High Society (1956)
High Society is a musical version of The Philadelphia Story (1941), which was based on a 1939 play by Philip Barry. He wrote it with Katharine Hepburn in mind, which was great timing for the actress. In 1938, Hepburn was labeled “box office poison” because her last few films had flopped. For more on that, head over to Bringing Up Baby (1938) or Holiday (1938).
Since Hepburn’s film career wasn’t going well, she bought out her contract with RKO and went back to the stage to star in Barry’s play. Fortunately for her, The Philadelphia Story was a hit!
But even after a successful stage run, Hepburn knew that she might not get to star in the film version of The Philadelphia Story because of her recent movie misfortunes. So when her admirer Howard Hughes bought the film rights to the play and gave them to her as a gift, she accepted. Then she sold the rights to MGM on the condition that she star in the movie and get veto power over the major behind-the-scenes and onscreen talent.
The Philadelphia Story was a popular and critical success and erased Hepburn’s reputation as box office poison. James Stewart won a Best Actor Oscar for his performance, and the film garnered several nominations including Best Picture, George Cukor for Best Director, Hepburn for Best Actress, and Ruth Hussey for Best Supporting Actress.
It’s not surprising then that MGM decided to produce a remake fifteen years later. This time, The Philadelphia Story became a musical with a score by Cole Porter and performances by Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra.
Grace Kelly, who had recently won a Best Actress Oscar for 1954’s The Country Girl, (which also starred Crosby,) was cast as Tracy Lord, the part that Hepburn made famous. Kelly, like Hepburn, was from an upper-class family, and she uses her Mid-Atlantic accent and patrician bearing to great effect in this movie.
When she made this movie, Kelly had just hit another big milestone in her life besides the Oscar. She’d met Prince Rainier of Monaco at the Cannes Film Festival in the spring of 1955, and he proposed that December. They announced their engagement on January 5, 1956, and they were married in April, which also marked her retirement from movies. She was 26.
Prince Rainier’s courtship of Grace Kelly didn’t escape MGM’s notice, and before High Society they cast her as a princess-to-be in a movie called The Swan (1956) to capitalize on the real life fairy tale.
That film was shot in the fall of 1955, and production ended just before the Prince proposed that December. That was great news for MGM, who held off releasing The Swan until April 1956 to correspond with Kelly’s wedding.
Fun fact: MGM claimed that The Swan and Kelly’s real-life relationship with the Prince were coincidences, but “Any resemblance between MGM’s Ruritanian romance and the much publicized real-life fairy-tale marriage was anything but coincidental, despite the studio’s ludicrous token denial.”
Kelly started production on High Society in mid-January 1956, about a month after The Swan wrapped and shortly after announcing her engagement to the Prince. It was to be Kelly’s last movie, and the only film that she made when she was engaged. In fact, she used her own enormous, 10.5 carat, Cartier engagement ring in the film. (I like to imagine the prop and costume people going through the studio’s collection to find an appropriately massive ring, and then Kelly waltzing in and saying, “Thanks, but I’ve got this covered.”)
This was the first film starring Sinatra and Crosby, and it is also noteworthy as the first film scored by Cole Porter since 1949’s Adam’s Rib. Porter wrote eight new songs for the movie, and the film was nominated for Best Musical Score and Best Song for “True Love,” a duet between Crosby and Kelly that became a popular hit.
To the film! The Philadelphia Story was set in–you guessed it!–Philadelphia, but High Society moves the action to Newport, RI, mostly to take advantage of the Newport Jazz Festival, which had started in 1954. (And is still going!)
This gives Louis Armstrong and his band a great reason to be there, and offers Tracy another reason to be mad at her ex-husband. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The movie starts with Armstrong and his bandmates in a bus driving by the palatial estates of Newport. As they cruise along, Armstrong sings “High Society,” which is sort of a preview of the film. The song ends when they pull up at C.K. Dexter-Haven’s mansion (a Biltmore-esque behemoth). Armstrong announces to the camera: “End of song, beginning of story.” He appears frequently throughout the movie, both as a musician and as a jazzy version of a Greek chorus commenting on the action. You can watch the opening scene here.
Fun fact: although this was the first time that his six-man band had appeared onscreen, Armstrong had been in movies since the 1930s, usually as himself.
