Tracy Lord, a spoiled, uptight Newport heiress, is preparing for her second wedding to wealthy, uptight George Kitteridge, when her first husband, jazz vocalist, C.K. Dexter- Haven, reappears in Newport for the annual jazz festival. Meanwhile, to keep Tracy’s father, Seth Lord’s affair with a chorus girl out of Spy magazine, Mrs. Lord agrees to allow a writer, Mike Connor and a photographer, Elizabeth Imbrie, from Spy into the Lord household to document Tracy’s wedding. Romantic entanglements ensue and at Tracy’s bachelor party, and its wedding day aftermath, they are sorted out.
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This musical remake of “The Philadelphia Story” (1940) was the last film Grace Kelly made before she became Princess Grace. It proved to be the perfect vehicle for her to bow out on, as it was a major success and it showcased her strengths, which were a believably aristocratic demeanor, great style and a light comic touch - she’s a fun drunk at Tracy’s bachelor party. Grace Kelly had shown real flair for light romantic repartee in her Hitchcock films, particularly “Rear Window” and “To Catch A Thief” and this ability served her very well with her two leading men here, Bing Crosby as her first love and husband, C.K. Dexter-Haven and Frank Sinatra as the magazine writer, Mike Connor.
The film sports a first rate musical comedy cast, rounded out by the elegant and cooly amusing Celeste Holm as Elizabeth Imbrie, the Spy magazine photographer patiently waiting for her colleague, Mike, to notice her. Louis Armstrong makes a welcome appearance as himself and he adds his distinctive musical presence and persona. The other major musical feature of the film is the music and lyrics of Cole Porter. Even though these songs are not his best, they still provide the highlights of the film. The songs are fun and well performed, particularly Sinatra and Holm’s breezy duet on “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?” as they sail around tables laden with extravagant wedding gifts at the Lord mansion, as well as Sinatra and Crosby’s equally light hearted rendition of “Well Did You Evah?” at Tracy’s bachelor party. The Crosby and Kelly duet of “True Love” was a big hit at the time and earned a gold record.
This was not the first time, Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly had worked together. Grace Kelly had won the Oscar for Best Actress in 1954 for her performance opposite Crosby as the long suffering wife of an alcoholic in “The Country Girl”. However, both actors are more suited to this material. Crosby, as an actor, was best at being Crosby and falls comfortably into that niche in “High Society”. His function in the film is primarily as a musical figure anyway, as he is a generation older than Kelly and never ignites the same chemistry with her that Sinatra manages in a few short scenes.
Frank Sinatra, pretty much coasts through this film on his charisma and singing chops, which, of course, are considerable. As in so many of his musical roles, with the notable exception of “Pal Joey” (1957), he plays the all American guy here, a wide eyed romantic who, even though he works for a National Enquirer type magazine, wouldn’t dream of compromising the heroine at a crucial vulnerable moment for her. The plot lines of musical comedies are not meant to be believable and “High Society” is no different from the pack in this regard. Nonetheless, Sinatra is a major component of the movie’s success, in spite of the fact that he throws its romantic chemistry off balance. In the original version of “The Philadelphia Story”, James Stewart played the Mike Connor role and Cary Grant was Katherine Hepburn’s first husband and lost love. The quintessential romantic leading man, Grant, just by showing up, provided all the excuse needed for Hepburn to dump her priggish fiance. In “High Society” Crosby is less compelling as the cause of the break up of Kelly’s engagement. In fact, she and Sinatra connect so strongly on screen that it is disconcerting for the audience when she ultimately returns to her first husband.
“The Philadelphia Story” is undoubtedly the more satisfying version of this story. George Cukor directed it and, while keeping the comedic tone, managed to draw out performances from his actors that allowed the audience to believe in the inevitability of the romantic ending. Charles Walters, the director of “High Society”, isn’t as successful as Cukor with this material. Walters had been a professional dancer and he does nicely with the individual musical duets, but his direction over all isn’t particularly inspired in staging or interpretation, nor is it visually inventive. He largely hues to the pattern laid out by Cukor in the earlier film, but without Cukor’s seamless interpretive skill. Still, “High Society” is an enjoyable, fun movie with some wonderful musical performers and a lovely swan song from Grace Kelly.