1956’s “High Society” is sweet, innocent, bright, clean and mindless fun. As a comedy, it works sensationally well, but as far as it goes as a musical, for me it doesn’t stand up against the others coming out around that same time, not with “Singin’ In the Rain” in 1952 and “The King and I”, “Oklahoma!” and “Guys and Dolls” in 1955. The musical numbers are chirpy, and Sinatra’s singing is sublime but the songs themselves are far from memorable. In fact the only song that I can still recall the tune to is “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” and even that’s not sensational, which disappointed me since Cole Porter wrote the music. What makes “High Society” tick are the farcical jokes, jolly old misunderstandings and the fantastically snarky rat-a-tat dialogue. And of course an unreal appearance from the incomparable Louis Armstrong.
“High Society” is a musical remaking of the 1940 classic “The Philadelphia Story” starring Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart. In the lead up to her wedding to straight laced, warm cup of tea George (John Lund), beautiful socialite Tracy (Grace Kelly in her final acting role before becoming Princess of Monaco in 1956) is faced with a choice of marrying the safe and stable George, returning to her ex-husband Dexter (Cole Porter) who is still madly in love with her, and hot shot reporter Mike (Frank Sinatra) who has been sent to cover the wedding. As Tracy struggles with her heartstrings and embarks on her journey of self discovery, the film is peppered with fun supporting characters and musical interludes.
The “farce” style of theatre is a fun one to play with, and “High Society” makes us feel like we’re constantly in on the joke. When Tracy introduces her Uncle Willy as her father to Mike and his associate Liz Imbrie (Celeste Holm), we as an audience know that Uncle Willy isn’t really her father and feel included in the chaos that ensues. Beyond the farce style of the film, one thing I did notice (perhaps this is true of many films of this time), but there are significantly fewer cuts within a scene than what I’m used to. Because of this, dialogue can go for minutes at a time without a single cut, so everything is choreographed and executed as if it really were on stage. It’s a small note, but I actually enjoyed the effect it created quite a lot.
I also found the comedic banter quite impressive; I suppose because the scriptwriters were obviously somewhat restricted in what they were and weren’t allowed to say back in the 1950s, and so they really did have to get creative with some of these insults. I laughed out loud when Tracy scolded her younger sister Caroline (Lydia Reed) with this zinger – “Caroline Lord, if you put this picture in my wedding presents once more I am going to personally chain you to your bed.” Its so sweet and innocuous but also so elegantly articulated and said with such delicious venom, and the film is full of this sort of thing! In particular, photographer Liz Imbrie is as jaded and sarcastic as they come and delivers some absolute beauties.
Films like this aren’t necessarily supposed to be relatable, that’s not the point of them. This is pure escapism, where everybody is beautiful and elegant and sings and dances and the biggest dilemma faced by the characters is who out of her three eligible bachelors is Tracy going to choose to marry. While not a classic in terms of musicals, “High Society” is a genuinely funny and witty piece of comedy, something wholesome and happy and designed to distract its audience from whatever dreariness may be happening in the world.
By Jock Lehman