HIGH SOCIETY (MGM, 1956) Warner Home Video
One of the irrefutable high-water marks in MGM's 50’s musicals, producer, Sol Siegel’s magnificent pastiche in VistaVision, High Society (1956) is a sophisticated and sparkling, tune-filled, perfectly ‘swell-egant’ affair, brimming with oodles of chic good taste a la composer Cole Porter; his hit parade of lilting melodies – including the top-selling romantic ballad ‘True Love’ - delicately counterbalanced with razor-sharp/barb-laden badinage and pop tunes. Porter’s lyrics do not simply inform character and story, they excel in glib social commentary on the idle rich. High Society is a romantic/comedy cocktail, going down like well-aged cabernet to leave behind the tickling memory of its bubbles. It is a movie that could have only been made – or rather, remade – in the 1950’s; a glorious re-envisioning 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 then, starring the indomitable, Katherine Hepburn. The musical revamp retains a lot of Barry’s wit, ever so gently tweaking and stream-lining the plot to accommodate Porter’s score. Gone is that iconic – if politically incorrect – intro, where a simmering Cary Grant’s C.K. Dexter Haven mashes Hepburn’s saucy socialite into the foyer carpet with the palm of his hand. We also lose all references to Dexter’s alcoholism – the crux of the couple’s first marital break-up. And truth be told, virtually all of the characters reprised in High Society have been considerably softened for this re-telling of the tale. The Philadelphia Story’s hoi poloi were rather an unapologetic bitter lot.
Grace Kelly assumes the role of this morally stoic/emotionally scarred jetsetter, Tracy Samantha Lord; 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 lacks. 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) Tracy still wears a chip on her shoulder to overshadow 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.”
If anything, High Society’s take on female vanity seems a tad strained; what with repeat references to high priests worshiping virgin goddesses. George tells Tracy, that after they are married he wants to place her on a pedestal where he can be permitted such veneration. “But I don’t want to be worshiped,” Tracy tenderly pleads, “I want to be loved.” “That goes without saying,” George casually reasons. But does it? At the crux of Philip Barry’s original masterwork there remains a distance between Tracy Lord and the world that surrounds her – the original misfit, as it were – reaching for something that can never be hers while tossing away happiness and her first marriage with both hands. Ah yes, “She needs trouble to mature,” 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.” It’s a great line, and one never uttered in The Philadelphia Story.
At the crux of Tracy’s gnawing uncertainty, perhaps never to find happiness in marriage, is her own haunted misunderstanding about what has happened to her mother – Seth strayed from the family commune with a chorus girl. Will such humiliation happen to her? Men: such pigs! To prevent what she has already misperceived as the inevitable, Tracy sets up emotional barriers. Ironically, these blockades fulfill, rather than stave off the prophecy and lead our heroine to bitter dissatisfaction – first, with Dexter who, in the interim, has become the ‘distinguished’ composer of ‘Choo-Choo Mama’ – a flashy pop tune. Tracy’s first marriage began in elopement – in polite circles, a very bad omen and perhaps, a precursor for the annulment. But where’s the worry now? George is no Dexter; nor does he aspire to Dexter’s class and it’s probably just as well. For High Society is rather weighty in its class distinctions. Dexter presumably is of Tracy’s strata; George, the rising proletariat, and Mike, nobly bringing up the rear.
The men in High Society are all pawns, rather bloodless even as they profess to have home fires burning beneath the surface of their starched white tuxedo shirts. George is too old for Tracy – both in years and mindset, and, rather effete – someone more interested in the public presentation of wife and family than exploring real passion for the woman behind closed doors. Crosby’s C.K. Dexter Haven is a more sensitive lot than Cary Grant, occasionally prone to the same ‘worship’ and having just written a musical ode to Tracy’s 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). Apart from ‘True Love’, Crosby’s ballads are fatherly and quaint rather than erotically charged. Indeed, Crosby represents the maturity of love on its own terms. 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 earthy ‘take me, I’m yours’ that escapes – or rather side-steps entirely the eloquence 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. To Caroline’s query whether Dexter ever intends to marry again, Crosby jokingly suggests he is waiting for her to grow up. “Oooo, Dexter. For you I’ll hurry.” Amusedly, Crosby quips, “You’re going to have to.” At 53, Crosby is decidedly too old to be this Tracy’s suitor – much less her husband – either the first, or second time around. And yet, the May/December quality of Crosby and Kelly’s antagonistic byplay works, mostly because of Crosby’s ageless lilt with a song and dialogue. This leaves Dexter’s supreme declaration of his unwaning passion to ‘True Love’ – a memory rekindled in flashback that takes us into a mere moment, behind-the-scenes as it were, when one-time happiness shone on these ex-newlyweds aboard Dexter’s yacht during their honeymoon. Ah me – bliss. Crosby is given two more excellent songs: the first, ‘Now You Has Jazz’; an extraordinary ‘competition’ riff featuring Louis Armstrong and his band. Crosby and Armstrong have undeniably chemistry from the outset as best buds and musical co-conspirators in winning Tracy back; Armstrong also given the film’s plum introductory selection, ‘The High Society Calypso.’ But the other tour de force in the picture is ‘Did You Evah?’ – originally written for, but then excised from Porter’s Broadway spectacular, Du Barry Was A Lady. Herein, it is given to Crosby and Sinatra to bang about as they quietly get snookered on expensive champagne; Sinatra’s spurned writer already a little worse for the wear.