C.K. Dexter-Haven (Bing Crosby) warmly welcomes the band to his home. We learn that Dexter is a songwriter and a good pal of Armstrong, and he has offered the Jazz Festival his house as a rehearsal space. He’s doing this to be helpful, but also because he knows that his ex-wife, Tracy, is getting married the next day at her family’s estate next door, and the jazz floating from his house will drive her crazy.
The interiors in this film are wild. This is Dexter’s front hall:
This film was shot in VistaVision, a widescreen format that gives us beautiful images of the lavish sets in this film. VistaVision was first used in Paramount’s White Christmas (1954), which also starred Crosby. Instead of using anamorphic processes as CinemaScope did, VistaVision was created by running 35mm film horizontally, which made a huge, wide image with higher resolution than other formats. For more, visit this great website on 1950s widescreen formats.
Caroline isn’t a fan of her big sister nor Tracy’s soon-to-be-husband, mostly because she adores Dexter and can’t believe that Tracy divorced him. Caroline tells her mother that Tracy is “hard,” but her mom disagrees and says that Tracy is just “exceptionally strong-minded.” Interesting.
Then the “strong-minded” Tracy (Grace Kelly) joins the party. She is furious to find a picture of Dexter hidden with her wedding gifts. Caroline keeps sneaking it in. It’s a pretty good prank.
This scene is packed with exposition. We learn that Tracy and Caroline’s father, Seth, has recently run off with a chorus girl (or a talented ballet dancer, depending on who you ask), and Tracy can’t forgive him. He’s not invited to her wedding, and she has encouraged her mother to divorce him. But her mom still loves him and doesn’t want to cut ties just yet.
In the midst of this discussion, the strains of a song called “Samantha,” played by Louis Armstrong’s band, drift across the garden separating Dexter’s house from the Lord’s. Dexter wrote “Samantha” for Tracy (it’s her middle name), when they were married, so Tracy hates it. She stalks across the lawn to tell him to stop, and we get a great look at her super-classy beige outfit punctuated by red espadrilles and a matching scarf elegantly draped from her pants pocket.
Helen Rose designed the costumes for this movie, and she does an amazing job. Just wait for the gowns!
We learn in this confrontation that Tracy hates Dexter’s “popular” songs because she wanted him to be a “serious” composer or maybe a diplomat–something distinguished and important. But instead he is a “jukebox hero,” which isn’t good enough for Tracy Lord.
Dexter claims that she expected him to be perfect, and that whenever he messed up she was disappointed and angry instead of being understanding. But he still loves her, and he tells her so. This makes her furious so she runs back to her own estate. It’s convenient but also irritating that they live next door to each other.
After Tracy storms off, Caroline runs over to talk to Dexter. She has a crush on him, and he jokes that he is waiting for her to grow up before he gets married again. This segues into sort of a creepy but also sweet (?) song called “Little One.” It’s odd.
Meanwhile, Tracy’s mother gets a phone call from Uncle Willie (Louis Calhern). He has been contacted by Spy magazine to broker an unsavory deal on behalf of the family. Spy is threatening to publish an unflattering article about Seth’s affair with the dancer unless the Lord’s give a reporter and photographer access to Tracy’s wedding. Basically, Spy is blackmailing the family.
Mrs. Lord knows that Tracy will hate having her wedding splashed on the pages of this tawdry magazine, but she feels that they have no choice. She agrees to let Spy send their “spies.”
Into this mix comes George Kittredge (John Lund), Tracy’s fiancé. He’s pompous and dull and works for Mr. Lord’s coal company. But Tracy seems pretty into him.
Fun fact: this movie was shot on MGM’s backlot, just as The Philadelphia Story was. In fact, High Society re-used a few locations from the earlier film, including the brick “Lord Home,” which was originally built for The Philadelphia Story. It is used as the Lord house in High Society in a few brief scenes, though the somewhat grander “Southern Mansion” set was also utilized as the family home.
The “Formal Garden and Cohn Park” on the backlot was used as “estate grounds,” and we see part of them when George arrives. (This information comes from a great book called MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot by Steven Bingen, Stephen X. Sylvester, and Michael Troyan.)
While George changes for lunch (he’s always off changing his clothes in this movie), Mrs. Lord tells Tracy about Spy magazine. “Serves him right,” she says about her father and the threatened article. But then she realizes that it would hurt her mother, too, so she reluctantly agrees to give Spy an exclusive about her wedding. But I’m distracted from their conversation by the Degas ballet dancer painting in the dining room.
