High Society (1956)

Years ago, TCM played The Philadelphia Story and followed it immediately with High Society. I loved the former, and five minutes into the latter, shut it off. I dislike much about post-War Hollywood, even though it was much better than what was to come, and I found the slick, color production and the slick musical numbers distasteful. A harsh judgement, to be sure, but one I thought might be tempered if I didn’t try to follow the original so closely with the remake.

Almost four years have passed since I last saw The Philadelphia Story, so when TCM brought it around this year, it seemed the best shot for me and this picture. And?

My grandparents and great-uncle ca. 1956.

My initial impressions, while harsh, were not incorrect. I can now appreciate, at least, the amazing box office power of Crosby and Sinatra in their first (non-short) collaboration. On the other hand, avoiding direct comparison to the 1940 film allows me to see this version’s flaws more clearly. What’s good? Well, Louis Armstrong is good as the meta-narrator. Celeste Holm is good as Sinatra’s pining partner. Lydia Reed is good as the savvy little sister. Cole Porter’s “True Love” is good. Frank and Bing’s chemistry is good.

I’d go further and say, no, these were great elements. And they make up very little of the movie.

The bones of the picture—a love quadrangle between Kelly, Sinatra, Bing and John Lund—is really, really bad. Consider: The premise of the story is that Tracy Lord is a snooty high society girl with exacting moral (and other) standards. She’s cold because nobody lives up to them, including her father and her ex-, and she warms up because she fails to meet her own standards and realizes humans are flawed, and finding a flaw is not reason for summary execution. Also, she realizes if she goes with someone who treats her like this perfect goddess, she’s going to lose out on being a woman. (As I said in my original review, referring to such a film being made today: Can you imagine?)

Bing and Frank do this epic duet where they sing about…what the hell were they singing about? Women or something?

You can say a lot of things about Grace Kelly, but she was not one who came off as cold. She could express fury, sure, but not the kind of Ice Queen aura that Hepburn did. Hepburn notoriously said when someone told her Kelly studied her to prepare for this role, “She should have studied harder.” More study wouldn’t have helped: I can no more imagine her pulling it off than I can imagine her roasting someone like Hepburn did her.

Meanwhile, the rakish cad that is her ex-, no longer Cary Grant but Bing Crosby. You can say a lot of about Crosby, but rakish cad fits none of it, even in his youngest days. He does not have innately, and does not demonstrate, the edge of Grant.

Sinatra’s ok. You can’t really see him going for Celeste Holm and nothing here changes that. He doesn’t have Jimmy Stewart’s affable idealism but the part works just as well from a more cynical angle—well, again, except for the Holm relationship.

Sinatra paired here with the sort of woman he would never, ever be paired with again. In movies or in real life.

The Cole Porter tunes are mostly forgettable. It pains me to say it. Even “True Love” doesn’t quite land. Worse, the songs are utterly generic, like he had them chambered for whatever the next project was. (I have recently read Abe Burrows biography, and having worked with Cole Porter on a project he said that Porter always got this kind of review: Not up to his usual greatness. Sorry, guys, I don’t even remember the songs. And I have known and played “True Love” for decades but I don’t think I could do it the way it’s done here.)

Ultimately, I can’t quite divorce it from the original. Had I been unaware of the 1940 film, I would rank this with any number of forgettable Doris Day pictures of the same era: Pleasant enough, flimsy, with a cast that feels somehow wasted. But even by 1956, the time for this story had long passed and I suspect the same group could’ve come up with a much better picture more suited to the times.

Finished #8 at the box office well below King and I the same year and despite being a success financially and having a very successful soundtrack, didn’t spur much in the way of future Sinatra/Crosby crossovers. The two would work together again, but not in anything this splashy.


Should’ve studied harder: Even the postures are wrong.

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