Rhode Island and Philadelphia Stories

May 2, 2010 at 2:46 am (Classics, Movies, PBS) (, , , , )

A couple of weeks ago, Channel 13 aired High Society, the musical remake of The Philadelphia Story; tonight, funnily enough, they aired The Philadelphia Story.  (Next week: Gaslight, and I’m psyched.)

High Society – 1956 – was the last film made by Grace Kelly before she became Princess Grace.  She starred as Tracy Samantha Lord; Bing Crosby was C.K. Dexter Haven, Frank Sinatra was Macauley “Mike” Connor, and Celeste Holm was Liz Imbrie.  Apparently the studio wanted to combine it with another story, so the location was moved to Rhode Island (hence, in part at least, the name change), and the magnificent Louis Armstrong and his band played themselves as friends of Dext.  The musical numbers added were by Cole Porter, and, woven into the story with the making of CKDH into a musician and songwriter (to accommodate being played by Bing Crosby) and the insertion of a jazz festival – were frothy and fun – which pretty much describes the whole film.  Grace Kelly was stunning to watch, exquisite as always and exquisitely perfect for the role – she even sang quite nicely, and that musical number flashback was a lovely addition to the story.  I had a jaundiced outlook when it started, but I enjoyed it.

Oh, but I missed so many moments from the original.  I missed Mike yelling “C.K. Dexter Haven!  Oh, C.K. Dexter Haaaaven!”  I missed “Lydia the Tattooed Lady”, though Lydia Reed fought against my wish for it and did a wonderful job as Dinah (Caroline in High Society?  Or am I looking at the wrong person?).  Most of all, I missed “hearthfires and holocausts”.

And, overall, where High Society was very good, there’s no doubt but that Philadelphia Story was great.  I’m fond of Bing Crosby – but Cary Grant was peerless.  I never much liked Frank Sinatra, and was pleasantly surprised by how well I liked him in HS – but Jimmy Stewart leaves him in the dust.  I’d give Ruth Hussey and Celeste Holm a photo finish as Liz Imbrie – both were lovely.  And while Grace Kelly couldn’t not be perfect, the part was tailored for Katharine Hepburn.  Grace Kelly was an ice maiden; Katharine Hepburn brought the bronze goddess to life.

I’d forgotten how much more depth PS had than HS – from C.K. Dexter Haven having worked with brother Junius to more background for George Kittredge to the machinations and downfall of the magazine publisher.  (Instead of the blackmail-the-blackmailer sequence, HS had “Well, Did You Evah” – which was very nearly as good.  Not quite, but nearly -)

And there was more between Tracy and Mike, which made it more reasonable for them to fall suddenly, violently, alcoholically in love.

But it was primarily the dialogue that made the difference. The acting, yes, but that may have been partly because the script was watered down somewhat for the musical. One of my favorite pieces of writing in any venue – and not because of my first name:

What do you want?
You’re wonderful. There’s a magnificence in you, Tracy.
Now l’m getting self-conscious.

A magnificence that comes out of your eyes and your voice…in the way you stand there, in the way you walk. You’re lit from within, Tracy. You’ve got fires banked down in you…hearth fires and holocausts!
l don’t seem to you made of bronze?
No. You’re made out of flesh and blood. That’s the blank, unholy surprise of it. You’re the golden girl, Tracy… full of life and warmth and delight.   What goes on? You’ve got tears in your eyes.
Shut up. Shut up. Oh, Mike, keep talking. Keep talking. Talk, will you?
No, no, l’ve– l’ve stopped.

Which is here.

Slightly before this is another gem:

Your intolerance infuriates me!  l should think that, of all people, a writer would need tolerance.  The fact is you’ll never, you can’t be, a first-rate writer or a first-rate human being, until you’ve learned to have some small regard for human fra – – (Tracy stops abruptly as she realized where she’s heard these words recently) Aren’t the geraniums pretty, Professor?

Every character has his or her own private life – Liz Imbrie with Joe Smith that she never told about, and her patient forbearance with Mike; Mike’s ineffectual desire to go off and just write short stories like he thinks he’s supposed to do, and the way his back goes right up when Tracy, delighted at the idea, offers him that house she never uses.  They all have a past, a present deeper than we see, and a future – between the acting and the writing they’re real.  (And yet only Jimmy Stewart won an Oscar; Katharine Hepburn and Ruth Hussey were nominated – what about Cary Grant?  Oh, right – he never won an Oscar.  At all.)

And of course, another of my favorite moments in any movie, from a completely different part of the spectrum:

Lydia, oh, Lydia
Say, have you met Lydia
Oh, Lydia
the TAttooed lady
She has eyes
that folks adore so
And a torso even more so

On her back
is the battle of Waterloo
Beside it the wreck
of the Hesperus too
And proudly above
waves the red, white
And blooooo
You can learn a lot from Lydia!


Here’s to Virginia Weidler.


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