High Society

Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly and Louis Calhern in High Society

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

9 June

 

Cole Porter born, 1891

On this day in 1891, the songwriter Cole Porter was born. The only child of wealthy parents – his mother was the daughter of “the richest man in Indiana” – Porter showed early signs of musical precocity and was writing songs from the age of ten. Later, at Yale, where he studied English, music and French, he wrote 300 songs and several musical comedies. Moving on to Harvard to study law (his rich grandfather’s wish) he continued to write prolifically and eventually switched from the study of law to music, though he didn’t tell his grandfather. In Europe during the First World War, he met and married a rich divorcee, Linda Lee Thomas, in spite of being homosexual. They remained married until her death in 1954. On his grandfather’s death in 1923 Porter came into serious money. After an extended stay living in luxury in Europe, Porter returned to the USA. He had his first Broadway hit, Paris, in 1928, and continued producing Broadway hit shows and writing for Hollywood until the late 1950s. A riding accident in 1937 – his horse rolled on him, crushing his legs – meant he was in pain for the rest of his life and to some extent he worked to keep his mind off the pain. Unusual in that he wrote both tune and words for his songs, Porter’s work was marked out from the start by sophisticated wordplay, syncopated rhythms, clever rhymes and cheek – “Good authors, too, who once knew better words/Now only use four-letter words/Writing prose…/Anything goes – and his songs summon up the interwar years of increasing confidence and wealth, and of knowledge of the world beyond the window. His songs continue to be popular – Night and Day, Let’s Do It, Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.

 

 

 

High Society (1956, dir: Charles Walters)

High Society was almost the last thing Cole Porter wrote for Hollywood. It contains his last hit song, True Love, and as everybody knows is an adaptation of The Philadelphia Story. It’s not as good as The Philadelphia Story, lacking its wit and zip, but then how many films are? Instead it has Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. Crosby had been the most famous voice in popular music until Sinatra stole his crown – “Frank is a singer who comes along once in a lifetime; but why did he have to come in mine?” Bing once famously joked. They are an interesting “as in life, so in art” pairing because they’re playing warring males whose chests swell every time Grace Kelly walks into the room. She’s the ice queen about to get married to a stiff (this thankless role going to John Lund), Bing is the ex husband, Frank the cocky reporter hoping for some harmless fluffy society gossip and snaps. There’s a waxwork torpidity to Sinatra and Crosby while they’re speaking, as if trying to outdo each other for nonchalance, but when they sing all the bells ring – their duet of Well Did You Evah (Porter rhyming “elegant” with “swellegant”) is one of the defining Hollywood musical numbers, as corny as it is witty. The support players do seem to have remembered that The Philadelphia Story was an acid satire, as well as a romantic comedy – so thanks to underused Broadway star Celeste Holm as Sinatra’s reporter sidekick, and former matinee idol Louis Calhern as the womanising inebriate Uncle Willie. There’s also Louis Armstrong, playing himself – that’s how high a society it is, when the bride’s father can get in the world’s most famous jazzman as entertainment – and Armstrong gets a couple of numbers too, including Now You Has Jazz (with Crosby) a showcase for the talents of his hot sextet, Satchmo’s scat singing. Ignore the fact that Armstrong is one of the creators of jazz and that Bing’s arm on his shoulder looks awfully like a patronising one (I don’t think it is but it’s there), he is an inspired addition to a film which works best when there’s a song on the lips of the cast – Frank’s duet with Celeste Holm of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”, Bing’s duet with Grace Kelly of True Love. It’s a rich, plush, lush affair, full of orchestra, bright with Technicolor colours, and that’s Prince Rainier’s engagement ring you can see twinkling on Grace Kelly’s hand. This was her final film before sailing off to a regal life in the South of France. It’s that kind of film.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Bing and Frank
  • Louis Armstrong on top form
  • Last chance to see Grace Kelly (and Louis Calhern)
  • The great Cole Porter soundtrack

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

High Society – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “High Society”

  1. MGM was pretty lucky to secure the talents of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Grace Kelly, Celeste Holm, and Louis Armstrong to get involved in this great musical adaption of The Philadelphia Story.

    Cole Porter contributed a great original score for this film with songs very specifically written to suit the talents of High Society's players. I do wish Celeste Holm had been given more to do than just the duet with Frank Sinatra, Who Wants To Be a Millionaire. On Broadway Celeste Holm was a musical star with Oklahoma and Bloomer Girl to her credit, but MGM didn't want to recognize that.

    For this film, the story is reset from Philadelphia to Newport, Rhode Island to bring in the famous Jazz Festival. Philip Barry's social commentary is toned down and a very partisan Greek Chorus is added in the person of Mr. Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong. Satchmo tells you right up front who he's pulling for to win Grace Kelly and he helps musically along the way.

    Satch and Bing have that classic Now You Has Jazz duet, so successful was it that they did an album together a few years later. Bing Crosby during his life was crazy about jazz musicians and there was no one he liked better than Louis Armstrong. No one on the planet could resist that man's joy for living.

    Grace Kelly got a chance to bat 1000 in the recording industry. She was no singer as she would have freely admitted, but Cole Porter wrote True Love specifically to accommodate her limited range and when she does the last two bars of True Love with Der Bingle she got a million selling record for her one and only platter. As for Bing he got his 20th Gold record and the only one not with Decca records.

