The Books: “The Country Girl” (Clifford Odets)

Next script on my script shelf:

CountryGirl.jpgNext play in my little unalphabetized pile of Samuel French plays is The Country Girl, by Clifford Odets

Odets. My man Odets. To my ear, nobody else sounds like him. He’s one of those guys where you could show me a page of dialogue – and have me guess who wrote it … Odets is unmistakable. He’s like Mamet. Or Williams. Love Odets.

This play was produced in 1950. Steven Hill, of Law & Order fame was in the original cast – he played the hotshot young theatre director Bernie Dodd – a kind of Elia Kazan character. Uta Hagen originated the lead role of Georgie Elgin, the long-suffering wife who had once been Miss America. She won a Tony award for her work. And then of course, it was made into a film in 1954 – with Bing Crosby as the lead guy Frank Elgin, Grace Kelly as Georgie (she won an Oscar), and William Holden as Bernie Dodd. This play is a love letter from Clifford Odets, hero-playwright of the 1930s, to the theatre. He was an exile in Hollywood. Screenwriting and script-doctoring just couldn’t hold a candle to his work in the 30s with the Group Theatre. But those days were done … he needed to make a living … You can feel his loneliness, his yearning in almost every word of Country Girl. Even his own stage directions – where he describes the darkened theatre, and the two men – Bernie and Frank – sitting alone – talking. You can feel Odets’ loneliness for the New York theatre. I love this play and I would love to play Georgie, although I would never get cast as someone who once was Miss America. Just ain’t gonna happen. But she is a terrific character – a great great part for an actress.

Frank Elgin is a washed-up actor. He once was considered great. Now he’s a drunk. Bernie Dodd – the hot director – guns for him to take the lead in his next production. He really goes to bat for Elgin – he keeps saying, “I saw Frank give at least 2 great performances in 2 different shows …” He wants to give this actor another chance. Frank, always on the edge, of either physical or mental collapse, says he will take the part – and he does. During rehearsals, he battles with his own demons – his own fear that he won’t learn his lines, that he is not a good actor, that he will fail … The booze just calls to him … Meanwhile, Georgie is his sharp-as-a-whip wife – who has had a helluva time herself. The marriage is now basically about keeping Frank off the booze. Georgie is on the lookout for any tell-tale signs. She is no dummy. She is a long-suffering wife, but you could never call her a martyr or a victim. She chooses to stay with him. But it’s not easy.

Here is the scene, early on in the play, when Bernie Dodd comes to the Elgin’s apartment to offer Frank the part. This is the first time he meets Georgie – who can be quite formidable. Georgie’s there by herself – at first – Frank eventually joins them – and Bernie cannot snow Georgie, or charm her. Bernie is a sexist ladies man, a perennial bachelor. He’s not used to women taking his measure, and seeing right through him. It’s unnerving for him.

A bit of background: when the scene opens, we see Georgie alone in her apartment, packing a suitcase. When Bernie knocks on the door, she hastily stuffs the suitcase under the bed.

So she is not just thinking of leaving Frank – she had made plans – she was packing her suitcase to go.

Also – in this scene – watch the subtlety of this unspoken dynamic: Bernie has come to convince Frank to take the part. But by the end of the scene, without saying a word about it, Bernie realizes that it is Georgie who must be convinced. He adjusts his behavior accordingly.

From The Country Girl, by Clifford Odets

BERNIE. I’m a busy man, Frank.

FRANK. What do you want me to do?

BERNIE. Make up your mind — I want you to play that part.

GEORGIE. I’m an innocent bystander. Don’t shoot me — just tell me what this is all about.

FRANK. Mr. Dodd says he wants me to play the lead in his play …

BERNIE. [briskly annoyed] It’s a starring part that needs an actor who can stay sober and learn lines. Are you that actor, or not?

FRANK. [with flare] Well, I’m not one of those goddam microphone actors, like Billy Hertz! I’m an actor!

BERNIE. [waiting] That’s what I used to think …

FRANK. [evasively] What about the producer? If looks would kill, I was dead.

BERNIE. He’s afraid you’re a drinker.

FRANK. [sullenly] I don’t drink on a show.

BERNIE. [sharply] Not according to Gilbert. I checked with him — you worked with him in ’44? What happened?

[Frank looks at Georgie before answering]

FRANK. We lost our little daughter … that year.

