20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1916)

Deep dive into Verne

Breathtaking in its pioneering use of underwater photography, this silent two-hour feature is a globetrotting epic of action adventure, romance and comedy, and though contains some problematic elements, it’s an early high water mark in Hollywood spectacle, an impressive early entry into the canon of Jules Verne adaptations, and by far the biggest box office success of its year of release.

The novel

An adaptation of not one, but two major works of the man often referred to as the ‘Father of science fiction’, 20,000 Leagues combines elements of two of Verne’s novels, namely 1871’s adventure, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, and 1875’s semi-sequel, The Mysterious Island, bringing together the twin adventures of Verne’s most celebrated creation, the mercurial billionaire genius inventor and subaquatic explorer, Captain Nemo.

From this rich material we experience a tale of rape, murder, child abuse, kidnap, and betrayals. Plus there are fistfights, a sea battle, a colonial uprising, a reconciliation of long lost family members, as well as ghosts, devils, and real live sharks.

For those not overly familiar with the source material, 20,000 Leagues is set in 1866, and sees Professor Aronnax and two male companions kidnapped by a middle aged and vigorous Nemo, who takes his captives sailing around the globe in his technologically advanced submarine, The Nautilus. Meanwhile The Mysterious Island is set during the US Civil War (1861-1865) sees a group of Union prisoners escape by hot air balloon to the titular Pacific Ocean island, where an elderly and dying Nemo secretly assists their survival and only reveals his presence at the end of the novel.

The Professor & niece

When it came to adapting this material for his 1916 production, for the sake of cinematic expediency, Verne’s appallingly contradictory timeframe is rightfully given the old heave-ho by Scottish director and screenwriter Stuart Paton, who sensibly also jettisons much of the ballast of Verne’s ponderous scientific explanations, and in true Hollywood fashion introduces female characters to provide romance and intrigue to Verne’s nearly all-male world.

Paton also introduces female characters such as Aronnax’s adult niece, who replaces the manservant Conseil as one of Aronnax’s companions, and on the Mysterious Island there is a young woman wearing a leopard print dress, who replaces the male castaway of the novel. Although Aronnax’s niece plays little part in the film, the female castaway ‘A Child of Nature’ as she’s billed, is central to the story. And yes, though much of what she does is invented by Paton, there’s no denying it’s an exuberant and captivating performance by actress Jane Gail.

Paton’s script cuts back and forth between the parallel stories of Aronnax on The Nautilus, and the escaped balloonists, eventually bringing the plot-lines together in a terrifically staged finale before ending on a note of poignant dignity which I suspect Verne would approve. This is a great example of how to ruthlessly hack an unwieldy source material into a platform for great cinema.

Child of nature, right

Typical of the era, the Asian characters of Nemo and ‘A Child of Nature’ are played in brownface, a now rightfully discredited technique. Yet A Child of Nature’s inclusion allows for an inter-racial Caucasian-Asian romance between her and a balloonist, which is quite the something in a film released the year after D. W. Griffith’s infamously racist, The Birth of a Nation.

This romance doesn’t occur in Verne, and is possibly inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which features a crew of shipwrecked men encountering a beautiful girl and her wizard father on a desert island. Nemo is explicably described as a ‘wizard’, and also deals with issues of colonialism and race.

On another note, the romance as portrayed may not be interpreted as such as by a modern audience, there’s no explicit kissing for example. However if we the audience are expected and required to interpret two rape scenes as rape scenes, and not ‘just’ assaults, then we’re similarly beholden to interpret their flirtatious behaviour in scenes as romantic and sexual in intent.

Neb, right

However the film is less kind to the balloonist, Neb, Verne’s sole Black character in these books. Treated with jaw-dropping racism in the novel, The Mysterious Island, this film introduces Neb only to quickly cut him from the film. This happens so alarmingly abruptly I first assumed the copy of the film I was watching was missing a reel.

