Behind the Scenes: “The Grass Is Greener” (1960)

Cary Grant was coming off a commercial career peak, comedy Houseboat (1958) with Sophia  Loren, Hitchcock thriller North by Northwest (1959) and war comedy Operation Petticoat (1959) all among the top box office hits of their years. He was in enormous demand. In 1960 Jerry Wald wooed him for Tender Is the Night, eventually made in 1962 with Jason Robards.  He went so far along considering Can-Can (1960) that he began working with a voice coach and passed on Let’s Make Love (1960).

The prospect of Lawrence of Arabia – he had been lined up to play the lead over two decades before – reared his head with producer Sam Spiegel eyeing him up for Allenby (played in the 1962 picture by Jack Hawkins). He turned down Lolita and a remake of The Letter. The biggest letdown was John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King which would have teamed him with Clark Gable. Of the screenplay, Grant commented: “I’ve read it twice and am still uncertain whether it’s fair, good, or perhaps, even excellent.” (It would not be filmed until 1975.)

Also in the pipeline was an intriguing original screenplay in which he and Ingrid Bergman would essay dual roles and his alternative company, Granart, also purchased The Day They Robbed the Bank. (Neither project was made.)

In the face of such indecision it’s not surprising he decided to play safe. The Grass Is Greener would be made by his own company, Grandon, a production outfit set up with director Stanley Donen – they had previously made Indiscreet (1957) – at that point still best known for musicals including Singin’ in the Rain (1951), though he had also directed Grant in the comedy Kiss Them for Me (1957).

Initially Grant cast himself as the American, with Rex Harrison (The Honey Pot, 1967) and his real-life wife Kay Kendall (Once More with Feeling, 1960, also directed by Donen) the titled British couple. Harrison would certainly have brought more natural acidity to the part but he pulled out after his wife died prematurely. Deborah Kerr, the most English of actresses, was ideal for the Earl’s wife.

Robert Mitchum, with whom Kerr had just appeared in The Sundowners (1960), was a late addition as the Yank even though it meant him dropping to third billing for the first time in over a decade. For The Sundowners he had ceded top billing to Kerr on the basis it would be better for the poster, not realizing he would be viewed as the male lead rather than the acknowledged star (not quite as subtle a difference as you might imagine in the cut-throat credits business). Kerr was at an artistic peak, winning her sixth Oscar nomination for The Sundowners. Mitchum, by contrast, nominated in a supporting role for The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) had nary a sniff of peer recognition since.

Jean Simmons (Spartacus, 1960) was a surprise choice for Grant’s character’s ex-lover but was willing to accept lower billing because she was desperate to extend her range by doing comedy. The foursome already had considerable experience working with each other, Mitchum paired with Simmons for Angel Face (1952) and She Couldn’t Say No (1953) while Kerr and Grant had dallied in Dream Wife (1953) and An Affair to Remember (1957). To round things off Kerr had played opposite Mitchum in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) and, as mentioned, The Sundowners.

Although the picture was financed by Universal, director Donen was more of a Columbia favorite. On top of Once More with Feeling and Surprise Package for the latter studio, he was contracted to make another four, all to be filmed abroad, the director having set up home in London. Deborah Kerr was involved in Cakes and Ale, based on the Somerset Maugham novel, with George Cukor and was announced as starring in Behind the Mirror (neither film made). Mitchum was also diversifying, the first of a three-picture deal between United Artists and his company being North from Rome (never made), based on the Helen MacInnes thriller.

Shooting began at Shepperton in London on April 4, 1860, but this time round, the personalities did not quite gel. Simmons complained that Grant was “a fuss-budget, everything must be just so.” Although she did admit that his preparation worked wonders. “He’d come forth with the most amusing, polished take, everything so effortless.” Mitchum complained Grant lacked a sense of humor. “He’s very light and pleasant but his humor is sort of old music-hall jokes.”

Despite the high-class cast, Grant had very definite ideas about his star status. In one scene that called for both actresses to be bedecked in expensive jewelry, he instructed the jewels be removed in case the audience was distracted from him.

Grant and Mitchum had one thing in common, a liking for experimenting with drugs. Mitchum’s preference for marijuana was well-known. Although he had been previously jailed for his “addiction,” Mitchum still grew his own. Grant’s drug of choice, on the other hand, was LSD. He had been on a course of LSD treatment since 1958 and was in the middle of coming off the drug. “He was a little weird,” noted Mitchum.

