For the most part, I am not a fan of film remakes and am certainly against the remaking of great classic films. There’s just no need for it. Remakes are very rarely any good – especially when compared to the originals. My feeling is leave our classics alone and expose new generations to them, rather than rehashing the plots in lesser productions. However, once in a long while an exception occurs when, for some reason, a remake works even when there still can be no comparisons made. The 1956 comedy/musical, High Society is one of those exceptions.
Charles Walters’, High Society (1956) is not only the remake of a classic, but of one of the greatest classics of all, a beloved and acclaimed film, George Cukor’s, The Philadelphia Story (1940). I try to stay away from explaining what makes a film great versus what doesn’t mostly because I can’t always explain why I, myself, love a film. There are plenty of very flawed films I adore and watch over and over again. So the only explanation I can offer as to why a musical remake of one of the greatest comedy/romance films ever made works is because it is a musical, made by the studio who excelled in producing them, MGM, who turned to one of the greatest composers of all time to write the music, Cole Porter. In the movies that’s a pretty sure bet for success.
The story goes, there’s the Lord family of High Society…
Their eldest daughter, Tracy. The socialite…
Close family and friends, and a few others, gather in celebration of Tracy’s second marriage. She’s marrying George Kittredge (John Lund) who worships and adores her. But Tracy doesn’t want to be worshiped and adored, held high on a pedestal, she wants to be loved.
Coincidentally, that same weekend – in town and in the palatial Lord estate is Tracy’s first husband, C. K. Dexter Haven (Bing Crosby), who loves her but doesn’t put her on a pedestal.
Also present to do their gossipy best are a writer and photographer from SPY magazine, a tabloid. They are journalism’s bottom-feeders who live off the trials and tribulations of the rich and famous. (Frank Sinatra and Celeste Holm as Mike Connor and Liz Imbrie).
A decade and a half before.
The story went…
Tracy and her groom-to-be…(er…and her ex-husband) (Katharine Hepburn, John Howard and Cary Grant).
First husband, C. K. Dexter Haven…
The gossipy bottom-feeders…(Ruth Hussey and James Stewart as Elizabeth Imbrie and Macaulay Connor).
If one was to watch High Society right after The Philadelphia Story there would be limited praise to be offered the second, aside from the fabulous songs. I’d never do that. As a result, I can enjoy the musical without reservation, making no comparisons. In this case, both versions are enjoyable for different reasons and on different levels but only one remains a great film. Only one has hearth-fires and holocausts.
“There’s a magnificence in you, Tracy…” OH MY!
If that’s not one of the greatest scenes in all cinema I don’t know what is. That classic scene’s counterpart in High Society does not stand up at all and results in the only true, cringe-worthy moment for me in that film, despite myself. There simply is no way to get around it due to my love of the original version – not so simply an unforgettable performance and unique delivery of words by one of the silver screen’s greatest. Worthy of note – that wonderful scene is preceded by another gem – the great drunken exchange between Connor and Haven (Stewart and Grant) in Haven’s home. A gorgeous sparring between masters – even early on in their game. Quite something to behold (hiccup!).
I mentioned at the onset that The Philadelphia Story is a highly acclaimed film. It was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and won two – James Stewart for Best Actor in a Leading Role and Best Writing, Screenplay to Donald Ogden Stewart. The Stewarts ruled in this case – no relation. The other nominations went to Hepburn for Best Actress, Ruth Hussey for Actress in a Supporting Role, Best Director nod to George Cukor and the aforementioned Best Picture nod to producer, Joseph L. Mankiewicz. All of these were well-deserved but who cares, in the long run, about awards. Those sorts of things rarely come to mind when one is enjoying a film and this film is enjoyable! The script, interpreted masterfully by all the players – the three main ones in particular, classic swift repartee. The physicality of these people too is wondrous to behold from the very first scene, among the best in cinema, where no words are needed – just actors acting accompanied by a great score emphasizing each action.
I can discuss the obvious and nuanced in The Philadelphia Story forever. All that make this film outstanding. But suffice it to say there is something here for everyone, every level and ilk of film viewer – from those who like to think to those who like to gawk. I do both here. Your choice.