However Neb’s very noticeably absent from an important scene at the end where the cast are brought together. We can only speculate what happened to poor Neb, and why he ended up so ruthlessly dispatched to the cutting room floor. The treatment of Neb and the casting of Nemo in subsequent adaptations is something I’ll address in another post.

Nemo himself stands alongside Sherlock Holmes as a great example of a literary character whose cultural existence has a life beyond his creator, and who’s longevity in the popular consciousness relies far more on countless and varied media interpretations for fame than for people reading the books. Many more people will be familiar with their names than will have ever read the source material.

Featured in graphic novels, cartoons and now in video games, such the 2015 Japanese mobile game Fate/Grand Order, Nemo’s been portrayed by Russian, Egyptian, Czech, and Puerto Rican actors, as well as by Indian and Pakistani ones. And it’s in The Mysterious Island, not the more famous 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, that Verne reveals Nemo is an Indian Prince whose wife and child was murdered by the British during the historical Indian Rebellion of 1857, also known as The First War of Independence.

Nemo

It transpires Nemo is really Prince Dakkar, son of the Hindu raja of Bundelkhand, and a descendant of the Muslim Sultan Fateh Ali Khan Tipu of the Kingdom of Mysore. When Verne was writing The British Empire and the Third French Republic were competing for global superiority, and painting the British as the villains would no doubt be a winning strategy for the French writer, and not damage his sales either at home or in the US, a country often celebrated and the source of heroic characters in Verne’s work.

In 1914 when filming of this version of Nemo began production, the world had changed again, with The Great War, as The First World War was then known, was beginning in earnest. And here Nemo’s story is fudged considerably by Paton, who removes some historical context and shifts the blame away from the British.

The map showing India

We learn instead that Nemo’s life in aquatic exile aboard The Nautilus began after he was falsely accused of inciting a rebellion in the unnamed Asian country of his birth, one under colonial rule by an unnamed European. A map on the wall in one scene indicates it is indeed India. However the military uniforms appear more generically European, perhaps French or German than British. It’s possible all Europe colonialism looks the same to Americans. I’m not an expert in military uniform and perhaps the costume department had a surfeit of those costumes readily available.

Nemo’s tragic backstory role in the rebellion is relegated by Verne to a couple of paragraphs, however here it’s portrayed in flashback at the end of the film, with the rebellion allowing for some impressive sets and crowded battle scenes. Rather than being purpose built the sets look suspiciously as if they were borrowed from another production, but they add to the sense of spectacle and allow for a fittingly huge finale.

Williamson bros.

Despite readers of The Mysterious Island being familiar with Nemo’s origin story, interestingly, and presumably for publicity purposes, a title card claims Prince Daakar’s {sic} tragic story has never been told by Verne. The author died in 1905 and so wasn’t available to dispute the claim.

The title cards are fascinating in themselves. The first grandly proclaims this to be ‘The First Submarine Photoplay Ever Filmed’ which is catnip to fans of submarine films such as myself, as well as making this film hugely significant in the realms of special effects and cinematography.

Jules Verne

The second tells us it was directed by Stuart Paton and photographed by Eugene Gaudio, then the third card states the submarine photography was possible by using the inventions of the Williamson brothers, who ‘alone have solved the secret of under-the-ocean photography’ and we’re introduced to the Ernest and George Williamson themselves, who smilingly doff their hats for us. They can be justly proud of their work. And then we’re shown a still photograph of Verne himself, a shame he wasn’t around to see himself honoured so. Imagine if JRR Tolkien had been so honoured by Peter Jackson in his magnificent 2001-2003 Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The shark hunt

There’s a strong commitment to exterior location filming, and the underwater work is phenomenal. An astonishing underwater shark hunting trip is executed with the type of contemporary disregard for health and safety associated with the worst excesses of Cecil B. DeMille, which makes for a very exciting watch.

This undersea footage was shot in the Bahamas where Walt Disney 38 years later shot his 1954 James Mason-starring version of 20,000 Leagues, and for the same reasons, a great deal of natural light and very clear water.