Fittingly, their personality clash was very English, “a mild, undeclared, rivalry.” The battleground was costume, Grant perturbed that Mitchum’s laid-back style was making him look over-dressed while Mitchum complained that he was a glorified feed, employed simply to make non-committal comments in the middle of a Grant monologue.

Grant’s parsimony was also a bit extreme. As part of his invoice for doing publicity on the picture, “not only did he turn in his hotel bills and meal receipts for those four extra days but also the costs of the suits” he had had made in Hong Kong. In other words, he billed his own company. Money paid for these expenses would be deducted from any potential profit he would receive.

Kerr, however, had no complaints. “Between Cary’s superb timing and Bob’s instinctive awareness of what you’re trying to do, this was a very happy film.” But there was one other source of contention. The British media were barred from the set on by Stanley Donen on the grounds that journalists of the more sensation-seeking newspaper were apt to needle actors. Grant softened the blow by arranging to be interviewed once filming was complete.   

However, Variety was able to give the picture a publicity boost by hailing stately home tourism as “a new type of British show business,” reckoning the 400 operations raked in $4 million a year. Average admission prices of 35 cents meant over 10 million visitors a year.

Ironically, the infidelity theme cost The Grass Is Greener a lucrative Xmas launch at the prestigious Radio City Music Hall in New York. The cinema felt the content was not in keeping with Yuletide and opted for The Sundowners instead, the Donen picture shifting to the much smaller and semi-arthouse Astor. Just how important the Hall was to a movie’s public reception could be judged by the takings the previous year for Operation Petticoat (a Granart release), a whopping $175,000 opener. The point was made when The Sundowners grossed $200,000 in its first week, three times as much as The Grass Is Greener.

SOURCES: Scott Eyman, Cary Grant, A Brilliant Disguise (Simon & Schuster, 2020) p339-343,363-368; Lee Server, Robert Mitchum, Baby I Don’t Care (Faber and Faber, 2002) p204-207, 429; Eric Braun, Deborah Kerr (WH Allen, 1977) p176-177; “Deborah’s Cakes & Ale,” Variety, July 15, 1959, p3; “Grant in Original, with Himself and Bergman in Dual Roles,” Variety, September 30, 1959, p10; “Nativity and Grant Combo at Hall,” Variety, December 9, 1959, p9; “Maugham-Hurst Film Location in Tangier,” Variety, January 6, 1960, p167; “Col Extending Donen,” Variety, May 25, 1960, p20; “400 Stately Homes of England,” Variety, June 1, 1960, p2; “Needling and Smartalec British Interviewers Not Allowed In By Donen,” Variety, June 22, 1960, p2; “Infidelity Theme Cancels Grant’s Comedy at Hall,” Variety, September 21, 1960, p7; “Cary Grant’s,” Variety, November 9, 1960, p20; “B’Way soars,” Variety, December 28, 1960, p9.

The Grass Is Greener (1960) ***

A genuine all-star cast goes off-piste in what used to be called – and maybe still is – a comedy of manners. A chance encounters at the stately home owned by Victor (Cary Grant), an Earl who makes ends meet by opening up his home to tourists, sees his wife Lady Hilary (Deborah Kerr), who helps make ends meet by selling home-grown mushrooms, fall in love with American oil millionaire Charles (Robert Mitchum).

Victor is far too English and posh to go off in the deep end and after considering allowing her to indulge in an affair until she gets bored, comes up with a strategy to ensure it’s her lover who is shooed away. Hilary’s best friend, the glamorous and often barmy Hattie (Jean Simmons), all Dior outfits and full-on make-up,  meanwhile, steps in to attempt to rekindle her romance with former lover Charles.

Needless to say, this scene does not exist in the film.

While it’s peppered with epigrams and clever lines and several twists, what’s most memorable is the acting, the initial scene between Charles and Hilary a masterpiece of nuance, what’s shown in the face opposite to what they say. And there’s another peach of a scene where the most important element is what’s conveyed by a sigh. And by Robert Mitchum of all people, an actor not known for nuance.

