MGM’s bold idea to remake George Cukor’s Oscar-winning upper-class romantic farce, The Philadelphia Story, into a star-studded, Technicolor musical with Cole Porter tunes somehow works splendidly and remains an underrated gem. Even the plot and character names–and some bits of dialogue–all remain the same as the original. Crooning Bing Crosby replaces Cary Grant as the wealthy ex-husband trying to win back his soon-to-be-remarried ex-wife, spoiled ice queen Tracy Lord (Grace Kelly, stunning and aloof in her last film role, originated in the earlier comedy by Katherine Hepburn). Unlike Grant, however, Crosby has jazz great Louis Armstrong, playing himself, in his corner for quixotic persuasion. Frank Sinatra (cocky in James Stewart’s former role) and Celeste Holm add support as the nosy reporters covering, and subsequently complicating, the upcoming wedding.
Sure, High Society lacks the original’s witty satire, sarcasm, and character complexity; but it’s assuredly paced and wonderfully acted, and contains enough romantic chemistry to keep the plot engaging. And then there’s the music. Unlike the grandiose production numbers of many ’40s and ’50s musicals, High Society‘s musical sequences are considerably low-key and intimate, focusing on Porter’s lyrical content, and the style in which it’s delivered by the charismatic performers. Armstrong kicks the film off in telling style: he sings the title track, a calypso tune outlining the plot like a Greek chorus, not as an elaborately choreographed song-and-dance number, but instead stuffed claustrophobically in the back of a limousine with his jazz band. Other musical standouts include Sinatra and Crosby playfully tossing barbs during “Well, Did You Evah?“; Crosby and Armstrong teaming up for an energetic clash of styles in “Now You Has Jazz“; the two soaring, archetypal ballads by the leads–Crosby’s “I Love You, Samantha” and Sinatra’s superior “You’re Sensational“; and, finally, the satirical Sinatra/Holm duet, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?,” the closest High Society ever comes to social or class commentary. –Dave McCoy