Flickchart Road Trip: Rhode Island
Welcome to the latest installment of Flickchart Road Trip, in which I’m starting in Los Angeles and “driving” across country, watching one movie from each state and posting about it once a week. The new movie I watch will go up against five movies from that state I’ve already seen, chosen from five distinct spots on my own Flickchart. Although I won’t tell you where the new movie actually lands in my chart (I don’t like to add new movies until I’ve had a month to think about them), I’ll let you know how it fared among the five I’ve chosen. Thanks for riding shotgun!
I’m hitting New England at just the right time of the year: It’s warm, but the truly muggy and gross weather is still a few weeks off. Of course, I’ve also still got a few weeks of New England left, so we’ll get to the humid weather I’m sure. Right now, though, I’m reveling in the fact that I’m not home in Los Angeles, where they tell me that June Gloom (a semi-permanent haze that afflicts the region during the month of June) has arrived once again, liked clockwork.
Seems like the perfect weather for doing the Cliff Walk in Newport, Rhode Island. Rhode Island is my latest stop on my trek up I-95, and I shouldn’t gloss over the fact that I lived here once. From December of 1996 to July of 1998 I served as a reporter and interim news editor for The Barrington Times, one of four weekly newspapers in the east bay of the state, together comprising a company called East Bay Newspapers. While I of course focused my efforts on the wealthy town of Barrington, my reporting took me throughout the region, and I lived in nearby Providence. This was, in fact, the first time I lived all by myself, if you don’t count my junior year in college when I was an RA. They were memorably feckless years. I visited friends in Providence and Boston (only an hour up the road), I played a bunch of tennis, and I generally reveled in a carefree post-collegiate lifestyle. Of course, being a reporter for a newspaper means you are never truly free of cares. There’s always another deadline approaching. However, they certainly feel like carefree years now, looking back at a distance of 15 years.
One area where I didn’t spend all that much time was Newport, where four of my six Rhode Island movies are set. In fact, I can only really recall going there once — inexcusable, really, with how small the state is, and how much Newport has to offer (in the way of bars and restaurants as well). As I teased in the last paragraph, they have this thing called the Cliff Walk, which allows regular folks like you and me to walk along a public path and gaze in wonder at the extravagant mansions that dot Newport’s eastern shoreline. It’s about 3.5 miles long, two-thirds of which are an easy walk, the other third of which involves scrambling across rocks and having the right shoes (which I did that day). The skies were a little gray in anticipation of some approaching rain later in the week, but it was otherwise a great day for the experience. In case you’re wondering, it looked something like this:
My main Rhode Island movie came into existence about 20 years before the Cliff Walk opened in 1975, but the walk really whetted my appetite for it nonetheless. It’s the 1956 MGM musical High Society, directed by Charles Walters and starring some of the most luminous singers and other musicians of their era, not to mention one beautiful movie star on the verge of becoming a princess. All that earns it a global ranking of #2373 among Flickcharters.
What it’s about
It’s the wedding weekend of Newport socialite and divorcee Tracy Lord (Grace Kelly), but it’s not going to be any easy trip down the aisle. For one, her ex-husband Dexter Haven (Bing Crosby) has deliberately scheduled a jazz festival featuring Louis Armstrong and his band for the same weekend — and has made it clear that he still has feelings for his ex. Secondly, Spy magazine has blackmailed the Lords into covering Tracy’s nuptials by threatening to release damaging material about her father, and has sent reporter Mike Connor (Frank Sinatra) and photographer Liz Imbrie (Celeste Holm) to make Tracy’s private moments public for the world to see. Lastly and most problematically, it’s unclear whether Tracy actually loves her dullard husband-to-be, George Kittridge (John Lund), leaving her affections up for grabs between Dexter and Mike. If the wedding actually goes off, it’ll be a minor miracle.
How it uses the state
The opening helicopter shot is of the beautiful coastal mansions of Newport, accompanied by Satchmo’s song “High Society Calypso,” which starts with the following lyrics: “Just dig that scenery floatin’ by/We’re now approaching Newport Rhode I.” Neither Newport nor Rhode Island really needs to be referenced again after this perfect table setting, though there are a couple more Newport references. When Tracy and Mike go on a tour of Newport in Tracy’s convertible, there’s also plenty of what I would assume is legitimate Rhode Island background playing behind them on the 1950s version of a green screen.
What it’s up against
Before we get to my thoughts on the film, let’s duel it against five other Rhode Island movies I’ve already seen, shall we? As you know if you’ve ever added a film to Flickchart using the “By Title” feature, the new movie goes up first against the movie in the exact middle of your rankings. The outcome of that duel determines whether it faces the film at the 75th percentile or the 25th percentile, and so on, until it reaches its exact right place. With five movies, that means at least two and as many as three duels. Here are the films High Society will battle:
1) Dumb and Dumber (1994, Peter & Bobby Farrelly). My Flickchart: #36/3540. Global: #742. Many of Dumb and Dumber‘s classic scenes may take place in Aspen (Colorado, not California), but I’ve got plenty of candidates for the best movie of Colorado, and not so many for the best of Rhode Island. Every road trip starts somewhere, and Providence is where Lloyd Christmas (Jim Carrey) and Harry Dunne (Jeff Daniels) begin the epic journey that gave us one of the most lovably dimwitted comedies the world has ever known — as well as giving Rhode Island’s own Farrelly brothers a career that’s still going strong 20 years later. Even Carrey haters and viewers who typically don’t embrace bathroom humor had to admit that there’s something sublime about this movie. “Hey, what was all that ‘one in a million’ talk?” It may just have been referring to Dumb and Dumber itself.
