High Society

Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly and Louis Calhern in High Society

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

9 June

 

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.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Bing and Frank
  • Louis Armstrong on top form
  • Last chance to see Grace Kelly (and Louis Calhern)
  • The great Cole Porter soundtrack

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

High Society – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Road to Morocco

Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in Road to Morocco

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

14 October

 

 

Bing Crosby dies, 1977

On this day in 1977, Bing Crosby died. One of the most forward thinking entertainers of the 20th century, Crosby was one of the first singers to understand that the new system of electrical recording removed the need to sing as if shouting through a loudhailer. Along with stars such as Al Bowlly and Rudy Vallée, he perfected the crooning style, an up close and conversational way of singing, in Bing’s case most often caricatured as “buh buh buh boo”. He was also a pioneer multimedia artist, being hugely successful on record, on the radio (before there was TV) and in the movies, notably being the first singer to win an Oscar, for his portrayal of Father Chuck O’Malley in Going My Way in 1944. He would take top billing in 55 movies in his career but is now probably most fondly remembered for the ones he made with Bob Hope. He’d cannily teamed up with Hope, who could do all the things Crosby wasn’t so good at (dancing, quickfire gags), in 1940, essentially reinventing himself again as Frank Sinatra stole his seat at the head of the swoonsome croonsome list. An early advocate of recording technology (why perform a radio show twice, for different time zones in the US, when you could record it once, he argued), Crosby invested a lot of money in (and made a lot of money from) the Ampex corporation, pioneers of tape recording technology. He pulled off the same trick when video tape arrived, and it was Bing Crosby Enterprises that was responsible for the first demonstration of videotape in 1951. And, true to his itch to keep changing, Bing was singing with David Bowie only weeks before he died. Watch the video on YouTube and try to work out which of them looks more uncomfortable.

 

 

Road to Morocco (1942, dir: David Butler)

The third of the Bing Crosby/Bob Hope “Road” films is considered to be the best, by almost everyone who has seen the series which started in 1940 and ran until 1962 (a Road to the Future was planned for 1977 but Bing Crosby’s death consigned it to the bin). And being number three Morocco is far enough in for everyone to know what they’re doing, not so far in that they’ve resorted to self-parody. As regards plot, of which there isn’t much, it starts with a shipwreck, then proceeds via a series of leapfrogs – Bing sells Bob into slavery, Bob becomes an honorary sheikh, Bing discovers Bob’s being set up for a nasty death, then the death threat switcheroos onto Bing. And so on. It’s knowingly cheesy, good-natured knockabout in other words, with Bob Hope doing the hard work – playing the good-natured, braggart and deep-down coward – while Bing stands around waiting to sing. Dorothy Lamour has even less to do except look exotic, which she does. And talking of exotic, none of the places in any of the films in the series corresponds to the real place – Zanzibar, Rio, Bali, Hong Kong and especially Utopia. But that’s not the point. The place-names are just there to provide a backdrop for fish-out-of-water humour and double-takes. In the case of Morocco that exotica included magic carpets, enchanted rings, talking camels, and a dangerous sheik (Anthony Quinn, still in his rent-an-ethnic years). It’s the Arabian Nights reworked as a cosy nightclub double-act and even now all these decades later it’s highly enjoyable. These days the Simon Pegg/Nick Frost films capture some of that amiable faux-amateur nonchalance. But neither of them can sing or dance.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The best example of the Hope and Crosby double act
  • Good songs – not always the case in the Road films
  • A classic and early example of breaking the fourth wall
  • Regularly turns up in “greatest film comedy” lists

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Road to Morocco – at Amazon