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.

Two for the Road (1967) ***

This film had everything. The cast was pure A-list: Oscar winner Audrey Hepburn (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 1961) and Oscar nominee Albert Finney (Tom Jones, 1963). The direction was in the capable hands of Stanley Donen (Arabesque, 1966), working with Hepburn again after the huge success of thriller Charade (1963). The witty sophisticated script about the marriage between ambitious architect Mark Wallace (Albert Finney) and teacher wife Joanna (Audrey Hepburn) unravelling over a period of a dozen years had been written by Frederic Raphael, who had won the Oscar for his previous picture, Darling (1965). Composer Henry Mancini was not only responsible for Breakfast at Tiffany’s – for which he collected a brace of Oscars – but also Charade and Arabesque. And the setting was France at its most fabulous.

So what went wrong? You could start with the flashbacks. The movie zips in and out of about half a dozen different time periods and it’s hard to keep up. We go from the meet-cute to a road trip on their own and another with some irritating American friends to Finney being unfaithful on his own and then Hepburn caught out in a clandestine relationship and finally the couple making a stab at resolving their relationship. I may have got mixed up with what happened when, it was that kind of picture.

A linear narrative might have helped, but not much, because their relationship jars from the start. Mark is such a boor you wonder what the attraction is. His idea of turning on the charm is a Humphrey Bogart imitation. There are some decent lines and some awful ones, but the dialogue too often comes across as epigrammatic instead of the words just flowing. It might have worked as a drama delineating the breakdown of a marriage and it might have worked as a comedy treating marriage as an absurdity but the comedy-drama mix fails to gel.

It’s certainly odd to see a sophisticated writer relying for laughs on runaway cars that catch fire and burn out a building or the annoying whiny daughter of American couple Howard (William Daniels) and Cathy (Eleanor Bron) and a running joke about Mark always losing his passport.

And that’s shame because it starts out on the right foot. The meet-cute is well-done and for a while it looks as though Joanna’s friend Jackie (Jacqueline Bisset) will hook Mark until chicken pox intervenes. But the non-linear flashbacks ensure that beyond Mark overworking we are never sure what caused the marriage breakdown. The result is almost a highlights or lowlights reel. And the section involving Howard and Cathy is overlong. I kept on waiting for the film to settle down but it never did, just whizzed backwards or forwards as if another glimpse of their life would do the trick, and somehow make the whole coalesce. And compared to the full-throttle marital collapse of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) this was lightweight stuff, skirting round too many fundamental issues.

It’s worth remembering that in movie terms Finney was inexperienced, just three starring roles and two cameos to his name, so the emotional burden falls to Hepburn. Finney is dour throughout while Hepburn captures far more of the changes their life involves. Where he seems at times only too happy to be shot of his wife, she feels more deeply the loss of what they once had as the lightness she displays early on gives way to brooding.

Hepburn as fashion icon gets in the way of the picture and while some of the outfits she wears, not to mention the sunglasses, would not have been carried off by anyone else they are almost a sideshow and add little to the thrust of the film.

If you pay attention you can catch a glimpse, not just of Jacqueline Bissett (Bullitt, 1969) but Romanian star Nadia Gray (The Naked Runner, 1967), Judy Cornwell (The Wild Racers, 1968) in her debut and Olga Georges-Picot (Farewell, Friend, 1968). In more substantial parts are William Daniels (The Graduate, 1968), English comedienne Eleanor Bron (Help!, 1965) woefully miscast as an American, and Claude Dauphin (Grand Prix, 1966).

Hepburn’s million-dollar fee helped put the picture’s budget over $5 million, but it only brought in $3 million in U.S. rentals, although the Hepburn name may have nudged it towards the break-even point worldwide.

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