Frank, Bing, and Grace are sensational in... High Society (1956)

The first thing that comes to mind when you think of High Society is probably its predecessor, The Philadelphia Story. Every classic film fan has their own opinion about which is better, what works and doesn't work in the other, et cetera. I'm not really interested in that. Instead of comparing the films, I want to look at the merits of just one of them. (I'll admit upfront that I prefer The Philadelphia Story. The three leads are three of my favorite people who ever walked on Earth, for one thing. Funnily enough, my sister hates the 1940 film and enjoys High Society infinitely more.) I've never had the urge to vilify High Society for daring to be a remake of a pretty fantastic movie. They're allowed to co-exist, especially because they are both wonderful in their own ways.

First off, High Society gets major points for pairing Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, two of the best and most influential entertainers of the 20th century. I love this duo for a few reasons. Bing had been Frank's idol when he was still dreaming of being a singer while growing up in Hoboken, New Jersey. Some would argue that Sinatra actually surpassed Crosby in talent and success, but I would say they were neck-and-neck.

The men became friends, and as collaborators, they were unstoppable. "Well, Did You Evah?" is one of the best musical moments in history -- and it's only two guys singing! There's no flash, no glitz, just the thrilling personalities of Bing and Frank. Maybe it's in my imagination, but I always feel like you can see in Frank's face how excited he is to be performing with Bing. To have a dream realized like that must have been amazing.

Another major plus for this film is Louis Armstrong. Often described as the movie's Greek chorus, Armstrong is in some ways the audience's surrogate. He watches the action and make funny little comments; you can just tell he wishes everything would straighten out to the way things are supposed to be, particularly with Tracy and Dexter. Armstrong also lends his immense musical talent to add to the musical's credibility. His duet with Crosby on "Now You Has Jazz" is masterful, yet oh so simple.

One of the best things about High Society is its director, Chuck Walters, the man behind many fantastic musicals. (For more background on Walters, check out my post on him here.) Once Sinatra committed to High Society, he suggested that the film should be directed by Walters, with whom he had just finished working with on The Tender Trap. Before becoming a director, Chuck had an extensive background as a dancer on Broadway and a choreographer for MGM. When asked by producer Sol Siegel who he wanted to
choreograph High Society, Chuck said he wanted to do it himself, believing that integrated numbers such as this film's were his specialty.

Walters did a lot of subtle work while at MGM, things that you wouldn't think were choreographed, such as a quick moment of Ingrid Bergman dancing around in Gaslight. During "Now You Has Jazz," Bing does all of these wonderfully on-point arm gestures that complement the lyrics and it looks so natural, like Bing improvised them on the spot. Nope. Walters did that. While he could certainly do flashy, Chuck excelled at quiet musical sequences too -- some people might even say that was when he
was at his best.

In his biography of Walters, Brent Phillips writes about how the choreography for "You're Sensational" came about:
"I couldn't think what to do," [Chuck] admitted.  "[Then] I woke up in the middle of the night and thought, 'Just a minute. [Frank and Grace are] getting an awful lot of money, individually and collectively. I'm going to make them do the work.'" The next day he showed up for rehearsal with a simple directive: "Go with it, dears." When his stars became too artificial in their actions, he offered one final piece of advice: "Play it like a scene." With that, the performers acted--and aced--the Porter lyric, with Sinatra, lustful and lost, melded to Kelly's mute response. Her radiant mix of
yearning and uncertainty enchanted Walters, who said, "I thought she was marvelous."

For "Well, Did You Evah?" Walters had to stage and rehearse the scene without Sinatra, who notoriously hated rehearsal. Crosby, on the other hand, was always there to go through the number with Chuck, who called him "a hell of a worker -- if you put in a call for 8:30, he's there at 8:00." For his part, Crosby said "It was a pleasure to be in the picture. Chuck's a very fine director with great taste and sophistication. It was just a breeze, really." Fun fact: "Well, Did You Evah?" was first done on Broadway in Cole Porter's show DuBarry was a Lady in 1939. Guess who introduced it? Chuck and Betty Grable! When DuBarry became an MGM musical a few years later, Chuck was the choreographer.

Everyone in the cast and crew seemed to love working on this film. On the first page of Walters's script, this poem, probably written by the director, was typed:
"High Society"
This was a
picture of music,
rehearse and
shoot. More
music, more
rehearse and
then more
shoot. But
then -- we
also had
publicity,
both oral,
written and
photographed;
we had visitors,
and then more
visitors, and
more publicity.
Was there
ever before
such a sucha?
Besides a real "Prince"
yet, who
stole our
beaut-ee-ful
girl.

They weren't kidding about the publicity. MGM had a lot to work with. First of all, you had the historic pairing of Frank and Bing. Add Louis Armstrong to the mix and it just gets more important. Then you have Grace Kelly's first musical. As if that wasn't enough, you have Kelly's announcement that she is engaged to Prince Rainier III of Monaco, and her later reveal that High Society would be her last film before becoming Monaco's princess. She never returned to Hollywood.