In 1916, underwater cameras weren’t used to shoot the underwater scenes staged in shallow sunlit waters, but the Williamson brothers used a system of watertight tubes and mirrors to allow the camera to shoot reflected images of the scenes as they took place.

The exterior of The Nautilus looks very close to how Verne described it, a very smooth cylindrical hull with a wooden platform on top for the crew to stand on. Whether in or on the water, it’s these scenes that make the film such a joy.

According to IMDB.com, 20,000 Leagues was produced at the unadjusted eye-watering cost of $500,000 by The Universal Film Manufacturing Company, a precursor to todays Universal Pictures. And it took a staggering $8million at the box office, comfortably outgrossing the second biggest hit of the year which could only scrape together $2.18million, thank you and goodnight, D. W. Griffith’s non-apology of an historical epic, Intolerance.

For the pioneering underwater photography which captures Verne’s love of technological innovation, this is madly impressive. When added to it being respectful and faithful to the source while offering spectacle, romance, comedy and action adventure, this sets an extraordinarily high bar that many of the subsequent adaptations of Verne fail to reach.

Love classic sci-fi? Check out my website HERE

Read my review of Disney’s fabulous 1954 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, HERE

You can read my review of 1929’s The Mysterious Island, HERE

You can read my review of the 1941 Russian adaptation of The Mysterious Island, HERE

My review of 1951’s Mysterious Island, is HERE

You can read my review of 1961’s Mysterious Island, HERE

And you can read my review of 1967’s The Stolen Airship, HERE

And my review of 1973’s version HERE

@ChrisHunneysett

IN THE HEIGHTS

A scorching summer of cinema is guaranteed as this dazzling big screen adaptation of the smash Broadway musical dances into auditoriums to raise your spirits as well as the roof.

An electrical blackout on the hottest day of the year sees temperatures and tensions in New York reach boiling point in the predominantly non-white New York district of Washington Heights during a sweltering summer.

Played by supremely talented, wonderfully charismatic and unapologetically photogenic leads of Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, we follow their young adult characters as they juggle romance and careers.

While they struggle against social pressures and differing ambitions, their tight-knit local neighbourhood community is threatened by rising rents and gentrification, leading them to question their identity and futures.

Bursting with joy and optimism, it’s an emotional 21st century spin on 1961 classic West Side Story, which mines the same issues of racial tension and tolerance, but with a far more upbeat and positive finale which will have you crying, laughing and more than likely dancing in the aisles by the end.

Directed by Jon M. Chu with extraordinary pizzazz who previously made 2018’s smash hit romcom Crazy Rich Asians, it’s based on the stage musical of the same name by the gifted pairing of Quiara Alegria Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda.

The latter appears in a small role, and previously wrote and starred in the award-winning Broadway show, Hamilton, as well as writing songs for Disney’s 2016 animated hit Moana, and starring in 2018’s Mary Poppins Returns, where he played the cheerful cockney lampie, Jack. And as ever the outrageously talented all-rounder is more than happy to let others take the spotlight.

Raucous open air dance routines, which take place in the street, in swimming pools, in basketball courts and in nightclubs, and are performed with acrobatic and passionate exuberance and skill, and nod to classic Hollywood artistes such as Fred Astaire and Busby Berkeley.

However it’s also mercifully nostalgia free and is always forward looking, with its focus on the importance of passing a ladder down to the next generation, so they too have the opportunity to build a better future. This is a vision of the American Dream which values and emphasises a strong community is essential for allowing the individual to flourish.

The upbeat toe-tapping songs are irresistible, with my favourite being the powerfully anthemic ‘Blackout’, a metaphor for the neighbourhood’s frustration and determination.

An outright and welcome condemnation of the outrageous myth of the lazy immigrant, In The Heights argues hope is key, love exists in small gestures, and the key to driving society upwards is for individuals to have a stake in that society. Plus it stresses the importance of positive role models and representation in media, and politics.

