Wednesday, 3 October 2012

High Spciety (1956)

Dir. Charles Walters
Starring: Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Celeste Holm 

High Society is everything I could ever possibly want from a musical film. A plot which actually hangs together (not surprising as it is based on The Philadelphia Story which starred Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart). Characters whose motivations and quirks are believable (ditto). A big name star cast (including Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly and Louis Armstrong). And a series of fantastic Cole Porter numbers (such as True Love, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and Well, Did You Evah!). It is, in every respect, quite positively “yar”. I was tapping my toes from the very first moment when we are introduced to Louis Armstrong and his real-life band jamming away happily at the back of a coach en route to the mansion of Bing’ C.K. Dexter Haven. But as ol’ Satchmo says, “End of song; beginning of story!”

We gather in “Newport, Rhode I” for the wedding of blue-blooded Tracy Lord (the soon-to-be-blue-blooded Grace Kelly who, by the time the film was released, was Princess Grace of Monaco). The next day she will be marrying mining heir George Kittridge (John Lund). All of Newport society is invited. Well, not everyone. Dexter, millionaire music-composer, patron of the Newport Jazz Festival and Tracy’s ex-husband is off the list, certainly so since he still professes love for Tracy. Her philandering father is likewise off. So too are gossip reporters from Spy magazine – until the editor threatens to publish an article on said father. His price for silence is coverage of the wedding, and so journalist Macauley ‘Mike’ Connors (Frank Sinatra) and photographer Liz Imbrie (Celeste Holm) arrive. Throw in roguish Uncle Willy (Louis Calhern) who takes a shine to Liz, and of course Louis Armstrong, playing himself, and we have all the ingredients for a fine affair. 

Armstrong is actually key to the success of the mix. He and his band are outsiders to the high society scene he sings about. This gives him the liberty to be the audience’s eyes and ears, commenting on the goings-on (“There’s a dark horse in this here race and my boy’s running a slow third…”). Macauley and Liz should be outsiders too. They may be quite clear that they do not want to be a millionaire, but they still get seduced by their surroundings. Liz is better at warding off Uncle Willy’s roving eye. Mike falls for the beautiful Tracy, setting up a love diamond between her and Mike, Dexter and George. She is determined to show Mike the real Newport, and in the process she shows him the real Tracy. She is not the goddess on a pedestal that George wants; she wants to be loved, not adored. And when she does let her halo slip she realises that she expected perfection from Dexter in their marriage, and that perfection is a very hard standard to which to live up. 

Okay, there’s something worrying about 26-year-old Kelly being torn between the 40-year-old Sinatra (with his dyed black hair) and the 53-year-old Crosby (with his thinning hair). But she has a track record of marrying older men in the movies, as her wedding to Gary Cooper in High Noon showed. But she was a casting coup considering her relationship with Prince Ranier. She has a wonderful wardrobe, she swans around looking stunning and – even if some of her moves were slightly stagey – she has the skills to be, in turn, cold, angry, vulnerable and ecstatic. Crosby and Sinatra are the bigger stars, and their 1940s rivalry is even nicely sent up in ‘Well, Did You Evah!’ when Bing assays a few trademark “boo-boo-boo-boo”s, only to face Sinatra’s snappy “I don’t dig that kind of crooning, chum!” (“You must be one of the newer fellows” Bing responds). It was a good addition. The entire number was only added fairly late on in the game when it was realised that the two male leads did not have a duet; the last minute addition is one of the film’s stand-out scenes. Frank also duets with Celeste Holm’s Liz on ‘Who Wants to be a Millionnaire?’ and Bing doubled up with Louis Armstrong and his band on the joyous ‘Now You Has Jazz’. All the way through they seem to be having an absolute whale of a time!

"Any requests from the back? What's that? Ebony and Ivory?"
Some characterisation does suffer in the translation from The Philadelphia Story. Here Mike is not a frustrated novelist, something that I felt really added depth to Jimmy Stewart’s character in the original film. However, I suppose that makes his sacrifice when he and Liz resign their commission the greater. I could also make the point that, for a musical film, it doesn’t actually have that many songs in it. The modern stage show has many more. It does, however, have an overture. You can tell because you get five minutes of blank blue screen with the word ‘Overture’ written across it. I found that quite annoying. But on the whole High Society is probably the most fun musical I have seen this year. 

“End of story!”

What have I learnt about Rhode Island?
Rhode Island – and specifically Newport – is the playground of old money families. Dexter jokes about having a grandfather who was a robber baron. So these grandees of the Gilded Age invested their money in the sort of grand mansions seen in the opening number: grand villas with spacious gardens rolling down to the sea. By the ‘50s however money was running out. The members of the Newport high society could still generate headlines, but all across town mansions were being border up or sold in order to pay taxes. Tracy tells Mike that Uncle Willy was unable to find a buyer for his estate, so in the end it was cheaper for him to give it away to a school. 

Newport also has a jazz festival. Dexter is portrayed as a patron of the festival; the impression is that not many in his circle frequent it (Uncle Willy refers to “Lewis Armstrong”). 

Can we go there?
The original tale was The Philadelphia Story and it was – unsurprisingly – set in Philadelphia. High Society transplants the action to waterside Newport, Rhode Island. The opening shot gives us an aerial view of several of Newport’s estates along prestigious Bellevue Avenue. These include Rosecliff, where the ballroom film was shot, and Clarendon Court, later home to Klaus and Sunny von Bülow and which sold for $13m earlier this year. In general, however, the movie was filmed out west in Hollywood (oh the shame!). 

The Newport Jazz Festival still runs. The next dates are August 2013.

Overall Rating: 4/5

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