High Society is a musical adaptation of Philip Barry’s play, The Philadelphia Story, which was brought to the big screen as a traditional, non-musical film in 1940. Directed by Charles Walters, the movie puts impressive acting, sharp writing, and lively musicality on full display. Viewers would do well to not pass on High Society, regardless of whether or not they have seen another interpretation of the story.
The plot revolves around Tracy Lord, an affluent Rhode Islander, and her upcoming marriage to George Kittredge. With the ceremony less than twenty-four hours away, Tracy and her family are busy making the final preparations. As they are working, the situation becomes compounded in three significant ways.
First, Tracy’s ex-husband, C. K. Dexter-Haven, a musician who happens to be her next-door neighbor, returns home to host a jazz festival. In reality, Dexter-Haven still loves Tracy and has a plan to use the festival as a cover for an opportunity to win her back before it is too late.
Second, a blackmail operation is set into motion when a reporter and photojournalist from a tabloid are sent to cover the nuptial. By allowing the interlopers to observe both the ceremony and the ins and outs of their lives, the Lords avoid the publication of a salacious article concerning Tracy’s father and a dancer.
Third, Mike Connor, the journalist, begins to develop feeling for Tracy, who is hours away from marriage. Tracy is also drawn to Connor, which creates a drama-filled love triangle. Therefore, the build-up to Tracy’s wedding becomes more complex in the final hours than she would have ever imagined. Fortunately, this makes for an entertaining movie.
The film’s pacing ties perfectly into the narrative structure. Since the entire story takes place within a twenty-four hour window, there is little time to linger. The story moves along briskly and does not feel rushed or unnatural. As a result, viewers can clearly see how many unforeseen obstacles confront Tracy in the final hours before the marriage rite.
Musical elements are nicely mixed throughout the movie. Although this is very much a musical, viewers expecting a movie with musical acts in every scene should know that they will not find that here. This should not be frowned upon, however, as it makes the songs more intentional in the broader scope of the film.
Another flare is Louis Armstrong’s use of asides, or breaking the fourth wall. He shares his perceptive observations with the audience. It is a shame that the device was not used more, but, much like the music, the way it is handled makes these instances more purposeful and distinctive. The music and Armstrong’s comments help keep the pace energetic and amusing.
High Society’s thematic motifs consist of pride, humility, judging others, and being rich and how that is perceived. On a lighter note, there are also some hints that yield a Cinderella-like quality; this is likely a result of Grace Kelly’s acting and persona. The style and humor of the film as a whole give the movie a light-hearted outer layer, but, as evidenced above, its core is serious.
A pool sequence consisting of three different conversations with Tracy provide some of the film’s most important dialogue. The topic of each discussion forces the socialite to reevaluate her attitude and conduct toward others.
Dexter-Haven’s conversation brings Tracy’s arrogance and pride to the surface. This is juxtaposed by Kittredge’s dialogue which reveals that he is so infatuated with his fiancée that he deifies her, even though she only wants to be loved, not worshiped. Finally, her father stresses the importance of humility. Without it, he says, Tracy will never be a first-rate individual.
Though painful and convicting for Tracy, she learns a lot from these discussions and her eyes are opened to how her conduct affects others and how other people view her. This is vital, because these are crucial lessons for how we live our own lives.
High Society’s performances are top-notch across the board. All of the actors provide natural delivery of their sharp, quick dialogue, which is indicative of impressive acting and nuanced scripting. Bing Crosby does a terrific job in showing C. K. Dexter-Haven’s calm and collected demeanor. The cool way in which he attempts to execute his plan is very well done. Dexter-Haven’s insightful words and understanding demeanor are phenomenally done.
Grace Kelly’s Tracy Lord is impressively acted. Most notably, Kelly strikes a perfect balance in making Tracy at once spoiled and obnoxious and sympathetic. Her portrayal of the Rhode Islander’s character arc and maturation is memorable. When appropriate, her delivery and reactions add delightful humorous accents.
Frank Sinatra’s and Celeste Holm’s Mike Connor and Liz Imbrie, respectively, have great on-screen chemistry and balance. The duo provides the lion’s share of High Society’s comedy and they do so effortlessly. Sinatra’s situation-appropriate facial reactions serve as one of the film’s hallmarks and are sure to garner chuckles and grins from audiences.
As mentioned above, Louis Armstrong’s scenes are great additions. His asides provide an additional level of character to the film. Though he does not have a lot of dialogue, when he speaks, notes should be taken.
The cinematography is stellar. Throughout the film, shots effectively captures the characters’ traits and idiosyncrasies. There are several compositions that would make good still photographs. Bright colors and strong lighting help the subjects pop on screen. Yet in several scenes, viewers can discern the location of the off camera lights, perhaps even the key light, as characters would get washed out when they moved to a certain area within the frame. A shadow, possibly of a boom microphone, can also be seen on a wall. Though minor, these examples should be mentioned and could have been avoided.
The wardrobe and set design are strong. Each of the characters look striking in their wardrobe selections. The sets of the estates of Dexter-Haven, the Lords, and Tracy’s Uncle Willie are beautiful and properly reflect their socio-economic statuses.
High Society’s music is the main way it stands out when compared to George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story. The music, featuring Cole Porter’s work, coupled with the performances, are strong overall. The inclusion of a classic-styled overture is a tasteful touch. The on-screen chemistry of the actors is strengthened by the musical numbers. It is great to hear Grace Kelly sing as well.
The duet, “Well, Did You Evah!” is particularly impressive in terms of musicality. Crosby and Sinatra make the harmonies distinct and lively. It is clear that both actors had fun performing it. Generally, my favorite songs were “High Society Calypso,” “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” and “Well, Did You Evah!”
Director Charles Walters is no stranger to musicals and High Society evidences his directing acumen. His management and blending of the musical elements into the more serious, consequential plot points illustrate his ability to have fun while conveying an important message. The fact that all of the performances, including the supporting roles, are strong reflects well on Walters.
The Academy also took note of the film’s music. The picture was nominated for Music (Scoring of a Musical Pictures) – Johnny Green, Saul Chaplin and Music (Song) – “True Love” in High Society, Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter. Although no Oscars were won, these nominations show the level of talent involved in the production and serve as positive demonstrations of Walters’ direction.
In the end, High Society, is a fun movie with a great underlying message. The inspired acting, music, and production make it a film that should not be missed, regardless of your view of musicals.
Production: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; Sol C. Siegel Productions; Bing Crosby Productions
Director: Charles Walters
Producer: Sol C. Siegel
Screenwriter: John Patrick (screenplay); Philip Barry (play)
Director of Photography: Paul C. Vogel
Editor: Ralph E. Winters
Art Director: Cedric Gibbons; Hans Peters
Music: Cole Porter; Johnny Green; Conrad Salinger
Lyrics: Cole Porter
Orchestrator: Nelson Riddle; Conrad Salinger; Robert Franklyn
Special Effects: A. Arnold Gillespie
Costume Designer: Helen Rose
Budget: ca. $2,700,000
Release Date: July 17, 1956 (USA)
Cinematographic Process: VistaVision
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Copyright Holder: Loew’s Incorporated; Sol C. Siegel Productions; Bing Crosby Productions
Cast: Bing Crosby; Grace Kelly; Frank Sinatra; Celeste Holm; John Lund; Louis Calhern; Sidney Blackmer; Louis Armstrong and His Band; Margalo Gillmore; Lydia Reed; Gordon Richards; Richard Garrick; Richard Keene
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Running Time: 1 hour and 51 minutes (111 mins.)
 This is not to say that musicals cannot be serious. Rather, Walters does a great job at balancing the light and serious facets of the story.