British Elegance: A Tribute to Jean Simmons

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I wonder if you ever saw the photo of someone and then just became curious to know more about this subject. It was someone you had never heard of before, but, now that you have, you have developed a devoted admiration for him or her.

This is what happened to me and Jean Simmons. I saw two photos of her in my famous book Les Stars de Cinéma (I must have mentioned this book a dozen times on my blog) and was magnetized by her almost statuesque beauty. On these photos, she looked like a very serious lady, coming right out of a film noir. Because of that, I assumed she had a low sensual voice, a bit like Lauren Bacall for example. Well, that wasn’t exactly the case. Today, Jean Simmons is my third most favourite actress, which classifies her between Joan Fontaine and Margaret Lockwood.

The two photos from the book

I had already written about my admiration for the British lady on this blog, but that was in 2015. At the time, I had only seen five of her films. Four years later, the countdown is now at 20 1/2 films. I know, that’s weird, but, not a long time ago, I started watching The Earth Is Mine (Henry King, 1959). I stopped it around halfway through as it was honestly very bad, despite the stellar casting.

What would have been Jean Simmons’ 90th birthday is, of course, the perfect occasion to tell you more about my admiration for her. Moreover, this article is written for the 90 Years of Jean Simmons Blogathon that I am currently co-hosting with my friend blogger Laura from Phyllis Loves Classic Movies. As I knew she was also fond of this actress, I thought I’d asked her to co-host and she gladly accepted!

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Two other great stars, Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly, will also be celebrating their 90th birthday later this year.

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Jean in England

If Jean’s initial ambition was to become an acrobatic dancer (her father was a bronze medalist in gymnastics and a physical education teacher), she finally enrolled in the Aida Foster School of Dance in London where she would, most of all, learn drama. This is how she was spotted by Val Guest and given a role in her first film, Give Us the Moon (1944) at the age of 14. Looking at this video, we understand how this school also taught good manners to Jean and why she was such an elegant actress!

I love how she tries to be serious during this close-up but then can’t help smiling! Absolutely endearing!

Her career in England, despite being short, attracted the eyes of the press who would film Jean at home or doing various activities, showing us that, the one who was on her way to stardom was, after all, a teenager who liked to have fun like everybody. British Pathé archives have some wonderful treasures!

Dear Jean, she often falls but keeps the smile! I love her!

As soon as I watched a first film starring Jean Simmons, I realized that she was far from having a low voice, typical of a film noir star. No, hers could easily be compared to the one of Audrey Hepburn, Patricia Roc, or Margaret Lockwood. Impeccably articulated and with a fancy British accent, that was one of the elements that gave Jean Simmons the class she had. It’s precisely with British actress Margaret Lockwood that Jean started her film acting career. Val Guest 1944’s comedy Give Us the Moon that I previously mentioned is not her most well-known film, but it is my favourite film of hers and also one of my most favourite films of all time. We’ll come back to it later.

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However, in opposition to Margaret Lockwood, Jean Simmons managed to transition to a successful career in Hollywood. Lockwood made one film there, Susannah of the Mounties (William A. Seiter/Walter Lang, 1939), but didn’t like the ambiance (which is perfectly understandable) and returned to England where her success as a Gainsborough star was huge. On her side, Jean Simmons, before starting a career in the American land, had received good credits for her performances in historically significant British films such as Black Narcissus (Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger, 1947), Great Expectations (David Lean, 1946), or Hamlet (Laurence Olivier, 1949). She even received an Oscar nomination for her haunting portrayal of Ophelia in Hamlet. Funny enough, at the time, she had no idea what an Oscar was! If she failed to receive the golden statuette, she was awarded a Volpi Cup at Venice Film Festival.

Curiously, people don’t tend to think of Jean Simmons as a teen actress but, as we can see, that was an important part of her career. Her first roles were easily scene-stealing parts. In Give Us the Moon she is Heidi, Margaret Lockwood’s rebel little sister. She smokes, drinks, and always runs away from school, at the great despair of her entourage. In Black Narcissus, she is Kanchi, the India girl who doesn’t really ever speak a word, but who mesmerizes us with an unforgettable dance scene. In Great Expectation, she is the lovely but cruel little Estella who breaks poor Pipe’s heart. And she proved to us her ability to play Shakespearian tragedies with Hamlet. Those early roles allowed her to work with some of the Best movie directors of the British film industry, more precisely David Lean, Powell & Pressburger, and Laurence Olivier (who would later be her co-star in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus). This would also happen in the USA.

