As a warm up to the movies on the List I read a bit ahead and get a rough idea what the movie is about. The Book is fairly careful about spoilers so it is more a teaser really and boy did I get teased on this one! Listen to this round of casual name dropping: Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Grace Kelly and music by Cole Porter. This tickles a lot of delightful spots in my brain I can tell you. Damn it, I loved this movie before even starting it.
It is sort of a musical, but a musical where the music is fitted in far more gently than the average nineteen fifties musical. That means among a lot of other nice advantages (like very little and practically no choreographed dancing) that there is a good balance between story and music. There is some real acting going on here and it does not feel entirely like a vehicle for the music… with a little “but”, which I shall return to shortly.
It is a comedy, with good punchlines and great characters and the potential for a lot of sweet, if a bit fluffy, entertainment, but but but we have seen it all before. Not unusual for a remake, but this is a remake of “The Philadelphia Story” from 1940, an absolutely wonderful movie with three of American cinema’s very best actors, Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant and Jimmy Steward at their very best (Stewart and Hepburn won best actor and actress + four more Oscar’s for the movie!). To dare do a remake of such a master piece take cojones and a lot of money. “High Society” makes it a musical and use the very best 1956 can offer and makes this its special angle.
It works, almost. Well, the music side of it works plenty, it was pure bliss. I could have the soundtrack going all day, it is the wet dream of musicals. The problem is the rest. Because the story is not just a stupid vehicle but a very central element so much relies on it, and it does work, it is a funny and charming story, but I cannot help every single step of the way to compare it to the original “Philadelphia story”. In the 1940 version all the dialogue had more sting, Grant was immensely slyer than Bing Crosby and nobody hits that everyman vibe of Jimmy Steward, not even the great Sinatra. They all do a valiant job, but it is mission impossible. I feel most sorry for Grace Kelly who gives the performance of her life, owning the screen and reduce her male counterparts to supporting actors and yet she never hits that acerbic punch that Hepburn delivered. She tries, but it is useless. Nobody does this like the Kat.
In “High Society” the tone is generally milder and some of the plot is a bit lost. The acting up for the reporters feels unmotivated and does not lead anywhere. The sister, Dinah, is central to this plot but entirely disappears after it fizzles. I could live with that because there is so much else going on here, but I know how it should be, I know a better version and that makes “High Society” look weak with all the glitz and money spent on it a desperate attempt to compensate.
What I am trying to say here is that if there had never been a “Philadelphia Story” or at least if I have never seen it, this would be a delightful musical with a funny, if slightly confusing, backstory. It would work and I would proclaim it the second best musical of the fifties, grudgingly leaving top spot to “Singing in the Rain”. In short, this is exactly how I like my musical: witty, charming, natural (or as natural as possible) and with stellar music performed by the best there is.
Do I feel cheated? Nope, not really. I mostly feel annoyed with myself that I keep comparing it. You really have to knock it out of your head, or maybe just enjoy the music. For me Louis could play that trumpet all day long and I would be a happy man. Oh yeah!!!