Gracie, Bless Her

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You probably haven’t heard of Gracie Fields.  Or if you have, it may have been in connection with a story purportedly told by David Niven on a tabloid talk show.  Its truth I can’t vouch for (Niven was a famous raconteur, and raconteurs are known to vary veracity now and then), but it goes like this:  Once, chatting with  Prince Rainier, Niven was asked by the prince who was his most exciting lover.  “Grace Kel—“, Niven began; then, realizing who he was talking to (awww-kward), suddenly switched his answer to—“Gracie Fields.”  Thereby saving the situation.  And gaining a cheap laugh.  (As one writer put it, “the unlikelihood of such an encounter”…)

Did Rainier know who was Gracie Fields?  I mean, here’s Grace Kelly:

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And here’s…Gracie Fields…

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There’s your joke.  On the one hand, Grace Kelly.  Who’s beautiful, blonde, oh so elegant.  On the other, Gracie Fields.  Who’s…not.  Snicker, snicker.  Now everyone has a cheap laugh.

Well, ok—snicker all you want.  But I’m here to stand up for Gracie Fields.

So, who was Gracie Fields?  Per her Wikipedia entry, Gracie “was an English actress, singer, comedian and star of cinema and music hall who was one of the top ten film stars in Britain during the 1930s.”  As the description indicates, she was multi-talented and adored by her public—mainly the British working class, with whom she shared like origins, as well as a humorous, down-to-earth attitude.  She’s also completely, utterly, and absolutely wonderful.  As Stephanie Zacharek at TCM notes: “[h]er face may not have been the prettiest. But she was terrific at playing sensible, good-natured, working-class women—her features have a kind of cheerful openness that’s instantaneously likable…[Roddy] McDowall [a former co-star] called her ‘a woman of extraordinary spirit, courage, stamina and fabric. I worshipped her and stayed friendly with her until she died.’”  To which I will add—after watching her films, you’ll worship her, too.

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To those who haven’t yet encountered Gracie, start off with two of her American films, available on YouTube.  They probably don’t represent her typical work in English music hall and cinema, but they’re delightful movies.  Warm, funny, lovable, unpretentious.  Very like Gracie herself.

And in both films she co-stars with Monty Woolley.  So now I dare you to resist.

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The two seem an odd pairing.  Fields was born over her grandmother’s fish-and-chip shop in her native Lancashire, while Manhattan-born Woolley “grew up in the highest social circles.”  Fields worked in British music hall from age 7; Woolley studied at Harvard and at Yale, where he was later a drama coach.  Gracie never lost her working-class Lancashire accent throughout her life, whereas Woolley (“born to privilege,” says IMDB) was usually cast as a “wasp-tongued, supercilious sophisticate.”  You wouldn’t think to find two more contrasting personalities side by side onscreen.  Yet together, they’re as right as Salt and Pepper.  Or Peanut Butter and Jelly.  Or Cookies and Milk, or Bacon and Eggs, or Ham on Rye (choose your own dish).  Fields and Woolley are one of the great, unsung screen teams, and, trust me, I’m doing you a great favor by letting you know it.

But I think the duo’s joint magic really comes down to Gracie.

HM

The poster’s right–WHAT a team…

Their first pairing was in Fox’s 1943 release, Holy Matrimony, beautifully directed by John M. Stahl, and with a supporting cast of greats, including Franklin Pangborn, Una O’Connor, Laird Cregar, Eric Blore, George Zucco, and Alan Mowbray.  Even Whit Bissell’s here, his third film appearance (playing not a mad scientist, for a change).  The story’s based on a 1908 Arnold Bennett novel with the slightly startling title Buried Alive, which had already been filmed three times.  The setup’s a bit complicated:  A famous but pathologically shy British painter, Priam Farll (Woolley), has been living, and painting, in the world’s wastelands, far from civilization’s discontents, for a quarter century, with only his valet, Henry Leek, for company.  Reluctantly summoned to London to be knighted by Edward VII, Priam returns with Leek, only for Leek to fall ill and die (an encounter with a pea-souping fog).  When he’s then mistaken for Leek (and Leek for him), Priam on impulse assumes his valet’s identity—a way, he thinks, to live in anonymity and avoid the attentions of the noxious human herd.