But it’s let down by the staginess – it was based on a hit play – the very dated by now notion of showing the comic differences between British and Americans and the pacing. The theatrical element, thankfully, doesn’t resort to farce but with a whole bunch of entrances at unexpected moments you occasionally feel it’s heading in that direction. There are minor attempts to open up the play, a scene in the river, some location work in London and upmarket tourist haunts, but mostly it’s a picture that takes place on a couple of sets.

The British vs American trope just becomes tiresome after a while except that essentially the two men trade cultures, Victor exhibiting the kind of ruthlessness you might expect (in the old cliched fashion) from an American while Charles displays the kind of subtlety you would more likely find in an Englishman.

The pacing’s the biggest problem. The actors deliver lines at such speed that no time is allowed for the audience to laugh. The three British characters are almost manic in their urgency, while the Yank so laid-back he might belong to a different century.

Late on, a couple of subplots brighten up proceedings, a joke played on Hilary by Victor over the contents of a suitcase that she has devised an elaborate cover story to explain, and a betrayal of Hilary by her friend. Devilishly clever though it is, the duel scene almost belongs to a different picture. There’s also an amusing butler Sellers (Moray Watson), a wannabe writer, who believes, as is obvious, he is being under-employed, and pops up when the movie requires straightforward comic relief.

It starts off, via the Maurice Binder (Goldfinger, 1964) credits with babies, occasionally in the buff, unspooling film and indulging in other humorous activities. The only characters established before the plot kicks in are the Earl and the butler, Victor shown as tight-fisted, literally counting the pennies (although, literally, these are actually half-crowns, the price of admission to the stately home), the efficient Sellers revealed as otherwise baffled by life. The joke of a wealthy couple forced to rely on the income from visitors was not even much of a joke by then.

Perhaps what’s most interesting is that this movie essentially about immorality failed to click with U.S. audiences while an equally immoral picture The Apartment (1960) did superb business, the difference less relating to star quality than directorial ability, Billy Wilder’s work always having a greater edge than the confections of Stanley Donen.

It’s the supporting cast – if stars can be so termed – who steal the show. Robert Mitchum  (Man in the Middle/The Winston Affair, 1964) is just marvelous, one of his best acting jobs, relying far more on expression to carry a scene. He delivers a masterclass in how little an actor needs to do. Jean Simmons (Rough Night in Jericho, 1967) is also excellent for the opposite reason, an over-the-top mad-as-a-hatter conniving ex-lover with an eye on the main chance. That’s not to say Cary Grant (Walk, Don’t Run, 1966) and Deborah Kerr (The Arrangement, 1969) are not good, just overshadowed, and Kerr’s first scene with Mitchum, where she, too, realizes she is falling instantly in love is remarkably underplayed.

Stanley Donen (Arabesque, 1966) should have done more, pre-filming, to tighten up the script and expand the production. Hugh Williams and Margaret Vyner adapted their own play. It’s entertaining enough but I was more taken by the acting than the picture.

Rough Night in Jericho (1967) ****

Woefully under-rated western with three A-list stars at the top of their game in a taut drama with an explosive ending. Not surprising it was overlooked at the time with John Wayne duo El Dorado and The War Wagon, Paul Newman as Hombre and an onslaught of spaghetti westerns garnering more attention at the box office. Though a rewarding watch, be warned this is more of a slow-burn drama than a traditional western and both male leads play against type.

Former lawmen Dolen (George Peppard) and Ben Hickman (John McIntiyre) have invested in a stagecoach business owned by twice-widowed Molly Lang (Jean Simmons), just about the only business in Jericho in which Alex Flood (Dean Martin) does not have a controlling interest. Dolen’s first reaction on surmising Flood’s power is to quit, “stepping in’s a habit I outgrew.” And it’s not a bad approach given that Flood is judge, jury and executioner and apt to leave victims strung up to dissuade dissent.

Dolen and Flood have a great deal in common, moving from ill-paid law enforcement into business, Flood, having cleaned up the town, staying on the reap the profit. While Dolen avoids confrontation, Molly aims to stir up opposition, invoking ruthless reaction.