So given such a memorable classic, why and how does its remake, High Society, work? Simple. It’s an enjoyable movie. To start with, it follows the story faithfully, which is entertaining on its own even with a much “fluffier” script. Grace Kelly
is no Katharine Hepburn. She has the “Ice” in the ice-princess part of the Tracy Lord character down to a tee. Yes. Hepburn’s portrayal of Tracy has an innate edge, a sharp one, that is nowhere to be seen in Kelly. Nor is her vulnerability. I mean, Hepburn is one of the greatest actors to ever appear on-screen and she’s wonderful in The Philadelphia Story. Despite the other wonderful performances, this is her film. That said, however, Kelly’s beauty and icy portrayal of Tracy Lord do look great in Technicolor. As do the clothes and the sets. Incidentally, this is Grace Kelly’s last role before she would go off to become a princess.
Similarly, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra are no Cary Grant and James Stewart. Crosby has nowhere near Grant’s charm, comedic timing or gift for slapstick and Sinatra, well…he’s just not James Stewart, who delivers one of my favorite performances ever in The Philadelphia Story. I’ll leave it at that. But man can Crosby and Sinatra sing a Porter song, or can’t they! One of the best songs in the film is, not surprisingly, a crooner duet between these two magnificently gifted artists, which ironically was the one song that Porter didn’t write for this film. He’d written it for the 1939 play, DuBarry Was a Lady. High Society is the first time Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra appear on-screen together and MGM took full advantage of that in marketing the film. To me it’s very special. Two of our greatest singers, unique voices, singing together in a great setting and a fun song.
“Well, Did You Evah!”
The remake also features a good supporting cast, although again a difficult comparison to make here given the exceptional cast in The Philadelphia Story – nonetheless, notables are Celeste Holm, who is always enjoyable to watch. Here she plays photographer, Liz Imbrie. Louis Calhern plays Tracy’s uncle Willy who’s forced to impersonate her father for the sake of the tabloid. Then there’s the great, Louis Armstrong who – luckily for us – is present throughout the shenanigans thanks to Dexter and the Jazz Festival they’re in town for. (Incidentally, the setting of High Society was changed to Newport, RI from Philadelphia to accommodate footage already shot by MGM on another project that was in the works on the Newport Jazz Festival.)
High Society begins and ends with Louis Armstrong. A fun introduction and closing plus it’s always great to see this legend on-screen.
“Now You Has Jazz” – one of my favorite numbers in the film, which on its own makes this film worth watching.
When MGM studio chief, Dore Schary decided to remake The Philadelphia Story as a musical from the idea of independent producer, Sol C. Siegel, Cole Porter had been riding on the high of a long string of hits. This one would be one of his biggest. Of the 20 songs Porter wrote for High Society, nine were used in the film, all great. “True Love,” the song Dexter and Tracy sing on their boat, the True Love, in a flashback, the biggest hit of them all.
High Society was delivered on schedule and on budget, costing approximately $2.7 million. The film went on to make more than $13 million breaking box-office records, in its initial release. The soundtrack album became a best-seller and the Crosby-Kelly duet version of “True Love” a hit single. Since Grace Kelly was the Princess of Monaco by the time these receipts came in, it made her the first sitting monarch with a hit record. High Society received two Academy Awards for its music – not surprising – Best Music, Original Song to Cole Porter’s, “True Love” and Best Music, Scoring for a Motion Picture to Johnny Green and Saul Chaplin.
The bottom line here is – watch both on-screen versions of playwright, Phillip Barry’s story if you have the chance. You don’t have to be a classic film fan to enjoy either. High Society doesn’t have the laughs of The Philadelphia Story nor does it have the depth in acting or in character. Or the charm, for that matter, despite the charming people in it. I can’t describe it simply other than to say that in this film we admire the movie stars and singers – and they are worthy of admiration.
In the other we are immersed in character and story, in emotion – it’s worthy of awe.
It’s true love I have for these old movies – the perfect ones and the flawed. Let them entertain me.
I just learned of the death of Celeste Holm, a classy, classic actress. I’m dedicating this post to her – for her part in High Society and for adding so much to so many of our beloved classics.
“Who wants to be a millionaire?”
R.I.P. dear lady.