Towards the end of the conversation, an evil gleam comes into Tracy’s eyes, and she starts muttering things like “I’ll give them a story, alright.” Caroline eavesdrops outside the door, and it seems that the sisters are going to collude on some mischief.
Soon the Spy reporter, Mike Connor (Frank Sinatra), and photographer, Liz Imbrie (Celeste Holm), arrive at the Lord mansion. Two things to know about them: they’re a couple and they’re not members of the upper class. So they’re already inclined to think that the Lords are a bunch of useless, haughty blue-bloods. Caroline and Tracy play into that stereotype brilliantly.
First Caroline appears in pearls and toe shoes. She speaks fancy but garbled French and explains that her “early childhood was spent in Paris.” Then she belts out a fake-French version of “Little One” on the piano. It’s horrifying.
But that’s nothing compared to Tracy, who twirls into the room in a frothy blue dress carrying a broad-brimmed hat full of flowers. She does her best Marie Antoinette impression, speaking to Caroline in rapid French before diagnosing her with scarlet fever and sending her away to “Mama.”
It’s ludicrous and quite different from the way that the sisters normally behave. But that’s the point. Tracy knows that Mike and Liz think she is a silly, brainless debutante, so she is going to act like one. Once Caroline is gone, Tracy turns her attention to the strangers.
Then she turns all of her artificial charm on the intruders. She babbles in an exaggerated upper class accent, checks out her reflection in the cigarette case, constantly adjusts her dress as though she is sitting for a portrait, and says ridiculous things like “I adore strangers!” And when a flustered Mike introduces himself as Michael and then amends it with “My friends call me Mike,” Tracy answers soothingly, “Ahh, of whom you have many, I’m sure.” She plays the part perfectly, and it’s a very amusing scene.
But Tracy slides some jabs in there along with her dizzy nonsense. For example, Mrs. Lord joins them and compliments Liz on her hair. Tracy has a snide response disguised beneath her exaggerated politeness:
You can watch Caroline and Tracy’s masterful mischief here:
Here is Kelly between takes of this scene:
Mike and Liz keep asking about Tracy’s father and trying to schedule a time to get a family photograph. It’s awkward, since he’s not invited to the wedding. But apparently his affair isn’t public yet, so that’s good.
But all the Seth Lord questions give Tracy an idea. When Uncle Willie shows up for lunch, she greets him as “Papa.” And everyone else plays along, including Dexter, who has invited himself over for pre-lunch cocktails on the patio.
Things get even more uncomfortable when Liz asks Tracy to pose for photos between her first and second husbands. It’s a bold request, but everyone appears to get along so well! Tracy is livid, but Dexter is having a marvelous time.
After Liz captures these moments and get some photos of Uncle Willie as “Mr. Lord,” Tracy “accidentally” pushes Liz’s camera off of the bar cart. Well played, Tracy. Well played.
He became a reliable filmmaker for the studio with films like Easter Parade (1948), Summer Stock (1950), The Tender Trap (1955), and The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964). He also directed my favorite star Esther Williams in Texas Carnival (1950), Dangerous When Wet (1953) and Easy to Love (1953).
Besides directing the film, Walters also choreographed the dance scenes in High Society, so we will see him again.
Back to the film! Chaos ensues when the real Seth Lord shows up for lunch. Tracy is furious that he is there, but she is forced to be nice and pretend that he is Uncle Willie. Everyone goes along with that lie, too.
After lunch, Liz and Mike wander into the wedding gifts room where all of the sparkling loot is on display. (As I discussed in my History Through Hollywood: Love, it was quite typical for weddings to happen at home, and for weddings gifts to be displayed like this, especially in wealthier families.)
It’s quite a fun number. You can watch it here.
Meanwhile, Tracy decides to take a swim before the party that evening. But her peaceful prettiness is interrupted by Dexter, who emerges from the bushes to give her a wedding gift. They insult each other some more: he tells her that when she married him two years ago she wanted a high priest to worship her as a virgin goddess, not a husband. Her Grecian robe doesn’t help her case.
