A Beginner’s Guide to Grace Kelly

In 1954, Grace Kelly starred in Dial ‘M’ For Murder, Rear Window, and a third film for which she won an Academy Award. Not bad, right?
Grace Kelly
By  · Published on April 22nd, 2018

Which would you rather be, Hollywood royalty or actual royalty? It is a tough decision, one that, lucky for her, Grace Kelly never had to make. In 1956, Grace Kelly married Rainer III, the Prince of Monaco, and retired from acting, opting instead to spend the rest of her days as the country’s princess consort.

Though she acted in only eleven films before her retirement, Grace Kelly left her mark on American film and remained Hollywood royalty. She starred in some of the greatest and most lasting films of her time, which explains why the American Film Institute named her the thirteenth greatest female star in American film history in 1999.

Last week, FSR’s Madison Brek wrote the beginner’s guide to James Stewart, Grace Kelly’s co-star in Rear Window. Because I enjoyed that piece so much, and just happened to watch High Noon a few weeks ago, I figured I would do the same for her. Here is the beginner’s guide to Grace Kelly:

Saving the Marshal

Though she made her acting debut in the 1951 film noir Fourteen Hours, Grace Kelly’s breakthrough came the following year, when she starred alongside Gary Cooper in High Noon.

The film begins with the marriage of the town’s marshal Will Kane (Cooper) to Amy Fowler Kane (Kelly). As soon as the two officially tie the knot, Will retires as marshal and decides to move to another town with Amy and open a store. Amy is a Quaker and pacifist and thus does not approve of the violence that comes with her new husband’s job. But, just as they are about to leave the town for good, they learn that an outlaw previously caught by Will has been acquitted, and will be arriving on the noon train to wreak havoc on the town and get his revenge.

Will, not wanting to leave his people behind and in danger, and with no one there to take his place as marshal, decides to postpone his trip with Amy and stay in town to face his enemies. Disgusted and saddened by his decision, Amy tells him that she plans to leave on the noon train, whether he is there or not.

While Will makes his way around town asking for help as noon draws near, we follow Amy as she contemplates whether to follow through with her ultimatum. We learn that Amy’s pacifism is a byproduct of her past: her brother and father were killed in a gunfight. She does not want to lose Will in the same way. We watch as she struggles to reconcile her past with the present and whether to compromise her values for the man she loves.

In one of the film’s best moments, Will is cornered by the villains in the town’s empty streets. It seems as though all hope is lost. But then, Amy appears and shoots one of the men in the back, saving Will, who kills the rest of the men and saves the town. At the film’s end, the two ride off to start their new life, together.

While not the best of her performances, High Noon proved that Grace Kelly had the makings of a great actress. All she needed was a great director, one like John Ford.

The Award Years

One year after the release of High Noon, Kelly starred alongside Clark Gable and Ava Gardner in Ford’s Mogambo. The film is set in Kenya, where Gable plays a hunter who agrees to take Kelly and her husband on a safari. Gardner, who is there to meet a man who never arrives, joins them, after falling for Gable. While on the trip, Kelly too falls in love with Gable, thus prompting the kind of love triangle we have come to expect from Hollywood.

Mogambo was shot on location in Africa and is comprised of the kind of beautiful landscape shots we expect from Ford. And the performances are great. Take, for example, the first minute of the below clip, where we can feel the sexual tension between Gable and Kelly. We know what they’re doing is wrong and so do they. Their trepidation, desire, and bliss effortlessly come across in their facial expressions and body gestures.

The higher-ups at MGM did not want Grace Kelly for the part, according to TCM.  Yet, John Ford insisted they hire her. “[T]his dame has breeding, quality, class. I want to make a test of her — in color — I’ll bet she’ll knock us on our ass,” he said.

And she did. For her performance, she won the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress and received her first Academy Award nomination in the equivalent category.

The following year, Grace Kelly won the Academy’s top prize for her performance in The Country Girl, which tells the story of a struggling actor (Bing Crosby) who is offered a career-reviving part by the director of the play, played by William Holden.

Crosby’s character does not believe he is up to the task. This insecurity, coupled with the responsibility he feels for the death of his five-year old-son and subsequent alcoholism, makes it seem as though he will not make it to show time, let alone survive his marriage.