Charting the changing face of the US, In The Heights celebrates the astonishing variety of the human race, and had it been released in the summer of 2020 as originally planned, it may have been considered a boldly provocative statement to the then US president whose immigration policies it resolutely refutes. Now it feels a celebration of positivity and better times ahead.

In The Heights is romantic as hell with dance numbers which burn up the floor, and providing a perfectly executed all-singing-and-dancing antidote to a profoundly difficult year, there’s no better excuse to visit your local cinema.

Love classic sci-fi? Check out my website HERE

Read my review of Disney’s fabulous 1954 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, HERE

High Society and me. A musical true love

A frothy and glossy escapist musical romantic comedy of 1956, High Society is a terrific example of the ability of filmmakers from Hollywood’s golden age to draw on existing material and fashion a sparkling fresh and brilliant entertainment.

It can also be understood as a great example of producer power, was a commercial and critical hit, and was nominated for two Oscars in the musical categories.

Employing irresistible star wattage of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Grace Kelly and Louis Armstrong, the timeless tunes of Cole Porter and fabulous costume design of Helen Rose, it’s unmistakably the product of MGM, the studio which made the best musicals of the era, including 1951’s An American In Paris, and 1952’s Singin’ In The Rain.

Using a well established dramatic structure, and drawing on elements of American literature, it was produced as the post-war US consensus was being supplanted by the dawn of the teenager as a social phenomenon, and the film’s struggle to wrestle with the real world are all too evident. High Society is politically reactionary and has no sense of itself as herald to the end of the jazz age in which its stars and genre were mired, and sadly for lovers of the studio’s defining genre, High Society is the last great hurrah of the MGM musical.

I absolutely love it.

Kelly, Crosby, Sinatra, & Holm

Based on 1944’s Oscar winning comedy The Philadelphia Story, itself an adaptation of a Broadway play, High Society glides through its 111 minute running time in bubbles of glamour, charm and wit, as we watch a pair of tabloid journalists covering the upcoming high society wedding of a spoilt socialite who’s being courted by three different men.

Bringing four leads together all of whom were previous Oscar winners, Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Celeste Holm engage in song, dance, and repartee as they resolve various romantic entanglements over the course of one night and two days in a mansion in the wealthy enclave of Newport, Rhode Island, the high society of the title.

Crosby heads the romantic leads as C. K. Dexter Haven, a wealthy composer who lives next door to his ex, Tracy Samantha Lord, played by Grace Kelly. Meanwhile Frank Sinatra and Celeste Holme are the down at heel muckraking journalists, Mike Connor and Liz Imbrie, who arrive to cover the wedding for their magazine.

When Crosby isn’t singing, he strolls about in cardigans or black tie, and though it’s not a performance of great range or energy, he delivers his popular brand of avuncular charm, is given a veneer of cool by his association with musicians of the calibre of Armstrong, and is offered some reflected glamour by the glittering star power of Kelly, best known at this point for her work with Alfred Hitchcock.

Kelly

Kelly is perfectly cast in her last Hollywood appearance before abandoning Los Angeles for life in Monaco. Whether in slacks or a ball gown, the luminous Kelly sweeps all before her in a series of gorgeous costumes, including a far from revealing but indecently sexy swim suit.

Plus she delivers a terrifically accomplished performance in the mould of screwball-era Katharine Hepburn, and whether being deliberately over the top, drunk, angry or playful, Kelly can wordlessly make us aware of what she’s thinking, in the manner of another Hitchcock blonde, Ingrid Bergman.

Presumably the casting call asked for an actress less attractive than Kelly to play the second female lead. On this showing that would be every other woman in the world at the time. Which is hugely unfortunate for the wonderfully droll Celeste Holm, who’s teamed up with Sinatra in my favourite big screen performance of his.

Sinatra plays well with Holm, and he’s either smart enough to allow her space to shine, or possibly barely able to keep up with her, and Holme brings a level of dignity and self-awareness lacking in other characters. But Holm was repeatedly ill-served by Hollywood, and after High Society she didn’t make another film for five years.

