High Society (1956)
Starring: Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Grace Kely, Louis Armstrong, John Lund, Celeste Holm
Directed by: Charles Walters
Released by: Metro Goldwyn Mayer
Synopsis: Jazz Musician C.K. Dexter Haven (Bing Crosby) has recently divorced New York socialite Tracy Samantha Lord (Grace Kelly), but still has deep feelings of love for her. Tracy is about to marry boring but well meaning George Kittredge (John Lund), and Spy Magazine is set to cover the event. They send a reporter (Frank Sinatra) and a photographer (Celeste Holm) to cover the nuptials. Soon, what started as a simple wedding affair becomes a complicated mess of a love story.
Review: If the synopsis sounded familiar to you it’s because High Society is a musical remake of the 1940 film The Philadelphia Story (which I recently reviewed). Both films were based on the stage play by Philip Barry and both cover the topics of love after divorce, social statures and scandals among the rich and powerful. What makes High Society different from The Philadelphia Story, besides the musical score, however, is that its characters are far gentler, but still retain some the edginess seen in Barry’s original play.
The Philadelphia Story was successful thanks to the strength of its three lead performers. Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and James Stewart performed their respective roles splendidly, calling forth the feelings and emotions needed to tell a complex love story. High Society loses a bit of that power but still remains a highly entertaining story. Bing Crosby as Dexter Haven is very fun, differing greatly from Cary Grant’s performance in the same role. While Grant played Dexter as an angry, bitter man with some lust still left in him, Crosby is the complete opposite. In High Society, he is far more romantic and hopeful with some small hints of frustration. To me, Crosby’s performance is the best thing about the movie. Even if his role differs from Cary Grant’s turn at the character he is still very memorable. There’s no denying had amazing talent as a singer an in High Society he doesn’t disappoints. He is smooth, lively and completely unforgettable.
While James Stewart had a bit more edge and complexity in his performance Frank Sinatra does a pretty good job as the reporter. I feel, though, that the romance between him and Tracy was played to better results in The Philadelphia Story. Finally, Grace Kelly is admirable as Tracy, but Katharine Hepburn made the role hers. In fact, it is believed that the character was written especially for her, and it shows. Hepburn had the tenacity and presence to play the character. Grace Kelly just lacks those elements that made the character so amazing in the original film.
In terms of story, both movies have the same plot and characters, but High Society plays it to a far grander, livelier and romantic scale. As I explained in my review of The Philadelphia Story, the movie didn’t feel romantic enough due to its focus on former couples being angry at each other and thus trying to make each other miserable until they realize that they needed each other. High Society remedies this by focusing more on the characters’ feelings. This is accomplished through song and dance. Some of the key scenes in the story, such as when Dexter gives Tracy the model boat in the pool, are told through song, and the performances are unbelievable. You clearly understand why the characters loved each other and thus see why they feel frustrated at the outcome of their respective relationships. High Society may lack some of the edginess that made the original story unforgettable but creates some truly fantastic scenes in the process.
Speaking of which, High Society features a wonderful Jazz soundtrack that fits with the story and themes very well. Louis Armstrong as expected plays his horn like only he could, while Sinatra and Crosby bring their legendary talents to the screen. Like I explained, it’s the music that gives the story a very lighthearted and fun feel, making it a tried and true MGM musical that lifts the spirits of its viewers while they enjoy a very solid story.
Many fans and critics have called High Society a very inferior film when compared to the 1940 version. I disagree with this. In the end, what determines which version is the best is personal preference. The Philadelphia Story trades in romance in favor of more character based humor as well as a biting satire of socialite values and tradition. High Society focuses more on the romance and the characters’ feelings, but ultimately makes them tamer and thus slightly forgettable. Despite its stature as an “inferior” remake by some, High Society is still a very entertaining film thanks to a great Jazz soundtrack and some solid performances.
Rating: 4 filmstrips out of 5