Grace Kelly was a popular and talented actress beloved by her public. But she became even more loved by a larger public when she became the Princess of Monaco. According to The American Film Institute, MGM decided to capitalize on Kelly’s relationship with Prince Ranier by casting her as Princess Alexandra in the film The Swan. They even coordinated the release date of the film with that of her wedding. Helen Rose who costumed Kelly for this film also created her famous wedding dress. Talk about a genius marketing move by the studio! Because of this, The Swan is a good example of life imitating art.
THE SWAN: WHAT IT’S ABOUT
Princess Alexandra is her family’s only hope of regaining their royal eminence, generations after losing their throne. Her desperate mother, Princess Beatrice hopes to marry her off to Crown Prince Albert, who is traveling Europe in search of his future queen.
When Albert arrives for a brief visit, Beatrice does all she can to throw the two together. But Albert mistakes Alexandra’s awkward shyness as disinterest and coldness. So, he decides to avoid her. Distraught, Beatrice talks her daughter into publicly flirting with the family’s tutor, in an effort to make the Crown Prince jealous. But her plan backfires in ways she can’t foresee.
THE SWAN ORIGIN
One would think The Swan might have been written for Grace Kelly. But in reality, its origin is much earlier. It began as a play written by Hungarian Ferenc Molnár which was popularized on Broadway in 1923. It had also previously been adapted for the screen in 1925 and 1930 with silent screen star Lillian Gish starring in the 1930 version.
KELLY AS A DIFFERENT KIND OF PRINCESS
Though I’ve seen Gish’s performance, I can’t imagine anyone else as the titular character other than Grace Kelly. She completely owns the role and not because it is in character for her to play. It’s actually the opposite. Princess Alexandra has all of Kelly’s beauty and regal bearing, but that’s where the similarities end. She imbues Alexandra with a realistic girlish uncertainty. Her extreme reserve is a mask for her sensitivity and insecurity in a world dominated by a loving but scheming mother. The Princess is a young woman whose shoulders bear a large burden of hope and responsibility which keeps her own wishes and emotions weighted to the earth. Her poise falters when confronted with Albert’s deliberate lapses in the protocol.
In a way, she’s almost robotic, until her interaction with the tutor, Professor Agi. He dares to speak to her as a human being on equal footing. This presumption leads to an inner revolution of her soul in which she questions her whole life. Ironically, her rebellion against the imposed strictures of her position is what finally catches the eye of Albert. And then, much like another movie Princess (Ann in Roman Holiday), she must decide between love and duty.
THE REST OF THE COURT/CAST
Of course, Kelly’s performance is enhanced by an outstanding supporting cast. Englishman Alec Guinness appears in his first American film as the Crown Prince long before he became famous as Obi-wan Kenobi in Star Wars. His Prince Albert stages his own miniature acts of rebellion against everyone’s expectations quietly but effectively. He is also instrumental in helping Alexandra come to terms with her identity in a surprisingly sincere and compassionate conversation.
Filling the other supporting roles in Alexandra’s life is Jessie Royce Landis as her mother Beatrice. This was the second time Landis played Kelly’s mother onscreen. The first was in To Catch a Thief. If her performance reminds you a little of Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, you wouldn’t be alone. Meanwhile, Louis Jourdan is convincing as the lovesick Professor Agi. Brian Aherne and Estelle Winwood both add the humor to this lovely story. Aherne is Beatrice’s brother who has renounced his birthright to become a priest. Winwood is the scatter-brained great-aunt who always says the wrong thing at the wrong moment. And then there is the great Agnes Moorehead who almost steals the show in a small role as Albert’s domineering mother.
The Swan may be a princess story, but it is anything but typical. The characters and plot manage to continually surprise viewers with twists and turns in their development. Instead of portraying these wealthy royals as spoiled and care-free, it shines the light instead on the ways their privilege dictates their lives. In some ways, they are less free than those who serve them. The way the film portrays these revelations is heartbreakingly lovely in a wistful way. It will leave you with a sweet ache and a sigh. And perhaps you may even see the real Princess Grace in a new light.
Fun Fact: Viewers may recognize the exterior of Alexandra’s family home. That’s because the film was partially shot at The Biltmore Estate (Vanderbilt mansion) in Asheville, North Carolina.
Content Note: Safe for the family to watch.
Where to Watch: Rent or buy on Amazon, VUDU, and iTunes. Purchase on DVD.
Have you ever seen The Swan? What is your favorite princess film?
Photo Credits: MGM
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