[Silence. Frank sits on bed. Georgie pours coffee]

BERNIE. Can you stay on the wagon now?

FRANK. Look, son, I think we oughta forget it …

BERNIE. Don’t call me son! You’ve played bigger parts — you used to be a star!

FRANK. [gloomily] Yeah, I used to drink a glass of money for breakfast, too.

BERNIE. What’s the matter with you?

GEORGIE. [as if waking up] You don’t listen, Mr. Dodd. Can’t you see he’s afraid of the responsibility?

BERNIE. But I’m willing to take a chance — the gamble’s all on my side.

FRANK. Why kid around? They open in Boston the 28th. I couldn’t even learn the lines in that time! That part needs a Bennett or a Blinn —

BERNIE. [sardonically] Bad enough to go to Hollywood to cast — now you suggest I go to heaven! [Bernie stares at them coldly; about to walk out, turns, says earnesly] Listen, Frank, you don’t know me. But I was a kid when I saw you give two great performances in mediocre plays — Proud People and Werba’s Millions. I can get the same show out of you right now … if you lay off the liquor! I have more confidence in you than you have in yourself!

GEORGIE. [sitting back, watching] Why …?

BERNIE. Because I saw him as a kid — I was a hat-check boy in the Shubert Theater. [to Frank] You and Lunt and Walter Huston — you were my heroes. I know everything you did.

FRANK. Hear that, Georgie ..

[Georgie speaks with quiet thoughtfulness]

GEORGIE. Naturally, Mr. Dodd, you exaggerate the sentiment to make your point.

[Bernie turns, looks at her very carefully]

BERNIE. We killed the cat with sentiment? Okay, we’ll bring him back to life with some antiseptic truth. I come from realistic people – I’m Italain. [pausing] I’m not blind to Frank’s condition – he’s a bum! But I’m tough, not one of those nice “humane” people: they hand you a drink and a buck and that’s exactly where they stop. [to Frank] I won’t hand you a buck … but I’ll think about you, if you take this job. I’ll commit myself to you — we’ll work and worry together — it’s a marriage. And I’ll make you work, if you take this job: I’ll be your will! [Pausing] But if you do me dirt — only once! — no pity, Frank! Not a drop of pity! Joke ending, kid.

[Georgie looks carefully at Bernie. We can almost see her come to life as she stands and comes in closer]

GEORGIE. You’ll be his “will” … I like that. That’s what he needs, a will. And “no pity”. I like that, too. I like the “antiseptic truth”. But what kind of contract do you offer?

BERNIE. Standard two-week contract.

GEORGIE. Not run-of-the-play?


GEORGIE. Doesn’t that mean you could let Frank out any time with two weeks’ notice?

BERNIE. That’s what it means.

GEORGIE. But suppose he takes the part and opens the show? He get syou over the top of the hill. How does he know you won’t replace him?

BERNIE. No run-of-the-play contract. Suppose we have to drop him? For drinking or for not retaining his lines? What do you want? Drop him, replace him and still pay his salary for run of the show?

GEORGIE. [pausing] I don’t think he should take it. He needs confidence. He won’t have it with that two weeks’ clause over his head. Would you? [She has spiked Bernie’s guns by presenting him the same case he previously presented to Cook. Finally, looking from one to another, Bernie says]

BERNIE. I have nothing in my mind except for Frank to play this part!

GEORGIE. That’s sentiment again!

BERNIE. I can’t believe my ears! I came up here with the best intentions in the world — now I find I’m victimizing you!

FRANK. May I get a word in edgewise?

BERNIE. What the hell did I do? Bring you a basket of snakes?

GEORGIE. Noblesse oblige, Mr. Dodd. Stop whirling like a dervish.

FRANK. Nobody wants to get your goat, Mr. Dodd. I … what I mean, Mr. Dodd, it’s only a matter of not wanting to bite off more than I can chew …

BERNIE. You have the offer. We’re booked into Boston for two weeks, but the season’s young — we can stay out till you’re letter-perfect.

FRANK. And … would you do that?

BERNIE. Do it? I insist upon it! Do I look green? [Then, looking at Georgie] I take that back — I am green! [Then, to Frank] Call me at the office by three o’clock. That means not later. [Bernie starts out, stops] You need a twenty-dollar bill? You need it … [Puts bill on radio and goes. Silence. Frank does not move]

GEORGIE. Is that boy as talented as he throws himself around?

