It’s never a good idea to stick your foot through a Rembrandt.
Each age, each generation, tries to reinterpret certain classic plays. Part of the joy of living in a metropolitan area is going to see how different actors and directors approach certain plays, using them to reflect their individual times and circumstances. Take Hamlet. Between stage and film I’ve seen at least half a dozen different productions of Hamlet, probably more, some of the filmed versions multiple times, and I regret that I never had an opportunity to view others that have been done over the years, notably David Warner’s, which got sensational reviews half a century ago. Even lesser, more contemporary plays by lesser, more contemporary playwrights are fun to go see for the second or third or fourth time, if the original script was good enough to merit reinterpretation and the director and actors are good enough to handle the material. Noel Coward would be a good example: Between Broadway, repertory, and summer stock, I’ve probably seen half a dozen productions of Private Lives, for example, and with a competent company, I’d happily go see another half dozen. Laughter is good for one’s health and for one’s immortal soul.
So why is the same not true of movies? When a movie is a classic, the worst thing anyone can do is try to top it. Who would be fool enough to imagine he could do a remake of Gone with the Wind?
(I probably shouldn’t have dared to ask that question; some arrogant jackass in a multi-million-dollar studio office might pick up on my cosmic consciousness and try to make a cable television version, or adapt it somehow to a reality show. “Ah, don’t worry about the Civil War. Nobody remembers that stuff. We’ll set it in Syria, make it the Kurds against ISIS. It’ll be great. Of course, we’ll have to show a little more flesh with the girls, but we’ll make it work. We’ll give it a lot of special effects and more heart. We’ll film it IMAX 3D.”)
There are some exceptions. Occasionally, not often, the remake is better than the original. I happen to think the Cary Grant-Deborah Kerr version of An Affair to Remember is better than the original version, Love Affair, with Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne, even though both had the exact same script and both were written and directed by Leo McCarey. The 2000 TV version of The Man Who Came to Dinner, with Nathan Lane, Jean Smart, and Harriet Sansom Harris is, believe it or not, even better than the 1942 film with Monty Woolley, Ann Sheridan, and Bette Davis. To be fair, that’s not a completely fair comparison: the 1942 version of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s brilliant and wacky masterpiece was a real, filmed work, while the TV version was a film of a live performance, but—and here I’m teetering on the brink of apostasy—the performances in 2000 were better, and I’m including, even specifying, Harris over Davis.
But for the most part, it is not a good idea to stick your foot through a Rembrandt.
High Society is a musical version of The Philadelphia Story, which was a film adaptation of the Philip Barry play of the same name. On the face of it, this was probably a hell of an idea at the time. Think about it. You take a great original script and have it gracefully adapted by Pulitzer and Tony Award winner John Patrick; you get Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Louie Armstrong and his band; you have music and lyrics by Cole Porter; you have it directed by the great director and choreographer Charles Walters… Good Lord! It’s a no-brainer, an instant hit before you even start filming. How could it not be?
Well, maybe not.
It’s not bad; it really isn’t. It just can’t compare with the original, and that’s the primary problem with it: even at its best moments, it is overshadowed by the original.
Grace Kelly was the most exquisite thing ever to grace the screen, but as an actress, she can’t compare to Katherine Hepburn.
Frank Sinatra was a hell of a good actor, and had one of the greatest voices of all time, but he’s no Jimmy Stewart.
Bing Crosby was a great, suave, all-round entertainer, with a voice second only to Sinatra’s, and with charm and grace galore, but who in his right mind could ever hope to top Cary Grant when it comes to suavity and charm and grace?
Louis Armstrong. The best there ever was, the man about whose music Wynton Marsalis once said, “When life gets you down, Louie is always there to tell you everything is going to be okay,” about whom Bing Crosby said, “American music begins and ends with Louie Armstrong.” Louie Armstrong. When I die, I want his Strutting with Some Barbeque played at my funeral. But he’s wasted in this movie. He only appears three times, only one of those is less than superficial, even—by today’s standards, if not those of the pre-civil rights 1956 era—demeaning, and even that once he plays second fiddle to Bing Crosby.
(To give credit where credit is due, his presence in the movie, and his prominent billing were the result of Crosby’s insistence, just as a few years later Frank Sinatra would refuse to honor his contract with a Las Vegas hotel until Sammy Davis, Jr. was allowed to stay in the same hotel; a typical attitude of the time, when blacks were good enough to entertain, but not to share space with whites.)
By making it a musical, and allowing time for the songs, the original script had to be cut, and certain sequences were consequently lost. Remember Virginia Weidler as Dinah Lord singing “Lydia the Tattooed Lady?”
“She has eyes that folks adore so
And a torso even more so.”
That’s cut down to nothing to allow for songs that are, with the memorable exception of True Love and to a lesser extent, You’re Sensational, not at all memorable. Yes, the performances of those songs are spectacular, but other than True Love¸ can you whistle any other tune from that movie?
My bride, the never shy or diffident Darleen, called the first half flat, and I agree. It picks up in the second half, when Grace Kelly as a very drunk and subsequently very hung-over Tracy Lord seems less artificial than she does sober, and everyone seems to pick up the pace generally, but it never takes off as a vibrant and coherent whole in the way that The Philadelphia Story does from the get-go.
Is it bad? Is it a waste of time? No, but you’re far more likely to enjoy it if you’ve never seen the original.