Sunday, May 26, 2013

Movie Review: High Society (1956)

Directed by Charles Walters. 1956.

Since I don't wish to speak ill of the dead, I'll credit director Charles Walters for managing to cast Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, and Frank Sinatra in a film, punched up by none other than Louis Armstrong and His Band, and have the whole thing turn out a dreadful bore. To start, I'll do the opposite of High Society with its ten minute swooning cotton candy overture followed up by a title song followed up by an explanation, and cut to the quick with the film's two egregious problems.

First, High Society shifts in tone from scene to scene. To start, the title song sets the stage for a pure lovey-dovey romance where exciting ex-hubby Dexter (Bing Crosby) swings back into prissy debutante Tracy's life on the day before her wedding to a dull-but-marriageable George (John Lund.) Then Tracy gets swindled into allowing a pair of tabloid photographers to her wedding so the paper editor will suppress unflattering press about her father, a turn handled so seriously we expect a dramatic consequence. The tone shifts again when the photographers arrive and Tracy and her kid sister play up their high society parts with ridiculous parodies of themselves. Satire? Once more the tone twists when, due to Tracy's machinations, her father and uncle are each pretending to be the other. Farce? A comedy of errors?

Finally the tone swerves to the serious when Tracy has cutting conversations with Dexter and then her father, who in turn tell her to have respect for human frailty and then not to be so cold "as a bronze statue." Not only do these scenes clash with the rest of the movie, but they block a flashback in which Tracy and Dexter swoon together during an evening sail. This is either tone-deaf editing or a desperate attempt to vary the visuals. Either way it fails.

Now I read a clever comment which  cautioned viewers to approach High Society as if it were an opera, forgiving its undulating plot and tone as one does an opera's preposterous twists and turns. Unfortunately, we cannot forgive High Society for two reasons. First, the tunes are dull, haphazardly placed, and far from unifying disparate material, don't even elevate any of it. Second, nothing actually happens in the first hour of the movie.

This is in fact the movie's second egregious problem. Yes, people come and go, but the plot doesn't move by the activity we see. Tracy's mother Liz talks about her husband's previous philandering, Dexter talks about his love for Tracy, Tracy talks about what and whom she likes and dislikes, and the photographers ask a lot of questions about their socialite-hosts, but nothing happens in front of you. The arrival of the Dexter and then the photographers, the swap between Tracy's uncle and father, none of this triggers a course of events. As a result the scenes just lay next to one another until we're an hour in and we have neither a plot-in-motion nor, through tone, any sense of what might, ought, or ought-not happen.

In fact, the first hour has just three redeeming bits. The first is a bit of chemistry between rag reporters Mike (Frank Sinatra) and Liz (Celeste Horn.) Even their dippy duet, devoid as it is of anything resembling music or poetry, breathes a little life. The second bit is a pair of references, to Circe and then Lord Macaulay. Had these two ever ever worked their way into a mainstream picture today would have been scrubbed out of it before anyone ever uttered their names. The last noteworthy bit is Grace Kelly walking around inexplicably dressed like a Greek goddess.

At any rate, after the midway musical number ends, Louis adds, "Now we're getting warmed up." Sort of. The second act proceeds like a better movie, albeit a cheesy one. The action weaves through the set-piece of a party where Dexter, Mike, and George all vie for Tracy, or at least hover around her. Unfortunately, although she's out of sorts we can't tell whether she's finally self-aware and angry at herself, stymied about which man to choose, throwing a hissy fit, or just plain drunk. This would be less of a problem were she not the only developing character.

Once more, of course, the tone just won't settle down. After a serious heart-to-heart between Dexter and the lonely Liz and a steamy scene between Tracy and Mike, we think a serious denouement is in the works. . . and then the two fall in the pool. . . and stagger back drunk in bathrobes. . . to Dexter and Roger, who then have words about class. What a mess.

So the wedding finally arrives and you know what, who cares? I don't know whether Dexter is looking out for Tracy so she doesn't marry a jerk or whether he wants her for himself, and I don't know anything meaningful about their relationship. I don't know whether George is a rube or a stiff or a phony, and I don't know what he really feels for Tracy. I don't know whether Mike is really in love with Tracy simply because he's drunk for the last hour of the movie. Finally, I don't know whom Tracy loves or whether I'm supposed to empathize with her as an anguished lover, scrutinize her as a spoiled debutante, or pine after her like one of the guys. Or should I be rooting for one of the guys I don't know or care about?

The conclusion wraps things up as if something significant had preceded it, but though things work out, the lack of development leaves you fairly indifferent to the outcome. Sadly, this is a first rate cast put through the hoops of a movie with flat dialogue and skimpy plotting which the director simply doesn't pull together. What a disappointment.


  1. Great review!

    We're linking to your article for Bing Crosby Tuesday at

    Keep up the good work!

  2. How kind of you; many thanks! I'm much enjoying reading your blog right now!