She thinks he’s being ridiculous. But Dexter keeps poking and tells her that she demands too much perfection from herself and those around her. “You’d be a wonderful woman if you just let your tiara slip a little,” he says. She tries to be haughty and aloof, but it just seems to prove his point. Here they are filming the scene:
When he leaves, she opens the gift to find a model of the True Love, Dexter’s boat. It’s incredibly inappropriate as a wedding gift because she and Dexter spent their honeymoon on the True Love. But the gift seems to work just as Dexter intended, because Tracy nostalgically watches the boat float on the pool which cues the flashback!
Their honeymoon was wonderful, relaxed, and very happy, with plenty of time for duets. We watch one that happens to share the name of the boat. What are the odds?
Fun fact: this was the first time that Grace Kelly sang in a movie. The recording of Crosby and Kelly’s “True Love” would become a hit single and went to #4 on the charts. It was her first gold record, and Crosby’s 21st. As I mentioned earlier, the song was also nominated for an Oscar, but lost to “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)” sung by Doris Day in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).
Another fun fact: Grace Kelly and Bing Crosby reportedly dated on and off during her years in Hollywood, and after making this movie, Crosby named his fishing boat True Love. Hmm… You can watch the scene here:
Tracy is brought back to the present by George who arrives with champagne. She turns to him for comfort after Dexter’s insults, but instead he praises her for exactly the same things that Dexter claimed were weaknesses.
He says that there is a “wonderful purity” about her, like a “statue.” And he is excited to put her on a pedestal where she belongs. She says that she wants love, not worship, but he brushes aside the difference.
It’s very confusing for her. So she slugs back a glass of champagne (in a coupe glass, not a flute! Visit this post for more on that) when George runs off to change (yet again.)
But the fun’s not over for Tracy. Her father and mother stop by the pool, and naturally Tracy and her dad start arguing. She’s disgusted by his presence, and he claims to be bummed out at how unforgiving she is.
He tells her that “she has everything it takes to make a wonderful women except an understanding heart,” which echoes Dexter’s criticism.
Tracy is having a rough afternoon! But she sure looks glamorous in her Grecian Goddess outfit and suit. It’s especially lovely against all those teal accents at the pool set.
After those three uncomfortable encounters at the pool, Tracy downs some more champagne and takes Mike for a ride in her silvery Mercedes convertible. Apparently drunk driving was not a concern?
Tracy takes Mike on a tour of the “graveyard” of the super-rich—the once grand estates that are now being turned into boarding schools or given away for taxes. I think maybe we’re supposed to feel sympathy for these people who can no longer afford to live in their enormous cliffside homes? But it falls flat, unless one is a fervent fan of Downton Abbey.
You can watch the scene here, and here are the two mega-stars between takes:
They make their way to Uncle Willie’s house, which is being turned into a boy’s school next year. But that evening it will be the scene of a black tie fete in honor of Tracy and George.
Tracy strides into the library after greeting all of the staff by name (perhaps to increase our sympathy for the downtrodden rich?) She removes her Technicolor dream coat and pushes the secret button in the bookcase so that a full bar slides out from the shelves.
It’s time for another song! Now that Tracy is being her “real” self and has dropped the ditzy socialite routine, Mike is falling in love with her. He thinks she’s “sensational.”
It’s a stunning turnaround for the reporter and the bride, and a weird switch from the pool scenes and the tour of Newport’s empty mansions. It’s also confusing: Why does he like her? And why does she like him?
This love affair is better explained in The Philadelphia Story because the Mike character is more developed. In that film, he’s a writer who published one book of short stories, and Tracy finds his book at the library. She loves it and begins to see him as an actual person, not just a sleazy reporter. But all of that is missing from High Society, so Mike’s feelings for Tracy and her mild reciprocation are a bit unbelievable.
But it’s lovely how Tracy’s outfit matches the bar!
After this uncomfortable song (“Making love is quite an art/what you require is the proper squire to fire your heart”) the pair head back home. Heads up: the term making love has changed since this movie was made. Back then it was closer to “flirting” or maybe even “falling in love,” but it definitely didn’t mean the act of sex. This term will come up again in a big way, so get ready.
Back at the Dexter-Haven estate, Louis Armstrong reappears to comment on the action. He starts playing “Samantha” and Dexter starts singing it as he prepares for the evening’s party. He’s invited, which seems odd. Tracy hears him from across the way, and she seems to enjoy the tune. She’s a very conflicted bride!
