Sixty Years of ‘High Society’

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High Society promotional poster (1956). Source: Wikipedia.

On July 17, 1956, the musical comedy High Society premiered, featuring a “power house” cast of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, and Grace Kelly. The film was based on The Philadelphia Story, starring Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and James Stewart, and was directed and choreographed by Charles Walters who staged the iconic musical sequences of Hollywood’s golden age.

 

In honor of the 60th anniversary of the film’s release, here are excerpts from Charles Walters: The Director Who Made Hollywood Dance. Author Brent Phillips chronicles the artist’s successful film career, how he navigated the movie industry as an openly gay man, and the revealing backstory about his work on one of his most beloved musicals, High Society:


 

[. . .] In [Grace] Kelly, Walters had an undeniably lovely leading lady, but her gracious appeal was entirely dissimilar to the individuality of Katharine Hepburn. He spent considerable time helping Grace tap into the defenseless interior of Barry’s icy socialite. The actress acknowledged, “I tried to find the point where [Tracy’s] haughtiness was a cover for insecurity, and for the pain she felt over her father’s thoughtless behavior.” [. . .] As Alain Masson would later articulate, the key difference between Hepburn  and Kelly “lies in the fact that Hepburn— though she may lose her composed image— always seems to master the game, at least   intellectually, [whereas] Kelly sometimes is really at a loss.”

Her male co-stars, nonetheless, didn’t bother to analyze; they patently adored her. A doting Sinatra called her “Gracie” and poured on the charm, leading Chuck to privately refer to them as “Beauty and the Beast.” Crosby, victorious beau in the High Society love triangle, called Grace “kind, considerate, and friendly with everyone.”

[. . .]

 

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Walters demonstrates playful posturing for an amused Grace Kelly, High Society (1956). Photograph in author’s collection.

High Society’s biggest hit, however, came in the Crosby-Kelly ballad “True Love.” Practically a lullaby, the song required simple direction, and critic Douglas McVay later praised Walters’s “talent for musical naturalism,” adding, “This sequence (significantly not present in The Philadelphia Story), in which the newly-married couple quietly and blissfully duet . . . on board their yacht of that name, invests the love between Tracy and her former husband with a sense of physical truth, and thus makes their movements towards reconciliation in the rest of the film equally credible. . . . [The duet] emerges as one of the most persuasive illustrations of the power of song (or dance) to convey sexual passion and affection more intensely than any exchange of spoken words or fervent embraces can do.”

 

Holm recalled: “[Grace] had a very dear contralto— lovely and totally appropriate. She

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Sinatra and Grace Kelly are guided through a High Society dance rehearsal (1956). Courtesy the Cinema-Television Library, USC.

made no effort to sound like a professional singer.  On the day she was to [record] with Bing, we all hung about to hear them.” After receiving his disc from the session, Porter wrote to Metro conductor Johnny Green, “I can’t tell you how surprised I am at the singing of Miss Grace Kelly.” The public was in agreement, and sales of the “True Love” single earned Kelly her first and only gold record. “My brother,” she later said, “once made a very unbrotherly remark by saying that he thought my voice on a golden record was one of the ‘modern miracles.’ But I was very delighted about it.”  “True Love” later won a Best Song Oscar nomination, and MGM joined with Porter’s press agent to lobby hard for a win. When Doris Day’s chart-topping “Que Sera, Sera” took home the prize, the agent received a succinct cable of defeat from Porter that read: “Whatever will be, will be.”

 

Dreaming up staging possibilities for “Jazz,” “Millionaire,” and “True Love” proved unproblematic, yet Chuck ran adrift with “You’re Sensational,” a seduction song for Sinatra to woo Kelly. “I couldn’t think what to do,” he admitted. “[Then] I woke up in the middle of the night and thought, ‘Just a minute. [Frank and Grace are] getting an awful lot of money, individually and collectively. I’m going to make them do the work.’ ” The next day he showed up for rehearsal with a simple directive: “Go with it, dears.” When his stars became too artificial in their actions, he offered one final piece of advice: “Play it like a scene.” With that, the performers acted— and aced— the Porter lyric, with Sinatra, lustful and lost, melded to Kelly’s mute response. Her radiant mix of yearning and uncertainty enchanted Walters, who said, “I thought she was marvelous.”

[. . .]

“[Grace] invited me to lunch,” she begins, along with the royals [Prince Rainier III and his father, the Duke of Valentinois], Schary, and Chuck, “who had a tendency to be enchantingly obscene.” The luncheon was given in the paneled executive dining room, which at MGM was considered a bit of a joke; it only seated eight. “So we were all sitting at the table, and I can’t imagine who would have been dumb enough to have said, ‘How big is Monaco?’ But somebody did. Well, there was a pause, and I think the Prince gave him the area in feet. Dore laughed and said, ‘Why, that’s not even as big as our back lot.’ Now that was just bad manners!” An awkward, uncomfortable silence came over the luncheon, until Holm smartly stuck a fork in her steak and propelled it across the table. “While everybody was busy getting straightened out over that,” she concludes, “I changed the subject. Nobody knew that I’d done that on purpose.”

[. . .]

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Chatting with Louis Armstrong, High Society (1956). Courtesy the Cinema-Television Library, USC.

[High Society would be Kelly’s last film performance before she became Princess consort of Monaco.]

Kelly became Her Serene Highness the Princess of Monaco on April 19, impeccably gowned by High Society designer Helen Rose. The press dubbed the event “The Wedding of the Century.” Even MGM couldn’t buy such publicity, although the August 1 world premiere at the RKO Pantages Theater in Los Angeles was carefully orchestrated pandemonium. Shouting street crowds were showered by flower petals, and the floral display was a convenient distraction from the fact that none of the film’s stars were in attendance. (Crosby was relaxing at his ranch, Sinatra and Holm were in New York, and Kelly was away playing princess.) To compensate, George Murphy presented Porter with a civic citation, Bob Hope kidded Crosby’s no-show, and Walters’s former stars Ann Miller and Debbie Reynolds represented the home studio. Ever recalcitrant, Chuck later admitted, “I wasn’t going to go to the premiere either, [until] my dear friend Earl Blackwell of Celebrity Service phoned Ginger Rogers and told her to call me. She told me to get my tuxedo out of mothballs, get a limousine, and come pick her up. And I enjoyed it. I was like a kid in a bathtub: it was hell to get me in, but once you did, I didn’t want to get out.”

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