Sunday 12 July 2009

High Society (1956)

Director: Charles Walters
Stars: Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly and Frank Sinatra

Anyone who's paid any attention to this blog over the last few years must have realised that I have a real problem with musicals. I love some of them, but I hate a lot more and those that I hate are often the ones that people rave about the most. Partly this has to be because the songs from the classic era of Hollywood musicals tend to be utterly not what I'd choose to listen to at home. Mostly though it's because I always find that the songs detract from the plot. Often they do so much that there isn't a plot left because the songs are all there is. And when I don't like the songs that doesn't leave me anything to enjoy.

Luckily this one begins with Louis Armstrong and his band singing the theme tune in the back of a Greyhound bus. And in case we didn't know that this was a musical remake of The Philadelphia Story, this theme tune tells us the whole plot. Tracy Lord is getting married for the second time, to a man called George Kittredge, but her first husband wants her back. He's C K Dexter-Haven and he has the assistance of Tracy's younger sister, Carolyn. Into the mix come a journalist and photographer to confuse everything.

By the time Satchmo tells us that the song's over and the story can begin, we've already heard the story and now only have to watch it unfold a little slower with actors and dialogue and all that jazz. And of course there are some seriously large shoes to fill: The Philadelphia Story was a huge success, starring Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart. Not only did it win two Oscars, but it marked the official comeback from box office poison for Kate, playing a part that was written specifically for her and which she backed financially in return for a share of the profits. There were a lot of profits.

Luckily for this musical version, made fourteen years after the original, MGM landed possibly the biggest musical names of the era. To take on Jimmy Stewart's Oscar-winning role as journalist Macaulay Connor, they hired no less a name than Frank Sinatra. To attempt Cary Grant's memorable portrayal of C K Dexter-Haven, they cast Bing Crosby and gave him top billing. Most appropriately of all, to play Tracy Lord they cast Grace Kelly in her last role before she'd head off to join high society herself as Princess Grace of Monaco.

OK, they slipped up on the horrendous brown trouser suit we first see her in, but they made up for it with the white bathing suit. Only then does she become her regal self. The brown trouser suit may be the worst thing about the film, but it has other faults too, and not just the inevitably poor rear projection work. The sets are undeniably lavish but they feel anodyne and sterile, so empty that they could be miniatures. We never feel like we're in undeniably lavish houses, we feel like we're in undeniably lavish sets.

While they're hardly my thing, the songs by Cole Porter don't seem to engage until late in the film when Crosby sings with Louis Armstrong and his band. Even True Love didn't engage me, though it sold a million copies. The best song by far is the duet between Sinatra and Crosby which must have had audiences of the time dreaming of more. Unfortunately this song, Well, Did You Evah! wasn't even written for this film but was recycled from a previous Cole Porter musical, DuBarry Was a Lady.

Most obviously the cast just aren't up to snuff. They may be huge names they just don't have the acting chops and can't generate the chemistry of those who went before them. I was surprised to find that Bing Crosby was the best of them, making a decent attempt at aping Cary Grant's charisma. Sinatra is just wrong for his part and is notably outperformed by Celeste Holm as his photographer, who has far too little to do. Where Jimmy Stewart won an Oscar, Sinatra is just in the movie and we often wonder why.

Even Grace Kelly has trouble finding the feel for her role. Her magic is there on occasion: by the pool floating the boat, flouncing through her bachelor party, listening to Sinatra in Uncle Willie's bar, but generally she's going through the motions. Maybe she just couldn't wait to get to Monaco, given that she became Princess Grace three months before the official release of this film. It doesn't help that in the tradition of classic Hollywood musicals, she's by far too young a romantic interest for her male leads. She was 26, less than half of Bing Crosby's 53. Ol' Blue Eyes was a mere 40.

So this may light up the lives of classic musical fans, but it isn't a patch on the non-musical original. The Philadelphia Story is a classic of the cinema, High Society isn't. It even failed on a far lesser point that most people would have ignored entirely. Tracy Lord has a little sister, Dinah in the original but Caroline here, and she's a little scene stealer of a character. Virginia Weidler did that scene stealing in the original and Lydia Reed does her level best to live up to that here, but the film doesn't let her. She gets a couple of great early scenes along with a sappy one where Bing sings to her and that's it. In precisely the same way that the film lets Lydia Reed down, it lets The Philadelphia Story down too.

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