High Society

It’s probably unfair of me to start with this detail, but the opening of “High Society” rubbed me the wrong way.  There’s Louis Armstrong with his jazz band and they’re all in the back of the bus!  Yes, this is the 1950s remake of “The Philadelphia Story,” folks, and the status quo will be upheld, come what may.   All the style of the original has been lost, and they’ve added musical numbers to give Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby a chance to croon, in and around drinking cocktails.  But like a bottle of champagne that’s been sitting around, this one lacks fizz.

Where’s the chemistry, I ask you?  Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn had it.  Frank Sinatra’s just speaking his lines, waiting for the next occasion when he gets to sing with that twinkle in his eye.  And Bing Crosby’s just not up to playing against Celeste Holm — of course, James Stewart’s academy-award-winning performance in the role was hard to top.

Honestly, what were they thinking, remaking a picture that was already letter-perfect?  I feel sorry for Grace Kelly, who was lovely.  This dog was the last film she made before her marriage to Prince Rainier and there’s nothing wrong with her performance.  She just wasn’t Katharine Hepburn.  When she says the boat her ex-husband designed was “yar” you don’t believe she knows what the word means.

Watch Hepburn say it right:

13 thoughts on “High Society

  1. I’ll be posting a review of Hellzapoppin’ on my website in a little over a week. Among other things, I mention how exceptional the jazz performance by Slim Gaillard, Slam Stewart and the Lindy Hoppers was, and how unusual was a) the equal treatment they were given and b) how well the movie that surrounded them, for once, matched the energy of a great black jazz/comedy performance. When I pointed out how woeful it was to see the energy sucked out of any feature Armstrong or Waller appeared in, the moment they were off camera, this was one of the films I was particularly thinking of (though Armstrong and der Bingle did fine duet work elsewhere, most specially on Gone Fishin’).

    Nice review. Have you written one on The Philadelphia Story for comparison? I’ll check later. John Huston said it was a mistake to remake good films, it made more sense to remake interesting failures, bring out better what hadn’t worked in them originally.

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    1. I seem to have passed over “Philadelphia Story” for no good reason. I’m even a Philadelphia girl (although not from the same neck of the woods as Hepburn’s character — they wouldn’t let my sort move in there…)

      Good point about remaking the failures. I can’t think of a remake I liked better than the original film. “The Front Page” was delightful in its own way, but couldn’t hold a candle to “His Girl Friday.” Call me sentimental.


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      1. As a Philly girl, Ms. Deathless Prose SHOULD take a look at The Philadelphia Story, or else read the original play (which I confess is all I’ve done so far).

        Speaking of plays, The Front Page also began as a play, by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, who had been Chicago reporters themselves. (I’d like to think that every student of American theater knows the text–it’s probably in more than one collection of classics–but I know the audience here is a film group.) It became a film a few years later, in 1931 according to Wikipedia and IMDB.
        A fine picture evoking that film, or maybe the original, 1928 Broadway stage production, hangs in the lobby of Vanity Fair’s offices, where I work; in its first incarnation, during the 20s and 30s, VF published such photos.

        Possibly one of the smartest film adaptations ever was the 1940 film based on The Front Page, which as Martin Heavisides points out changed one of the men to a woman. It was adapted from their original play by Hecht and MacArthur, along with Ben Lederer, and as Deathless Prose reminds us the director was Howard Hawks. He was truly an American master, who gave us, among other things, two of the classic screwball comedies: first Bringing Up Baby, and then His Girl Friday.

        Apologies for the lecture!

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  2. Curiously enough, if you trace it back, His Girl Friday was a remake–or reboot as we might say now, changing the star male to a star female reporter–of the play The Front Page. Which version are you thinking of? There was a truly lamentable one by Billy Wilder late in his career, but I’m not sure who did the earlier one.

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      1. I meant which version of The Front Page. I’m pretty sure there was one around the same time as His Girl Friday, but I might be wrong. Maybe His Girl Friday WAS the screen adaptation of The Front Page.

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  3. There was a film from the fifties that starred Sammy Davis, Jr as an ill-fated jazz musician. All I’ve seen of it was the last scene, in which Louis Armstrong is. I’m guessing, a jazz elder statesman in the audience. They cut to him in the audience at the moment Sammy Davis Jr’s being introduced as the world’s greatest trumpet player–which doesn’t play like an in-joke at all, more like a colossal misrepresentation. I agree with Tony Bennett–what a waste that nobody ever starred Louis Armstrong in a picture

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    1. Sammy Davis, Jr. was just a Frank Sinatra wanna-be who found a way to elbow his way into the Borscht Belt circuit. And while we’re on the subject, anybody have anything good to say about Dean Martin?

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      1. Dean Martin? Yes. He was not really a drunk, that was all an act, he was a family man, he had a good set of pipes, he was really not a bad actor, and I’ve learned to like him more as I get older. My father liked him, too, but I won’t hold that against him.

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  4. My sentiments exactly. What a travesty. John Waters was right, we should remake the bad movies, not the good ones. Satchmo and his band in the back of the bus was a bad beginning. No sense of style at all, except that imposed on it to provide a vehicle for Frank and der Bingle to warble. No fizz, indeed; flat as day old beer.

    As for the chemistry, it was toxic at best. Not hard to imagine the original cast vomiting in chorus, unless they had the good sense to avoid seeing it in the first place. I can imagine Hepburn’s comments about it; would’ve loved to have been a fly on THAT wall. And shame on Bob Osborne for praising it on TCM, though it probably demonstrates that he has a penchant for kindness.

    Whoever conceived this celluloid abortion should be tarred and feathered and run out of town on the Continental Railroad. Cosmic coincidence: at this very moment Bob Osborne is giving us a lecture about safety film and how the old nitrate film would spontaneously combust. Would that “High Society” had been photographed on nitrate film. If ever a film deserved to have the master negative burned, this is it.

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      1. If they were going to do it as a musical, I could see Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire as better sparring partners than Bing and Frank. And if they were revisioning it, a much larger role for Armstrong and his band. That’s as close to a suggestion as I could make though. Really, the tone of even successful comedies in the fifties was so different I don’t think a remake was feasible. (Armstrong as a romantic lead with Grace Kelly? Nah, I guess the studio wouldn’t have gone for that.)

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