Yet, High Society takes Barry’s original play and does something quite wonderful with 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 project proposed by producer, Arthur Freed to focus on the real festival 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 – the story’s central theme (with George as its ‘fifth wheel’), he is given plum opportunities to do what ole Satchmo does best; play his trumpet and warble a tune or two in his trademarked gravely-textured voice.
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 are actually 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 across the 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 does not 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 (seen in countless MGM movies thereafter to suggest the bygone aristocratic wealth of the robber baron class).
High Society attains a sort of enforced greatness as a truly ‘swell-egant’ affair not so much because it reaches for, or ever attains any kind of verisimilitude; rather, because these characters and the actors who inhabit them seem so perfectly to fit within the artifice. 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, serving double-duty as a private bar, warbling another vintage Cole Porter melody with Crosby’s assist; the playfully combative ‘Did You Evah?’ 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 Ass-tor bar?” What a swell party this is, indeed.
And bringing up the rear, as she so often did, 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 as his compliment. When, as the screenplay implies, though never quite illustrates, 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 yet – clearly, the only man for her – Holm’s world-weary hopeful explains she doesn’t want to get in Mike’s way; acknowledging that in keeping her distance she may lose him for good. 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 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 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 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. Their current issue is 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 Tracy’s debut. Thereafter, Tracy toys with Liz and Mike in particular; suggesting he is much too old to be wasting his time with the magazine, and then intimating 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, inquiring when they will meet Seth – unknowing, as they are of Seth’s affair, his estrangement from the family at Tracy’s behest, or the real reason 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 also makes an impromptu visit, only to be henceforth pawned off on Mike and Liz as Uncle Willie. Sounds confusing, but it’s not – really – and very, very funny besides. To further complicate this luncheon, Dexter makes an appearance, encouraged by Liz to pose for photographs with Tracy and George. However, when Liz’s lens captures a snapshot of Willie, Liz declaring “To the father of the bride…we’ll use it to head the article”, Tracy orchestrates a moment of sabotage 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, affording Tracy the opportunity to daydream about their past. Through this flashback, we see a couple quite unlike the one about to tie the knot; Dexter relaxed and Tracy ebullient as she prepares sandwiches 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 returns the volley with an admonishment of her cruel aloofness. Seth regards this as Tracy’s greatest failing as a woman, unfit for any man unlucky enough to find her physically 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 sustainable 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 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’ - the tune wafting through his open bedroom window and captivating Tracy as she listens from her own next door.
At Uncle Willie’s party Liz and Mike are informed of the mix up in identities between Seth and Willie and the real 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 finds Tracy attempting an escape from her locked room through an open window. 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 momentarily unconscious before he can explain the incident with any sort of comprehension that would make sense. The next day, Tracy awakens with a severe hangover to discover her jewelry missing. Dexter, having found her engagement ring, bracelet and necklace on a patio cushion the night before, now toys with Tracy’s cloudy understanding of the previous night’s events. His hints stir musings that frighten and confuse her. George arrives and threatens to delay or even call off the wedding; his tide of conceit ebbing after Mike confesses that his ‘so called affair’ with Tracy consisted of two kisses and a moonlit swim he will neither deny nor suggest he did not thoroughly enjoy.
George reconsiders. After all, Tracy’s virtue is in tact. She is still worthy of his affections. Only now Tracy reveals how it would have made her prouder still if only George had stood by her despite her indiscretions. Infuriated by this turn of events and 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 to 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 and Louis Armstrong serenades everyone with his inimitable jazzy rendition of the traditional wedding march – “End of song. End of story.”
High Society was a colossal hit for MGM; partly due to the media hype surrounding Grace Kelly’s pending marriage to Prince Rainier of Monaco. Incidentally, the engagement ring given to Kelly by Rainier makes its guest appearance in the movie; a stunning diamond Celeste Holm joked, needed its own highball. Viewed today, High Society remains 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 punctuated MGM’s more restrained investment of both time and money on the Hollywood musical – a genre Metro did not invent, though arguably refined and mined to its greatest effect for nearly thirty years of screen-celebrating excellence.
Virtually everything from the story to its sets and props are hand-me-downs from other studio product. 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. Ironically, there is an absence of dancing in High Society; a ballad-rich, but production number scant offering. Actually, Cole Porter’s lyrics do not require happy feet to express what is already clearly noted - note for note; adroit cynicism and immeasurable charm effortlessly blended together. With the exception of ‘Did You Evah?’, the score is new and a million-copy seller. MGM expands the musical repertoire with underpinnings of Porter’s most famous ballads; ‘I’ve Got My Mind On You’ and ‘Rosalie’, 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 that spawned it. Today, High Society retains its luster as pure escapism. 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. Pity that!
With the release of The Philadelphia Story to Blu-ray (in a less than perfect offering ported over to Criterion) one would sincerely hope High Society is bound for better days in hi-def via the Warner Archive. Because Warner Home Video’s DVD transfer isn’t up to standards. Photographed by Paul Vogel in Paramount’s patented VistaVision – a process yielding true motion picture hi-fidelity, none of it is in evidence on Warner’s current DVD incarnation. Time and money need to be spent correctly to gussy up this print. What’s here is mediocre to downright embarrassing. 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 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 exceptionally grainy aerial shots 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 made for 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 effect created from directionalized mono ‘stems’. Finally, Warner Home Video affords us a clumsily slapped together ‘retrospective’ hosted by the late Celeste Holm. She mostly glosses over personal impressions and shares some threadbare factoid info that anyone perusing 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 exquisite work done by Warner 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. We are fast approaching the end of another year and still no sign of High Society on Blu-ray? Well, did you evah?!?!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)