Elsewhere Lydia Reed is winningly confident and sparky alongside Kelly as her young sister Caroline Lord, and John Lund plays George Kittredge, the culturally barren, nouveau rich cattle baron who’s Tracy’s intended beau.

Playing himself, Louis Armstrong is an invitee performer at a jazz festival Crosby’s character is holding on his estate, a plot device which allows Armstrong to pal about with Crosby and duet together on the number ‘Now You Have Jazz‘, which is supposedly – but clearly isn’t – filmed in front of a wealthy white festival crowd.

Jazz musician Louis Armstrong is granted not inconsiderable screen time, performs three songs and is granted the first and last words. This is fitting for his screen ‘character’ is a Greek chorus to the comedy, a dramatic device used by later musicals such as 1972’s Cabaret, 1975’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and 1978’s Grease.
I could write an entire post about radio broadcasters in movies acting as a Greek chorus by starting with 1979’s The Warriors and taking it from there.

Acting as a Greek chorus to the story, introducing the setting and then commenting on events as they unfold, as well as being a character in the story, Armstrong is mostly at one remove from the narrative and he could be excised from the film entirely without his absence changing the story.

In contrast to the previous year’s drama, Blackboard Jungle, the film which made a star of future Oscar winner Sidney Poitier, High Society’s principal black star is clearly at times not on same set at the same time to white actors and has to be edited into scenes in which he is ostensibly a part.

Check out the final scene (from 2.27mins) where although nominally in the same scene, he never shares screen time with Grace Kelly. Armstrong is included but never incorporated.

A generous reading of Armstrong’s separation from the main narrative would be to suggest his performing and recording scheduling conflicts prevented a deeper integration in the narrative. A less charitable reading would be the studio were wary if not frightened of too much interaction of a black character with white ones, and Armstrong’s certainly not allowed to interact with the white female cast members in any way. And good luck spotting a black female actor.

Crosby & Armstrong performing ‘Now You Has Jazz

It’s important to recognise High Society was released in 1956, and although the segregation of public schools had been declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954, it was many years before this decision was universally implemented. Other laws of segregation weren’t overruled until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

With race being the defining political fault line of the US, High Society wants to exploit Armstrong’s cache as a long established and popular crossover artiste by contributing his jazz bona fides to the soundtrack and bringing his own fanbase to the films audience, but his role suggests a nervousness on behalf of the filmmakers who had to sell the film in a US market place.

MGM had at the time previous form with being vary of the controversial subject of race. The studio’s 1951 version of Show Boat notably tones down any ‘controversial’ racial elements compared to previous cinematic adaptions of the stage show on which it’s based.

However in theme and plot the film enforces existing racial boundaries. As one might expect of a mainstream entertainment which recognises social division in its title, maintenance of the status quo is a key theme of the film.

The script was written by a playwright John Patrick who’d previously written the NBC radio series Streamlined Shakespeare, and there’s a strong influence of Shakespeare scattered through the script – more of which later – so Armstrong’s narrator role may well have been included in the earliest draft. If so then casting Armstrong as the Chorus could be read as a deliberate act of segregation rather than a creative solution to a scheduling issue.

Patrick doesn’t steer away from the plot of the original film adaptation or the stage play which preceded it, but adding the Chorus – which Shakespeare used in Henry V for example – the audience to be guided into the heightened and otherworldly setting of High Society, as if leading us into a magical forest of one of Shakespeare’s arboreal comedies, one populated by the fairy Kings and Queens such as found in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, perhaps.

The Chorus is a visitor to this world of wealth and definitely not of or from it, a point underlined by Armstrong’s casting, and the musician’s persona can also be read as ‘blue collar’ and so acts as surrogate for all those in the audience not born to wealth. The film wants us to be amused by the superficiality of the Lord’s family behaviour and regard them with a mocking if warm detachment, and having the Chorus played by Armstrong helps to underline the idea the wealthy do things differently to the rest of us, they are apart, they are ‘other’.