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Multi-talented

Guys & Dolls (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1955) is the way I was introduced to Jean’s acting. Now 26, she had already 12 years of acting career behind her and had proved to us that she could make a film worth seeing with her sensitive acting. Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s film reunited Jean and Marlon Brando for a second time after Désirée (Henry Koster, 1954). Both stars faced an extra challenge, the one of singing and dancing. This was not the first time Jean would sing in a film. During the beginning of her career in England, she made an appearance as a singer in Anthony Asquith’s The Way to the Stars (1945).

But Jean’s part in Guys & Dolls was to be much more important and involved much more singing. If she and Brando initially didn’t feel comfortable doing so, Mankiewicz reassured them by telling them it also was the first musical he was directing. Their signing couldn’t be compared to the one of their co-star Frank Sinatra ( I mean…), but it turned out to be decent enough for non-professional signers. In an interview with the stars conducted by MGM actor Walter Pidgeon during the making of the film, a very courteous and timid Jean reveals her humbleness by telling him she doesn’t believe she’s a very good singer. But I think she was too hard on herself!

The interview is a fun one and worth listening to. So, whenever you’ll have the time, I’ll leave the link here!

Jean and Marlon singing A Woman in Love.

As for Jean’s dancing, it was one of the best things about the film. It is just so much fun to see her moving with such contagious energy. Sister Sarah Brown surely knows how to groove!

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An underrated actress

Since a while, I’ve grown to realize that Jean Simmons was a highly underrated actress. I once had the feeling she was this kind of old Hollywood star who was as much praised as Katharine Hepburn or Bette Davis for example. But I was kind of wrong. In opposition to the two actresses previously named, I rarely see people mentioning her on social media. I was happy however to see she sparked the interest of a good amount of bloggers with more than 20+ subscriptions to this blogathon! 🙂

The fact also that Jean was only nominated for two Oscars (Hamlet and The Happy Ending – Richard Brooks, 1969) is something I don’t understand. I know Oscars don’t exclusively determine talent, but we have to stop kidding ourselves: they can be something quite significant in the life of an actor. If she was nominated for Hamlet, I also think she should have been nominated for other roles. Her performance in Olivier’s film was great but, in my opinion, some were even better. Elmer Gantry (directed by Jean’s second husband Richard Brooks), Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick, 1960), and Home Before Dark (Mervyn LeRoy, 1958) are three films where Jean delivered powerful, strong in emotions, nuanced and, yes, Oscar-worthy performances.

These previously mentioned roles, in comparison to her earliest ones, prove to us the actress’s acting versatility. I swear, she could play an impressive range of characters. She, however, always was faithful to herself and always had that “Jean Simmons touch”. And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s the reason why we love her! But who thought the little Heidi from Give Us the Moon would one day played the tormented Charlotte Bronn in Home Before Dar or the dangerous Diane Tremayne in Angel Face (Otto Preminger, 1953)? The little British teen surely changed through the years! Talking about Home Before Dark, I saw this film not a long time ago and was flabbergasted by Jean’s acting. She expresses both assurance and vulnerability and definitely owns the film. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. Jean’s acting makes it worthy. The story is psychologically complex but fascinating.

Yes, our connection to Jean Simmons could be totally different depending on the role. Despite having a magnificent aura and charisma, she was ready to break it if necessary. She would make us cry in Spartacus, make us laugh in The Grass Is Greener (Stanley Donen, 1960), make us feel kind of uncomfortable in Footsteps in the Fog (Arthur Lubin, 1955), make us dream with The Actress (George Cukor, 1953), etc.

