Wednesday, January 6, 2010

What's in That Satchel?

You has Jazz. That's the difference.

Not the VistaVision color footage and Cole Porter sophistication of High Society versus the black-and-white semi-screwball comedy splendor of The Philadelphia Story. Not the sly, debonair savoir faire of Cary Grant versus the casual, age-weathered bonhomie of Bing Crosby. Not the full-color, extraordinary beauty of "slim" Grace Kelly (born and bred in Philly) versus the jagged, airy, "Mainline-ish" mischief of Katharine Hepburn (who starred in the original play on Broadway, a role written for her). And not the All-American, genial-jughead earnestness of Jimmy Stewart versus the sneery, cock-o'-the-walk brass of Frank Sinatra.

No, what separates High Society from that earlier and wonderful classic--and just maybe lifts High above it--is the addition of near- and actual Jazz, thanks some to the hipper side of pop masters Crosby and Sinatra, but most especially to the remarkable presence of Louis Armstrong and his band of All-Stars (featuring skinny trombonist Trummy Young). Director Charles Walters** had actually wanted to expand Louis' role to make him the Cupid behind the scenes, but the MGM front office refused; it was 1956 after all, and segregation still ruled. (Barrett Deems, the white drummer surrounded by black players, must have given their ulcers a twinge.) But Armstrong still functioned as a sort of Afro-Greek chorus, opening and closing the film, dropping wry comments occasionally: "There's a dark horse in this here race, and my boy's running a slow third."

Louis' remark pins the plot nicely. Gorgeous Grace Kelly, as aristocratic "Ice Princess" Tracy Samantha Lord, is about to marry a priggish, self-made citizen, but ex-husband Bing (bearing up under the high-falutin' monicker of C.K. Dexter Haven) and unwelcome wedding guest Sinatra are pursuing her too. Both movies as well as the original Philip Barry play concern the frantic last-day-and-some leading up to the wedding, and the efforts to "thaw out" the frozen maiden, awakening in her a sense of humility and forgiveness of human frailty (with any pent-up sexuality a side issue... which is somewhat ironic given all the whispered gossip about gamboling Grace). Various complications and subplots, like the wounded-by-love photographer played wittily by Celeste Holm (Ruth Hussey in the earlier film), add to the merriment and confusion.

Rather than try to better the original Story, the remake's plot wisely changed the location to the elegant mansions of Newport, R.I., tugging at the coattails of the first Newport Jazz Festival. The producers hired Cole Porter to provide clever songs and a sophisticated patina--then brought in Armstrong as add-on character "Satchelmouth" to lend musical credence and to pal around with Bing. Louis only got to sing two numbers, but they are the cream the cats were meowing for: the scene-setting "High Society Calypso" and a brilliant duet with Crosby, "Now You Has Jazz" (an uptempo update of the "Basin Street Blues"/"Birth of the Blues"-styled song).

Now think 1957... Racism rampant across the South. Trouble in Little Rock. "Jazz Ambassador" Satch unexpectedly calling Ike out on his failure to take Presidential action. The trumpeter's High Society role had been filmed some months earlier, and the movie had opened in later 1956 to mostly indifferent reviews. (A cynical observer could reduce the typical Society-vs-Story critical response to a couple of six-word sentences: "Should have remade a bed instead." And: "Like cows, some comedies are sacred.")

But Armstrong was a force of nature by then, the beloved entertainer supported by white folks even when he spoke out. Modern Jazz guys like Dizzy and Miles were taken by surprise since they'd been accusing Satch of "Tomming," condemning him for blithely entertaining his audiences and avoiding controversy. And just about then, too, came Louis' great first album of duets with Ella Fitzgerald (a Verve release), and the four-record Autobiography project on Decca reviving most of his old New Orleans numbers. Moreover, the movie-going audience ignored the naysayers and made High Society a financial success, discovering qualities the critics had missed.

Crosby/Dex, for example, sings beautifully, and separately, to his stubborn ex, "Sam" ("True Love" became a hit single) and her pesky young sister ("My Little One"), and essays a pleasantly sarcastic duet with carefully-inebriated Frank ("Well, Did You Evah?"), who otherwise romances Grace with songs and Jersey charm. Yet when compared to The Philadelphia Story the overall impression left by the newer film is of something lacking, some level of aristocratic torpor when measured against Cary Grant's wit and Stewart's eagerness and Hepburn's slow-burning anger and slowly awakening grace (so to speak). The laughs in Philadelphia pile up, and the variations on love become wholly believable. Stewart won his sole Academy Award for the film, while indomitable Katharine gained other accolades that revived her flagging career.

Still, in the end High Society has the piece that's missing from the earlier film: music, almost constantly present--Jazz music--and Louis Armstrong to put it across with a twinkle and a sparkling trumpet, some patented-by-Pops mugging and satchel-loads of gruff-voiced joy. From the opening, calypso-happy bus ride to Bing's mansion ("Man, dig that crazy rehearsal hall!"--answered by "Hey, Pops, how's the chops?"); to Louis and the guys jamming obbligato back-up music here and there (complete with his familiar, sweat-sopping handkerchief); to Crosby and Armstrong trading licks in that high-energy romp "defining" Jazz (Bing all finger-poppin' verbal, Satch blowing trumpet and scat-singing too):

"Well, you take some skins,
Jazz begins,
Then you add a bass--
Man, now we're gettin' someplace...

((the All-Stars get a turn to wail, each player named and soloing briefly; Louis goes last and then joins Bing to state that:))
"Believe it or not
(I do believe, I do indeed)
Frenchmen all
Prefer what they call
"Le Jazz Hot"...

((Bing swings the final verse:))
"From the East to the West,
From the coast to the coast,
Jazz is king
'Cause Jazz is the thing
The folks
((big instrumental finish))
Now, that's Jazz!"

And the fun continues right to the final scene, with the combo's last burst of New Orleans pizzazz suddenly jazzing up The Wedding March. Grace reacts, Bing shrugs sheepishly, and Satchelmouth quickly says, "End of sto-ray."

As should be apparent, pals Louis and Bing make for splendid foils throughout the film, with wiseguy outsider Frank languishing somewhat on the sidelines. Yet consider this: MGM managed to bring together in one film the three most important male vocalists of the early-to-mid Twentieth Century--and the three left Newport society, not to mention their regular fans, as high on the hijinx as Satch was on his muggles.

**This tale is repeated in Pops, Terry Teachout's recent big-success Armstrong bio, where Walters' name is mistakenly cited as "Walter." Meanwhile, Donald Spoto's craftily titled book, High Society: The Grace Kelly Story, also new, seems prudishly censored. The real story "still ain't half been told."

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