A movie for every day of the year – a good one
Cole Porter born, 1891
On this day in 1891, the songwriter Cole Porter was born. The only child of wealthy parents – his mother was the daughter of “the richest man in Indiana” – Porter showed early signs of musical precocity and was writing songs from the age of ten. Later, at Yale, where he studied English, music and French, he wrote 300 songs and several musical comedies. Moving on to Harvard to study law (his rich grandfather’s wish) he continued to write prolifically and eventually switched from the study of law to music, though he didn’t tell his grandfather. In Europe during the First World War, he met and married a rich divorcee, Linda Lee Thomas, in spite of being homosexual. They remained married until her death in 1954.
On his grandfather’s death in 1923 Porter came into serious money. After an extended stay living in luxury in Europe, Porter returned to the USA. He had his first Broadway hit, Paris, in 1928, and continued producing Broadway hit shows and writing for Hollywood until the late 1950s. A riding accident in 1937 – his horse rolled on him, crushing his legs – meant he was in pain for the rest of his life and to some extent he worked to keep his mind off the pain.
Unusual in that he wrote both tune and words for his songs, Porter’s work was marked out from the start by sophisticated wordplay, syncopated rhythms, clever rhymes and cheek – “Good authors, too, who once knew better words/Now only use four-letter words/Writing prose…/Anything goes – and his songs summon up the interwar years of increasing confidence and wealth, and of knowledge of the world beyond the window. His songs continue to be popular – Night and Day, Let’s Do It, Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.
High Society (1956, dir: Charles Walters)
High Society was almost the last thing Cole Porter wrote for Hollywood. It contains his last hit song, True Love, and as everybody knows is an adaptation of The Philadelphia Story. It’s not as good as The Philadelphia Story, lacking its wit and zip, but then how many films are?
Instead it has Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. Crosby had been the most famous voice in popular music until Sinatra stole his crown – “Frank is a singer who comes along once in a lifetime; but why did he have to come in mine?” Bing once famously joked. They are an interesting “as in life, so in art” pairing because they’re playing warring males whose chests swell every time Grace Kelly walks into the room. She’s the ice queen about to get married to a stiff (this thankless role going to John Lund), Bing is the ex husband, Frank the cocky reporter hoping for some harmless fluffy society gossip and snaps.
There’s a waxwork torpidity to Sinatra and Crosby while they’re speaking, as if trying to outdo each other for nonchalance, but when they sing all the bells ring – their duet of Well Did You Evah (Porter rhyming “elegant” with “swellegant”) is one of the defining Hollywood musical numbers, as corny as it is witty.
The support players do seem to have remembered that The Philadelphia Story was an acid satire, as well as a romantic comedy – so thanks to underused Broadway star Celeste Holm as Sinatra’s reporter sidekick, and former matinee idol Louis Calhern as the womanising inebriate Uncle Willie. There’s also Louis Armstrong, playing himself – that’s how high a society it is, when the bride’s father can get in the world’s most famous jazzman as entertainment – and Armstrong gets a couple of numbers too, including Now You Has Jazz (with Crosby) a showcase for the talents of his hot sextet, Satchmo’s scat singing. Ignore the fact that Armstrong is one of the creators of jazz and that Bing’s arm on his shoulder looks awfully like a patronising one (I don’t think it is but it’s there), he is an inspired addition to a film which works best when there’s a song on the lips of the cast – Frank’s duet with Celeste Holm of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”, Bing’s duet with Grace Kelly of True Love.
It’s a rich, plush, lush affair, full of orchestra, bright with Technicolor colours, and that’s Prince Rainier’s engagement ring you can see twinkling on Grace Kelly’s hand. This was her final film before sailing off to a regal life in the South of France. It’s that kind of film.
- Bing and Frank
- Louis Armstrong on top form
- Last chance to see Grace Kelly (and Louis Calhern)
- The great Cole Porter soundtrack
High Society – Watch it now at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2014