In a very large bedroom:
It is a little strange to think of Grace Kelly playing the part of a confused high society bride in the months leading up to her marriage to Prince Rainier, isn’t it? Her life was about to change much more drastically than her character’s.
Anyway, Tracy has been swilling champagne for hours, so she is pretty drunk at the party. But fortunately she’s an adorable drunk and just floats around telling everyone that she’s having a wonderful time and she hopes they are, too! In fact, it’s quite enjoyable to watch these beautiful people get sloshed. They do it very elegantly.
Meanwhile, Uncle Willie and Seth Lord tell Mike and Liz the truth about their identities, which leaves Uncle Willie free to chase Liz. That’s not great for her, though.
Costume appreciation break. Kelly wears an absolutely spectacular dusty blue masterpiece with incredible silvery embroidery on the bodice, and the most wonderful flowy skirt of tonal chiffon. It’s a showstopper. Holm wears what I think is an unfortunately colored short lace gown with a long chiffon train.
After some very classy drinking and dancing, Dexter performs a song called, “Now You Has Jazz” with Louis Armstrong and his band. Dexter and Armstrong sing about the various elements and instruments of jazz and then introduce each of the band members: pianist Billy Kyle, drummer Barrett Deems, clarinetist Edmond Hall, bassist Arvell Shaw, and trombonist James Young.
You can watch the performance here.
Tracy begins to embarrass George with her exuberant tipsiness, but Dexter is happy to sneak her away onto the terrace for a kiss. He seems like a good guy but he keeps doing the worst stuff! George finds them, of course.
George decides that it’s time to sequester Tracy before she does something really embarrassing. So he dances her all the way into a parlor and tells her to take a nap. She does, but she’s upset that George is frowning at her. This scene is fun because we get a good luck at her ring as she polishes it on the pillow.
Meanwhile, a very drunk Mike makes his way to the library’s secret bar. Dexter is there, too, but Mike is too inebriated to care. Eventually, the scene slides into a song performed by these two giants. It’s the comical “Did You Evah?” duet with witty lyrics and a jaunty tune. You can watch it here.
There were rumors of a rivalry between these two legends, but in fact Crosby and Sinatra got along well during the making of this movie. It certainly looks as though they’re having a great time when they sing this duet!
Fun fact: “Did You Evah?” is the only song in the movie that Porter did not write specifically for High Society. It originally appeared in his 1939 Broadway musical Du Barry Was a Lady performed by Betty Grable and the director of this movie, Charles Walters, who at the time was still acting!
While Mike and Dexter are singing in the library, Tracy gets bored. One can only polish a ten-carat diamond for so long. So she sneaks out, giving us a good view of the tonal panels of chiffon in her skirt.
Once outside, she runs straight into Mike. They drive (terrifying!) back to Tracy’s house and settle down on the patio for a tipsy chat. Tracy carelessly removes her ring, diamond bracelets, and earrings while they talk, and she continues to slug champagne.
Back at the party, George is worried because he can’t find Tracy. Liz is worried because she can’t find Mike, and Dexter thinks the whole thing is harmless and awfully amusing. He offers to take Liz home, which means he is at the Lord house for the next bit of drama.
Somehow Tracy and Mike make their way to the pool where they dance and talk about the “little bells” they keep hearing—it’s George repeatedly calling Tracy’s bedroom telephone. But, again, they’re very drunk.
This romantic, champagne-soaked situation leads to a song with the unintentionally amusing title, “Mind If I Make Love to You?” (At least consent is being requested, right?) It’s a sexy, languid scene with Tracy and Mike drifting through the rhumba rhythm.
Here is Charles Walters rehearsing with Kelly while Sinatra watches:
By the end of the song, Mike and Tracy are nibbling on each others’ necks and murmuring sweet but confused nothings. But it all becomes too much for Tracy. She breaks away and jumps in the pool. Mike follows.
Cut to the patio where Dexter has discovered Tracy’s jewelry and shoes. He pockets the diamonds when he sees George striding towards him. Dexter tells him that Tracy is probably already asleep in bed, and he should really get to bed himself—big day tomorrow!
Dexter does his best to defuse this awkward situation, but George believes the worst and is furious. Mike takes Tracy to her bedroom, and George tries to punch him when he returns. But Dexter lands the blow because “she was his wife first,” and, as he confides to Mike later, George is in much better shape than he is. He thought it would be less harmful for Mike to take one of his punches!
