One of the high-water marks in MGM's 50’s musical pastiche is undeniably Sol Siegel’s VistaVision production of High Society (1956); a sophisticated and sparkling, tune-filled, perfectly ‘swell-egant’ affair, brimming with oodles of chic good taste a la composer Cole Porter, whose more lilting melodies – including the top-selling romantic ballad ‘True Love’ - are delicately counterbalanced with razor-sharp and barb-laden pop tunes. Porter’s lyrics don’t simply inform both character and story; they excel in making glib social commentary on the idle rich. High Society is a darling of a romantic/comedy cocktail, going down like well-aged cabernet while leaving behind the tickling memory of its bubbles. It’s a movie that could have only been made – or rather, remade – in the 1950’s; a glorious reconstitution of Philip Barry’s sensational Broadway show, The Philadelphia Story, first made into a movie under its non-musical namesake by MGM in 1940 and starring the indomitable Katherine Hepburn.
Grace Kelly assumes the role of the wounded socialite, Tracy Samantha Lord in High Society; more silken and less vinegary than Hepburn’s pert protagonist, but equally as engaging to the eye and ear; warbling a few bars of Porter’s aforementioned ‘True Love’ with costar Bing Crosby before moving on to even ‘higher’ society as Princess Grace of Monaco. And Kelly has sex appeal too – a quality Hepburn arguably lacked. Too bad for the men in Tracy’s life – ex-husband C.K. Dexter-Haven (Crosby), tabloid journalist, Mike ‘Macaulay’ Connor (Frank Sinatra) and fiancée, George Kittredge (John Lund) that Tracy wears a chip on her shoulder overshadowing the heart on her sleeve. “You have a fine mind and a body that does what you tell it to do,” Tracy’s disenfranchised father, Seth (Sidney Blackmere) coolly tells her at one point, “You have everything you need except the one essential – an understanding heart. Without it you might just as well be made of bronze.”
Yet, the movie’s take on female vanity always seemed a tad strained; what with repeat references to high priests and their virgin goddesses. George tells Tracy, that after they are married he wants to place her on a pedestal where he can be permitted to worship. “But I don’t want to be worshiped,” Tracy tenderly pleads, “I want to be loved.” “That goes without saying,” George casually explains. But does it? At the crux of Philip Barry’s original masterwork there always remained a distance between Tracy Lord and the world surrounding her – the original misfit, as it were – reaching for something that can never be hers while tossing happiness and her first marriage away with both hands. Ah yes, “She needs trouble to mature,” as Dexter slyly conveys to George while Mike and his photog’ gal pal, Elizabeth Embry (Celeste Holm) curiously look on. “I’m afraid she can’t count on me for that,” is George’s brittle reply. But now Dexter plies just a tad more sarcasm as he insists, “That’s a pity…because I gave her plenty.”
At the crux of Tracy’s gnawing uncertainty, that she will never find happiness through marriage, is her own haunted misunderstanding about what has happened to her mother – Seth having strayed from the family with a chorus girl. Will it undoubtedly happen to her? Men: they’re all such pigs! To prevent what she has already misperceived as the inevitable, Tracy sets up emotional barriers. Ironically, however, these serve the exact opposite purpose, leading to Tracy’s bitter dissatisfaction with Dexter who, in the interim, has become the ‘distinguished’ composer of ‘Choo-Choo Mama’ – a flashy pop tune. But this first marriage began in elopement. Perhaps that was the precursor to its annulment. And George is no Dexter; nor does he aspire to Dexter’s class and it’s probably just as well. For High Society is rather heavy on its class distinctions. Dexter presumably is of Tracy’s ilk, while George represents the rising proletariat, and Mike, the bottom feeder bringing up the rear.