2) Reversal of Fortune (1990, Barbet Schroeder). My Flickchart: #433/3540. Global: #1688. Long before there was O.J. Simpson, there was Claus von Bulow, whose crimes were limited to attempted murder of his wife, Sonny, by means of insulin overdose in their Newport mansion. The incident kicked off the same type of media circus trial, which is documented in exceptional fashion in Reversal of Fortune. Jeremy Irons is unforgettable as Claus, while the film’s other main character is not Sonny (Glenn Close) but attorney Alan Dershowitz (Ron Silver), who defended Claus in exchange for Claus agreeing to fund his defense of two black teenagers in a separate case. The way the film balances these two very different worlds is one of the thrills of this three-time Oscar nominee, which won the statue for Irons.
3) Outside Providence (1999, Michael Corrente). My Flickchart: #1794/3540. Global: #4730. Rhode Island filmmaker Michael Corrente threatened to take my last spot on this list with his problematic film adaptation of David Mamet‘s play American Buffalo, which would have also given a taste of the blue collar character of the state. However, the way things shook out, he made out better with my #3 movie, which is kind of a post-teen stoner comedy/coming of age story that also features one of the first full-on comic performances from Alec Baldwin (if you don’t count Beetlejuice). Does it sound like I’m stalling? Okay, I don’t remember Outside Providence all that well — but I do remember it fondly. The Pawtucket-set film takes place in the early 1970s, and is actually based on Peter Farrelly’s autobiographical novel.
4) Evening (2007, Lajos Koltai). My Flickchart: #2455/3540. Global: #27586. In the weepy tradition of female-centric movies like Beaches, Fried Green Tomatoes and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, along came Evening, set in gorgeous coastal Newport of the 1950s. Like most sturdy entries in this genre born out of chick lit, it also partly takes place in present day. The flashback portion features a sudsy romance/melodrama between Claire Danes and Hugh Dancy; the modern portion, old age and regret among Meryl Streep, Toni Collette, Natasha Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave. It’s fairly standard stuff, but it does benefit from stunning scenery, and the cinematography to match.
5) Dan in Real Life (2007, Peter Hedges). My Flickchart: #3470/3540. Global: #2885. I’m not sure whether I laughed harder over my #1 Rhode Island movie or my #5. However, this represents the crucial difference between the phrases “laughing with” and “laughing at.” I expected a bland but otherwise fairly harmless family dramedy from Dan in Real Life, but what I got was one uproarious miscalculation after another. Space prevents me from listing them here, but let’s just say I was astounded by the overall falsity of this Newport family reunion between Dan (Steve Carell) and his incredibly extended family. Dan’s bizarre interactions with his love interest (Juliette Binoche) are downright painful to watch, and most of the rest of it just feels awkward.
First duel: High Society vs. Outside Providence. Pawtucket is a bit lower society than Newport … and I’m okay with that. Outside Providence wins.
Second duel: High Society vs. Evening. If fancy Newport and fancy Newport have a fight, fancy Newport will win. High Society wins.
High Society finishes fourth out of the six movies.
There’s a famous story among my friends about my experience watching the pilot episode of Smallville with my former roommate, back in October of 2001. After about 20 minutes of him getting perceptibly more agitated on the couch next to me, he finally complained, “This is such a ripoff of Superman.” I turned to look at him to see if he was serious. He was. I said “Dude, it’s a Superman show.” He had no idea Smallville was a retelling of that tale and broke into hysterical laughter.
That’s a bit how I felt while watching High Society. I haven’t seen George Cukor‘s The Philadelphia Story in about eight years, so the similarities did not immediately strike me, but at some point in the second act (probably at the point of the all-night party before Grace Kelly’s wedding), I started to think that High Society was as much a ripoff of The Philadelphia Story as Smallville was of Superman. When I finally removed the DVD from my player and looked at the Netflix sleeve, I realized that duh — it was an update of The Philadelphia Story with Cole Porter songs, and two of the greatest crooners of the 20th century. (In truth, both are versions of the same play, Philip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story.) In fact, one of the chief reasons that this (clearly inferior) version of that play is as fun to watch as it ends up being is that it allows us to spend plenty of time with the golden throats of Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. As if that weren’t enough, Louis Armstrong and his band make more than a cameo appearance, showing up several times and even singing alongside Crosby at one point. Audiences at the time must have been blinded by so much star power all in one place, with Kelly only adding to the glow; in fact, this film contains so many celebrities that it relegates the wonderful Celeste Holm to about fifth banana.
It’s a bit flat, though, especially when compared to Cukor’s transcendent 1940 film. There’s nothing that distinguishes it as a cinematic work of art, which is not all that surprising, given that it was a studio musical from the 1950s shot almost exclusively on a backlot. One point of interest I found as I was watching it, though, was that I was genuinely uncertain whether Kelly would end up with Sinatra or Crosby — especially since I didn’t recognize it as an actual version of The Philadelphia Story. The story makes an equally good (or bad) case for each of them — bad, I suppose, because Kelly herself is a bit of a mess, and doesn’t show much deference to the man she’s supposed to be marrying. (Even if he doesn’t suit her, she did agree to marry the guy.) So that aspect of the plot kept me in suspense, even during some of the duller patches between Crosby’s and Sinatra’s interpretations of Porter’s lively songs. As an interesting footnote, this was Kelly’s last film performance before she retired into a life as the princess consort of Monaco.
I’m coming home. Massachusetts is where I spent the first 18 years of my life, and where I’ll be spending the next week. For no good reason other than that it’s a movie I’ve been wanting to see, I’ll be watching John Wells‘ 2010 film The Company Men, which does at least feature fellow Bostonian Ben Affleck.