I realize I’m a day late starting Summer Under the Stars (Otto Preminger will show up later this afternoon). Kicking us off is the lovely Grace Kelly with High Society. A bit of background with Kelly and I: This is the second movie of hers I’ve seen. I reviewed Dial M for Murder at the beginning of the year, and thought she was gorgeous (and enjoyed dressing up in the finest gowns for a Sunday at home). There’s just something cold about Kelly that didn’t sit right, and I think her parodying of that works to High Society’s advantage. A musical remake of the amazing Katharine Hepburn/Cary Grant/Jimmy Stewart film, ends up being an average musical with none of the zing of the original screwball comedy. Much of this has to do with the one-two punch of Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, who turn the film into a lounge act swathed in classy costumes. The overabundance of music, flashback,s and Crosby tugging on the script to remind you he’s the star ends up turning High Society into a middling experience.
Tracy Lord (Kelly) is an heiress set to be married that weekend. Unfortunately, her scheming ex-husband, C.K. Dexter-Haven (Bing Crosby) is desperate to win her back. Coinciding with their squabble and the wedding, is the arrival of Spy magazine reporters Mike Connor and Liz Imbrie (Frank Sinatra and Celeste Holm), doing a piece on Tracy’s impending nuptials.
I could get a lot of crap for this, but High Society is overrated. There was a lot working against this movie from the beginning with me, especially my dislike for Bing Crosby. Crosby is practically in every scene with the implicit reminder that he’s the star despite the original movie. Cary Grant’s Dexter-Haven was in love with Katharine Hepburn’s Tracy, and while it featured the trio of Grant/Hepburn/Stewart, you focused on Tracy as she comes to understand who she truly loves. Here, Crosby wields an iron fist over the movie, including a flashback sequence showing how wonderful his relationship with Tracy once was; that’s another thing that bothered me. In a memorable opening scene during the original, all you needed to understand the demise of Tracy and Dexter’s relationship was seen in Dexter shoving Tracy to the ground, face-first. In High Society, Tracy apparently woke up one day and decided to get divorced! Oh, they make a big deal about Dexter writing/recording a song about Tracy (which doesn’t use her name, and could be any other love song), but the addition of that lovey-dovey flashback and nothing else leaves the audience to ask: What went wrong? I didn’t find fault with Tracy in the original film, but the lack of development in the relationship with this film, not even a break-up scene, leaves a big hole in the chronology and casts Tracy as a fickle, heartless woman.
Crosby isn’t as irksome to me in this as he has in past films, but neither is he memorable. He lacks the charisma of Cary Grant, and is content to lay back and lets events happen; he’s perpetually relaxed. His song sound one-note, and I couldn’t get past the fact that he was 53 playing opposite a 27-year-old Kelly! HD television isn’t kind to him because Crosby looks craggy and made-up to pass for some semblance of 40-ish. On top of that there’s a bizarre song with Tracy’s little sister that had me looking around for Chris Hansen. Louis Armstrong (he’s in the movie as a Greek chorus/band member) sums the scene up, with a grimace mind you, as “Right song, but the wrong girl.” How right you are, Louis! The love triangle is also wobbly in this movie, unlike its predecessor. Because Crosby is the main focus, the narrative leans in favor of excess scenes between Tracy and Dexter, or Tracy, Dexter, and Tracy’s fiance (played by John Lund) which only makes Mike and Liz look like party crashers.
Mike and Liz are the highlight of the movie, and are given the needed chemistry that was lacking in the original. In the Hepburn version, Liz was the consolation prize for the Mike character as the two barely spent any time prior to the ending together. High Society undoes all that and establishes Mike and Liz as a premier reporting duo on part with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. There’s chemistry and love developed between Sinatra and Holm that is entirely missing from the Crosby/Kelly relationship. You can buy that these two have had a lengthy professional relationship that they’ve never acted on for various reasons; there’s a history written and implied that should be placed on the main couple! I enjoyed the reporters far more than the rich folks because Sinatra and Holm are old-fashioned wisecrackers who would have fit in amongst Hepburn and Grant. As with Crosby, though, I did wonder why Holm appeared to be significantly older than everyone else. She was right in the middle at 39; however, she appears to be as old as Crosby.
This was Grace Kelly’s final film before she went off to marry Prince Rainier of Monaco (the engagement ring her character sports was the one given to Kelly by Rainier). I worried that Kelly would be a clotheshorse who could only rock beautiful costumes, and that’s true; I’m not sure whose decision it was to have Kelly imitate Katharine Hepburn’s speech patterns, but it only reminds the audience of how brilliant Hepburn was in the role, and puts Kelly in the role of knock-off. Once Kelly casts off sounding like Hepburn, she’s good lampooning the types of characters she’s played in the past. Her Tracy Lord is aware of how the wealthy are portrayed, and her fake happiness emphasizes the ersatz nature of being rich. Kelly attacks the persona she’s given, but the lack of bite within the script can’t remove the fact that Tracy is a controlling snob who needs to be corrected.
Cole Porter’s music is good, but outside of the song sung by Sinatra and Holm, I wasn’t impressed. The opening song had me worried this was a beach movie, or that we’d open with people doing a conga line. Cut to Louis Armstrong mugging for the camera, and after that the rest of the musical sequences are similar mugging. The songs come fast and furious around the middle of the movie, and Crosby gets the most (all of which sounded the same).
High Society didn’t leave me feeling high, or any emotion representing happiness. Frank Sinatra continues to surprise me and Celeste Holm is always a delight, but this isn’t their movie. The major stars of the 1950s do their due diligence, but the zip of the original is entirely removed in lieu of a tired musical with a rapidly aging leading man who lacks any life in him. If Sinatra had led the film, it could have passed (he would certainly have produced more chemistry with Grace Kelly). As it stands, High Society is a pretty film to look at, but if you want a great script and actors to go with it, seek The Philadelphia Story out.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.