Don't Scream At The Top Of Your Lungs, I Had Champagne Last Night: High Society (1956)

There are films who existence is rather stunning due to their shoestring operations that would assumedly prevent them from making moving and engaging cinema, yet, nonetheless, result in a poised poetics that only rare happens even in the bigger budgeted films.  In sharp contrast there are the high profile films that simply take on too many stars to seem worthwhile or consistent.  High Society, a rather well-received musical from 1956, while not a thing of perfection does manage to succeed at incorporating varied stars from the time, without becoming solely a spectacle.  In fact, it is very much of of the film's benefits that the stars coalesce beautifully, all playing characters while also appropriating their celebrity within the process, excluding, of course, Louis Armstrong who plays himself.  High Society is perhaps the most obvious of all titles when it comes to musicals, other examples only pulling an item or thought into a larger narrative, whereas this film is wholly concerned with a specific class-based group and what occurs when this space is invaded by both welcome and unwelcome guests.  I am not an expert on the wide world of film musicals and certainly not so on the traditionally staged versions (hopefully I can be by the end of the month), however, I would be inclined to describe something like High Society as existing within a space where narrative emerges and the music is secondary, almost entirely a product of the stars on display.  High Society, as such, has more in line with a film like Gentleman Prefer Blondes than say Top Hat, although it is no less engaging with the music used.  The playing off of tones between Crosby and Sinatra is something rare and pure, not to mention the inclusion of Armstrong's fiery trumpet.  Of course, the aid of Cole Porter lyrics never hurt.  I say all this because it is not going to prove to be one of my favorite musicals of the month by quite a long shot, but it does prove to be one of the more consistent in terms of structure, musical flow and performances proving to be one of the more profound musicals from a formalist frame of reference.

High Society centers on the impending wedding of Tracy Lord (Grace Kelly), a socialite whose standing was previously faltered by her previous marriage to songwriter and debonair gentleman C.K. Dexter-Haven (Bing Crosby).  As part of a way to remind Tracy of his frustrations, Dexter plans and implements a jazz festival to happen on his property, which also happens to be no more than a hundred years away from Tracy's home.  All the while, Tracy's fiancĂ© George Kittridge (John Lund) plays the fool assuming their relations to be a thing of the past, an ignorance that is emphasized by his class detachment between Tracy and Dexter.  Even with this bit of absurdity, Tracy's wedding is proving to be far more perplexing as the editor for Spy magazine purports to be in possession of a story that verifies that the Lord patriarch Seth (Sidney Blackmer) has been engaging in an extra-marital affair.  Tracy's mother hoping to save face agrees to allow two reporters from the magazine to provide a full report, with pictures, on the wedding.  The reports in question being Mike Connor (Frank Sinatra) and a photographer named Liz Imbrie (Celeste Holm) arrive wholly dismissive of the entire endeavor thinking it frivolous and illogical, completely unaware of the blackmail issue at hand.  This wild cocktail of animosity and miscommunication plays out as Dexter attempts to win back Tracy who he still adores, while also becoming accidental friends with Mike seeming to connect upon their love of champagne and dismissal of performing for the sake of social graces.  Upon discovering Tracy's own animosity towards the idea of privilege, Mike takes a liking to her traveling about and getting close to becoming intimate with her, but, ultimately, avoiding to do so for the sake of the upcoming wedding and because he knows such an action would be immoral, especially since Tracy is very drunk during the encounter.  While George is at first frustrated he attempts to be forgiving towards Tracy for her actions, yet the more free-willed Tracy decides their marriage is probably a terrible decision and she precedes to call things off, however, it does not mean that a wedding does not occur by the closing moments of the film.

High Society is probably one of the more formulaic and seemingly obvious films that I have included in my marathon and from an initial glance it seems to be just that a singular style of cinema that aims to tell a story with music in the most linear way possible.  It does just this without a doubt, but it also manages to repeatedly call attention to the celebrity of the characters on display.  This is most obvious in the fact that Louis Armstrong is ostensibly playing himself throughout the entirety of the film, providing a musical introduction that is wonderful and in sharp distinction to his work in On Her Majesty's Secret Service.  Yet, Louis Armstrong is assumed to be a point of star power who identities as such, while viewers are asked to understand Crosby, Sinatra and even Kelly to exist within the diegetic space.  Thus, it becomes a film, like so many of the musicals discussed thus far, that navigates enigmatically between the reality and the fabrication afforded a narrative in cinema.  I know this is essentially the case for most films, but this film makes note of the difference between Bing Crosby as Dexter and Louis Armstrong as Louis Armstrong.  I would posit then that the film is an early example of post-modernism, even if unknowingly so, as the narrative is constantly reminding those watching that he is existing within the film, but what makes the argument more plausible is the musical encounter between Crosby and Sinatra where Sinatra calls out Crosby's Dexter for his inclination towards crooning, although it is intended to take a stab at his character's age, the counter by Crosby suggesting that Sinatra's Mike must be one of the new guys speaks to the shift in music that was very much occurring, sliding away from the crooning of Crosby to the more swing enduring language of Sinatra.  All the while, Grace Kelly is doing her own shades of performance, clearly tapping into stardom and style of then starlet Audrey Hepburn, ironically reappropriating it here for a character whose extreme innocence is also nearly her downfall.  I would posit that this is far more than an acting choice on the part of Kelly and indeed plays into the larger possibilities of post-modernism emerging in one of its earliest moments.

Key Scene:  The "Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?" performances with Sinatra and Holm with all its auditory twisting is highly enjoyable and is also in line with the film being super early post-modernism.  Also Grace Kelly in this film!

This is a curious little film, one that is also extremely watchable.  I would suggest renting it first though as it is not necessarily a film demanding repeated visits.

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