Saturday, January 23, 2010

Jean Simmons

The death of Jean Simmons takes away my favorite of the England-to-Hollywood transplants of her era; she wasn't as famous as Deborah Kerr, but she was more likable, and she did everything well. In Guys and Dolls, a movie that makes dozens of little wrong choices that ultimately sink it for me (the obvious discomfort of Brando and Sinatra, Joe Mankiewicz's crippled sense of comic timing, the nonexistent ending, the unfortunate song substitutions), she stands out as one of the few completely right choices, looking, acting and even singing the part just right.

Looking at her filmography, I feel like -- with a few exceptions -- luck was not always with her in the movies she made. It's not that she had no access to good projects or good directors, just that most of her films are not quite first-rank, or don't quite live up to what we might expect from the talent involved. Again, Guys and Dolls is the clearest example for me: with that cast, director and source material, it ought to be one of the all-time great film musicals, and it isn't anywhere near that. Another example is The Grass Is Greener, Stanley Donen directs three of Hollywood's favorite Brits (Simmons, Kerr, Cary Grant) plus Robert Mitchum, but it doesn't add up to much.

Perhaps too many of her films are prestige projects in one way or another, which in '50s Hollywood usually weren't much fun. Her excursion into RKO noir in Angel Face -- with Mitchum and Otto Preminger -- is a rare chance to see her in the kind of movie that represents Hollywood at its best, playing a femme fatale part. She's good in it, of course; she always was. I'd have loved to see her in more movies of that type.


Rick Roberts said...

I actually have Angel Face on my Amazon Wishlist. I'll definetly pick it up as soon as I get the money. As for Guys and Dolls, I could never finish that film.

Anonymous said...

I was lucky enough to see Jean Simmons when she did the first tour of A Little Night Music. She was a fantastic Desiree. (On the other hand, Margaret Hamilton couldn't have been more miscast as Madame Armfeldt.) Reading her obit in the NYT today, I was interested to find that she was supposed to do Roman Holiday, but couldn't get out of her contract with Howard Hughes.