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HIGH SOCIETY

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Grace Kelly, Celeste Holm, John Lund
Director: Charles Walters
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Video: matted widescreen, color
Studio: Warner Brothers
Features: newsreel, radio ads, cartoon, trailers, Cole Porter featurette
Length: 111 minutes
Release Date: April 22, 2003

"For you and I have a guardian angel on high with nothing to do, but to give to you, and to give to me, love forever true."

Film ** 1/2

How about this for the archetypal Hollywood high concept - a re-envisioning of the Best Picture Oscar-winning comedy The Philadelphia Story as a musical!  The film's original cast members would surely have rolled around in their graves at the very notion...except they were still very much alive at the time.  Consider that this original line-up included Cary Grant and James Stewart as competing rivals for the affections of a fair, young Katherine Hepburn.  That's a rather intimidating cast!  Regardless, MGM decided to take a swing at the musical re-make, and thereby, High Society (1956) was born.  MGM, however, took minimal risks with its casting!  Katherine Hepburn's role was awarded to Grace Kelly, Hollywood's most beautiful and popular young actress at the time.  Never mind that she was not a singer.  That job could be handled readily by her two formidable co-stars, for the roles of the competing rivals would be played by none other than Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, a fantastic casting coup for any musical.

High Society began production only shortly before Grace Kelly was to depart for Monaco in preparations for her eventual marriage to Prince Rainier.  Consequently, she was the ideal choice to play Tracy Lord, the glamorous young heiress engaged to be married...because that is exactly what Grace Kelly was in real life!  Although Elizabeth Taylor at once point had been considered for the role of Tracy, High Society succeeds almost entirely because of Grace Kelly's presence.  No audiences back then could have resisted the opportunity to watch a film starring a real princess!  The film eventually grossed $13 million, a staggering sum of money in those days, and was to be Princess Grace de Monaco's last motion picture.

During production, there was also much publicity about High Society's team-up of crooners Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra.  It was their first film together.  Crosby of course was already an established musical comedy star and a big box office draw.  Sinatra, however, had been box office poison for some time.  Luckily, this film came in the midst of an amazing career revival that had begun with his Oscar-winning performance in From Here to Eternity.  For High Society, Sinatra plays Mike Connor, a young reporter smitten with Tracy's charms.  Thanks to the film's great success, Sinatra never needed to look back again on his return to the top.

In High Society, Bing Crosby plays himself.  Just like in his last film.  And in the film before that.  Here, he supposedly occupies the Cary Grant role as Tracy's dashing, former husband.  Hmm, Cary Grant or... Bing Crosby?  Is that a trick question?  Hmm.  Anyways, to hear Bob Hope tell it, Bing and he always tried to fill their working schedules with as many golf days as possible and often left directors no choice but to film entire sequences around their scenes.  Bing, an old hand at these romantic comedies, also preferred to do only one take of any of his scenes, mistakes or not (the better to rush off and play more golf, perhaps!).  Of course, that's Bob Hope's version of the truth, if you feel this perpetually tongue-in-cheek goofball is any more a reliable source of information than Bing himself!  No wonder they got along so infamously in their Road pictures!

High Society begins with an overture.  Ah, the classy days when opening music was used to set audiences into the right mood while they streamed into the theater!  When the film proper begins, we run smack into Satchmo himself, Louis Armstrong, who serves as the musical bookends to this film.  For the opening, he sings the amusing title song "High Society Calypso" and establishes the stage for the screwball, romantic elements to follow.  At the end, his band will play an upbeat rendition of the traditional wedding march.  For now, Armstrong is leading this jazz ensemble to Newport, Connecticut to participate in a music festival, which, not coincidentally, is scheduled at the same time as the wedding of attractive heiress Tracy Lord to stiff upper lip, George Kittredge (John Lund).  Lurking somewhere around the bushes is Tracy's former husband, Dexter (Der Bingle himself), who just happens to be the organizer of the music festival and is not too secretly still in love with his former wife.

Through some blackmail involving Tracy's scandalous father, reporters from Spy Magazine, Mike Connor and Liz Imbrie (Celeste Holm), are allowed to cover the wedding, much to Tracy's displeasure.  Problems arise when her Uncle Willie shows up, and she masquerades him as the father to fool the reporters.  Further complications ensue when Tracy's estranged, real father shows up and has to impersonate Uncle Willie briefly!  But the most intriguing conflict arises out of Mike's increasing infatuation with Tracy, which leads to a very madcap love quadrangle involving Tracy, on the eve of her wedding, with her fiancé, her former husband, and now a news reporter!  Who will ultimately win the hand of yonder fair maiden?