The next morning, almost everyone is hungover. And the wedding is scheduled to begin in about half an hour! The bride looks amazing, but she can’t handle the bright sunshine.
I love this dress so much, partially because it’s similar to the one my grandmother wore when she got married in 1949.
Helen Rose designed the wedding dress for this movie, and she also designed Grace Kelly’s wedding dresses for her April nuptials to Prince Rainier. She wore the rose-colored lace suit for the civil ceremony and the iconic silk and lace ballgown for the religious one.
The story goes that Kelly wanted Edith Head to design her real wedding dresses after the designer crafted such stunning costumes for her Hitchcock films. But MGM offered to cover the cost if Helen Rose got the job, so Kelly went with MGM’s offer.
High Society‘s wedding dress is quite different from both of Kelly’s real-life dresses—I wonder how much input Kelly had in the design of this frock.
Back to the film! Tracy can’t remember anything from the previous night, but Dexter drops a few hints and suddenly memories come flooding back. But she doesn’t remember how the evening ended, so she assumes that she slept with Mike. She’s very ashamed:
When George shows up, things get heated. He thinks the worst of Tracy. Significantly, Dexter is the only one who doesn’t jump to conclusions despite the implications.
George is about to cancel the wedding when Mike confesses that the “sins” of the previous night included a dance, a swim, and a trip to Tracy’s bedroom where he deposited her on the bed and came right back to the patio. Tracy and George are relieved, naturally, and George says that since nothing happened they should get married as planned. His goddess is still on her pedestal, though a bit wobbly.
But Tracy has changed her mind. She tells George that it would have meant more to her if he had wanted to marry her even if she had made a mistake. She knows now that they could never make each other happy. So long, George!
Then Mike and Liz announce that they are going to resign from Spy and burn the wedding story. And they’ve decided to finally get married. Hurray! (But no word on what that means for the unflattering article about Mr. Lord…)
Then the gang hears the wedding march begin from inside the house. But there is no groom! (Or is there…?) Tracy decides to handle this mess herself rather than let her father address the guests. But it’s tough to look in that room and tell everyone that the wedding is off!
She can’t find the right words, so Dexter starts prompting her. As she repeats what he whispers, she realizes that he is asking her to marry him again, right now. She grins and tells the guests to stay in their seats—she and Dexter eloped last time and “cheated” their guests out of a wedding, so today they are going to make it up to them!
Mr. Lord walks Tracy down the aisle as planned. As I mentioned, it was quite common to get married at your house as Tracy does in this movie. And quite common to have a morning ceremony.
It’s all going as Tracy planned (except for the groom switch, of course), but Dexter isn’t finished with his mischief yet. The staid wedding march morphs into a jazz version performed by Louis Armstrong and his band from the patio. At first Tracy glares at Dexter when she hears it, but then she relaxes and smiles. It’s all going to be ok!
The film ends as it started with Louis Armstrong, who finishes the song and then says straight to the camera, “End of story.” An epilogue thanking the Newport Jazz Festival for its cooperation comes after the end credits.
High Society finished shooting on March 6, 1956. About five weeks later, Grace Kelly became Princess Grace. This was the last film she ever made, though that’s not exactly how she wanted it to go. Hitchcock famously offered her the title role in Marnie (1962), and Kelly reportedly wanted to take it. But public opinion in Monaco was sternly against their Princess appearing in a film, particularly as a troubled kleptomaniac, so Kelly had to back out. The role went to Tippi Hedren.
High Society was released in mid-July 1956. It was a hit, and became MGM’s highest grossing movie of the year.
As I already mentioned, it was nominated for Best Score and Best Song, and it seems that the Academy meant to nominate the movie for Best Screenplay. But instead they nominated the writers of a Bowery Boys’ comedy from 1955 that was also titled High Society! When Allied Artist, the studio that made the Bowery Boys’ film, realized the Academy’s mistake, they withdrew the writers’ names from the official ballot.
High Society was popular with audiences, and critics mostly acknowledged its polish and its star power while comparing it unfavorably with The Philadelphia Story. For instance, Bosley Crowther of The New York Times began his review like this:
Intellectually speaking, there was never much sense or sanity to Philip Barry’s “The Philadelphia Story,” either as play or film. Its tale of a young society woman whose psyche was so confused that she could think herself thoroughly devoted to a priggish fiancé, a magazine writer and her ex-husband all within the span of one day was a sheer piece of comedy contrivance. And its attractiveness on stage and screen was due almost wholly to the sparkle of Katharine Hepburn as its erratic heroine.
