High Society is grossly inferior in style, acting, direction - in almost every department - to its source, the sparkling 1941 comedy The Philadephia Story. Yet it's still one of my favourite Hollywood musicals.
As a movie, the original is still way ahead. The Philadelphia Story was deftly scripted, and acted with blissful panache by its then-headline cast of Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart.
When Hollywood enlisted Cole Porter to come up with songs for the 1956 musical version, Grace Kelly took Katharine's part, Bing Crosby took Cary Grant's place (as if!) and Frank Sinatra tried to step into Jimmy Stewart's shoes.
The songs work brilliantly; this is one of the best scores of the period. The film itself? Well, it totally lacks the witty pungency of the original. And it needlessly tones down the plot, destroying key characterisation in the process.
In the original, Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn) has divorced her husband C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) because he is an alcoholic. She is now going to wed a grossly inferior being, so inferior no-one can remember the actor's name - he is just a cypher. A gossip magazine writer in Mick Connor (Jimmy Stewart) and his photographer buddy/sweetheart, Liz (Ruth Hussey), are along to photograph the nuptials... and a reformed, now-teetotal Dexter Haven is on hand, ready to win back Tracy's hand.
In the musical remake, Tracy has left hubby not because of his alcoholism, but because he's a popular songwriter. It just doesn't make the same sort of sense. The Jimmy Stewart reporter character is now played by Frank Sinatra, who really swings when he sings, but who's left his acting skills in the hotel room. Liz is now played by Celeste Holm, a favourite actress of mine, who unfortunately is just too old for this role.
Bing Crosby is plain and boring. Frank Sinatra lacks all the multi-dimensionality of Jimmy Stewart, who in the original was a reporter who was secretly a serious short-story writer and aspiring novelist, and a romantic to boot. Grace looks superb, but doesn't have the sheer bravura of Katharine Hepburn. It's only in the musical numbers that this film really takes off.
But then it really does take off, starting from the opening scene, as a bus winds its way into the wealthy Newport seaside resort town, bringing in Louis Armstrong and his band to headline the very first Newport Jazz Festival. Louis, in this and his other appearances, steals the film - he is the epitome of relaxed jazz, swinging with the freedom that he always found after having a couple of his favourite muggles. Muggles aren't a J K Rowling thing... that was Louis's special name for his favourite pre-gig herbal cigarettes. Big fat ones.
In his acting scenes, Bing is boring. But he's another person when it comes to crooning, and his numbers are also free and easy winners. And his big number with Frank Sinatra, Well, Did You Ever, is truly historic, as the old groaner acknowledged the new - although by then, Frank too was being supplanted in the pop stakes by the even newer rock 'n' roll.
But High Society has one thing the original lacked - the genius of Cole Porter. And in the end, that one thing is enough to justify having this on DVD.
Watch The Philadelphia Story first to get the basic plot firmly established. Then move through High Society via the menu, navigating from song to song. Then it will make sense. And you really will have the best of both worlds - the perfect acting, and the music as the fillip at the end.
Unfortunately, we have been given a PAL release instead of gaining a clone of the US NTSC DVD. This is strange, given that this is a Warners release, and Warners are increasingly going down the NTSC route. This disc is in most other respects virtually a copy of the US NTSC issue - almost the same, except for losing a couple of extra features and being delivered in an Amaray package instead of a snapper-case.
By now, NTSC should be the Australian standard for issue of musically-oriented DVDs, so that the musical content could be presented in perfect pitch. But the end-result is acceptable; I thought I noticed pitch problems for only a few moments during the feature. I don't have perfect pitch though, and someone with that advantage might find the listening experience a bit too painful to tolerate.
Other than that, the re-engineered 5.1 soundtrack is just fine, with the sort of great presence Cole Porter deserves.