It's often the case that when 'serious' films with 'proper' stories are turned into musicals, they lose whatever substance or intelligence they had the first time round. It's an idea that can be supported by any number of musicals which have emerged in the early-21st century: musical versions of Shrek, Legally Blonde and Monty Python and the Holy Grail seem symptomatic of our culture's desperate need to recycle itself into more escapist, empty and fleeting forms.
The best thing to do at this juncture would be to pull out an effort from the 1950s, the golden age of Hollywood musicals, as an example that this trend has, at the very least, not always been the case. Unfortunately, this is not possible with High Society, one of the highest-grossing films of 1956. Charles Walters' remake of The Philadelphia Story successfully removes whatever substance or comic charm existed before. It still has some qualities of its own, but is ultimately a poor relation.
The first question is this: was a remake entirely necessary, beyond the obvious financial motivation? The remake doesn't really add anything new to the storyline, or put a new spin on the material by updating it. It doesn't even solve the central contrivance of the original, surrounding an ex-husband turning up at the wedding of his ex-wife, coinciding with the arrival of tabloid reporters. The original was notable for using this obvious plot device to get around the Hays Code, which prohibited the depiction of extra-marital affairs on screen. Without this context, High Society is exposed as a confection - there is no sensible reason for these characters to be interacting in this way.
It is possible to make a melodrama in which a woman has to choose between two or more paths in her life, symbolised by a couple of love interests. The most obvious example would be The Red Shoes, in which a ballet dancer has to choose between the artistic fulfilment of her director and the earthy compassion of her boyfriend composer. But equally you could point to the work of Douglas Sirk, particularly All That Heaven Allows, which served as the main inspiration for Todd Haynes' superb Far From Heaven ten years ago.
The big problem with High Society is that there is no subtext to anchor the central relationship. It's not that we need there to be subtext to enjoy the characters; the main theme of The Red Shoes isn't really brought to our attention until the climactic last twenty minutes. But when you have a cast of so many famous faces, we need something to believe that we aren't just watching a lot of stars enjoying themselves with no regard for the plot. There isn't the same level of contempt that is shown in The Millionairess, but the longer we spend in the company of Bing, Frank and Princess Grace, the less memorable the experience becomes.
Because the film is populated by famous people effectively playing themselves, we don't really believe in or care about any of the characters. The film quickly descends into a series of scenes of rich people either moaning, dancing, expressing regret or making fools of themselves. The natural charisma of Sinatra and Crosby, coupled with their obvious singing talent, means that we don't get quite so annoyed that we want to leave. But charm and affection in and of themselves are not enough to sustain what is already a rather frothy story. The only exception to this is the character of Caroline, Sam's younger sister played with great panache by child actor Lydia Reed. There is a real energy to her performance which is really lacking elsewhere, and she only gets 5 minutes of screen time at the beginning and end.
The lack of empathy we have for the characters is reinforced by the stagey direction. Walters began his career as a choreographer, and he does appear to be more interested in the dancing than anything else. The sets he uses on the film feature lots of big, open rooms with all the furniture spread out so that the cast can dance around them, and he relies too greatly on wide shots to capture the movement of the characters. The only close-ups we get, showing the characters' emotional shifts, are when the characters are standing still having drinks or gossiping in corners. The opening five minutes reinforce the stagey nature of the film: before the opening credits we get a fairly long overture with just a blue title card for company.
In defence of Walters, these kinds of conventions were present throughout 1950s Hollywood, and were down as much to the actors' preferences as those of the director. Many of the greatest stars of Hollywood musicals came from the stage, where performances were done 'in one take' and the show could not be stopped if any mistakes were made, lest the suspension of disbelief be broken. Gene Kelly famously insisted on restarting a dance routine from scratch whenever he made a mistake in any film he made. It may simply be that Walters was not as talented as someone like Michael Powell, either as a director or as an editor.
There are also a couple of redeeming features which prevent High Society from being entirely consigned to the dustbin of history. The musical score is pretty decent, providing a number of vaguely memorable set-pieces for the main stars. The film features Cole Porter's first film score in eight years, and a fair portion of the master's wit remains. 'What A Swell Party This Is' is a very fine duet, and a fitting way for two legends (Crosby and Sinatra) to cement their first screen appearance together. And 'Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?' is well-staged with inventive use of props for comic effect.
Any film which features Louis Armstrong can't be all that bad, and High Society benefits greatly from his presence. From our first encounter with his band, performing 'High Society Calypso' in the back of a bus, he lights up the screen whatever he's doing, and his jazz numbers with Crosby are very fine indeed. Armstrong and his band serve as a musical counterpart to the journalists, being vaguely impressed with the living standards of the idle rich, but also quick to roll their eyes at all their outlandishness and eccentricities.
The other redeeming factor for High Society is the odd moments of whimsy which punctuate the early stages, and which seem to have escaped from a completely different film. In one scene about 20 minutes in, Sinatra and his co-star Celeste Horn are greeted by the family for the first time. But instead of it being an awkward introduction, with Grace Kelly suppressing her fury at the tabloids covering her wedding, Sam and Caroline attempt to throw the reporters off the scent by pretending to be French. It's a really odd scene, coming across as a whimsical predecessor to the domestic mind-games of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
But although this little moment is rather fun, it hints more than ever at the central problem with High Society. Somewhere in amongst the bright colours, swirling dresses, cocktails and camera shutters, there is a smarter, weightier, more ambitious and more entertaining film trying to get out. The flaws with High Society demonstrate all the values of The Philadelphia Story as a piece of drama, showing how all the qualities of both the play and original film have been watered down and bowdlerised by Hollywood convention.
High Society is the very definition of tosh. It is riddled with flaws left, right and centre, but the flaws are not quite bad enough to get seriously annoyed about. Neither wholly bad nor perfectly passible, it is a bland, flimsy meringue of a film; without either the comic timing or cinematic quality of the original, it just sits on the screen for 111 minutes doing nothing in particular. Whatever the merits of individual scenes or songs, as a whole it really disappoints, leaving the traditionalists longing for the original and the radicals dying for the David Lynch version, otherwise known as Eraserhead.