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The Grass Is Greener

Jean wasn’t only a versatile actress. She also had this presence that would take your breath away. The other day, I was watching her in Young Bess (George Sidney, 1953) in which she played the young Elizabeth I before she became the queen of England. We rarely mention her when thinking of actresses who played the role of Elizabeth (Bette Davis or Cate Blanchett more often come to our minds) but Jean Simmons was credible in the role and I loved the way she played and authoritarian but sensible Elizabeth. If the film portrayed her for the majority as Princess Elizabeth, the ending, however, introduces her as the new queen. And I have to say, this scene is totally badass (forgive me for this non-poetic word). A door is opened, and she, as the new queen, stands there, looking as majestic as ever. I just thought “Wow!” when I saw that. I honestly had never seen Jean looking … impressive like that before! This was just a perfect way to conclude the film. The way she looks at the camera inspires respect for her character. The orchestral music also adds a lot to this scene.

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Jean’s wise decision + her co-actors

I recently read a quote by Jean that really intrigued me: ” I had to do four pictures for [Howard Hughes], and then I was free. I never signed a contract with a studio after.”

This was a wise decision from Jean as it would allow her more liberties on the role she would choose. This could indeed explain their variety. The Hollywood studio system imprisoning actors with contracts wasn’t necessarily a good thing and, luckily, Jean saw that on time. Her friend and Spartacus co-star Kirk Douglas is another actor who refused to associate his name to contracts with producers and allowed himself more liberties in the choice of his roles. Despite that, we had the pleasure to often see Jean acting next to the same actors, among them can be named Robert Mitchum, Deborah Kerr, Margaret Lockwood, her first husband Stewart Granger, Marlon Brando, Victor Mature, and Laurence Olivier. We can remember vividly her pairing with these actors as they shared memorable chemistry with Jean. Margaret Lockwood said of Jean that she was “very pretty with lovely brown eyes and such nice manners.” (Margaret Lockwood: Queen of the Silver Screen). They shared the screen twice, first with Give Us the Moon, and then with Hungry Hill (Brian Desmond Hurst, 1947), an adaptation of Daphné Du Maurier’s novel. Jean also developed a beautiful friendship with her three-times co-actress Deborah Kerr. As for Stewart Granger, he and Jean were married from 1950 to 1960. Their love scenes in Young Bess surely make us sigh. However, Jean admitted having had an adventure with Robert Mitchum which isn’t so surprising and only accentuated their on-screen chemistry. Rumour also reported a relationship with Marlon Brando. True or not, this one always kept a good memory of the actress and praised her simplicity and sense of humour. Yes, I feel Jean was the kind of person it was pleasant to work with. We can also give credits to her good teamwork with the cast of Robert Wise’s Until They Sail (seeing Joan Fontaine and Jean Simmons sharing the screen has always been a real delight for me), Kirk Douglas, Gregory Peck, or even Cary Grant.

An unsuspected fashion icon

Apart from her acting, I’ve always admired Jean for her sense of style. We don’t often think of her as a fashion icon like it is the case for Audrey Hepburn or Elizabeth Taylor, but Jean had all the elements to actually be one. It’s not only her charming beauty but also the way she dressed in her everyday life. Looking at pictures of her, she knew how to dress with a style that could cross the ages! If you observe the following photos, I hope you’ll agree with me that these clothes could easily be worn today!

Yes, this is her and Elvis on the top right photo!

A few favourites of mine

I’d like to conclude this tribute by presenting you this top 10 of my most favourite Jean Simmons’s films. Of course, these are not the only film of hers I like!

1- Give Us the Moon (Val Guest, 1944)

2- Guys & Dolls (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1955)

3- Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick, 1960)

4- Until They Sail (Robert Wise, 1957)

5- Elmer Gantry (Richard Brooks, 1960)

6- Home Before Dark (Mervyn LeRoy, 1958)

7- The Big Country (William Wyler, 1958)

8- This Could Be the Night (Robert Wise, 1957)

9- The Grass Is Greener (Stanley Donen, 1960)

10- Great Expectations (David Lean, 1956)

You might also like to see the video tribute I edited in honour of Jean three years ago!

 

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Jean Simmons is undeniably one of the old Hollywood stars I admire the most. As you saw, the reasons to love her are numerous. Honouring her with a blogathon was something I wanted to do for a long time and I’m glad I have! Of course, I have many more films of hers to see and I would LOVE to see someone publish a well-written and respectful biography on her.

Writing this tribute for the blogathon has been a real pleasure and I hope it will encourage people to watch more of her films!

I invite you to read the other entries here!

And if you are on Facebook, I created a group dedicated to the actress that might interest you.

Happy heavenly 90th lovely Jean!

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