I wish I could say the film is an unqualified success but it isn't entirely so.  Director Charles Walters never seems to hit a comfortable stride, although this may have been partially due to the film's rushed production.  Nonetheless, Walters still makes a lot of weird directorial decisions.  For instance, there is his odd choice of framing for some of his scenes.  In an effort to emphasize the Lords' wealth, Walters uses many wide-angle shots, long shots, and stationary cameras early on to show as much of the luxuriously-decorated Lord manor as possible.  The downside of this approach is that it distances audiences from the on-screen actors and makes many of the early exposition scenes, especially those with Bing Crosby, rather dull and uninteresting.  That's a big no-no for the start of any film!  Walter wisely comes to his senses for most of the musical numbers, when the camera pulls up nice and close and shows some life after all.

Walters is also not able to elicit the proper tone from his actors' performances.  While John Lund as the fiancé is bland (as he should be), Bing Crosby's Dexter is inappropriately even blander, which makes the issue of Tracy's still-lingering attraction for him over her fiancé at times puzzling and unconvincing.  Frank Sinatra is okay when he sings but demonstrates little aptitude for the precise comic timing that is required of his role (James Stewart, by contrast, had impeccable timing in The Philadelphia Story).  The women fare better.  Grace Kelly turns in a somewhat shallow performance but is still quite frankly so captivatingly charming and stunningly gorgeous throughout the entire film that no one will really mind much, including me!  Lydia Reed (as Tracy's younger sister Caroline) and Celeste Holm bring great spunk and enthusiasm to their performances.  Sadly, they are criminally under-used and have relatively little screen time.

As a result, the overall tone of High Society is decidedly uneven.  Sometimes it plays like a straight drama, but the dramatic scenes are often too dull or generic to carry much weight.  Bing may have won an Oscar for a dramatic performance earlier in his career, but he hardly registers here for his straight scenes.  Other times, the film feels like a screwball comedy, but the delivery of the dialogue is frequently off-tempo and the pacing of the editing or on-screen action too slow to convey the proper comic effect.  This is a shame, because the script introduces many juicy situations ripe with great potential for madcap hilarity but then leaves them undeveloped or forgotten.  The female actresses, particularly Grace Kelly, do display the proper screwball spirit but the male actors are like stiff wooden planks.  Still other times, the film feels like a romance.  Surprisingly, these are among the most effective scenes in the film.  This is particularly true of the tender reminiscences aboard the yacht True Love, during which we really begin to understand the affection Tracy and Dexter once possessed for one another.  This flashback sequence is relatively short, but it is the very heart of the film.  Without it, the film's final conclusion would have felt contrived and very flat.  Nonetheless, for all its pacing woes, High Society remains, in the end, a musical and so incorporates many Cole Porter songs, mostly sung by the cast's two crooners, into the proceedings.

Frankly, I've never quite understood the enormous popularity of crooners.  These singers are often like a bunch of Johnny One-Notes, as all their songs have a velvety propensity to sound exactly the same, no matter what tempo or key or rhythm the songs require!  I much prefer the spirited approach of a Ray Bolger or Fred Astaire, for while they were imperfect singers, they infused into their renditions an exuberance and distinctive syncopation and simple joy of singing that is absent in the pitch-perfect but oh-so-dull warblings of a Perry Como, Mel Tormé, Bing Crosby, or even Ol' Blue Eyes.  Why, even Satchmo has more pizzazz!

So, it goes without saying that the weakest musical numbers in High Society, save for one major exception, all involve anything that has to do with crooning.  Sinatra's "Mind If I Make Love to You," sung while he dances with Grace Kelly, is a virtual groaner.  Furthermore, Sinatra's wooing of Grace Kelly in "You're Sensational" is so bland that you quickly forget Cole Porter wrote it.  Crosby's rendition of  "I Love You, Samantha," immediately following Frank's tune, is virtually dead-on-arrival; by contrast, Grace Kelly's blink-and-you'll-miss-it drunken take on this same song is a sheer delight.  And she isn't even a trained singer!  Crosby's crooning also nearly sabotages what is supposedly the lively number "Now You Have Jazz" with Louis Armstrong and his band.  Fortunately, the jazz musicians overcome the crooner in the end and maintain an infectious cheerfulness to the proceedings, even enticing Der Bingle to swing it, too.  Oddly, of all the singers in the cast, Louis Armstrong, with that famous grin and raspy voice of his, seems to be having the most fun, especially in the bright spins he gives to the film's opening and closing musical melodies.

