Why you should care

With the controversial new film Grace of Monaco debuting this year at Cannes, it’s a good time to remember the trip to the Festival City nearly 60 years ago that made it all possible. 

By April 1955, Grace Kelly was on top of the world. In a year’s time she would rule over it — or at least the tiny state of Monaco. And all thanks to the Festival de Cannes.

As festival-goers get their first glimpse of the new film Grace of Monaco in Cannes, it was not so very long ago that the 26-year-old beauty, with a face considered by many to be Darwinian selection’s finest hour, was herself en route to the French Riviera.

When Kelly awoke on the overnight train from Paris to Nice on the morning of April 5, the actress had no idea how much the next 48 hours would change her life. Just five days earlier in Hollywood, she had won her first Academy Award for The Country Girl. Kelly, the daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia brickworks owner, had only the year before filmed To Catch a Thief with Cary Grant in the French Riviera, and was not eager to return to Europe so soon.

When Kelly awoke on the overnight train from Paris to Nice … the actress had no idea how much the next 48 hours would change her life.

But the prestigious film festival in Cannes was screening her award-winning performance, and her friend Rupert Allan, editor at Look magazine, had talked her into making the trip. “Oh, but you must, Grace,” Allan later recalled saying. “You’ll be so glad you did.”

As shown by the controversy over the new film about her life, whether Kelly was indeed happy as a result of that fateful decision is still a matter of intense debate. But her trip to Cannes in 1955 certainly provided the fairy-tale beginning.

It all started, as author J. Randy Taraborrelli recounts in Once Upon a Time, that April morning in the dining car of the Train Bleu, where Kelly and Allan sat with Hollywood legend Olivia de Havilland and her husband, Pierre Galante, a French journalist. Since Kelly was playing a princess in her next movie, The Swan, the self-serving Galante proposed that Kelly visit nearby Monaco to meet a real-life prince with some of his photographers from Paris Match in tow.

Kelly was ambivalent, but at the next station stop, Galante made a series of calls before giving an astonished Kelly the “good news” that she would meet with his Serene Highness Prince Rainier III of Monaco the following day.

Except that French labor unions called a strike, and Kelly, along with most of France, awoke the next morning without electricity. Unable to use a hair dryer or iron, she left for her date with royalty with damp hair and wearing the only dress she had that didn’t require pressing — made of black taffeta with a pattern of red and green cabbage roses.

Grace, left,  and Prince, right, shaking hands

Grace Kelly meets Prince Rainier for the first time at the royal palace in Monaco.

Source Globe Photos/Image Collect

The Peugeot carrying Kelly and her entourage raced to Monaco along the mountainous roads perched above the French coastline, getting into a minor accident not far from the spot where the ill-fated star would perish three decades later. Despite the fender bender, the carsick actress and crew arrived in time for their royal engagement. Prince Rainier, however, was nowhere to be found.

As she waited, Kelly was given a tour of the storybook palace, but after an hour passed with no prince in sight, the irritated Hollywood royal remarked, “This is outrageous,” and said it was time to return to Cannes.

When, right on cue, a servant entered, announcing Rainier’s arrival. Kelly quickly practiced her curtsy but froze — in a real-life movie moment — when she noticed in a mirror that the just-arrived prince was watching her. The 31-year-old Rainier, sporting a blue, tailored suit, black moustache and tan complexion, was not the aging monarch she had expected. And when the charming prince, educated at private schools in Britain, apologized in perfect English for his tardiness, Kelly was utterly disarmed.

As he toured his enchanted visitor through his private zoo and gardens, Rainier must have been smiling at his good fortune. Since the 13th century, Monaco had been ruled by his family, the Grimaldis, but in recent years, the tiny principality had fallen on hard times. The young prince was desperate to revitalize his country but needed to ensure that it was indeed his: According to a treaty entered into after World War I, if the Monaco throne stayed vacant for even a day, the nation would be returned to France. So while a visit from Grace Kelly would have been a dream come true for most any man, for a prince in need of a bride, an heir and an infusion of cash, it was a godsend.

Kelly froze — in a real-life movie moment — when she noticed in a mirror that the just-arrived prince was watching her.

But less than an hour into her regal tour, it was time for Kelly to leave. Parting reluctantly, the prince kissed her hand and placed it back at her side. “He’s charming,” a smiling Kelly observed afterward. “So charming.”

What followed was a whirlwind of romantic letters and phone calls culminating in a December marriage proposal in New York’s Central Park. But the courtship was also strained by fertility tests and a $2 million dowry demanded by Rainier and a marriage contract negotiated by the parties’ lawyers.

Nearly 60 years later, Grace of Monaco, a French production starring Nicole Kidman is set to revisit Kelly’s royal tribulations when it shows at Cannes. As one of two competing film versions of her story — based on the very same script — it depicts a more melancholy princess who abdicates her movie-star throne in exchange for an unhappy royal marriage. The Hollywood version, cut for U.S. distributor Harvey Weinstein and still in negotiations, has, by contrast, been described as a “light fairy tale with a strong dose of wish fulfillment.

Weinstein and company will likely get the storybook tale they are seeking. And six decades after it lost one of its biggest stars to a handsome prince, Hollywood may at last get its princess.

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