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

 

 

 

 

Rear Window

James Stewart and Grace Kelly in Rear Window

 

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

 

 

8 January

 

 

François Grimaldi takes Monaco, 1297

On this day in 1297, dressed as a monk, François Grimaldi (more properly Francesco, since he was Italian) was admitted to the castle at Monaco. Known as Il Malizia, “the cunning”, Grimaldi’s plan was simple – get inside, open the gates and then let his men rush the guards. This he did, and once his men, including his cousin, Rainier, were in he took control. For four years he ruled over Monaco, until he was chased out by the Genoese. He was the first of the Grimaldi clan to try and establish a claim over the territory. On his death, his cousin (and stepson) Rainer became his successor and established the Chateau Grimaldi at nearby Cagnes. The present-day Grimaldis trace their lineage back to Rainier I, though he never held the fortress known as “the Rock”. That honour went to his son, Charles I, who regained control of it in 1331.

 

 

 

Rear Window (1954, dir: Alfred Hitchcock)

The second of three films that Grace Kelly (later Princess of Monaco) would make with Alfred Hitchcock, and the second that would appear in 1954, Rear Window is the go-to film when any discussion of Hitchcock’s voyeurism is on the cards, which it often is. The story of a photographer laid up with a broken leg, who whiles away his time by staring at the apartments opposite through a telephoto lens, it is also becomes a classic tale of Hitchcockian impotence when James Stewart’s Jeff witnesses what he believes was a murder. Whether it was or not forms the crux of the movie, but there’s another focus too – the teasing relationship between Jeff and Lisa (Kelly). She is sweet on him but his behaviour towards her is rather offhand; he’s keeping her at arm’s length, the cool, passive character compared to her hot, active one. While Jeff stares out the rear window over at the apartment of Thorvald (Raymond Burr) who may or may not have killed his wife, the camera stares at Kelly, in a series of swish outfits, pouting, coquettish, and the question forms in our heads – what is wrong with this guy? Why is he so obsessed with what he can see through binoculars, but not with what he could touch right in front of him? And later, combining theme A with theme B about as neatly as it can possibly be done, Hitchcock sends Kelly over to the facing block and inserts her into Jeff’s scopophilic fantasy. Now he’s interested, oh yes. Like a lot of the best movies, Rear Window has a simple, brilliant premise. In terms of cast and sets it’s simplicity itself. And as a metaphor for the theory that cinema is essentially a voyeuristic experience it’s near perfect too.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Better than Rope or Lifeboat, this is Hitchcock’s best “one set” film
  • The restoration is a marvel, having brought a near-perished film back to life
  • Voyeurism in all its thrilling seediness
  • Better than the not-bad Christopher Reeve remake, or the Shia LaBeouf knock-off, Disturbia

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Rear Window – at Amazon