Counting the Blessings of Nancy Mitford
March 22, 2011
Have you ever seen “Count Your Blessings“? Of course not, and be grateful for that. That 1959 movie is a disastrous adaptation of The Blessing, one of Nancy Mitford’s finest novels, a book that comes with an odd Hollywood backstory all its own.
Mitford’s misbegotten adventure with Hollywood began in the late 1940s when mega-producer Alexander Korda came to her with an idea for a screenplay about a small boy who schemes to keep his estranged parents apart. He asked Mitford to write a movie treatment, agreeing that she would then be free to turn it into a novel.
Korda rejected Mitford’s screen work; he said he found it “too sophisticated” (dumbed-down movies are nothing new). She went on to write The Blessing (1951) a glittering comedy of manners about a beautiful, traditional Englishwoman named Grace who marries Charles-Edouard, a Frenchman who follows his own country’s tradition: He is an unrepentant womanizer.
In the Mitford family’s private language, when they howled with laughter they “shrieked,” and Nancy shrieked all the way to the bank. The Blessing became a bestseller; Korda had to buy the film rights for thirty times what he’d paid her to write the treatment in the first place.
Many years and several screenwriters (none of them Nancy) later, “Count Your Blessings” appeared and quickly disappeared. Deborah Kerr was a prim Grace, the Italian heartthrob Rossano Brazzi played the thoroughly French Charles-Edouard. The novel’s two grande dames, Charles-Edouard’s religious grandmother and worldly great-aunt, became an uncle played with a stereotypical French leer by Maurice Chevalier. “Too sophisticated” it was not.
Mitford’s bad movie luck has persisted, and it’s easy to see why. Her voice – so sharp and witty on the page, so attached to her droll narration – is not easy to duplicate on screen, although it’s been tried. Tom Hooper (yes, “The King’s Speech” Tom Hooper) directed a 2001 British miniseries based on Mitford’s two classic works, The Pursuit of Love, about her eccentric childhood, and Love in a Cold Climate, in which Fanny, the down-to-earth narrator of both novels, observes her glamorous friend Polly nearly throw herself away on Boy Dougdale, the old lech who is a friend and sometime lover of Polly’s blindly self-absorbed mother, Lady Montdore.
The miniseries, called “Love in a Cold Climate,” captured none of the sparkling satire that infuses Mitford’s observations of pampered, well-bred fools.
But making “Love in a Cold Climate” into a film wasn’t a stupid idea at all. It may be the most cinematic of Mitford’s works: the most colorful in its sumptuous settings, as Fanny visits Hampton, Polly’s grand, art-filled family home; the most plot-driven as we follow Polly’s erratic love life and family fortunes, when her flamboyantly gay distant cousin Cedric comes to claim Hampton as his inheritance. (He and Lady Montdore become BFFs.)
Maybe it’s time to try again. I can even imagine a dream cast of actors talented enough not to let Mitford’s delightful characters slip into caricature:
CAREY MULLIGAN as FANNY: Mulligan’s no-nonsense manner and likable presence make her the ideal friend to guide us through the story. No need for voiceover; her presence is enough.
EMILY BLUNT as POLLY: Beautiful and able to be both sympathetic and imperious; remember her breakthrough as the scheming assistant in “The Devil Wears Prada”?
HELEN MIRREN as LADY MONTDORE: Mirren has the wit to make the silly Lady M. realistic while slyly letting us see her absurdities.
GEOFFREY RUSH as BOY: Honestly, we have to be a little appalled at the sight of beautiful young Polly with this aging creep, but Rush can make us believe in Boy’s spell over her.
ALAN CUMMING as CEDRIC: Snobbish yet appealing, Cedric arrives in the story with a flash of bright comedy, a sharp-tongued man with a flair for furniture and fashion, who gives Lady Montdore a much-needed makeover.
I can see Cumming reaching into Mirren’s makeup case and applying her lipstick, redoing her hair, looking over her jewels all while, as Mitford describes him, happily “wearing a pink tiara.” Some movie scenes are already on the page.
Caryn James writes the “James on screenS” film and television blog for IndieWire. She wrote the introduction to the Vintage edition of The Blessing and is the author of the novels Glorie and What Caroline Knew.
Tags: Alan Cumming, Alexander Korda, Carey Mulligan, Caryn James, Count Your Blessing, Deborah Kerr, Emily Blunt, Geoffrey Rush, Helen Mirren, Love in a Cold Climate, Maurice Chevalier, Nancy Mitford, Rossano Brazzi, The Blessing, The King's Speech
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