The men in High Society are all pawns, rather bloodless even as they profess to have embers smoldering just beneath the surface of their starched white tuxedo shirts. George is too old for Tracy – both in years and in his mindset, and rather effete – someone more interested in the public presentation of his wife to this sycophantic collection of fair-weather friends than his own private exploration of every crevice on her body behind closed doors. Even Crosby’s C.K. Dexter-Haven is prone to bouts of the same ‘worship’ George has promised Tracy; having written a musical ode to her grace: ‘I Love You, Samantha’, first vamped in the absurdly lavish foyer of his adjacent mansion (actually the oft reused and ever-so-slightly redressed Versailles ‘throne room’ set from MGM’s Marie Antoinette 1938). Only when Sinatra sings two of the movie’s most delicious ballads, ‘Mind If I Make Love To You?’ and ‘You’re Sensational’ does the screen crackle with a sort of sinful, earthy ‘take me, I’m yours’ that escapes – or rather ignores entirely – the platitudes of Crosby’s more refined exaltations. Crosby sings ‘Little One’ – to Tracy’s prepubescent sister, Caroline (Lydia Reed) who utterly adores him. It’s a strange moment in the movie, perhaps unintentionally fraught with a whiff of pedophilia, while Crosby’s supreme declaration to his romance with Tracy – ‘True Love’ – remains but a memory rekindled for the audience in Tracy’s own mind as the one-time happy newlyweds sail aboard Dexter’s yacht on their honeymoon. Ah me – bliss.
Yet, High Society takes Barry’s original play and does something quite wonderful to it; miraculously retaining just enough of the playwright’s wit, seamlessly married to Cole Porter’s adroit sense of self-deprecating humor about the haves and the have not’s. Relocating the story to Newport Rhode Island, to capitalize on a local jazz festival (after an initial film project proposed by producer Arthur Freed meant to focus on the festival itself fell through) and installing one of the greatest of all jazz musicians – Louis Armstrong, playing himself - as the movie’s éminence grise is a stroke of genius. Armstrong not only bookends the triumvirate of Tracy, Dexter and Mike with his own tongue-in-cheek running commentary about the quagmire of their feuding and fusing love – the story’s central theme, with George as its ‘fifth wheel’, but he also is given some plum opportunities to do what ole Satchmo does best; play his trumpet and warble a tune or two in his trademarked gravely-textured voice as only Armstrong can.
The arbitrator of good taste herein remains MGM: the studio with more stars than there were in heaven. The production values on High Society are piece work at best, stitched from the lavishly appointed entrails and hand-me-downs constructed for other movies. As the bus pulls up to the exterior of Dexter’s manor house we’re shown a slightly altered matted painting of the same approach used in another Grace Kelly vehicle, The Swan (1956). With the exception of a very bumpy overhead helicopter tracking shot sailing at great heights over the actual moneyed playground of Newport – and a few rear-projection inserts thereafter – High Society takes place almost exclusively on MGM’s fabled back lot. Knowing this doesn’t really wreck the mood of the piece, because the studio has skillfully created a fictional facsimile to stand in for the truth. It’s all cardboard and plywood, but it looks ravishing for the most part; borrowing props from just about every movie the studio ever made and using the same parquet flooring and ornate wainscoting created for the aforementioned Marie Antoinette and seen in countless MGM movies thereafter to suggest the bygone aristocratic wealth of the robber baron generation.
High Society attains a sort of enforced greatness as a truly ‘swell-egant’ affair not so much because it reaches for, or ever attains verisimilitude, but because these characters and the actors who inhabit them for just an hour or two seem to perfectly fit within the artifice that surrounds them. One could no more imagine Sinatra at home inside an actual austere and dark mahogany-paneled Newport study than he might look comfortable in tie-dyed khakis and a kaftan. Yet, he falls right into line in Uncle Willie’s (Louis Calhern) impossibly gargantuan library that serves double-duty as a private bar, warbling another vintage Cole Porter melody with Crosby’s assist; the playfully combative ‘Did You Evah?’ In actuality, the song was a toss-away from Porter’s score to another show: Du Barry Was A Lady, herein resurrected as sublime and utterly farcical double-entendre. When Crosby and Sinatra musically spar it’s of the highest order, swapping lines like: “Have you heard about dear Blanche – got run down by an avalanche” or “Have you heard that Mimsy Starr…got pinched in the As-tor bar?” What a swell party this is, indeed.
And bringing up the rear, as she so often did in the movies, is the marvelous Celeste Holm; her Liz Embry readily acknowledged as being ‘quite a girl’ by more than one man in her midst, even though she is never anyone’s first choice for love’s romantic kiss. Holm is a talent apart from most supporting players who graced MGM’s formidable roster. In point of fact, she was a 2oth Century-Fox contract player first, before becoming a free agent. When she engages Sinatra in the duet, ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?’ she is every bit his musical/comedic equal – knowing exactly where to place her emphasis to compliment his own. When, as the screenplay implies though never quite shows, she is rather heartily pinched on the bottom by Uncle Willie in a turn around the dance floor, Holm’s double-take reaction of indignation suggest a wound more deeply felt, even as she fluffs it off as mere male machismo run amuck; overtures made by a middle-aged man who will one day ‘grow up’ to be a juvenile delinquent.