This is story is about maintaining society’s status quo, keeping the high safe and separate in their gilded mansions and the rest of us, well, anywhere else. There is to be no storming of the barricades here, no tearing down of social division, but a determined raising of the drawbridge. This is a piece of high end comfort cinema, lavishly dressed with great tunes. If you want social conflict and a conscience, check out the Poitier flick instead.

Fitting the Shakespearean comic pattern there are two central couples, and all four must gain insight into themselves to find happiness with the correct person, and ‘correct’ is defined as with one whom not only shares a social standing, but also the person who reinforces the rigidly defined social divisions. The rich and the poor have their place, and are happier when the rigid social hierarchy is maintained.

We’re safe in assuming the family name at the top of this society is ‘Lord‘ is deliberately in keeping with Shakespeare’s habit of nominative determinism.

Taking place in a gilded world of enormous drawing rooms, private pools and a butler who offer visitors the south parlour as a waiting room, the film can feel as distinct from reality and as gloriously make-believe as a fairytale, a feeling underlined the magical appearance of a secret mechanical private bar from a book-lined wall.

Gatecrashing this magical realm are two journalists – rude mechanicals in Shakespeare terms – who cast a wry and cynical eye over the fabulous wealth the residents seem to treat with barely a second thought. And though they are drawn to it, they realise they are and cannot ever be part of it. Mike Connor’s brief fling with Tracy is comparable with the encounter between Bottom and Titania the Queen of the Fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That Sinatra is playing Mike, comparable with the idiot turned donkey, Bottom, is surely am unacknowledged joke at the actor’s expense by the film’s producer. More of him, later.

This is a fantasy which asks us to engage and sympathise with a wealthy white upper class family as they negotiate concurrent romantic entanglements. And the softening of the cynical stance of a pair of muckraking journalistic interlopers encourage us to find sympathy in ourselves for this madly wealthy household rather than maintaining or hardening of our critical stance.

The head of the Lord household has placed his ‘kingdom in a state of chaos due to his latest extra-marital affair, a scandalous fling with a ballerina, and in doing so has become estranged from his daughter, Tracy.
Peace and order will only be brought to the kingdom when father and daughter are reconciled, which will only happen when she choses the correct romantic partner and comes to understand her parent’s worldview, making her fit to succeed her father in due course.

Father knows best, especially where his daughters love life is concerned, is a thoroughly 1950’s attitude.
This is also a coming of age tale, and if Sidney Blackmer as patriarch Seth Lord isn’t given a huge amount of screen time as the stern but loving father who uses his own discretions to teach his daughter about the adult world, it’s their reconciliation which signals the end of the movie. And the curtain comes down with a pleasing and impressive speed which some modern day filmmakers could learn from.

Like Ayesha, the white queen of H. Rider Haggard’s 1887 adventure novel, ‘She’, Tracy’s power seems only to exist as long as she remains in her own world, and the suggestion is if John Lund’s character, the cattle baron George Kittredge, is successful in his courtship of Tracy and takes her away, then she will become ordinary, a mortal being almost. Much is made of George’s wanting to put Tracy on a pedestal and adore her.

One thing the wealthy do differently to the rest of us is put on a music festival in their home. Crosby plays a composer whose house is full of musicians. And the life of Tracy Lord is full of the arts. She and her sister dance, sing, and play piano. They have no regard, interest or knowledge in the ordinary or everyday.

In part George Kittredge is a poor fit not because he’s self-made – Crosby’s character is only second generation wealthy – but because he values commerce above art.

Cole Porter’s fabulous songs have endured even more successfully than the film itself and have achieved a life of their own beyond the confines of cinema. ‘True Love‘ was Oscar nominated for best song but lost out to ‘Que Sera, Sera’ from Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. Some of them have been successfully re-recorded by later generations, such as ‘Well, Did You Evah!‘, the film’s best song, which was originally written for 1939’s DuBarry Was a Lady, and latterly recorded by Debbie Harry and Iggy Pop as part of a HIV/AIDS benefit project.

