High Society

Film Review by Mar 9, 2015

Beware of the common wisdom! I had always understood High Society to be a wan, unsuccessful, even faintly blasphemous musical updating of its source, the celebrated The Philadelphia Story (directed by George Cukor at MGM, 1940). I had understood this to be the case because that’s what most everyone always says. Well as we all know, sometimes everyone doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Find out for yourself! I was surprised and chastened to discover that when I finally saw the film—far too late in my life, I might say—it played so much better than the vaunted original. To be fair, this is partly because of that (still superb) original’s over/familiarity. I’ve seen it, lots, and it’s not that great. But mostly High Society played so well because it is a lovely movie in its own right.

Mr. Louis Armstrong gets us off on a fine high note. He’s so beautiful, so bursting, so deeply musical. His charisma leaps out at you, as do, maybe, all the difficult and painful things informing that charisma. It’s like the Negro Leagues—there was no way around it, and he obviously still managed to do more than plenty. Still, it’s a profound pity that there aren’t more front and centre film records of this guy.

There aren’t too many film records of Frank Sinatra and Celeste Holm acting together, either. Thank goodness for the delightful Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (“What is that object, there?”) You get a real sense of performative joy here, and consummate, effortless skill. “Y-I don’t!” Ditto, moreso, with the Sinatra/Crosby duet on Well, Did You Evah? They’re pop singers, but they also, ultimately came from jazz. You get the sense of their awesome technique and range, even while they’re mostly just larking through these particular changes, on this rather innocuous composition. Also, Now You Has Jazz is not quite a song for the ages, but the happy capability of the participants, and the somehow touching fact that Crosby so affectionately introduces each (actual!) musician, makes it quite stirring.

(Do I note some condescension, even some segregation in High Society‘s race relations? Decidedly! So much of Civil Rights had yet to occur, and the consequences and implications are quite palpable. In the face of these real and important shortcomings, I find it possible/desirable/necessary to note the negative without fetishizing it, or making its partiality into the totality. Our forebears, like us, were products of their times. We can compartmentalize our apt and necessary criticism, and our proper love and regard.)

Grace Kelly is no Katherine Hepburn, but she’s charming, and finally very touching. (That’s real French that she’s really speaking, too! High Society is her last film, of course, completed just before her permanent removal to Europe.) Back to Mr. Crosby—he is getting on, and the age discrepancy between he and his co-star is a problem with which Hollywood will continue to grapple, or maybe with which it still hasn’t grappled enough. (Cf. John Wayne/Angie Dickinson in 1959’s Rio Bravo, or Jack Nicholson/Helen Hunt in 1997’s As Good as it Gets, and on, and on… Mind you, the Crosby/Kelly pairing is in conversation with their previous outing in 1954’s The Country Girl) [which still returns us to that original issue…].)

But there’s much more than that going on, Bing-wise. He radiates that usual effortlessness, but far from mailing it in, you get an actual sense of his magnitude, even majesty. As we’ve probably overly observed in these pages, Crosby was just a great star. The tabloid-condemning Spy Magazine stuff doesn’t really come off too much, nor does the Frankie/Grace class conversation. (Melancholy historical irony: look at her speeding around in that Mercedes!) But the adult components of Phillip Barry’s original play eventually and really do register. These characters are worldly people. Story events, and the way that they are rendered, are clear and frank. The combination turns out to be perfectly adult and wonderfully, sweetly tolerant. (Except for George Kittredge, of course. That’s got to be a thankless role!) This is one of those just-right moments, with regard to the tasteful but still recognizable portrayal of mature subject matter. It’s not too much, and definitely not too little.

The crisis and the climax that all conclude on that patio, the reconstituted wedding that follows, have the quality of unstrained mercy. At this point, especially given the poignancy of the context, the chastised Ms. Kelly is every bit K. Hepburn’s equal. It all makes you think that things are possible. Notice that we’re talking about a musical here. That’s Hollywood! At least at times, and even quite often. It’s all utter moonshine. But there are ghosts in this machine!

May I finally note, in appreciate passing, High Society‘s stunning, ridiculous, quite perfect design.