Later, when Crosby’s Dexter inquires why she has failed to land Mike Connor as a potential mate – clearly, the only man for her – Holm’s astute and world-weary hopeful explains that she doesn’t want to get in Mike’s way; acknowledging that in keeping her distance she may lose the only man she’s ever loved. The role of Elizabeth Embry was originally played in The Philadelphia Story by Ruth Hussey; an actress much closer in age to James Stewart’s Mike Connor. In reinventing the role for Holm – who was, in fact, only two years older than Sinatra but looking at least six to ten years his senior – High Society introduces a curious level of romantic uncertainty into its mix; one never convincingly resolved in the final few moments at Tracy’s wedding when Liz resolves to snatch up Mike before somebody else does.
Our story opens with some breathtaking aerial shots of Rhode Island, ever so slightly marred by the jarring second unit shaky camerawork. From this spectacular vista we regress into the back of a private bus hurtling toward the estate of C.K. Dexter-Haven; a much beloved jazz aficionado and patron of the popular arts. Our M.C., Louis Armstrong warbles the ‘High Society Calypso’ to, as Satchmo puts it “stop that weddin’ and ‘tout that match”. Armstrong and his band arrive in style and are shown by Dexter’s butler (Gordon Richards) into the grand foyer where Dexter, ever amused and delighted to see them again, encourages the boys to vamp a little in anticipation of their appearance at the local jazz festival (which we never see).
Armstrong’s jazzy riff of ‘I Love You, Samantha’ incurs the ire of Tracy Lord who has been collecting wedding presents in the family’s solarium while her mother, Margaret (Margalo Gillmore) makes an inventory of all the gifts and writes the many ‘thank you’ cards. Younger sister, Caroline is up to some petty larceny, inserting a silver-framed portrait of Dexter into the collection. When Tracy sees it she hits the ceiling. But her wrath is stirred to even greater heights when she recognizes the melody wafting over from the adjacent property. Charging up the lawn to Dexter’s house, Tracy confronts her ex-husband with an ultimatum; to ‘go away’ and ‘stay away’ from her wedding. But Dexter confesses that he is still in love with her. “I still think you have what it takes to become a wonderful woman,” he suggests. “Thank you,” Tracy sarcastically replies, “I haven’t the same high hopes for you,” to which Dexter nonchalantly offers his gender-bending reply, “I don’t want to become a wonderful woman.”
Leaving Dexter to his own accord, Tracy encounters George back home and explains about Dexter’s return. In the meantime, Uncle Willie telephones the house from the offices of ‘Spy Magazine’; a notorious rag prone to publishing salacious tidbits about the wealthy. In their current issue set to run is a story about Seth Lord’s infidelities that, as Willie explains, will hit the magazine stands unless Tracy agrees to have a reporter and photographer cover her pending nuptials. At first appalled by the suggestion, Tracy reconsiders her options; electing to stage a spectacle that will ‘stand their hair on end’. Caroline is employed as a sort of scatterbrained buffer after Elizabeth Embry and Mike Connor arrive; playing the piano – badly – and wearing a tutu and toe shoes, she primes the pair for the entrance of Tracy, who thereafter toys with Mike in particular; suggesting he is much too old to be wasting his time with the magazine, and then intimating that Liz and he are ‘together’ – sexually speaking. “It’s the sort of detail you enjoy publishing, isn’t it?” Tracy goads Mike before moving on – rather hilariously – to critique everything from his childhood and upbringing to English history. “I’m delighted you came,” she facetiously concludes, “We have so much cake.”
Introduced to Margaret Lord, Mike and Liz take a few pictures and next inquire when they will meet Seth – unknowing, as they are of either Seth’s affair, his estrangement from the family at Tracy’s behest, or the real reason why they have been assigned to cover Tracy’s wedding. Thus, when Uncle Willie arrives for lunch, he is immediately passed off as Seth Lord by a very nervous Tracy; the moment teeming with resignation after Seth arrives on an impromptu whim and is henceforth pawned off on Mike and Liz as Uncle Willie. Sounds confusing, but it’s not – really – and very funny besides. To further complicate this luncheon, Dexter makes an appearance and is encouraged by Liz to pose for photographs with Tracy and George. However, when Liz’s lens captures a snapshot of Willie, with Liz declaring “To the father of the bride…we’ll use it to head the article”, Tracy orchestrates a moment to sabotage the film by breaking the camera.
