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The musical has undergone somewhat of a resurgence in recent times, thanks largely to the tidal wave of success that was Chicago. However, back in the old days the musical formed the staple diet for any motion picture fan from the 1940s on. Classics such as West Side Story, 42nd Street and Oliver were the headline acts among a stack of all-singing, all-dancing extravaganzas, yet the lower end of the pile still produced some absolute gems. High Society might not be the most polished of them all, but the charm of the 1950s is captured perfectly by some of cinema’s finest.


High Society
Movie
The film is another in a long line of musical adaptations from popular films (again, Oliver being the perfect example). Based on the 1940 comedy classic The Philadelphia Story , which starred Hollywood’s elite players Jimmy Stewart, Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, the musical version tried desperately to recreate the A-list acting talent and combine it with the vocal prowess of several big names. Now, the cast list would always be a hard act to follow and it shows. Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Grace Kelly are still household names from way back then, yet still can’t match it with the originals. However, you can’t deny the replacements still had plenty of life in them and could hold their own in front of the camera. The musical numbers are where they really come to the fore.

The most surprising thing about the story is that even though it has been adapted into essentially the same content, the song and dance numbers are surprisingly sparse. We open with the brilliant Louis Armstrong, cruising along in the back of a bus. Old “satchel-mouth” belts out the High Society Calypso effortlessly, sucking on a big fat cigar in the process. After the little musical prelude we hit the crux of the story pretty quickly. Tracy Lord (Grace Kelly) and C.K Dexter-Haven (Bing Crosby) met at during childhood, married quickly then separated shortly after. C.K still pines after her while Tracy fights off his glowing praise, having hooked up with wealthy businessman George Kittredge (John Lund). You can guess where this is going.

After Tracy’s father’s playboy exploits are revealed, two reporters from Spy Magazine come knocking on the door, threatening to tell the world about the devious Mr. Lord unless the family grants them access to cover Tracy and George’s upcoming wedding. In strolls none other than Frank Sinatra as Mike Connor, with Celeste Holm’s Liz Imbrie in tow. They all become mixed up in the bizarre lead-up to the wedding, with plenty of revelations about each of them to be uncovered over the course of the film.

While the story elements are pretty trite and lack a fair amount of characterisation, the musical numbers really do light things up quite a bit, making it even more surprising that all stops weren’t pulled out to ensure there were more chances for the leads to lyrically shine. There may not be many, but the quality of the songs is right up there with the best of them; Bing Crosby’s cute number Little One, Sinatra and Holm’s playful Who Wants To Be A Millionaire (so that’s where the game show title came from!) and even the highly romantic True Love is great to watch. The highlight, however, has to be Well, Did You Evah, with Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra crooning their way through an absolute classic. It’s the master and the apprentice in full swing and shows why the both of them are so highly regarded.

High Society
The acting prowess of the cast pale in comparison to the originals but there’s just enough there to push the story along effectively as we wait patiently for the next musical number. Grace Kelly, in her last official acting gig before she to the reins as Princess Grace of Monaco, gives a gutsy performance in a difficult role. She’s as beautiful and endearing as ever, which gets her over the line even if her acting talent had its limits. Bing Crosby cruises through and probably would have preferred a bit more in the musical stakes, while Frank Sinatra has a little fun but one wouldn’t regard this one as one of his finest.

In all there’s just enough in the film as a whole to make it a great little flashback to the halcyon days of the star-studded musical, with some of the charm hopefully rubbing off on modern day filmmakers so that great musicals can indulge us once again. Fans of any of the leads will eat this for breakfast, though die-hard musical fans might get a kick out of some other lesser lights (How To Succeed In Business the perfect example) more than this one pure song quota alone. Still, if you want to be taken back in time a little there are plenty worse productions than this one.

Video
Wow! Nah, just kidding. Of course the age of this film will show up considerably on DVD, with every bit of grain, every lack of colour depth and each imperfection on the print being magnified on our favourite format. That said, however, the transfer doesn’t look all that shabby considering there probably wasn’t a great deal of time poured into sourcing the best available print and cleaning it up a bit like other films of its vintage. The 1.85:1 presentation is about as good as can be expected without monkeys working around the clock to clean it up. And Grace Kelly still looks as gorgeous as ever, film grain or otherwise.

Audio
Surprisingly we are given a re-configured Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack for this release, which still sounds like a glorified 2.0 mix but does the job quite well. Surround use is reserved mainly for the musical numbers, but when the rears do kick in it’s great to hear the tunes from all around.

Those with perfect pitch have been known to bemoan the fact that the 4% PAL speedup really does effect the music in these kinds of films. Thankfully my ears don’t sport that sort of acute hearing so for the most part someone like me can’t notice, but those with perfect pitch you might not appreciate that Warner have actually bothered to give us a PAL version of the film. It might be the only time we say it, though, so don’t get used to it.

Extras
A few little extras have been dug up to give us some added value to the disc, which is great. The first and most meaningful extra is a featurette entitled Cole Porter In Hollywood: True Love, hosted by Celeste Holm (sounding initially like a man trying to sound like a woman, no offence intended). We begin with the context in which High Society was made then move on Cole Porter’s role in the writing of the music. There are also short pieces on the casting, Grace Kelly’s role (she wore her actual engagement ring in the picture) and a funny story about how someone asked the Prince how big Monaco was over dinner, leading to an uncomfortable silence.

High Society
Also included is old footage of the Hollywood premiere for the film. Man, how times have changed. It is a very quick piece but those who were around in the time (ie- not me) may have fun spotting the celebrity talent who turned up for the event. A fun little extra is the addition of Millionaire Droopy, the cartoon that ran before the picture. It’s not one of the best but is definitely a worthy addition to the disc to pad it out a little. Other than that we have a cast and crew listing as well as the theatrical trailer, which obviously pales in comparison to the way we do things now. In all it’s a slight but welcome extras section on the disc.

Overall
Definitely not a classic but surely a piece of cinema history you can’t miss. Grace Kelly’s last performance, Crosby and Sinatra’s first appearance together and one of the highlights of the film, and the undeniable talent of Cole Porter in penning some brilliant little songs make the production well worth a look. The presentation is quite sound, thanks to a sufficient video transfer, a neat 5.1 mix and a couple of worthwhile extras. Fans of old school musicals should definitely pick this one up.


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