While Chuck's directing and choreography are high on my list of my favorite things about this movie, I think I would have to say that the part I adore the most is the score. Cole Porter wrote some darling songs here, songs that frequently seem to be underrated by Porter fans. When I initially started collecting vinyl, this soundtrack was one of my first acquisitions and it made me appreciate the music so much more. The tunes are tremendous on their own, but when you have Frank and Bing singing them, the results are superb. I'd argue that the 1950's was when we saw Sinatra in his peak and nowhere is that more evident than in his vocal performances for "You're Sensational," "Well, Did You Evah?" and "Mind If I Make Love to You." Crosby, meanwhile, demonstrated that although he had been in the business longer than Frank, he could still show you a thing or two with songs like "Little One," "True Love," and "I Love You, Samantha."

I think where some critics misjudge High Society is Grace Kelly's performance. I've seen many people accuse Kelly of being a poor man's Katharine Hepburn (ugh, aren't we all), but that would be assuming that Kelly was trying to emulate Hepburn when she probably wasn't. She just happened to be playing the same character. To me, the two films are only similar in terms of the plot and the dialogue that wasn't changed. Other than that, they're different -- tonally, visually, atmospherically, obviously musically... Plus, how often do you see people accusing Bing and Frank of trying to be Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart? You hardly do, so why is Grace held to a different standard? I'll admit her performance isn't pitch-perfect, but come on, it isn't a thing to scorn either.

If you ask me -- and you're at my blog, so you kinda are -- High Society and The Philadelphia Story should be held up as two separate objects. If you place them side by side, you have only yourself to blame for being disappointed because they weren't made for that purpose. One is a sparkling, razor-sharp romantic comedy and the other is a bubbly musical treasure. And guess what? They're both marvelous.

With love,
Michaela

__________________

This post is my contribution to the Second Wonderful Grace Kelly Blogathon. You can read the other tributes here.

Comments

  1. I immensely enjoyed your article Michaela, especially the informations about Charles Walter! He made such pleasant films! Have you seen Three Guys Named Mike?
    I love this film so much. The cast is marvellous indeed and the musical numbers are... sensational! Such wonderful duets! Bing and Frank, Bing and Grace, Bing and Louis, Frank and Celest... It's such a delight.
    Thanks so much for your brilliant participation to the Grace Kelly Blogathon! :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Three Guys Named Mike is one of my favorites! I wrote about it for a blogathon not too long ago. I adore Charles Walters. I try to give him as much exposure as I can because he's been somewhat of a hidden figure in Hollywood's history.

      Thanks for having me!

      Delete
    2. Oh I'll have to check your article! I once review it too and it was like my 2nd blog article and it was so short ahaha. This film made me discover Jane Wyman :)

      Delete
    3. Oh and there's also Please, Don't Eat the Daisies with Doris Day and David Niven! :)

      Delete
    4. Chuck Walters did a lot of great films.

      Ugh, I cringe to think of the first articles I did for this blog. I'm not sure if the beginning of anybody's blog is their finest hour.

      Delete
    5. But at least we were tried! We all have to start somewhere!

      Delete
  2. This was so interesting! I laughed when you said that we are at your blog, so we are really asking for your opinion, which opinion was right on! :) I had never heard of Chuck Walters before, but I now badly want to see this film again and look at all the subtle work he did with Crosby, Sinatra and Kelly.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Walters was the ultimate company man for MGM. He loved the studio and he did a lot of things people don't realize, sometimes because it went without credit. Walters was also an openly gay man during his entire career. I highly recommend Brent Phillips's book if you want to know more. It might be the only book out there that looks at Walters thoroughly and seriously.

      Delete
  3. He sounds like an extraordinary man; I'll have to look for that book - thanks! It seems like it's people like him who really help make the movies what they are, despite our often not knowing who they are.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I take it back - I've just realized I have heard of him...as a director of films like Summer Stock, but I did not realize how much else he had done, as well.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. He had a really interesting career. Towards the end of his life, he taught a college class that focused on his films and how he worked, I think at UCLA...? How I wish I could've been there!

      Delete
  5. I also agree that the two filsm should be considered separated. Both have their merities! I also adore the score and the mood in High Society, it's just magical. And Grace is not a poor man's Hepburn (yes, we are all Kate-wannabe) - she is so good here!
    Your post made me want to rewatch High Society as soon as I can!
    Kisses!
    Le

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks! To be honest, it took me a few viewings to fully appreciate Grace's performance, but that might have been because Kate left such a strong impression on me. That's why I always recommend that people watch a movie at least twice if they can -- you're liable to misjudge things if you don't.

      Delete

Post a Comment

You might've missed these popular posts...

Loving and Fighting Furiously: Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz

Top Ten: Fred Astaire's Partners

The One Lovely Blog Award.

Rock Hudson in Pillow Talk (1959) and Lover Come Back (1961)

Announcing the Doris Day Blogathon!

The Loss of Gene Wilder.

Announcing the Vincente Minnelli Blogathon!

10 days until the Vincente Minnelli blogathon!

The Czech Méliès: Karel Zeman

Announcing En Pointe: The Ballet Blogathon!