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High Society

Directed by Charles Walters, with Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Grace Kelly, Celeste Holm, John Lund, Louis Calhern Sidney Blackmer, color, 107 minutes, 1956

 

Cover of VHS edition of "High Society"

Cover of VHS edition of "High Society"

By Carter B. Horsley

Musicals are often measured by the popularity of some of their best tunes. "High Society" is one of Hollywood's finest musicals, but it has never achieved its due in part because only one song, "True Love," became widely popular for a while even though it happens to be one of the lesser songs.

With Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, all at the top of their very great forms and a sophisticated score by Cole Porter, it is surprising that "High Society" has been overshadowed by many other musicals with lesser singer talents. Of course, the greatest musicals also usually involve a lot of spectacular dancing and that is not an element in this film.

To compensate for the lack of dancing, however, "High Society" has a luminous Grace Kelly outdoing her recent socialite role in Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window" (see The City Review article) with a good and broad sense of farce in this very funny movie.

The movie is based on "The Philadelphia Story," which was a play written by Philip Barry for Katherine Hepburn and made in a fine and famous movie in 1939 with Cary Grant, James Stewart and Katherine Hepburn.

Tracy Samantha Lord, played by Grace Kelly, lives in Newport, R.I., and was once married to C. K. Dexter-Haven, played by Bing Crosby, who enjoyed yachting in Newport. Their roles were played by Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant in "The Philadelphia Story" movie. Mike Connor, played by Frank Sinatra, is a reporter for a magazine assigned to cover the wedding of Tracy to George Kittredge, played by John Lund. Connor is accompanied by Liz Imbrie, a photographer, played by Celeste Holm. James Stewart played the Connor role in the 1939 movie, which was not a musical.

Tracy's father, Seth Lord, is played by Sidney Blackmer, and her Uncle Willie, is played by Louis Calhern. All the actors with the exception of Sinatra and Holm are appropriately elegant.

The movie gets off to a rousing start as Louis Armstrong introduces the story aboard a bus with his jazz band en route to a jazz festival in Newport of which Dexter-Haven is a sponsor.

Tracy is horrified to discover that her forthcoming wedding is to be covered by a magazine that has agreed to suppress an embarrassing story about her family. She is obviously a frivolous snob, but she decides to put on the charm for the honor of the family. Connor and Holm are suitably impressed with the Lord's stately home and they have a fine duet, "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire," that Holm performs admirably and with great charm. In the 1939 film, Stewart is a bit of a naive hick in the splendor of Philadelphia's Main Line, a residential enclave that is very impressive but not quite the haute resort of Newport. Sinatra plays the role with his Hoboken roots showing, and Stewart is more comfortable in the role. Sinatra, however, is without peer as a singer and is fabulous as such here in such numbers as "Samantha," "You're Sensational" and a great duet with Crosby entitled "Well, Did You Evah?"

Crosby's natural laid-back sophistication is quite on target here, despite the corniness of his "True Love" duet with Grace Kelly. He is, of course, no Cary Grant, but his duet with Louis Armstrong, "Now You Have Jazz," is one of the great musical moments in film history.

With so much talent depicting such wastrels, it might be tempting to dismiss "High Society" as mere froth. Americans, however, have long indulged themselves with an infatuation with the very rich, often delighting in their foibles and follies all the while probably fashioning their own, envious dreams of greed, abandon, largesse, and conspicuous consumption. The original play had a sweet, self-awareness to it, a we-know-we're-spoiled-so-don't-mind-us-too-much, a forerunner of the "depraved-because-we're-deprived" mentality of "West Side Story." The key to good tongue-in-cheekness is the quality of the repartee and the charisma of those depicted and both "The Philadelphia Story" and "High Society" pass such tests. The story flirts with themes of pretense and status, but not for very long or very deeply. It really doesn't mean to preach, nor does it need to, at least not so much in the musical version. Absent important themes, it aims only to charm and it succeeds.

One can achieve a lot with charm and with being casual and not overly ambitious. C. K. Dexter-Haven is pretty laid back and yet he wins back his love not so much through demonstratable strength and skills and character on his part as through the increasingly obvious shallowness and limitations of his rival, George Kittredge. There is not too much mystery here, either, for anyone who is considered a "cool cat" by Louis Armstrong has got something going for himself. Armstrong plays himself very, very well. He is irrespressible and as a result so is the movie. In real life, Newport is a lot more powerful, in its inimitably discrete way, than the almost suburban 1950's vision of it in this movie, despite the guffawing of Sinatra and Holm, who do much to gently accent the differences between the rich and the not-rich.

Do the rich have problems? Is the cliché that all that money can buy is not enough, or whatever, true and should we dismiss the rich as just lucky and admit them back into the human race? If they can make us laugh, as they do here, then, of course, the answer is yes.

This joyful film is ranked 117th in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films.

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