Saturday, May 17, 2008

HIGHER AND HIGHER (RKO 1943) Warner Home Video

Based on the Gladys Hurlbut/Joshua Logan stage play, Tim Whelan’s Higher And Higher (1943) is a colossal claptrap of oddities and misfires, beginning with the insertion of Frank Sinatra as himself. The screenplay by Jay Dratler and Ralph Spence is pretty abysmal. Clearly stultified by the material he’s been given, director Whelan stages the musical production numbers as though they were on the stage, with a one dimensional lack of cinematic exuberance and with a delayed break after each – presumably so that the audience can applaud without drowning out the rest of the narrative.

The story is that of alcoholic hoi polloi, Cyrus Drake (Leon Errol) who awakens after a bender with his valet, Mike O’Brien (Jack Haley) only to discover that his wealth has evaporated and his estate is in foreclosure in a mere 60 days. Drastic times call for drastic measures, and so Cyrus decides that he will cast one of his servants in the role of his estranged daughter, Pamela – marry her off to a wealthy suitor and thus ensure that this new heir assumes all responsibilities to his creditors.

The fortunate peon is Millie Pico (Michele Morgan), an utterly clueless – if congenial – would-be heiress who, unfortunately for all concerned, hasn’t the slightest idea of how to behave like a lady. Into this mix enters Frank Sinatra as himself – a next door neighbor who has been politely waving to Millie across the way and has finally decided to approach her socially to ask for a date.

Meanwhile, one of the real Pamela’s childhood playmates, Katharine Keating (Barbara Hale) is coming out at a debutante’s ball that Cyrus also uses as his springboard for Millie’s debut. The two women are modest rivals, though this plot entanglement is never entirely realized. Katharine’s date for this society event is Sir Victor Fitzroy Victor KBOB (Victor Borge) – a presumed wealthy pianist who is actually a scheming social climber and penniless protégé of conman, Mr. Green (Rex Evans).

Through a bizarre set of circumstances, Victor finds Millie enchanting. Assuming Victor is loaded, Drake approves the marriage – a deal thwarted by O’Brien who, after being locked in the basement to prevent him from stopping the ceremony – uses a furnace pipe to launch his objections. It seems that O’Brien has been in love with Millie all along and she with him. To ensure that the family will not be cast out into the street, O’Brien has stumbled upon a speakeasy hidden in the Drake’s cellar that is reopened for lucrative business shortly thereafter. Thus ends the narrative, with Sinatra warbling as Millie and O’Brien dance off into the clouds – a happy couple for all time.

The musical program is highlighted by two Sinatra standards; the torch ballad ‘I Couldn’t Sleep A Wink Last Night’ and poignant ‘A Lovely Way To Spend An Evening.’ The great tragedy of the film is that it becomes utterly stage bound from the word ‘Go’ and thereafter develops along the lines of a series of implausible vignettes loosely strung together and infrequently interrupted by largely forgettable songs when all else seems to fail.

There’s no continuity to the story and worse, no consistency to character development. As example, there’s really no reason why the character of Mike O’Brien should suddenly awaken to Millie’s obvious affections toward him and furthermore, no real reason why Millie should harbor such romantic ideals about him, especially since she has been flirting with Sinatra and even mentions him as her romantic ideal at the start of the film when it is proposed that she become the Drake family’s salvation by marrying rich. In the final analysis, Higher and Higher sinks lower and lower as the whole darn mess unravels to its inevitable conclusion. It’s passable entertainment – but so convoluted that it’s only appeal is to see Sinatra in his film debut.

Warner Home Video’s DVD is rather nicely rendered. The B&W image exhibits a nicely contrasted gray scale with solid blacks and very clean whites. Occasionally film grain and age related artifacts appear, though none are distracting. The image is generally crisp with fine detail evident throughout. The audio is mono as originally recorded. Like all other Sinatra titles in this latest spate of offerings, Warner Home Video has provided NO extras and NO menu for chapter stops (annoying!).

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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