    True Love was nominated for Best Song at the Oscars but lost to Doris Day's Que Sera Sera which boomed all over the charts in 1956. It was sadly Cole Porter's last opportunity to win an Oscar for one of his movie songs.

    Frank Sinatra got a couple of good ballads in You're Sensational and Mind If I Make Love to You, but what he's best remembered for is that classic Well Did You Evah duet with Bing. Today's fans can't possibly appreciate the screen meeting of the two best and best known singers for the previous generations. A musical summit conference.

    High Society's tone is a lot lighter than the Philadelphia Story. The cast in terms of acting ability are not in the same league as Grant, Stewart, Hepburn, and Hussey. But folks it is a musical. I doubt those stars could have carried off the Cole Porter score.

    You can't miss with a cast like this, in either film for that matter.

  2. I have a theory about "High Society" and that is that you must regard it as an Opera. Now I haven’t lost my marbles and I am not suggesting that Cole Porter is Verdi. What I mean is that the story is so preposterous (as are most Opera plots) that it is best not to question it too closely and just enjoy the movie. Porter’s music is sensational (to coin a phrase) and the songs are all well performed. Grace Kelly’s rendition of "True Love" (yes, it is her – not dubbed) is delicious and just adds to her allure. Isn’t it wonderful just how sexy Ms Kelly is in this film? This is 1956 and there is no flashing of bosom or even leg – just her natural beauty. She spends some time in the bedroom with Frank Sinatra and (improbably) remains chaste. Frank the honourable man!

    I watched "The Philadelphia Story" again recently and was surprised how much of the script from that movie was retained for "High Society". If you find the story of High Society silly (it is) then it is really the earlier film you should blame. The set piece musical numbers in High Society are absolute classics – indeed there isn’t a dud. It’s worth listing them and you’ll see what I mean: "High Society Calypso";" Little One";" Who Wants to be a Millionaire ?";"True Love";" I Love You Samantha";" Well, Did You Evah"; "Mind If I Make Love To You";" Now You Has Jazz";" You’re Sensational". WOW!

    When you go to the Opera you want great music, good performances, lovely sets and some sort of feel good factor. With "High Society" you get all this and more. It is played tongue in cheek (how could it not be?) and that is how it should be. Keep your "Film noir" or your "Cinema Vérité" – give me High Society every time!

  3. A society wedding is being arranged in Newport, Rhode Island. The beautiful Tracy Lord is to marry George Kitteredge. However, Tracy’s ex-husband, the songwriter Dexter Haven, has never stopped loving her and even now has hopes of winning her back. Two journalists, Mike Connor and Liz Imbrie, have arrived to cover the story for ‘Spy’ Magazine.

    Dexter has scheduled the Newport Jazz Festival for the same week as the nuptials, and this brings Louis Armstrong (playing himself) to town. The divine Tracy is adored by three men – Dexter, George and Mike Connor. She begins to harbour doubts about her forthcoming marriage…

    "High Society" is a charming reworking of "The Philadelphia Story", the Grant-Hepburn comedy, which was in turn a remodelling of a successful Broadway play. The one great difference with this version is that "High Society" is a glorious musical masterpiece. Cole Porter’s score has to be one of the greatest collections of songs ever filmed.

    Grace Kelly is good as the imperious Tracy. "I’m a cold goddess," she intones, but she thaws spectacularly in the warmth of love. Bing Crosby as Dexter is his usual droll and stylish self. Crosby is a class act who holds the screen with effortless poise and cracks the funnies with sparkling sarcasm. Sinatra is in knockout form. Rarely has that legendary voice achieved the resonant timbre on display here. Satchmo blasts out a couple of breezy jazz numbers, and comments on the action like a latter-day Greek chorus.

    The songs include five all-time classics. "True Love" is a gorgeous duet in which Kelly unveils a tuneful if brittle singing-voice. "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" is rightly world-famous, and is staged here with clever clownage by Sinatra and Celeste Holm (playing Liz). Satchmo’s band accompanies Crosby in a swinging "You Has Jazz". The showstopper, "What A Swell Party This Is", has Crosby and Sinatra at their very best, wisecracking self-referentially as they belt out a gem of a song. My personal favourite, "You’re Sensational", is beautifully rendered by Sinatra. Watch Frank and Grace in the instrumental break, falling in love with their eyes only.

    A confection of sublime music and snappy dialogue, "High Society" is shot in bright, eye-catching Technicolor with an attractive pastel blue predominating throughout. A delightful film.

  4. "High Society" unites the unbeatable talents of three legendary stars Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Louis Armstrong with the beautiful and talented Grace Kelly in her final role before she becomes the loving Princess of Monaco…

    Spoiled Tracy (Kelly) is about to marry a boring businessman John Lund, but on the eve of her nuptials, her ex-husband Crosby, who still calls her Sam, returns to try and put a stop to the wedding…

    On hand to cover her upcoming nuptials for a spy magazine are journalists Celeste Holm) and Sinatra, with the greatest American jazz musician Louis Armstrong providing with Crosby a musical jazz called "Now You Has Jazz."

    Armstrong opens the film from the back of the blue bus shared with his band, with a calypso song, while the classic "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" is lively sung by Sinatra and Holm alone in a big room filled with Kelly's many extravagant wedding gifts…

    Kelly is lovely as the refined woman flirting with three men… In scenes that required the softening of her unyielding nature, she seems so reserved and cold in manner…

    Sinatra sings to her "You're Sensational" and "Mind if I Make Love to You? Crosby sings "True Love."

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