High Society (1956)

When I was a kid in the late 80’s, All India Radio used to air a series of Western music programmes, most of which consisted of songs from the 50’s and 60’s. There was one programme—I’ve forgotten what it was called—which focused on music from the movies: Oklahoma!, My Fair Lady, Fiddler on the Roof, The Sound of Music—and High Society. I was singing along to Who wants to be a millionaire long before I realised that yes, I did want to be one.

But, without further ado: this is a film with a title that’s pretty self-explanatory. High society in Newport centres round exquisite Tracy Samantha Lord (Grace Kelly), who’s getting ready to marry distinctly stuffy social climber George Kittredge (John Lund).

George and Tracy

The fly in the ointment is CK Dexter-Haven (Bing Crosby), a composer whom Tracy had eloped with two years earlier and whom she’s since divorced. Dexter has invited Louis Armstrong and his band for a jazz festival at his home—which abuts the Lords’ mansion.
Dexter still loves Tracy, but the only encouragement he’s getting is from Tracy’s kid sister Caroline (Lydia Reed), who wants him and Tracy to get back together.

Dexter gets some support from Caroline

Meanwhile, Tracy’s mother Margaret (Margalo Gillmore) is trying to avoid the fact that her husband Seth (Sidney Blackmer) is romancing a chorus girl. A scandal sheet called Spy, however, gets the scoop on Seth Lord, and uses it to blackmail Margaret into allowing a Spy reporter and a photographer to cover Tracy’s wedding. Enter photographer Elizabeth `Liz’ Imbrie (the peppy Celeste Holm) and reporter Macaulay `Mike’ Connor (Frank Sinatra).
Tracy figures Liz and Mike will be expecting the flighty and frivolous idle rich. She and Caroline put on an act: they chatter in French, pretend to be proficient at ballet and piano, and generally give the impression they’re empty-headed sprites without a care in the world.

Tracy does the ooh-la-la act

Tensions start surfacing soon enough. Dexter arrives, as does George. A photo session with Tracy, her ex-husband and her bridegroom ends with all three passing snide remarks at each other, while Margaret tactfully tries to field questions about Seth Lord’s whereabouts.

Dexter, Tracy and George

Liz and Mike’s wanderings through the impressive Lord mansion—and the display of wedding presents lined up—doesn’t help the Lord cause much. This is all a hollow sham, decides Mike, as he and Liz traipse through the hall, singing the delightful Who wants to be a millionaire. Liz doesn’t, at any rate—all she wants is Mike, though he doesn’t seem to realise it.

Liz and Mike

Dexter comes by to give Tracy a wedding present—a model of the True Love, the boat on which they spent their honeymoon (singing True love, another of my favourites). This is an obvious ploy to remind Tracy of the past, and it works, much to George’s irritation.

True love

In the meantime, Seth Lord has turned up, and Tracy (embarrassed to admit he’s her father) tries to pass him off as her uncle Willie. Seth is initially surprised, but when he catches Tracy on her own, there’s a confrontation: he accuses her of being heartless, a `bronze goddess’; she flings his philandering in his face. Margaret tries to break up the fight, but everybody’s very bitter.

Tracy and her parents

Furious with her father, Tracy goes off, just in time to give Mike a tour of the district. She’s annoyed, largely because she knows Seth’s right. She is on a never-ending quest for perfection, both in herself and in others. Which is why poor Dexter, not the most perfect of human beings, didn’t quite measure up.
But let the others be; Mike at least is quite convinced Tracy’s the thing. Sensational, in fact.

Mike sings `You're sensational' to Tracy

That evening, there’s a `democratic bachelor’s party’, as Tracy describes it: not just women. It is, actually, quite a do: what frills, what frocks! What furs, what rocks!, as Dexter and Mike agree in the dee-lightful Well, did you evah. What a swell party this is!

What a swell party this is!