What’s unusual about this picture is it’s mostly a duel of minds, Dolen and Flood testing each other out, neither backing down even while Dolen intends quitting and when he happens to win a bundle in a poker game with Flood you have the notion that was somehow an inducement to help him on his way.  It’s a power game of sorts, too, between Dolen and Molly, she determined to give no quarter to the point of drinking him under the table.

But when violence occurs it is absolutely brutal, Flood’s knuckles bloodied raw as he batters a man foolish enough to challenge his rule of law, Dolen taking an almighty whipping from Yarbrough (Slim Pickens), Molly viciously slapped around by Flood for daring to look at Dolen. When Dolen does move into action it is with strategic skill, gradually reducing the odds before the inevitable shoot-out between respectable citizens and gangsters.

A good half century before the notion took hold, this is a movie as much about entitlement, about those doing the hard work receiving just reward, Flood, having risked his life to tame the town, deciding he should be paid more than a sheriff’s monthly salary. And the western at this point in Hollywood development had precious few female businesswomen in the vein of Molly.

Cover of the Pressbook

Both Dean Martin and George Peppard play against type. An unexpected box office big hitter through the light-hearted Matt Helm series, Martin explodes his screen persona as this vicious thug, town in his thrall, contemptuous of his victims, turning politics to his advantage, but still happy to hand out a beating when charm and chicanery fail. This is one superb, and brave, performance.

For Peppard, this picture is the bridge between the brash persona of The Blue Max (1966) and Tobruk (1967) and the thoughtful introspective characters he brought to life in P.J. / New Face in Hell (1968) and Pendulum (1969). Perhaps the most telling difference is a little acting trick. His blue eyes are unseen most of the time, hidden under the shade of his wide-brimmed hat. He is not laid-back in the modern sense but definitely unwilling to plunge into action, movement both confined and defined, a man who knows his limits and, no longer paid to risk his life, unwilling to do so.

Jean Simmons (Divorce American Style) is in excellent form, neither the feisty nor submissive woman of so many westerns, but clever and determined, perhaps setting the tone for later female figures like Claudia Cardinale in Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) and Raquel Welch in 100 Rifles (1969).

And this is aw-shucks Slim Pickens (Major Dundee, 1965) as you’ve never seen him before. John McIntire had spent most of the decade in Wagon Train but he punches above his weight as a mentoring lawman. If you are trying to spot any other unusual figures keep an eye out for legendary Variety columnist Army Archerd  who was a walk-on part as a waitperson.

More at home in television, director Arnold Laven took to the big screen on rare occasions, only twice previously during the decade for Geronimo (1962) and The Glory Guys (1965), but here he handles story and character with immense confidence and considerable aplomb. The direction is often bold – major incidents occur off screen so he can concentrate on the reactions of the main characters. There is a fabulous drunk scene, one of the best ever – plus an equally good hangover sequence –  the violence is coruscating, all the more so because it is not delivered by gun.

The screenplay by Sidney Boehm (Shock Treatment, 1964) and Marvin H. Albert (Duel at Diablo, 1966) swings between confrontation and subliminal menace.

Selling Dick Van Dyke – The Pressbook for “Divorce American Style”

There was a curious dichotomy at the heart of promotional efforts for this picture. On the one hand, theater managers were encouraged to make contact with those affected by divorce, on the other to make a great play of weddings and marriage.

So theater managers were told to contact groups such as Parents without Partners, Children of Divorce, Divorce Reform Groups, Alimony Payers and Family Counsellors. Divorce Parties and Divorce Breakfasts were suggested as other sources of publicity. Free screenings were aimed at couples who could prove they were divorced – presumably, that is, if they could still stand the sight of each other.

“Wedding rings can make a very positive contribution” to a promotional campaign was the other side of efforts to sell the movie. That meant possibly offering a wedding ring as a prize in a competition for divorced couples planning to re-marry…”re-marriage might take place at your theater…but it is not mandatory.” Free tickets could be given to jewelers to hand out to anyone buying an engagement or wedding ring. Another idea was a newspaper article on what divorced women did with their wedding rings after they had split from their partner.

Dick Van Dyke had been named “Screen Father of the Year” by the National Father’s Day committee and he had made a national tour in support of the picture meeting the media in New York, Chicago, Miami, Atlanta, New Orleans. Oklahoma City, Rochester, Washington, Syracuse, Boston and Philadelphia so journalists in those localities were already primed to support the efforts of cinemas. In Dallas, he was met by 1,000 people and later presented with a plaque from the Domestic Relations Court because “the ideals of the film serve as a deterrent to divorce.”