But, as Bosley Crowther noted in his 1954 review for the New York Times, it is Kelly who saves him from self-destruction. The two deliver stunning performances. With scenes like the one featuring her and William Holden below. It’s no wonder she won her first Oscar in 1954:

The Hitchcock Years

1954 is perhaps the greatest year of Grace Kelly’s career, not just because she won an Academy Award, but also because it marked the beginning of her collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock. (She also starred in two other films that year: Green Fire and The Bridges at Toko-Ri.)

It is quite an accomplishment that in 1954, Grace Kelly not only delivered an Academy Award-winning performance in The Country Girl but also starred in both Dial ‘M’ for Murder and Rear Window.

In Dial ‘M’, Kelly plays Margot Wendice, who is married to former tennis champion, Tony (Ray Milland), and is having an affair with a novelist, Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings). After Tony learns of the affair, and because he wants to inherit her money, he plans the perfect murder and hires a former classmate to get the job done.

Spoiler alert: it doesn’t go to plan.

Margot ends up killing the man in self-defense and Tony, being the great Hitchcock villain that he is, ends up convincing the police that Margot was actually having an affair with the murderer and killed him in cold blood.

This is one of my favorite Hitchcock films, and one, I think, that is enormously under-appreciated. Milland, Cummings, Kelly and John Williams (as the police chief) all deliver great performances, and Dial ‘M’ is the gold standard for films shot in a single room. (I made a video essay about films shot in a single room check it out!).

Speaking of Hitchcock’s limited setting films, he also made the best of the bunch in 1954, Rear Window. The film tells the story of L.B. Jefferies (Jimmy Stewart), a photographer with a broken leg who is forced to stay home and gaze out his window all day. While doing so, he plays witness to several clues that lead him to discover that his neighbor has murdered his wife.

Kelly plays Lisa Fremont, Jefferies’ love interest. The two are clearly in love, but there is an imbalance in their relationship; Jefferies is scared of commitment, and Lisa’s cosmopolitan lifestyle is the antithesis of his life as a photojournalist, where he travels through dangerous terrain with nothing more than a single suitcase.

In one of the film’s best scenes, which the Blu-ray appropriately titles, “Lisa’s Risk,” she decides to break into the murderer’s apartment to look for the victim’s wedding ring. In doing so, she proves to Jefferies that she is just as daring. And, as the murderer corners her in the apartment, and he is forced to sit in his apartment and watch, Jefferies is able to realize what a terrible life he would live without her.

A year later, in 1955, came another underrated Hitchcock picture, To Catch a Thief, starring Kelly and Cary Grant. The film is one of Hitchcock’s most aesthetically pleasing pictures; between Grant, Kelly, and the on-location shooting in the French Riviera, how could it not be?

Grant plays an ex-thief named “The Cat.” After a series of robberies occur throughout the French Riviera, the local police try and arrest him. He decides that the only way he can prove himself innocent is to catch the real thief. During this process, he meets Kelly’s character and her mother, who are staying in a hotel with expensive jewelry of their own.

Kelly simultaneously suspects Grant to be the burglar, and falls in love with him. She seduces him, and tempts him with her jewelry. In one of the films great scenes, the two kiss and embrace as fireworks blast off in the background. I’ll let you figure out what Hitchcock is getting at.

The Final Year

In 1956, Grace Kelly made her final two movies. The first is The Swan, directed by Charles Vidor. The second is High Society, a fun film that, while not on the level of the Hitchcock pictures, is worth watching because it brings some of Hollywood’s greatest stars together for a fun time: Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, and, of course, Kelly.

High Society is a musical remake of The Philadelphia Story. It takes place in Newport, Rhode Island around the time of the Newport Jazz Festival. The festival is what brings Louis Armstrong (who plays himself) to visit C.K. Dexter-Haven (Bing Crosby), a millionaire singer and songwriter.

You can guess the plot: Dexter-Haven still loves his ex-wife, Tracy Lord (Grace Kelly), who is about to marry another man (John Lund). However, while they’re all in Newport, Lord also meets Mike Connor (Frank Sinatra), and falls in love with him too. Thus, Lord must choose who she wants to be with. It’s great fun!

And so, I leave you with Frank Sinatra, with Grace Kelly, in the final movie of her career:

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Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic, researcher, and video essayist, who has been a contributor at Film School Rejects since 2018. Follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter @willdigravio.