“Think what it means to be a swan…to glide like a dream on the smooth surface of the lake and never go on the shore…” -Prince Albert to Alexandra, from the Grace Kelly movie The Swan (1956)
One afternoon, I discovered The Swan playing on TCM. The film’s biggest claim to fame is that actress Grace Kelly played a fairy tale princess in the movie just as she was about to tackle the off-screen role of Princess of Monaco. The Swan was released in 1956 to capitalize on the public’s fascination with Grace’s marriage to Prince Rainier, her ascension to royalty, and the possibility of art imitating real life.
I’m a Grace fan and observer and several Grace Kelly biographies line my bookshelves, but somehow, I had never seen the movie. I was surprised by how much I liked this film so I bought the remastered DVD at Amazon.com; it played beautifully on my older DVD player and I plan on watching it again soon.
Grace Kelly Movie The Swan 1956 Review
The Swan is rich in surface detail but slim on plot. The story revolves around a mythical kingdom in 1910 Central Europe and the complications that arise as Princess Alexandra (Grace Kelly) prepares for an arranged marriage with her cousin, Crown Prince Albert (Alec Guinness). Her mother Princess Beatrix (Jessie Royce Landis) schemes to marry her off well (a la the “marriage market” of Jane Austen’s day) in order to protect her family’s palatial “home in exile” and regain the throne stolen from them by Napoleon.
The only monkey wrench in this master plan is love! Alexandra is attracted to her handsome tutor (Louis Jourdan) and the feeling is mutual, but as a commoner, he is not a suitable match for her. The fun of the film is seeing this all play out, as Alexandra is torn between ambition and desire. Should she marry the heir to the throne and fulfill her destiny as The Swan, something higher than mere mortals, or surrender to her human feelings of love and settle for an ordinary existence with her tutor?
Though the movie feels light as air, it has a lot to offer as it floats by on a cloud; these are some of the highlights:
Jessie Royce Landis, who also played Grace’s mother in To Catch a Thief, is delightful as she schemes to marry off her daughter (Estelle Winwood steals scenes as her daffy accomplice). It’s a joy to watch the cast full of veteran actors perform this witty script (which is based on the play by Ferenc Molnar) with subtle grace.
The costume design is stunning. Alexandra’s ethereal, eye-catching gowns were designed by Helen Rose, who also created Grace Kelly’s royal wedding dress. The Swan was shot on location at the majestic Biltmore Estate in North Carolina, and the elaborate sets are a feast for the eyes.
And there’s a fencing match! (I do love a good duel…)
Alexandra’s fencing scenes with her tutor are a high point, when Grace drops the regal facade, displaying some of that celebrated Kelly fire, athleticism and her skill with a sword! The ballroom dancing sequence, where Alexandra experiences an awakening while dancing with her tutor, is also sublime.
Grace Kelly is lovely in the title role; it’s a treat to see her character thaw from an icicle to a human woman. You can really feel the tension when flashes of raw feeling slip through her carefully cultivated exterior.
On top of all that, there’s Alec Guinness.
I confess: I now have a crush on Sir Alec, who’s slyly charming as Prince Albert. Louis Jourdan is so very appealing…but I’m team Alec all the way.
Alec Guinness conveys as much with gesture and body language as he does with dialogue. All of the fine acting and attention to detail elevates this agreeable little movie to something that is so much more than the sum of its sumptuous parts.
Grace Kelly: The Swan Princess
The Swan glides along pleasantly enough, but deeper questions spring to mind. Does the film echo Grace’s personal journey at all? Was Grace the woman ever caught between ambition and desire? Are there any parallels between Alexandra and Grace?
Grace and her film character both aspire to royalty. Alexandra declares “I want to be a Queen” and Grace was excited to become a princess. It was her greatest role of all, something of a much higher status than winning an Oscar, or being a Hollywood movie star. Grace was a Kelly, an overachiever, and being Her Serene Highness would elevate her to a rarified realm where she would be assured her place in history.
Pretty heady stuff for a woman still in her twenties! One can only imagine Grace, who was secretly exchanging letters with her real life prince during the filming of The Swan, being swept off her feet by Rainier, the prospect of life in Monaco, the idea of a royal wedding, and her glittering fairy tale future. She had been wildly in love before and hoped for a wedding (Oleg Cassini was one of her prospects) but her parents opposed those potential marriages, Grace would not defy her family, so they never happened.
Her many biographers have written about Grace the flesh and blood human, debunking the Ice Princess myth. She is said to have had many affairs at a time when women played a more traditional role in society, and could be shamed for openly expressing desire.
Princess Alexandra wrestles with inconvenient passion versus position, but Grace also had a dilemma: she was Hollywood’s untouchable Goddess on a pedestal, the poster girl for a 50s ideal of the glamorous “girl next door,” yet she was also a passionate woman with secret affairs. This image of propriety and perfection is what Hollywood and society wanted from Grace; being an icon of purity meant keeping her own human desires firmly under wraps.
In my opinion, it’s rather Swan-like, that conflict between ambition and desire, prestige and passion.
Robert Lacey writes in his intriguing biography Grace:
“Keeping up appearances had always been Grace’s greatest strength and weakness–as a Kelly, as Hollywood’s Ice Maiden, and as Princess of Monaco.”
From everything that has been written about Grace’s life, it makes a lot of sense that the idea of being royal would appeal to her sensibilities. Of course, we’ll never really know for sure what went on behind palace walls, if royalty was everything she hoped it would be.
Robert Lacey’s book paints a portrait of Grace as a daughter, Hollywood actress, wife, mother and princess, someone who gave up her acting career and fulfilled her royal duties with great care, winning the hearts of her royal subjects. However, there are hints the glass slipper chafed a bit. He suggests that Grace in mid-life was a vulnerable human being who sometimes felt lonely, isolated and frustrated by the way her life had become circumscribed.
But what about Alexandra?
If you aren’t familiar with Molnar’s story I won’t reveal the ending, but suffice to say The Swan becomes more interesting and poignant as it goes along; if you stay until the end you’ll be rewarded with some nice acting moments by Grace Kelly and Alec Guinness. The final scenes reveal messy human emotions bubbling up as Alexandra grapples with her fate; maybe she’s not really cut out to be a swan after all.
Whether or not Grace’s final scenes as Alexandra are prophetic of the pitfalls of being a princess, I’ll let you draw your own conclusions. But one thing’s for sure. When this delicious film breaks the surface to reveal the acting talents of its stars, the surprising power of The Swan will slay you.
The Swan 1956 DVD
Many fans fondly remember The Swan movie, but it has been hard to find. The Grace Kelly biography Grace by Robert Lacey and The Swan DVD are available to order at Amazon.com.
(Images: famousfix.com and TCM.com)