrix on the knife edge of likability. We can see her as a woman just trying to see to the future of her family – the scene when she offers contradictory advice to Alexandra on how to behave around Albert is quite funny – as well as a pushy, slightly snobby royal who is obviously shocked when one of the lower orders dares to have feelings for her daughter. Kelly floats coolly through her role until the moment when her passions are aroused and she comes to life. There’s a late scene when she lets Albert “have it” for the way he’s acted towards the family and of course the final scene where she comes to terms with the direction her life will take.
The movie has a slightly bittersweet ending. One might wish for it to end another way but given the way Alexandra has been raised her entire life, I wasn’t surprised. I’m not entirely convinced that her protestations of love for Agi are real. Perhaps or perhaps not. As Albert reminds her, she just kept her feelings so controlled and beneath the surface for so long that when they finally burst free, she’s not sure how to handle them.
As far as I can tell, “The Swan” isn’t available on DVD but there are two ways for it to be viewed. Someone has loaded it on youtube (type in “The Swan-part 1” — note the hyphen is important). I’d love to know which language it’s subtitle in. It’s also being shown on Turner Classic Movies in November (right now it’s scheduled at midnight on the 26th/27th but check closer to the date to be sure).
FTC discloser – I watched this on television.