But now that its brittle material has been cast into a musical film, there is little chance of disguising its bright but synthetic qualities…And with pretty and lady-like Grace Kelly flouncing lightly through its tomboyish Hepburn role, it misses the snap and the crackle that its un-musical predecessor had.
He mentioned some bright spots, though: “To be sure, there are moments of amusement in this handsomely set and costumed film, which was served up in color and VistaVision” including Sinatra and Crosby’s duet to “Did You Evah?” and Louis Armstrong’s performances.
But Crowther found Crosby and Kelly’s onscreen romance not very believable, noting that
Mr. Crosby seems a curious misfit figure in the role of the young lady’s cast-off husband who gets her back at the very end. He wanders around the place like a mellow uncle, having fun with Mr. Armstrong and his boys and viewing the feminine flutter with an amiable masculine disdain. He strokes his pipe with more affection than he strokes Miss Kelly’s porcelain arms.
I must agree. The age difference is part of it: Kelly was 26 and Crosby was 53, and it’s particularly noticeable in this film. But Crosby’s laid-back style doesn’t help. You get the feeling that if Tracy had married George as planned, Dexter would have just shrugged and gone back to his estate. The Cary Grant-Katharine Hepburn romance was more urgent and lovely.
Of course Grace Kelly came in for comparisons to Katharine Hepburn, which is expected but a bit unfortunate. After all, Barry wrote the character of Tracy Lord for Hepburn, so any actress stepping into it after her would be at a disadvantage. Crowther certainly thought that Kelly didn’t live up to Hepburn, writing that there are “tedious stretches” which are partly due to “the mildness of Miss Kelly in the pivotal role. The part was obviously written to be acted with a sharp cutting-edge. Miss Kelly makes the trenchant lady no more than a petulant, wistful girl.”
Kelly does take a more aloof attitude as Tracy than Hepburn did and her characterization has some flaws. It’s inconsistent: she swoops from haughty, unforgivable debutante to a cynical, hardened social commentator then a childish but fun ditz before returning to what we hope is the “real” Tracy, a more compassionate, introspective lady.
And this is all in one day! Hepburn’s portrayal was a bit more playful and a bit more consistent. We could see why Grant (and Stewart) fell for her, but High Society‘s triangle seems less realistic.
All that being said, I love High Society, and I think Grace Kelly is a lot of fun to watch. But now that we’ve started a comparison…let’s continue. The Philadelphia Story is a little darker and a little deeper than High Society. But that’s to be expected given that one was made in the early 1940s as a sharp screwball comedy, and the other is a glossy mid-1950s musical! High Society wasn’t trying to be a strict remake of the earlier film, so it’s okay with me that they’re different.
But here are some of the main divergences. There are almost cruel moments in The Philadelphia Story, though it does not descend too far into seriousness. It is a romantic comedy, after all. But there is some dirt beneath the shimmering black and white.
In The Philadelphia Story there is more discussion of Tracy’s “issues” that keep her from being a true “woman,” for instance her “goddess” complex and her impossibly high standards. She is punished for these qualities and must release them before her happy ending. It is a little unsettling, to be honest. That kind of stuff is there but it’s not as strong in High Society.
Also, in the earlier film there is a lot of talk about Dexter’s alcoholism (for which Tracy is to blame, of course). Apparently he is fine now, but being married to Tracy drove him to drink. That’s absent from High Society.
There is another major difference concerning the Spy magazine plot. It’s resolved through blackmail in The Philadelphia Story: Dexter works with Mike to threaten his editor, and they are able to suppress the unflattering article about Mr. Lord that way.
The Philadelphia Story and High Society are different films, different takes on the same core story, and both reflect the eras in which they were made. I don’t think it’s fair when people dismiss a “remake” just because it’s a remake; sometimes remakes are the best way to understand how times change, or to look at how genre affects a story, for instance. In this case, I think that both films are very worth watching. I love The Philadelphia Story (can’t beat the cast!) as a glittering, top-notch comedy, and I love High Society as a high-powered, super-polished musical. (And that wedding dress! Swoon.)