The Philadelphia Story vs. High Society

My special thanks to the wonderful folks at Pussy Goes Grrr for hosting the Juxtaposition Blogathon.  For my part I decided to examine the 1940 George Cukor vehicle The Philadelphia Story and its 1956 musical remake, High Society, directed by Charles Walters.  Both films received Academy Award nominations and were boxoffice successes (The Philadelphia Story was awarded two statuettes for its six nominations, while High Society received three nominations.)

It’s no secret that I adore The Philadelphia Story (I’ve written about it previously), and yet until this week I had never viewed High Society.  Still, I came to High Society with–pardon the turn of phrase here–rather high hopes for a good feature.  Like its predecessor, High Society features a veritable Who’s Who of movie stars: Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Grace Kelly (replacing the roles originated by Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart).  Add in the musical composition of Cole Porter and a bit of Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong and you have what should be the equivalent of a cinematic gift to a jazz-loving, Ol’-Blue-Eyes-fan like myself.  Unfortunately, High Society illustrates that all the right pieces can still add up to one horrible, ahem, picture.  And when I say horrible, please don’t misunderstand me here: I’m not saying High Society is horrible simply in comparison to its predecessor, I’m saying High Society is horrible on its own account.  There’s a reason Bosley Crowther called it “as flimsy as a gossip-columnist’s word.”

Good idea

High Society has a lot of potential: exemplary source material (both the Phillip Barry play “The Philadelphia Story” and its film counterpart), a star-studded cast, and a well-respected composer.  Unfortunately, the film suffers from a severe case of mishandling, particularly in regards to its song choice, casting, and directing. The casting is the most egregious error in the film.  Grace Kelly is a talented and beautiful woman, but her turn as Tracy Lord reads like a poor impersonation of Hepburn’s performance.  Hepburn played Tracy as a headstrong but wounded socialite, nursing a broken heart behind a mask of steel.  She beautifully elucidates her character when she remarks to Stewart’s Mike Connor: “I believe you put the toughness down to save your skin… I know a little about that.”  But while Hepburn brings nuance and vulnerability to the character, Kelly brings a stiff literalness.  It feels as if Kelly merely recites the script rather than interpreting it, and without the subtext, Phillip Barry’s Tracy is an Ice Queen without a vulnerable underbelly; she appears so harsh and unforgiving that it seems inexplicable when Bing Crosby’s C.K. Dexter-Haven, Frank Sinatra’s Mike Connor, and John Lund’s George Kittredge all vie for her love.  To be fair, Kelly isn’t fully to blame for her abrupt coldness–the screenplay excises much of the wit and exposition provided in the source material (including the scene mentioned above) to make room for nine musical numbers.

Unfortunately, all the exposition in the world would not make up for the woodenness of Crosby’s Dexter, the ex-husband and supposed ardent lover of Kelly’s Tracy.  Crosby has a lovely voice and a naturally affable screen persona, but he’s as asexual as an amoeba, and too much like your grandpa to be making love to Grace Kelly.  As Crowther suggests, Crosby wanders around the film “like a mellow uncle….  He strokes his pipe with more affection than he strokes Miss Kelly’s porcelain arms.”  For her part, Kelly’s coolness reads like daughterly affection and leads to some truly awkward moments: when she caresses Crosby’s face during “True Love” she looks unsure of what to do with her hands.

Bad idea

Sinatra fairs slightly better as Mike Connor, the reluctant tabloid reporter, though he lacks Stewart’s boyish earnestness.  Naturally, Sinatra benefits from the musical numbers (he sings in four of the nine songs in High Society), but even these are problematic.  When used correctly, songs can add a compelling new dimension to a source text, allowing characters to express their emotions in a way that transcends the written word. Unfortunately, this is not the case in High Society, where the songs included are lackluster, and do not flow organically into the narrative.  Sinatra sings “Mind If I Make Love to You?” beautifully, but when he intones “Since the dear day of our meeting/I’ve wanted to tell you all I long to do” the viewer is left wondering why he cares at all for Kelly’s drunken, poorly-drawn socialite.  Yet Sinatra fares better than his crooning counterpart–Crosby is cringe-worthy when he sings “Now You Has Jazz” with Louis Armstrong and his band.  Crosby is a lovely crooner, but he looks positively disinterested in his performance with the ever-enthusiastic Armstrong.

Crosby and his costars aren’t helped by Charles Walters’ banal and uncomplicated direction.  The success of The Philadelphia Story is due largely to the gorgeous direction of George Cukor, who bathes the characters in soft light and allows the camera to move with the ebb and flow of the characters emotions.  In contrast, High Society is a very sedentary film, featuring mainly medium and long shots.  The lack of close-ups and camera movements force the spectator to maintain a distance from the narrative, as if refusing the spectator admittance.  A good close-up can go a long way to express the interior state of a character, and Walters does High Society‘s actors and viewers a disservice by neglecting this, particularly since the narrative centers around the emotional awakening of the main character.

High Society has great potential, but it is squandered by poor decisions.  The witty and emotional source text is butchered and filled with songs that–rather than enhancing the narrative–seem shoehorned in, while the actors play cardboard versions of their predecessors.  For all its Technicolor beauty and jazz-infused melodies, High Society lacks what its monochromatic predecessor has in spades–a heart.