Unusually, the fashion boost this time focused on the male. Jason Robards had turned himself into a male model for Ratner California Clothes with advertisements appearing in Gentlemen’s Quarterly. Equally unusual was a suggestion to tie up with a local hypnotist – a scene in the picture involves Pat Collins’ nightclub act.

Van Johnson played a used car dealer in the film so they were also targeted for joint promotions or car parades. Bowling alleys, too, since that form of leisure activity featured in the film. On a more straightforward note Popular Library had produced a novelization and United Artists the original soundtrack album by Dave Grusin.

Divorce American Style (1967) ***

Not so much a comedy about a failing marriage as a guide to the American divorce laws,  a cynical hard-boiled and frightening shape of things to come in a world where the everyman is represented not by the likes of James Stewart or at a stretch Glenn Ford but Dick Van Dyke. It’s possibly only the fact that Van Dyke lacks dramatic chops without the innate vitriol of a Rod Steiger or Lee Marvin that keeps the movie from drifting into devastating black comedy. That, or the filmmakers’ determination to find a happy ending.

When the ever-squabbling Harmons, Richard (Dick Van Dyke) and Barbara (Debbie Reynolds), break up after 17 years and two kids, the chips seem to fall heavily against the husband, the wife walking off with all assets, the husband landed with all the bills and little more than 80 bucks a week to get by on. Such is the supposed injustice of the American divorce laws at a time when most wives did not go out to work and so relied on their husband, married or otherwise, for support.

The only way out of this unhappy financial state for Richard is for his wife to get married again, so a second husband can pick up the tab for her upkeep.  Another divorced couple, the Downes, Nelson (Jason Robards) and Nancy (Jean Simmons), are in the same pickle so Nelson spends his time acting as some kind of pimp for his ex-wife, serving up potential suitors, such as Richard, on a platter. But since Richard is impoverished a helping hand is needed to even things up, so Nelson arranges for Barbara to fall into the arms of rich and single used car dealer Al Yearling (Van Johnson).

There is a big male-female divide, for the most part the guys concentrating on material things like money and what money can buy, the gals leaning more towards emotion, conversation, genuine intimacy.  Richard has given his wife everything she wants, so why can’t he have a few things his own way. Or as Barbara succinctly puts it, it’s a case of supply and demand, the women are in good supply while the men demand. Even after separation, while from the Richard and Nelson perspective the wives are living in the lap of luxury and the men understanding the meaning of penury, female thoughts turn to questions of loneliness, commitment and (not again!) emotion.

While there are moments of observational comedy – an excellent montage of Richard and Barbara opening and closing all sorts of doors while preparing for bed, cleaning out bank accounts before the other can get to them, the problems of accommodating the blended/hybrid family that divorce or multiple divorce can entail – there are not many laugh-out-loud moments.

And probably just as well because without the drama-lite presences of Van Dyke (who still can’t shake off those double takes and involuntary limb functions) and Reynolds, it would have been a much tougher watch. Reynolds is capable of expressing her feelings verbally because, as a female, she is used to expressing feelings verbally, so we know that Al Yearling does not quite hit the spot. But Van Dyke, without resort to the verbal, has his best scenes of emotional loss when he takes his kids to the ball game only to discover that his wife’s new suitor has more treats to offer.

Van Dyke (Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N.) and Reynolds (The Singing Nun, 1966) do a decent job without plumbing any dramatic depths, but Robards (Any Wednesday, 1966) and Simmons (Spartacus, 1960) have more to offer as the conspiring couple, while one-time MGM golden boy Van Johnson (Battleground, 1949) proves that his four-year absence from pictures was premature Hollywood retirement. More a cautionary tale than an outright laffer, this Norman Lear (Come Blow Your Horn, 1963) screenplay without missing many targets provides a more palatable dissection of modern marriage than something as full-blooded and expletive-ridden as the previous year’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.  Director Bud Yorkin (Come Blow Your Horn, also) shows a nice grasp of building up situations until they go out of  control.

While, certainly, many of the attitudes are out of date you can be sure that male self-pity is not one of them.

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