Sometime later, Liz and Mike take inventory of the lavish wedding presents. Dexter presents Tracy with a model of his yacht, the ‘True Love’ as his parting gift to her, exiting with bitter regret and affording Tracy the opportunity to daydream about their past. We see a couple quite unlike the one about to tie the knot; Dexter relaxed and Tracy ebullient as she prepares a sandwich and tomato juice for her groom. The couple serenades one another by concertina and moonlight; this moment of happiness shattered when George suddenly appears with a bottle of champagne and two glasses to surprise his fiancée. Momentarily, Seth and Margaret arrive poolside for a stroll, Seth’s arm loosely around his wife. It’s as though nothing has happened, and Seth’s liberties incur Tracy’s wrath. She strikes at him with nail-biting disdain, he returning the volley with an admonishment of her aloof exterior that Seth regards as a tragedy for any man unlucky enough to find his daughter attractive enough to marry.
The emotional wounds inflicted by this father/daughter confrontation cause Tracy to abandon her plans for an afternoon swim and take Mike Connor for a ride instead – both literally and figuratively. Tracy shows Mike the “high cost of being rich”; rows of boarded up mansions no longer feasible because of taxes. She then takes Mike to her Uncle Willie’s fabulous estate, already in mid-preparations for her co-ed bachelor party. The mood between these two adversaries warms and they share a drink in Uncle Willie’s study as Mike confides in Tracy that she ought to be wearing an orchid instead of a chip on her shoulder. Embarrassed by her obvious attraction to Mike, Tracy departs to get ready for the party. We return to Dexter’s home, as Louis Armstrong vamps in the foyer and Dexter warbles his heartfelt ballad ‘I Love You, Samantha’ with his windows open – the tune filling the night air and captivating Tracy as she listens from her own open bedroom window.
At Uncle Willie’s party, Liz and Mike are informed of the mix up in identities between Seth and Willie and the reason for their being ‘invited’ to cover the wedding. In reply, Mike gets soused and Tracy becomes quite inebriated, making a spectacle of herself before George condescendingly exiles her to a nearby suite to sleep it off. Dexter introduces Newport to jazz and Louis Armstrong with the infectious and rhythmic ‘Now You Has Jazz’; then retires to the library where he and Mike continue to drink and exchange barbs by singing ‘Did You Evah?’ Mike eventually locates Tracy attempting to escape from her locked room through an open window and together they run away for a midnight swim. When George finds out, he is livid. But Dexter takes matters into his own hands, knocking Mike unconscious before he can explain the incident with any sort of comprehension that would make sense to either Dexter or George. The next day, Tracy awakens with a severe hangover to discover her jewelry missing. Dexter, having found her ring, bracelet and necklace on a patio cushion the night before, now toys with Tracy’s own understanding of the previous night’s events until his hints stir musings that frighten and confuse her. George arrives to threaten a delay in his plans to marry Tracy; his tide of conceit ebbing after Mike confesses that their ‘so called affair’ consisted of two kisses and a swim that he will neither deny nor suggest he did not thoroughly enjoy.
George reconsiders that with Tracy’s virtue in tact she is still worthy of his affections. But Tracy now reveals how it would have made her more proud if he – George - had stood by her despite any indiscretions. Infuriated by this turn of rejection, George marches off, leaving Tracy to face her guests and explain away the situation. Instead, Dexter proposes for a second time and Tracy, realizing she ought never have divorced him in the first place, now vows to make him a good wife this second time around. With some regret, Mike falls back on accepting Liz as his mate, while Caroline nudges a hung over Uncle Willie in the ribs, all while Louis Armstrong serenades the wedding guests with his own inimitable jazzy rendition of the traditional wedding march – “End of song. End of story.”
