The George Cukor remake that works:
Though Charles Walters' High Society has never been snubbed in the world of movie musicals, I don't think it has earned its rightful place as one of the best of the gengre either. A remake of the brilliant George Cukor 1940 screwball The Philadelphia Story starring the power trio of Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and James Stewart, 1956's High Society has constantly been judged against its predecessor -- it isn't witty enough, there's less chemistry among the leads, and there's no Kate Hepburn.
Of course, such critiques are ridiculous -- we might as well criticize The Philadelphia Story for lacking color, musical numbers, and Louis Armstrong. The two films are vastly different; they contain their own timely style and cleverness, one with cutting dialogue, the other via the genius of Cole Porter, whose tunes easily flow through the scenes as playfully as Katharine Hepburn breaking Cary Grant's golf club in two.
Unlike the big production number musicals of the time, High Society keeps its proceedings low-key and natural, as if these elite people just break into "True Love" mid-sentence and then go about their idly rich ways. And why not? Shifting settings from Philadelphia to Newport, Rhode Island (where the Newport Jazz Festival occurs -- an easy way to have Mr. Armstrong drop into the household), the story concerns rich, pampered, spoiled Tracy Lord (Grace Kelly who, need I mention, is almost painfully beautiful), the reluctant ice goddess, preparing her wedding. A gorgeous, humorous snob (she's never an insufferable blue-blood), Tracy's on to supposedly greener pastures with her spoilsport suitor, the dullard George Kittredge (John Lund). This safe union seems appropriate for Tracy after her first marriage -- to composer C.K. Dexter-Haven (Bing Crosby, whose with his intriguing mixture of softness and cruelty, is oddly sexy --he should have played villains) -- was, to say the least, torrid. Bing's Dexter is a bad-ish boy (how bad can he look next to Frank Sinatra?), sweater-wearing hep cat, an erratic fellow and (gasp!) jazz performer with a best friend in Louis Armstrong.
When a cynical gossip-rag catches wind of the upcoming nuptials, they assign wiseacre, hard-boiled reporter Mike Connor (Frank Sinatra) and a photographer (Celeste Holm) to cover the event, hopefully to capture the potentially gruesome details. And they've got a good scoop -- Dexter's still nuts for Tracy and is determined to stop the ceremony. Things get even nuttier when Mike falls for the irresistible Tracy and she, confused and drunk, has a little fling with Mike. We understand her temptation: In the original, a love-struck Jimmy Stewart rapturously cooed the illuminated ice goddess Tracy; in the re-make, Frank Sinatra serenades her with the beautiful "You're Sensational." Who wouldn't become weak in the knees?
Though High Society is less obviously class-conscious than The Philadelphia Story, it still notes the disparities between rich, the new rich, and the working class albeit with gentle little jabs. And then there's the "cool" factor. Eccentric C.K. not only allows a posse of non-service-oriented black men into his house, he even sings with them in the charming Crosby-Armstrong duet "Now You Has Jazz." There's a level of competition between Crosby and Sinatra as they deliver one of film's biggest highlights, "Will Did You Evah," during which Sinatra cracks the in-joke "Don't dig that kind of crooning chum" to a "bah-bah-booing" Crosby (I've watched this number too many times to count and it always makes me blissfully happy--and really wanting a drink....and really wishing I was Frank Sinatra. View it here.). Other standouts are the Sinatra-Holm duet, "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" and Louis Armstrong's (who opens the film almost like a Greek Chorus) calypso "High Society." The picture is gorgeously shot in Technicolor, Cole Porter's songs are timeless genius, and the performances are delightful. Really, how much closer to perfect can a movie get? It's, as Bing and Frank sing, "Swellegant."