I’m honestly conflicted as to whether knowing or not knowing the history behind “High Society” makes for a better viewing experience. On the one hand, if you go into this film knowing this is an musical adaptation of “The Philadelphia Story,” then you might only find yourself thinking about how Frank Sinatra’s acting compares to that of Jimmy Stewart, or if Grace Kelly’s turn as the strongly independent Tracy Lord even stacks up against Katharine Hepburn’s role. However, if you went in not knowing anything, you might find yourself enjoying the catchy musical numbers and the strong character progression the young Tracy Lord.
For me, I had only seen “The Philadelphia Story” once before watching “High Society,” and only vaguely remember some scenes, in particular being reminded of Cary Grant’s sarcasm, Hepburn’s stubborn yet feisty personality, and Jimmy Stewart surprisingly acting circles around both Hepburn and Grant. But if anything, watching this musical now has only made me appreciate the source film much more than I already did. “High Society” trades in the screwball comedy-style of “The Philadelphia Story” for a romantic comedy/musical with some great toe-tapping numbers, especially in a jazz duet with Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong.
The story between the two films is the same – Tracy Lord (Grace Kelly) is a well-known socialite from one of the biggest families on the east coast is getting remarried, all the while being in the presence of her ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven (Bing Crosby), who is still in love with her and will do everything in his power to have Tracy back in his arms. Due to some rather convoluted circumstances, the only sort of press that gets into the party is one reporter, Mike Connor (Frank Sinatra), and a photographer, Liz Imbrie (Celeste Holm), from Spy Magazine, who only make the wedding even more chaotic.
I will say that, while Kelly, Crosby, and Sinatra all do a fine job with their given roles, and Crosby and Sinatra belt out some memorable tunes, the three do lack the spark that Hepburn, Grant, and Stewart had in the original film. Kelly’s performance as Tracy Lord feels like a normally quiet and reserved woman trying her best to stand up for herself, while it always felt like Hepburn poured every ounce of her mind, body, and soul into her screams and fierce attitude. Bing Crosby is soft-spoken and smooth, with everything coming a little too easy for him, while Cary Grant loved to cause chaos and manipulate everything from behind the curtain like a puppeteer.
I give Sinatra credit, in that he took his role as the hard-hitting reporter to a much different place than Jimmy Stewart did. Sinatra is charming and charismatic, serving the role of yet another man that Grace Kelly ends up falling for. Both of them do see a lot in the other and they have great chemistry. In “The Philadelphia Story,” I never got the impression that Hepburn was falling in love with Jimmy Stewart, just that she admired him while she was getting drunk and made a few mistakes. Sinatra plays Connors as a no-nonsense reporter who likes to call things as he sees them, while Stewart was…well, Jimmy Stewart – kind-hearted, honest, and truthful. Both bring something different to Connors that make each of their interpretations feel unique.
I think the key difference between “High Society” and “The Philadelphia Story” is on presentation versus story. One chooses to focus on visual spectacles, musical numbers and a sense of the elegant lifestyle, while the other relies on the acting ability of its three main leads and the chemistry they have to lead a compelling comedy. In this regard, both films excel at what they set out to do and are individually noteworthy films. I will say that “The Philadelphia Story” is the better film, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t check out “High Society” for yourself and see how a screwball comedy adapts into a musical.
Final Grade: A-