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Alone for the first time in 25 years, without Leek as caretaker and buffer, the middle-aged Priam can scarcely handle modern (turn-of-the-20th-century) existence—which includes getting trapped in the literal grip of the police.  But then, as in an old-fashioned plot twist, Priam is miraculously rescued from his plight by the widow Alice Chalice (Fields), who, it turns out, was in correspondence with Leek through a matrimonial bureau.  Also mistaking Priam for Leek, Alice immediately takes charge—not only deftly detaching Priam from the law’s clutches but facing down other civilized perils, such as obnoxious salesmen and snobby waiters.  Thus Priam finds his new refuge and comfort, and, marrying the comfortably off Alice, he retires with her to an idyllic existence in the wilds of Putney, his afternoons happily occupied in painting, free from the world’s notice.

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It’s all so wonderfully perfect and pleasant.  But then, in another twist, Alice loses her money, and Priam (still thought of as Leek) suggests selling a painting or two to make up the loss—and thus comes the Deluge.  For, if the World does not know Priam Farll, it definitely knows a Priam Farll painting when it sees one…

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The film is lovely—as perfect and pleasant a viewing experience as I’ve ever seen.  It’s not a high-budget production, but care was taken with it.  There’s the charm of Alice’s small home, for example, with such cozy touches as two chairs placed just right by the fireplace, and the stitched sampler above noting that “Home is Where the Heart is.”  And Woolley is delightful as Priam.  You sense the actor, whose screen persona was anything but shy, enjoyed playing against type, as an innocent baffled by the world’s complications.  Yet his customary waspishness spurts out, as, when told where Leek-as-Priam will be interred, he barks, “the AB-bey!!”, those three incised syllables cracking the air with a sound like snapped wood.  In such moments you get prime Woolley, baring his teeth at the intruding herd and snapping off any fingers that stray too near.

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But something happens to Priam/Monty when Alice/Gracie appears.  She doesn’t come on until 23 minutes into the film, when Priam, sandwiched between two burly cops, is at his most helpless.  Alice enters confidently, her back straight, her shoulders open, her head erect—you know right off who this woman is.  Her way with large, officious humans is polite, yet brisk; and a look steals into Priam’s face, like a light banishing the dark, as if he’s now realized what a guardian angel is.  That look becomes one of worship, as Alice tends to his comforts, discerning his needs with an instinct almost sublime.  Priam is clearly enchanted with Alice; but I couldn’t help sense that the enchantment extended further, that Woolly himself was captivated by Gracie.  There’s something so real and solid about her, which flows seamlessly into her character, creating a warmth and instant rapport—you know deep down why Priam is drawn to her and feels at ease.  Because we, the spectators, are also.

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The comfort viewers feel with Gracie brings out, like subtle tints of color, an underlying meaning in the film.  On its surface the story is concerned with Priam the artist, a man marked, if you will, by his Art.  But the presence of Alice highlights another kind of art—that of Human Companionship.  If Art is the creative expression of one’s own self, Companionship, with a set of skills and sensitivities all its own, is the expression of the self through another—the creation of the Couple in which, as with art, a separate, private world of craft and feeling is expressed.  While Alice seeks companionship (why else apply to a matrimonial agency?) Priam needs it (why else bring a valet to a desert isle?).  The two are opposites who match, Priam’s abstraction and dreaminess answered by Alice’s practicality and good sense.  She understands him and tolerates his eccentricities, he appreciates her understanding and her acceptance.  Thus their small, perfect world is formed.

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It’s Gracie, though, who nails this realm of sensibility in the film.  You’re aware of how she moves, the small touches she brings to her character; how Alice, for example, neatly folds a pair of gloves into a small packet, or how she settles a pair of spectacles, first on her ears, then on her nose.  There’s also her voice—soft, yet firm, musical in cadence, you follow its lilt as she speaks.  “There’s no shame in wanting to get married,” says Alice, in a summing up of who she is, “it’s sensible and it’s normal…If you want to get married, it’s no use pretending you don’t.”  And Gracie brings out, in such simple words, in her warm, inviting voice, all of Alice’s practical sense and quick feeling.  You end up adoring this woman—as you do the actress portraying her.

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Two years later (1945) Fox released a Woolley-Fields follow-up, Molly and Me, directed by Lewis Seiler and with another great cast—Reginald Gardiner, Doris Lloyd, Natalie Schafer, Queenie Leonard, and Edith Barrett (who’s hilarious).  As with their former film, it’s based on a novel, in this case Frances Marion’s 1937 story, Molly, Bless Her, supposedly inspired by the great Marie Dressler when, at a career low point, she considered housekeeper work.  The film begins on this premise, with unemployed musical-comedy actress Molly Barry (Fields) applying for a housekeeping job, because, she explains to her fellow performing boarding-house roomers, she likes to eat.  The butler interviewing her is also a former actor (who took his job for similar reasons), but he’s not thrilled to hire another thespian.  However, by canny subterfuge (getting the butler too drunk to see what she’s doing), Molly literally moves into the job and, costumed in a sober black frock, tortoise-shell spectacles, and sensible shoes, prepares to take on her newest, and most challenging, role.