And while the men are appreciating this swelegant party, the bride-to-be is getting very drunk. She ends up dancing with Mike, then consents to being dropped home by him. Once home, Tracy slips off her engagement ring (and what a ring: Grace Kelly’s original engagement ring from Prince Rainier, whom she married the same year), and lets Mike sing for her: Mind if I make love to you?

Mind if I make love to you?

Dilemma, dilemma. So whom does Tracy marry? George? Dexter? Mike? Predictable, I guess, but it’s a toss-up between two of the contenders until the very last scene.

What I liked about this film:
The music. Cole Porter is superb: I love each of the songs, beginning from Louis Armstrong and his band singing High society in the bus that’s bringing them to Dexter’s home. This is a good, old-fashioned musical of the sort that Bollywood made its own: liberally peppered with songs, and with a lot of scenes just there to provide an excuse for a song. And yes, Sinatra and Crosby (though never favourite actors of mine) are hard to beat for great voices. As, of course, is the inimitable Armstrong. Awesome!
Grace Kelly. Such a lovely lady: I could see films just for her. Sigh.

Grace Kelly in High Society

What I didn’t like:
While I enjoyed High Society immensely, I came away feeling it was somehow half-baked. You know: a story that wasn’t quite complete, scenes that didn’t really fit, and characters that weren’t completely fleshed out. Caroline, for instance, was everywhere in the first few scenes, then more or less vanished; one never knew why Margaret was so forgiving of Seth, or why Seth was with the chorus girl; and Tracy’s romance with George just didn’t seem plausible. Oddly enough, Tracy’s best chemistry seems to be with the man she doesn’t marry.
A showcase for a lot of excellent music and a very beautiful leading lady (in her last performance, by the way), but that’s it.

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13 thoughts on “High Society (1956)

  1. Grace Kelly was sooooo lovely. I could certainly watch movies for her but this one I’ve avoided because it was apparently a remake of Cary Grant – Katherine Hepburn starrer Philadelphia Story which I hated (the only one of theirs that I disliked so intensely!). In that version the father needed the solace of an affair because his daughter was cold hearted and dominating and his wife was willing to forgive and forget but the daughter was an obstacle to the parents’ re-union!!! Guess this one isnt so bad and I do like Sinatra and Cosby too, so I can give it a try next time it plays on TCM.

  2. Saw the original (Philadelphia Story) last night on TV and was put off for the same reason as bollyviewer.
    But the bantering between Katherine Hepburn, James Stewart and Cary Grant was delicious!
    I was very shocked by the reason given by the father for his affairs with young women. His accusations at his daughter sound nearly incestous!
    AWFUL!
    The reviewer in the newspaper had described it as a good screwball comedy, but was a major let down.

  3. ANY PERFORMENCE WHICH INCLUDES LYDIA REED IS GREAT. SHE IS A VERY BEAUTIFUL GIRL AND HER GREATNESS WAS SHOWN IN HER PERFORMANCE AS HASSEY IN THE REAL MC COYS (1957-1963)

  4. Can I just put in a good word for The Philadelphia Story? Yes, the father’s supposed justification for his affairs was completely bogus and stupid–but it is a very small part of a film that is superb in almost every way! Hepburn, Grant, and Stewart are at their best in this one. Cary Grant’s one-liners! Jimmy Stewart’s supposed cynicism and then drunken mixture of intellectual snobbery and goofiness! Not to mention Ruth Hussey, who I’ve never seen in anything else, as the only character who keeps it real the whole time. Compared to them, Kelly, Crosby, and Sinatra (although I do like them in other movies) look like they phoned in their performances. And although High Society’s songs are good, they don’t make up for watering down the wit of the earlier screenplay.

    I recommend giving Philadelphia Story a try. BTW, just stumbled onto your blog and am highly enjoying the reviews!

  5. Janeheiress: Thank you – I’m glad you like this blog! :-)

    And now you’ve got me wanting to give Philadelphia Story a try! I am a die-hard Grant fan, and am very fond of Stewart and Hepburn too, so Philadelphia Story was one I did want to see, but then got scared off after being warned against it. Am off to put it on my rental wishlist… thanks for the tip!

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