When High Society debuted it was a colossal hit for MGM; partly due to the invested publicity hype of the studio, marketing the occasion as the absolute last time audiences would see Grace Kelly in a movie. Incidentally, the engagement ring given to Kelly by Monaco’s Prince Rainier makes a guest appearance in the movie; a stunning diamond that Celeste Holm joked needed a highball around it. Viewed today, High Society is vintage MGM movie-making from the 1950’s; a time of financial entrenchment and upheaval at the studio. With its founding father, L.B. Mayer already ousted from power, the implosion of his ‘star-making’ system in steep decline, and the uncertainties of a dwindling audience and shrinking box office creeping in, High Society clearly punctuates MGM’s more restrained investment of both time and money on the Hollywood musical – a genre the studio did not invent, though arguably refined and mined more readily and to greater effect than all the rest put together.
Virtually all of the sets and props are hand-me-downs from other studio product; including, the story itself. That MGM was able to reinvent Philip Barry’s most celebrated play as a frothy musical is a testament to their creativity and ability to unite just the right entourage of talents, capable of bringing off the experiment to its successful conclusion. Ironically, there is an absence of dancing in High Society; the songs lyrically sung by all concerned, but without any ‘routines’ to follow them. Arguably, Cole Porter’s lyrics don’t need happy feet to express what is already clearly on the page note for note; adroit cynicism and immeasurable charm effortlessly blended together. With the exception of ‘Did You Evah?’, the score is brand new and a million dollar seller. MGM expands this repertoire with l underpinnings from some of Porter’s most famous ballads like ‘I’ve Got My Mind On You’ and ‘Rosalie’; all of them superbly orchestrated by MGM’s in-house conductor Johnny Green with an assist from Conrad Salinger. In the final analysis, it’s one hell of a show with Crosby, Sinatra and Kelly at the pinnacle of their powers as entertainers. Within a few short years this sort of lavishly mounted entertainment would seem as bygone as the studio era that spawned it. Today, High Society retains its luster as an escapist movie musical. For all of the aforementioned reasons, they don’t come much finer than this and they certainly don’t make ‘em like they used to!
If only the same could be said of Warner Home Video’s DVD transfer. It’s high time Warner became serious about remastering High Society in hi-def for Blu-ray; not the least reason being that this is a movie superbly photographed by Paul Vogel in Paramount’s patented VistaVision – a process that yielded true motion picture hi-fidelity; none of it in evidence on this DVD incarnation from Warner’s. Time and money need to be spent to gussy up this print because what’s here borders between mediocre to downright embarrassingly bad. Very little attempt has been made to color balance and/or color correct this badly worn negative. When the DVD was released back in 1999, much was made of the fact that Warner had ‘restored’ the original silver lettering in the main titles. True enough, these look rather fabulous, even as the background effortlessly changes from royal blue, to cranberry red, then velvety jade green.
But once the credits fade out we are treated to a rather disappointing assortment of digital anomalies, beginning with an exceptionally grainy aerial shot of Newport, heavily speckled in dirt and scratches. Even when we descend into more stable lighting conditions on the obvious sets, rear projected plates are so badly faded they almost appear to have been shot in sepia. Color wavers throughout, flesh tones looking 'piggy pink' and rather garishly orange on occasion. There’s also a considerable amount of gate weave in the left side of frame, creating some rather depressingly obvious instability for long stretches during the middle third of the story. Virtually every stock shot of exteriors is riddled in a heavy patina of highly digitized film grain. What a travesty!
High Society on DVD never comes close to replicating the resplendent textures and detail available from vintage VistaVision. The audio too lacks sparkle, except in the songs. These have been sourced from restoration work done much earlier by Scott McQueen for the truly old, out of date, and out of print, MGM/UA laserdisc that featured the very first rendering of High Society’s illustrious score in 5.1 stereo. Vintage VistaVision only allowed for mono tracks or what was then commonly known as Perspecta-Stereo; a faux stereo created from directionalized mono audio ‘stems’.
Finally, Warner Home Video affords us only a clumsily slapped together ‘retrospective’ hosted by the late Celeste Holm, who mostly glosses over personal impressions and shares some threadbare facts that anyone with a computer and IMDB could look up for themselves. Two more short subjects and High Society’s badly worn theatrical trailer round out the extras. Bottom line: we need High Society in hi-def. Given the studio’s exquisite work on Hitchcock’s North By Northwest – the only other MGM movie to be photographed in VistaVision – it’s high time High Society was given similar consideration. Come on, WB! Get with the program!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)