Higher and Higher (1943) Tim Whelan, Michèle Morgan, Jack Haley, Frank Sinatra, Comedy, Musical, Romance

Higher and Higher (1943)
With their employer bankrupt, servants scheme to marry maid Millie to a rich husband. But Frank Sinatra lives across the street…

Director: Tim Whelan
Cast: Michele Morgan, Jack Haley, Frank Sinatra, Leon Errol, Marcy McGuire, Victor Borge, Mary Wickes, Elisabeth Risdon, Barbara Hale, Mel Tormé, Paul Hartman, Grace Hartman, Dooley Wilson, Ivy Scott, Robert Anderson, Ralph Brooks, Tanis Chandler, Jack Chefe, Jay Eaton, Rex Evans, Edward Fielding, Jack Gargan, Buddy Gorman, Rita Gould, Louis Hightower, Daun Kennedy, King Kennedy, Perc Launders, Stanley Logan, Ola Lorraine

In Frank Sinatra’s first three films, he was purely a speciality act: ostensibly playing himself, he merely shows up to croon a song during a nightclub sequence in somebody else’s movie. In his fourth film, the very enjoyable ‘Higher and Higher’, Young Blue Eyes transitions into an acting career by playing an actual role … a task made easier because he’s playing himself in a fictional story that gives him a chance to croon a few numbers.

Sinatra’s entrance is quite funny. Michele Morgan hears a knock at the door, and asks who’s there. From outside, a Hoboken-toned voice answers ‘Frank Sinatra’. Sure enough…

The opening credits of ‘Higher and Higher’ may confuse some viewers, as the names of songwriters Rodgers and Hart are prominently displayed. In fact, they only contributed one song to this musical: ‘Disgustingly Rich’, which this cast manage to toss off as a sort of intro to an entirely different song, ‘I’m a Debutante’. Interestingly, that Rodgers & Hart song – one of their weakest – is perhaps the least enjoyable song in this movie’s score; several others are lively up-tempo numbers, notably ‘It’s a Most Important Affair’, ‘When It Comes to Love, You’re On Your Own’ and ‘I Saw You First’.

Sinatra’s good in this movie, but he would do better work (and sing better material) elsewhere. The real merits of ‘Higher and Higher’ are the delightful turns by some performers who rarely made films. Paul and Grace Hartman were an extremely popular husband-wife dance team who starred in several Broadway revues: genuinely graceful ballroom dancers, they put plenty of physical comedy into their dance material. (Here, Grace does a high kick that knocks a shoe out of Paul’s hands.) Grace Hartman, who died of cancer at age 48, did almost no film work, so it’s a real pleasure that this film gives us a rare chance to see her close-up, to hear her beautiful singing voice and to notice how sexy she looks in her maid’s uniform. After Grace Hartman’s death, her husband had a long career as a character actor, just occasionally dancing solo. (Or alongside Ken Berry in one memorable episode of ‘Mayberry RFD’.)

Also quite attractive in a maid’s uniform here in ‘Higher and Higher’ is the vivacious teenage singer Marcy McGuire. Why didn’t this talented girl make more movies? Perhaps she was just a bit too similar in personality to Betty Hutton. I enjoy Hutton’s performances but I like Marcy McGuire even better. Near the end of ‘Higher and Higher’ there’s an amusing bit of physical business featuring McGuire and Mary Wickes as waitresses, taking it in turns to move from table to table in a nightclub. The alternating strides of short McGuire and tall gawky Wickes are hilarious! Regrettably, although Leon Errol plays a large role in ‘Higher and Higher’, he is given almost no comedy business: not once does he do his famous rubber-legged dance. Jack Haley, despite his prominent billing, is also wasted.

Very well-represented here is Dooley Wilson, inevitably remembered as Sam from ‘Casablanca’. In that film, Wilson did his own singing but faked his keyboard performance of ‘As Time Goes By’. (In real life, Wilson couldn’t play piano.) Here in ‘Higher and Higher’, he sings pleasingly and gives some amusing reactions to the other players. Less enjoyable is Mel Odious, I mean Mel Torme. Victor Borge gives a rare film performance here, handling his dialogue deftly but never doing any of the keyboard comedy which he later did successfully in his stage shows.

The plot? Forget it. ‘Higher and Higher’ is nobody’s idea of a ‘great’ musical, but it’s an enjoyable delight, and I’ll rate it 8 out of 10. Director Tim Whelan, who worked in Britain as well as in Hollywood, deserves to be much better known.
~ F Gwynplaine MacIntyre

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DVD5 | VIDEO_TS | NTSC | 4.1Gb
Audio: English AC3 2.0 @ 192 Kbps | Subtitles: English (SDH), French
01:30:00 | USA | Comedy, Musical, Romance

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