Of the musical highlights, there are three big ones.  One is a duet by Sinatra and Holm, who are absolutely delightful in the coy "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" number.  They make a surprisingly fun pair, and I suspect that Celeste Holm missed her true calling as a regular comedic actress!  Also, Crosby and Sinatra have a highly-publicized duet together - the amusing jingle "Well, Did You Evah?" sung over some drinks with a short dance.  It's even a bit of a show-stopper, thanks to Cole Porter's witty and often outrageous lyrics.  Lastly, and most memorably, there is Bing Crosby's rendition of the love song, "True Love," as he romances Grace Kelly one peaceful evening on his yacht.  The tune is a simple, sweet throw-back to more old-fashioned ballads, hardly resembling Cole Porter's usual trademark of sophisticated lyrics and rhythms.  While Bing does croon the song, for once, the style is very appropriate, and this endearing song provides him with his most tender moment in the film.  It even features some harmonizing by Grace Kelly!

For all the strengths and weaknesses of High Society, the principal reason for its initial success and lasting appeal even today can be traced directly back to one person - Grace Kelly.  Her Hollywood career was regrettably brief, barely five years in length, yet during this period, she established herself as one of Hollywood's most desirable leading ladies by appearing in some of the most memorable films ever made.  That list includes such classics as High Noon, Rear Window, and To Catch a Thief (interestingly, Alfred Hitchcock tried repeatedly, especially for his film Marnie, to bring the princess out of retirement but to no avail).  Fortunately, Grace Kelly's legacy as one of Hollywood's greatest beauties has been immortalized forever in these films and others.  High Society is her final bow, but it is a classic Hollywood example of art imitating life.

Video ***

High Society is presented in a matted widescreen format to preserve the original Vistavision appearance of the film.  The color processing is provided by Technicolor, which gives the film a sparkling sheen.  The terms "Technicolor" and "MGM musical" apparently go hand in hand!

The transfer is pretty solid for the most part.  There are no glaring compression defects, although the source print has some problems.  Firstly, as is common with these older films, the image's brightness intensity seems to flicker ever so slightly in various scenes.  Unfortunately, there is probably little that can be done to rectify this, apart from a truly expensive restoration effort, so live with it we must.  Secondly, second-unit shots and processed shots, particularly those involving rear projection, are a disaster and look quite grainy.  Processed shots were extremely common during the studio era but often looked fake even then.  Today, they are the absolute bane of any restoration or digital mastering efforts.  Still, even with these faults, the print shows remarkable clarity, wonderfully vibrant colors, and a relative absence of debris.  Fans of the film will greatly appreciate the overall video quality as presented here!

Audio ***

High Society's audio has been given a 5.1 Dolby Digital upgrade.  It is very pleasing to the ear and preserves the integrity of the original soundtrack.  Most of the audio will come from the front speakers until musical numbers, during which all speakers will come alive.  While the audio mix does not have a very deep low end nor does it create a very dynamic aural environment, it is perfectly in line with the overall spirit of the film.

BONUS TRIVIA: Keen-eared listeners will recognize Cole Porter's "I've Got My Eyes on You" being played by the orchestra during a party sequence, while the drunken Tracy is being watched over by her fiancé!  This is the same tune that Fred Astaire once played on a piano for Eleanor Powell in Broadway Melody of 1940.

Features **

This DVD is part of Warner Brothers' Classic Musical Collection series.  These DVDs all have a distinctive appearance, as they use vintage artwork from the films' initial releases for cover art.  Unfortunately, this time around, the cover art is more interesting than most of the miniscule extras on the DVD.  These include a short behind-the-scenes notes section, an even shorter cast and crew section, and an extremely short 1-minute newsreel about the Hollywood premiere of the film.  Also included are two trailers, a weird one with Ed Sullivan for High Society and an older one for The Philadelphia Story.  Next up is a short section of radio ads promoting the film; while these promos contain Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and more Bing Crosby, they are a total snooze.

The final two featurettes are passable.  The first is Millionaire Droopy, a Cinemascope cartoon starring the Hanna-Barbera character Droopy.  It's amusing, in a Road Runner-Wile E. Coyote way.  The second is a 9-minute featurette with Celeste Holm discussing the movie and Grace Kelly.  Sadly, Holm's voice is not what it used to be, and as a result much of her narration is difficult to understand unless you concentrate.  That is a pity, because some of her anecdotes are quite amusing, such as the time Grace Kelly brought her enormous engagement ring onto the set (it even makes a dazzling appearance in the film!) or an infamous dinner in which a tactless studio exec observed that the MGM backlot was larger than all of Monaco!  Droll indeed!

A quick word - anyone who wishes to sing along to the tunes may view the lyrics via closed-captioning.  They are strangely not available with the regular subtitles.  This goes for all DVDs in the Classic Musical Collection, as well.

Summary:

High Society may not be high art, but in the end it's still a lot of fun and features the greatest crooners of the day, an ever-lively Louis Armstrong, and a charming Cole Porter score, including the classic "True Love."  Best of all, Grace Kelly has never looked lovelier than in what would be her final film performance.