Sinatra & Crosby performing ‘Well, Did You Evah!

Being the greatest lyricist of his generation, Porter was capable of writing lyrics reflecting the film’s sense of magic and otherworldliness. He drops in classical references such as ‘Circe‘ the Greek goddess in ‘Little One‘, while also referencing more contemporary concerns, such as uranium, in ‘Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?‘ And yes, the song did inspire the name of the popular TV quiz show. And ‘she got pinched in the Astor Bar‘ from ‘Well, Did You Evah!‘ is as sly and funny now as it was then, especially with Sinatra’s astutely comic phrasing.

Not all the songs have aged as well, ‘Now You Has Jazz‘ is a decent example of the form, but the lyric ‘Jazz is the king, jazz is the thing that folks love the most.‘ seems unduly optimistic as jazz was about to be swept off the pinnacle of popular culture by rock ‘n’ roll.

However that’s aged nowhere near as badly as the icky staging of the torch sing Crosby sings to Kelly’s screen sister, which summons up the spectre of child sexploitation rife at the time in the Studios, and should be shocking to a modern audience in the era of #MeToo. And were High Society be remade today it’s the song that wouldn’t make the cut. As highly problematic as it is, it sadly it fits in with other songs of the era, notably ‘Little Girls‘, from MGM’s 1958 musical, Gigi.

Director Charles Walters was a choreographer turned director who as as well as directing films for Ginger Rogers and Esther Williams, made 1948’s Easter Parade with Fred Astaire and Judy Garland, received a Best Director Oscar nomination for 1953’s Lili, and directed the Frank Sinatra and Debbie Reynolds 1955 comedy, The Tender Trap.
There’s no signature artistry, just the absence of ego of a professional going about his business. When your star is also your producer, there’s rarely opportunity to do anything other than what you’re told. Certainly there’s none of the daring brush with 3D technology of 1953’s Kiss Me, Kate, or Gene Kelly’s experimental dance and design found in 1951’s An American In Paris.

Cinematography Paul Vogel as an Oscar-wining studio veteran journeyman who went on to shoot George Pal’s 1960 sci-fi adaptation, The Time Machine. His shots are always well balanced and composed so the audience know who’s the most important person in the room. Characters are usually fairly static within the frame, making it all the more startling when Kelly or or her screen sister flurry across a room.

The best we can say of his camerawork is it’s efficient and economical, with occasional daring pans from left to right, and though the camera becomes more agile in the musical numbers, it’s movement generally reflects Crosby’s laid back performance style.

There are no big theatrical set pieces and even the big ballroom scene at Tracy’s hen party, a great excuse for a swirl of costumes if ever there was one, hints rather than shows a crowd. And the big song and dance during the hen party is set in a drawing room where Crosby and Sinatra hide away.

In fairness the number is the storming duet ‘Well, Did You Evah! and remains not only only my favourite song in the film, but also one of my favourites in the Hollywood musical canon. Even the one crowd scene at the festival during the number ‘Now You Has Jazz‘ seems an out-take from a different picture.

Ralph E. Winters editing style allows the performances to breathe and to hold the audience in the moment. This is in contrast to the more excitable contemporary and haphazard style seen, for example, in 2019’s musical monstrosity Cats.

High Society’s production budget was an unadjusted-for-inflation $2.7 million, and US box office was a healthy and profitable $8.2 million. This compares favourably with 1952’s Singin’ In The Rain which scored for $7.2 million on a budget of $2.5 million.

Holme & Sinatra performing ‘Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?

Distributed by MGM, High Society sits high in their pantheon of great musicals, but was a joint production between two production houses, Sol C. Siegel Productions, and Bing Crosby Productions. Presumably the first provided the finance and the latter the talent, with the whole concept intended as a vehicle for Crosby.

