After watching Black Narcissus with my students this week, there was a delightful intertextual buzz to The Grass Is Greener (1961), Stanley Donen's banana split of a drawing room comedy. Narcissus actors Deborah Kerr and Jean Simmons both turn up here, once again embodying the poles of prim repression and overt sexuality, respectively, that they did in the earler film (although doing so in a comedy, rather than the Powell-Pressburger melodrama, makes those turns a lot fizzier). Kerr had already proven herself an adept foil for Greener's two male leads, Cary Grant and Robert Mitchum: she'd scored a big hit with Mitchum in 1957's Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, and an even bigger hit with Grant that same year in An Affair To Remember. The embers of those past romantic entanglements-- as well as the Kerr/Simmons dynamic-- enliven Greener's pedestrian narrative, filling in the backstories of the characters and providing a warmth and realness that the shenanigans might otherwise lack. Screenwriters Hugh Williams and Margaret Vyner adapted their own play of the same name, and the script feels very much like a translation: limited sets (along with some nice London location work), a small ensemble, a clear three-act structure of romantic introduction, engagement and resolution. There's a clear professionalism on display, and the whole thing is literate fun, but you do wish they'd occasionally cut loose a bit more: the film feels like a screwball comedy that's sadly grown up and left its childish fun behind (thank god for Stanley Donen, who brings his light touch, elegant mise-en-scene and dancing camera with him from his musical films: even when the dialogue gets bogged down, Donen seems engaged by the country home bric-a-brac and the deadpan faces of his actors).
It is, in the end, an actors' movie. Kerr is quite wonderful as the British housewife torn between two men that she loves very much: if that description makes her role seem like one from a drama rather than a comedy, it suggests just how well she imbues her silliness with a hint of pathos (watch her perfectly timed body language when Mitchum walks into the room at the end-- it complicates the drawing-room comedy by introducing a touch of Douglas Sirk). Jean Simmons is the film's Katharine Hepburn, a whirling dervish of spoiled delirium who shows up in the countryside and immediately shakes Cary Grant out of his torpor: Grant is always a pleasure to watch, of course, but he comes alive in his scenes with Simmons, whose kind-hearted playgirl really gives him something to bounce off.
Best of all, there is the faceoff between Grant and Robert Mitchum. Mitchum is quite good with Kerr-- gentler, funnier and more sensitive than I've seen him in other roles-- but he clearly relishes the opportunity to out-deadpan Grant, and watching these driest of all Classic Hollywood leading men interact is bliss: leaning against a billiards table in their tuxes, they're so cool and elegant that they make the Rat Pack look like a bunch of squares.