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The challenges are many.  Not only is there Molly’s new boss, former politician and present grouch John Graham (Woolley in full-blown curmudgeon mode), there’s also the thieving servants who, their chicanery discovered by Molly, walk out en masse—right before Graham orders Molly to prepare a formal dinner for eight that evening, to impress an important guest.  Domestic agencies failing to supply replacements, Molly gets an inspiration—hire her theatrical friends who, like her, are broke and need jobs, acting or otherwise.  Thus Graham discovers, to his not-too-pleased surprise, that he’s now employing a dancing gardener, a cook assisted by a performing dog, and a melodramatic maid, who greets Graham at the door as if she were Lady Macbeth welcoming her lord right after he’s bumped off Duncan.  And when the grand dinner prep goes south, Molly rallies her crew by telling them to do “what we do in the theater when things go wrong—improvise!”

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As it turns out, such acting skills are needed by both Molly and her friends for handling Graham’s further complications—these including an estranged teenage son (a 17-year-old McDowall), whose presence is an unhappy reminder to Graham of his former wife, a scandalous society beauty who ran away with a “sportsman”; and the now-aging and dissolute beauty herself, who turns up, blackmail scheme in hand, just as Graham plans to re-enter politics.  But the actors again rally round, cooking up their own scheme against the ex-wife, which they plan as carefully as any opening night performance—even to a bit of improv thrown in when needed.  (“But why do we have to do it this way?” wails one player; “Because we’re actors,” says Molly, “and that’s what we do best –act.”)

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As with the first film, this second one is beautifully acted, written, and directed, marked by what seems a genuine camaraderie between Fields and the actors playing her thespian colleagues.  But it’s also different, its pacing brisker, its characters drawn more broadly.  In part, that’s due to the difference in time periods—Holy Matrimony is set in a well-mannered Edwardian England, whereas Molly and Me takes place in 1937 London, at the nip end of the between-the-wars era.  That pre-war setting, recalling a time of fragile peace, may account, in part, for that faint shadow of melancholy in the second film, more sensed than seen.  But there are also the hardships the actors must face in their lives, of uncertainty, poverty, and grinding routine.  Their humor and good cheer can seem like a performance itself, a front kept up against a harsh, unwelcoming world.

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The melancholy extends to the relationship between Woolley and Fields’ characters.  Their pairing here lacks the swift rapport of their first film, of two people who instantly discover that, together, they achieve a rare harmony of being.  Instead, the class barriers between Graham and Molly are more pronounced, the romance held off (note how the two actors are frequently placed on opposing sides of the frame).  The attraction between them grows slowly, distanced not only by status but by Graham’s bitterness—at being alone and lonely, left out of his son’s life, and beset by unpleasant memories.  But, as in the first film, Molly/Gracie proves a blessed presence—her first action as housekeeper is to raise the window blinds in the house, literally letting in the sunlight that, symbolically, she will then do for Graham and his son.

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I suspect that both films, released in wartime, must have seemed, even then, nostalgic to 1940s audiences.  Watching them today may be like experiencing a visual time capsule, of a cinematic era, and its accompanying sensibility, now as dim to us as the faded scent of lavender sachet.  Yet, at their core, these two films are easy, warm, unpretentious, and unironic, offering many grace notes in their production, plotting, and playing.  They simply aim to please.

And the most pleasing note of grace is Gracie herself.  However many delights these two vehicles offer (and they offer many), her presence—energetic yet serene, happy yet composed—ties them all together.  I didn’t even get to her singing, which she does in the second film; silvery high notes floating over a full, warm contralto that seems to rise from an inner grace of being.  I’ve seen these two films of Gracie Fields many times, and hope to watch them many more.  I never tire of them, of Monty—or of her.  I can only say that, watching her onscreen, I feel as if life itself is better, sweeter, warmer.  Full of grace.

HM GM

Keep your American blondes.  I’ll take Gracie any day of the week, month, or year.  A great lady with whom to spend the holidays.  Or any other time you choose.

Gracie, bless her.  And Merry Christmas.

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I can write lots more on Gracie Fields, but do yourselves a favor and experience her films for yourself:

Click here to watch Holy Matrimony.  And click here to watch Molly and Me.


Bonus Clip:  Here’s Gracie’s beautiful rendition of “How Are Things in Glocca Mora,” from 1947:

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