Appearing in cinemas two years after Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, and Brigadoon, High Society is notable for what its not doing that those prior films did. Due to Crosby’s limited dancing ability there’s no outrageously macho and colourful ballet such as the barn building dance in Seven Brides, or the muscular staging of a Gene Kelly number. In fact none of the leads or support are famed for dance skills, though Sinatra could hoof his way through a scene if required.

Although never upstaged Crosby is canny enough to let others have their time in the spotlight. However
there’s an unmissable line concerning how handsome he used to be, and by implication still is to a degree.
This doesn’t soften the achingly clear and embarrassing age and glamour gap between romantic leads Crosby and Kelly.

Crosby, 5′ 7″ & Kelly, 5′ 7″

Having an older male starring a younger female seems to remain every Hollywood producer’s dream pairing. And Crosby certainly isn’t immune to the fantasy. Crosby was 53 years old at the time, Kelly was 27.
Helen Rose’s costumes achieve their aim of making Kelly look divine.

Though the use of studio sets, projected backdrops and second unit location work with extras driving cars pretending to be the leads now look decidedly false, they were common practice and would have been accepted by audiences at the time.

Lacks the scale of non-MGM musicals which shortly followed, such as 1961’s West Side Story, or 1965’s The Sound of Music, which addressed the themes of social conflict and Nazism head on. Compared to those behemoths High Society is a frothy endeavour, with even Julie Andrews’ movie featuring a singing nun-turned-nanny who marries her rich boss, seem hard hitting.

The golden age of MGM musicals kicked off with Fred Astaire and Judy Garland in 1948’s Easter Parade, includes 1949’s On The Town, and you can argue amongst yourselves whether 1954’s An American in Paris is ‘better’ than 1952’s Singin’ In The Rain. I love both but always favour the latter for a rewatch as its joyous frivolity makes for the easiest of watches.

High Society saw the MGM studio declining as a creative force. It’s principal stars were ageing – by Hollywood standards – and cinema was threatened by the usual suspects such as the growth of TV, changing demographics and tastes, and the social creation of the teenage generation. But for a run of flamboyant escapist entertainment, the MGM golden age is hard to match.

MGM released ten musicals in 1948, then nine in 1951, and ten more in 1953. It released eight musicals in 1955, before High Society became one of four films released in 1956. There were five the following year, only one in 1960, none in 1961, and only five in total in the 1960s. There was one original musical in the 1970, and the anthology That’s Entertainment!, a showcase of MGM’s greatest hits and a great introduction to their musicals. Two more anthologies followed, though they were seen primarily a way of generating cash in the pre-home video era for MGM’s new owners.

Of two hundred MGM musicals listed on IMDB.com, High Society is number 177 by release date. The only ones of note which follow it are 1957’s Silk Stockings featuring Cyd Charisse, and 1958’s wildly problematical Gigi.

From the sense of other worldliness, images of ruined houses and the backdrop of fin de siècle, the ghosts of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 Jazz-age novel The Great Gatsby, are inescapable. The book was enjoying a renewed interest and re-evaluation and its influence is clear. It can be seen in Crosby’s character throwing not only an extravagant party in his house but an entire festival, one clearly designed to attract the attention of his beautiful soon-to-be-married-to-someone else next door neighbour. And he pointedly describes himself as inheriting the wealth of his bootlegger father, the same means by which Gatsby acquired his fortune.

Tracy holds her hen party in one of the many emptied decaying mansions which line the coast, a situation described in the novel, and it’s possible to imagine long after the credits roll, that the characters and otherworldly kingdom the movie conjures up continue to exist in their own magical bubble of reality quite separate from our mundane reality.

High Society celebrates its 75 years anniversary this year, and as I’ve yet to watch it on the big screen, maybe I’ll get lucky and it will find itself released back into cinemas to celebrate. What a swell party that would be.

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Read my review of Disney’s fabulous 1954 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, HERE