JULY IS SUMMER MOVIE MEMORIES MONTH
Looking to followup their 1958 smash hit Indiscreet with another philandering romcom, star Cary Grant and producer-director Stanley Donen, via their Grandon Company, found a winner with 1960’s THE GRASS IS GREENER, now on Blu-Ray from Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.
The movie, based on a hit play by actor-couple-turned-writing-couple Hugh and Margaret Williams, starts on a very post-war British premise: the outrageous tax situation on titled country estates – and how their residents were forced to offer paid tours to remain solvent. Seriously, this was a real thing, research it. Or just watch this flick and ask Earl and Lady Rhyall. Convivial, lovingly happy and…I guess this is the best word…comfortable, the Rhyall’s world is turned upside down when, during a typical morning tour, brash American (are there any other kind?) oil millionaire Charles Delacro intentionally-on-purpose wanders off the paying visitor’s track and into forbidden private quarters, discovering a casual but ravishing Lady Hilary. Its lust at first sight, and the pair can’t believe what’s happening (“I was having quite a lovely life until you came into it,” she later gently scolds).
Earl of the Manor, Victor, is no fool, and immediately knows something is up, but can’t deny his wife – the mother of their children (conveniently on a holiday with their crone of a nanny) – anything. He loves her that much; he also realizes that retaliating viciously would only ruin his chances of winning her back. Besides, that isn’t English, it’s American — sooooooo American.
With Hilary off on a supposed hairdressing appointment in London – in reality, to see her new paramour (it turns into a weekend), Victor with his neurotic would-be novelist underpaid butler Sellers, sets his own plan in motion. More complications arise when the Rhyall’s bitchy, ditzy drop-dead gorgeous mutual friend Hattie arrives to stir things up (she’s out to snare Victor for herself).
The return of Lady Hilary and Charles to the manor erupts in a visual and verbal melange of hilarity, involving a fishing expedition, Scrabble (with Hilary reminding Hattie that she’s not supposed to play that game with grownups) and even a duel.
Everyone’s so matter-of-factly resolute with the extracurricular sexual shenanigans that it’s a wonder THE GRASS IS GREENER ever got released. Or made at all; in fact, it almost never got made, due to some sad tidings behind the scenes (although you’d never know it from the comfort level of the four leads).
Originally, Grant and Donen purchased the property for the star’s pals Rex Harrison and Kay Kendall (so wonderful in Minnelli’s The Reluctant Debutante). Donen had just completed directing Kendall in Once More with Feeling, but the actress was already seriously ill with leukemia (that would soon extinguish her brilliant light on September 6, 1959).
Nevertheless they were all hoping THE GRASS IS GREENER might become a reality (with Grant taking the costarring Delcro role). When this became an impossibility, Harrison, unable to even consider the project, bolted to, frankly, shamelessly playing the grieving widower longer than his run as Professor Higgins (for a great read, check out my pal Eve Golden’s marvelous biography of the actress/comedienne: The Brief Madcap Life of Kay Kendall).
Grant reluctantly, moved up the chain to keep the movie going – taking over the Rhyall part, and brought on Deborah Kerr, with whom he had successfully been paired in Dream Wife, and, more prominently, An Affair to Remember. Jean Simmons, perhaps the most beautiful she’s ever been, happily signed on for Hattie, and it’s likely that the two women tossed the name “Robert Mitchum” into the hat; both had marvelous working relationships (and friendships) with the actor, the former on Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison and The Sundowners – the latter on Angel Face and She Couldn’t Say No. Donen and Grant were concerned that the rugged star couldn’t handle the sophisticated subject matter and approached a pair of alternates: Rock Hudson, then emerging as an excellent light comedian in his own right (Pillow Talk) and (YIKES) Charlton Heston, who would have been abysmal. Both mercifully turned it down, due to contractual arguments about billing. Mitchum’s name came up again, and his response (“I couldn’t give a f**k about billing”) probably cinched him the role. And he’s spectacular in it. Grant later admitted Mitchum saved the picture and praised his handling of the dialog and his physical reactions to the various comedic situations. NOTE: the versatile actor’s next Universal-International pic (they released GRASS) was Cape Fear!
While the movie is essentially a foursome, a fifth character, the impoverished butler Sellers, must be mentioned; it’s a wonderful performance by Moray Watson, the only participant from the original stage production.
In synch with these excellent thesps is Donen’s direction (often inventively using scope split screen, a grand technique he pioneered with It’s Always Fair Weather, in 1955), drolly spot-on, particularly in a Lubitsch-inspired montage of Hilary’s and Charles’ amoral weekend – a sequence of dollies-in to empty theater seats, an empty restaurant table, empty picnic areas, etc.
The movie was a pretty big hit when I saw it in the late summer of 1961 (the picture was a Universal Christmas attraction for 1960, but Catskills theaters wisely held-up playdates until the following summer, correctly assuming that it would be perfect cinematic catnip for the hifalutin’ Manhattanites). I was with my parents and several other couples of their generation; GRASS IS GREENER was to be the frothy dessert topping after dining out at a posh restaurant (I still recall the name, Kass Inn). I can still remember what I ate: broiled scallops and a baked potato (my first encounter with scallops, and I loved ‘em. I can still taste them every time I see this movie!). Without hesitation, mater and pater took me along to the cinema, knowing I’d keep my mouth shut, since I already was addicted to most anything celluloid (I also remember the theater, the Galli-Curci, in Fleischmann’s neighboring town of Margaretville). While I wasn’t able to fathom much of what was going on, I knew it was a comedy from the frequent laughs coming from the audience. I do recall being in awe at the beautiful countryside and the amazing color (Technicolor and Technirama, painted by the great Christopher Challis’ superb palette). Remarkably, even at age seven, I knew who all the principals up on the screen were.
The Olive Films Blu-Ray of THE GRASS IS GREENER is, for the most part, a reasonable facsimile of what the 1960 35MM prints looked like. Although the exteriors tend to be a bit on the faded side, the interiors really do have that Technicolor/Technirama pop. The mono audio displays a hint of sibilance, but not enough to annoy or deter from the reams of witty dialog. A score arranged by Douglas Gamley is highlighted by an opening and closing tune, composed by Noel Coward (“The Stately Homes of England”), which nicely underlines the narrative trappings.
THE GRASS IS GREENER. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA. Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment. CAT # OF650. SRP: $29.95.