Osterley’s cinematic double life

The east front of Osterley Park House. The 1960 film 'The Grass Is Greener' shows the house with a drive going straight to the front steps, rather than the current curved one. ©NTPL/Andrew Butler

Prolific blogger Little Augury recently posted about the 1960 Stanley Donen film The Grass Is Greener, starring Cary Grant, Deborah Kerr, Robert Mitchum and Jean Simmons. Osterley Park, on the western outskirts of London, was used for some of the exterior shots.

Some of the interiors at Osterley, designed by Robert Adam in the 1760s and 1770s, were also used as inspiration for the sets (as was, apparently, the Long Gallery at nearby Syon House, also by Adam).

The Entrance Hall at Osterley, copied in detail by Harbord in 'The Grass is Greener', although his blue is perhaps more 'Technicolor'. ©NTPL/Dennis Gilbert

The story revolves around the Earl and Countess of Rhyall (Grant and Kerr), who have been forced by straightened circumstances to open their stately home to the public. The Countess is flattered by the attentions of an American oil tycoon (Mitchum), and in revenge the Earl invites his former girlfriend, an American heiress (Simmons). Cue a romantic comedy that has over time become a minor classic.

The Great Stair, another model for Harbord, although in the film the walls were painted John Fowler-style pink. NTPL/Dennis Gilbert

The sets were designed by decorator Felix Harbord. As Little Augury’s post shows, they were sometimes amazingly accurate copies of the original spaces at Osterley, while on other occasions he clearly remoulded the rooms to suit the film.

The State Bedchamber. A very similar bedroom appears in the film, although there the bed is a Technicolor dark pink and the pleated wall hangings a ditto purple. ©NTPL/Bill Batten

Harbord must have had great fun adding characteristic country house touches, such as groups of miniatures hung next to the fireplace, the ‘correct’ picture hang with the smaller paintings hung below the larger ones, and a rush firewood basket of a type still (or again) fashionable today.

The cushions on the drawing room sofa seem very ‘c. 1960′ to me, but I wonder if, even in that era, the Victoria & Albert Museum (who ran Osterley then) had quite so many barrier-ropes about the place?

11 Responses to “Osterley’s cinematic double life”

  1. Parnassus Says:

    How appropriate–a Classic interior for a classic movie. It is fun to see old houses (or replicas) in movies. I loved that Adamesque ornament–there was also quite a bit of that neoclassical style during the Federal period in America, the greatest practitioner being Samuel McIntyre of Salem, Massachusetts.

    Other filmings have not had such blessed results. One of my favorite houses, the Lockwood-Mathews house in Norwalk, Connecticut, was used for the re-make (not the original) of The Stepford Wives. While it was great to see that unmistakable interior, and I hope they got a few dollars for it, the movie itself was virtually unwatchable.

  2. downeastdilettante Says:

    I remember when I first watched ‘The Grass is Greener’, a slight sense of disorientation in the initial walk-through of the interiors—the rooms were the same, only different! The staircase had become double, the painted room was re-oriented, and the long gallery had sprouted bookcases a la Syon! Has ever an English Country House been better simulated on film? I thought the drawing room and master bedroom were pitch perfect.

    As to the ropes, I’m interested to read your mention that they seemed excessive even for the time—one suspects artistic license, to strongly make the point about the ‘impoverished’ Rhyalls having to open their home to the masses to make ends meet.

    All great fun

  3. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Parnassus, thanks for that. It seems to be an aspect of the cinematic double life of these places, that a film can completely change the atmosphere, for better or for worse.

    That also makes me wonder how much Donen was charged for filming at Osterley in 1959 or thereabouts. And it obviously wasn’t considered practical to film inside, as would be done today.

    Brad, your description of the double-take between filmic reality and ‘real’ reality reminds me of that other, more ominous double-take in The Matrix. But of course that consciousness of artifice is also part of the enjoyment of a film like The Grass Is Greener.

    I think you are exactly right about the symbolism of all those barrier-ropes, referring to the museumification of private houses, which was presumably a pervasive issue in Britain at the time – the 1950s being the period when the rate of destruction of country houses reached its peak.

  4. downeastdilettante Says:

    And a second thought, speaking about the widespread destruction of Country houses in the 1950’s. One guesses that the handsome drawing room fireplace surround in the film might well have been salvage—to say nothing of all the fine furnishings? There was a time in Hollywood, as old Beaux Arts mansions were being torn down in this country, that suddenly bits and pieces of same would show up as film sets.

  5. The Devoted Classicist Says:

    Thanks for clearing up that issue about the differences of the real house and the set!

  6. little augury Says:

    I love the movie-but of course as with most things the Original Osterley is my preference just as it is. Love seeing the real thing. I am on a movie kick-and have a post on the movie the Honey Pot today-Rex Harrison and Maggie Smith, Capucine-along with full out “sets” of a Venetian palazzo a la 1960. Gaye

  7. Mark D. Ruffner Says:

    What a marvelous bed! I can imagine going to my reward in such a bed. Then my heirs could drag it into the yard, brick up the sides, and have an equally elegant and ready-made mausoleum.

  8. Toby Worthington Says:

    I admit to being “thrown” by the scenes in the hall at Osterley
    until The Downeast Dilettante set me straight.
    Couldn’t imagine for the life of me, why the filmmakers simply
    didn’t procure permission to film inside the authentic setting.
    Still, it’s fascinating to ponder what became of those skillfully
    copied trophy panels. In fact the fate of scenic backgrounds
    has always intrigued me. What matter, if they are bogus? In many
    cases they’d provide first rate décor for someone’s cozy bed-sit.

  9. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Brad, yes wouldn’t it be fascinating to have an inventory of all the ‘props’ used in the film and where they came from. As you say, some of them might have come from some interesting and sadly demolished (or denuded) houses. In other cases they might turn out to be modest objects that simply look great at a certain distance – like many of the furnishings at Charles de Beistegui’s Chateau de Groussay, which were auctioned off a few years ago.

    Gaye, The Honey Pot looks fascinating too, and again I didn’t know about it. Was there an upswing in the public intererest in ‘heritage’ around this time, I wonder? Films are such interesting weather-vanes of popular taste.

    Mark, what a good idea! John Fowler created a similar ‘adapted’ state bed, in miniature, as a very grand dog basket at Cornbury Park in Oxfordshire in the late 1960s, as you can see in another Little Augury post: http://bit.ly/blV0VC

    Toby, perhaps the V&A, who ran Osterley then, didn’t allow the film crew in? Even with today’s less bulky equipment some historic houses are still deemed too fragile for such ‘invasions’. And at houses were filming does take place it involves a huge amount of preparatory work by house staff and conservators, to safeguard the historic fabric and contents and to make sure any changes are reversible. And often the area where filming is taking place has to be closed to the public. To co-ordinate filming requests we now have a dedicated Film Unit.

  10. style court Says:

    Emile,

    Your line about the ropes gave me a laugh. Definitely poetic license to make sure audiences got the point — maybe a tiny bit like the very over-sized technology (cell phones, computers, radios and headsets) production designers use in contemporary comedies set in the 90s, 80s, or 70s :)

  11. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes, a trope rather than a rope :)

    The new film version of ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’, which has just come out in the UK is supposed to be similarly emphatic about ‘1970s’ signifiers such as sideburns and big ties – but I haven’t seen it yet myself.

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