FRANK. Best average in both the leagues …

GEORGIE. He’s wilful, but he meant what he said.

FRANK. I can’t do it, can I?

GEORGIE. Doesn’t it seem strange for you to ask me that?

FRANK. You’re my wife …

GEORGIE. Frank, we’ve been through all this before, many time before … I’m tired, Frank.

FRANK. [brooding, not looking at her] What happened? Where did I get so bolloxed up? I was the best young leading man in this business, not a slouch!

GEORGIE. Scripts didn’t come …

FRANK. I knew it then — on the coast — I lost my nerve! And then, when we lost the money, in ’39, after those lousy Federal Theatre jobs –! This is the face that once turned down radio work. [Pacing] What ever the hell I did, I don’t know what! [abruptly defiant] But I’m good! I’m still good, baby, because I see what they think is good! [He waits, but she is silent] Don’t you think I’m good? I think I’m good!

GEORGIE. Then take the part. Make it your own responsibility, not mine … take the part. [He looks at her, it is plain that the idea frightens him] Don’t wiggle and caper, Frank. [suddenly] Can’t you admit to yourself you’re a failure? You’d die to save your face, not to fail in public — but I’m your wife; you have no face. Try to be clear about this offer — think.

FRANK. I didn’t hear him say he’d star me.

GEORGIE. [with dry weariness] I have a message for you, Frank: take the part!

FRANK. Yes, but what will you do if I –?

GEORGIE. Leave me out. Take the part and do your level best.

FRANK. But what about that two weeks’ clause? You yourself tried —

GEORGIE. All I tried was to get a better deal. But you won’t get perfect terms.

FRANK. You certainly gave him a scrap … Georgie, I’ll tell you! That two weeks’ clause, they can give me notice any time, but I can give them notice too!


FRANK. Don’t you see? They can let me out, but I can walk out any time I want! If I feel I’m breaking my neck —

GEORGIE. You can quit?

FRANK. Yeah, that’s sort of what I mean, yeah. [Bright, shrewd] You see? Get it?

GEORGIE. [dubious, waiting] Yes …

FRANK. [cunningly grand] Why, with this two weeks’ clause, I don’t even have to come into New York, do I? [Georgie murmurs a “no” as Frank chortingly seats himself] That’s the thing, that’s it — two can play the same game! [Delighted at this discovery, Georgie much less so, Frank abruptly snaps his fingers, lights up even more] Wait a minute! Quarter to seven this morning I had a dream! I laughed so hard it woke me up! That’s a sign, Georgie, a hunch!

GEORGIE. A dream …?

FRANK. A big sign — now get this — a big banner was stretched across the street: “Frank Elgin in –” … I couldn’t make out in what. Mayor La Guardia was in the dream — lots of people laughing and feeling good. I’m going to take that part, Georgie! You don’t have to tell me not to drink – haven’t I been a good boy all summer? This morning I got up early — that funny laughing dream. And I was thinking about our lives …everything … and now this chance! Don’t you see that all those people in the dream, they wish me luck. I won’t fail this time! Because that’s what counts — if the world is with you — and your wife! [Looks at her, earnest, boyish and questioning, appealing for her support. Finally, she says with reluctance]

GEORGIE. I don’t have any appointments … all winter …

FRANK. That’s what counts! I can’t fail this time — I feel like Jack-A-Million! I’ll let Dodd know — I’ll go up to the office in person. [taking twenty dollar bill] But my first stop is the barber shop — I want the tonsorial works. Anything you want me to bring you back?


FRANK. Catch that, dear! [He throws her an extravagant kiss, really excited, and she catches the gift with an open hand. Alone, thinking, we see how unhappy Georgie is. Then she remembers her suitcase; she takes it from under bed, opens it and unhappily looks down at its contents. Then, murmuring, “My God, my God, my God …”, she takes out dress and goes back to wardrobe to replace it on a hanger.]


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1 Response to The Books: “The Country Girl” (Clifford Odets)

  1. triticale says:

    Even tho I come from Chicago and thus should know better, I momentarily read Mamet as Manet. I had it straightened out before I got to the point of thinking “nope, Monet’s the one with the identifiable touch” but it still obvious that I don’t have theater as ingrained as I have painting. And that despite the fact that I’ve appeared on stage but was hopeless in art class.

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