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Film Friday: «High Society» (1956)

Although I have already celebrated Grace Kelly's 86th birthday with an article written for The Wonderful Grace Kelly Blogathon, I wanted to write about another one of her films today. So, this week on «Film Friday» I bring you what I believe was either the first or second Grace Kelly film I have seen, which also happens to be one of my personal favorites.

Original release poster
Directed by Charles Walters, High Society (1956) revolves around the wedding plans of ice-cold socialite Tracy Samantha Lord (Grace Kelly), who is marrying her stiff suitor George Kittredge (John Lund) at her family's estate in Newport, Rhode Island. Tracy's ex-husband, millionaire songwriter C. K. Dexter Haven (Bing Crosby), is helding a jazz festival that same day, using his neighboring home as a rehearsal hall for special guest Louis Armstrong. When Tracy hears Dexter play the song he wrote especially for her, she goes to his home and accuses him of setting up the festival to disrupt her wedding. Dexter confesses he is still in love with her and does not want her to remarry because he thinks she can still be «a wonderful woman.»

In the meantime, Uncle Willie (Louis Calhern) calls Tracy's mother (Margalo Gillmore) to inform her that Spy magazine will withhold a slanderous article about her philandering husband Seth (Sidney Blackmer), in exchange for being allowed to send reporter Macaulauy «Mike» Connor (Frank Sinatra) and photographer Liz Imbrie (Celeste Holm) into the Lord home to cover the wedding. To appease her mother, who fears for the family reputation, Tracy agrees to the blackmail, but she and her precocious younger sister Caroline (Lydia Reed) greet Mike and Liz with exaggeratedly gauche mannerisms, interrogating them about their lives. Later, Tracy takes Mike on a drive and admits that she has been sheltered by wealth, while he slowly begins to break through her snobbish exterior. Returning home, she overhears Dexter singing the love song she wrote for her and suddenly realizes that she is still attracted to him. At her formal bachelor party that evening, Tracy drinks too much champagne and thinks that she might really be in love with Mike. The next morning, when George wrongly accuses her of a sexual escapade, Tracy realizes that he is not the right man for her and they cancel the wedding, just as the processional music begins. In an (un)expected turn of events, Dexter ends up replacing George at the altar to marry Tracy a second time, inspiring Mike and Liz to wed as well.

C. K. Dexter Haven: You fell I tricked you. But gee, I didn't know you wanted a husband to be kind of a high priest to a virgin goddess. It's a real pity too, Tracy, because you know you'd be a wonderful woman if you'd just let your tiara slip a little. You'll never be a wonderful woman or even a wonderful human being until you learn to have some regard for human fraility.

In mid-December 1955, close friends and colleagues began to notice that Grace Kelly was often «remote, quiet, pensive» and assumed that her «atypical solitude» was caused by concern over her next picture, High Society, a musical co-starring the two most popular male singers of the time, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. However, the source of Kelly's apprehension had less to do with her new film assignment than with the major turn her personal life was about to take. Prince Rainier III of Monaco, with whom she had been enjoying an «epistolary romance» every since meeting him at the Cannes Film Festival in April of that year, had just arrived in the United States to ask for her hand in marriage. Rainier had everything she had ever loved in a man, but by marrying him she would have to leave acting to fullfil her responsibilities as wife of a head of state. In the end, her love for Rainier spoke louder than her love of acting and the official proclamation of their forthcoming nuptials was made on January 5, 1956.

About two weeks after announcing her royal wedding, Kelly began working on High Society, based on Philip Barry's play The Philadelphia Story, which opened on Broadway in 1939 with Katharine Hepburn, Joseph Cotten, Van Heflin and Shirley Booth in the lead roles. Due to the success of the play, MGM acquired the rights to the story and turned it into a film starring Hepburn, Cary Grant, James Stewart and Ruth Hussey. Directed by George Cukor, The Philadelphia Story (1940) was a major critical and commercial hit, effectively erasing Hepburn's label as «box-office poison.» For this new adaptation, screenwriter John Patrick made a few alterations to Barry's original text and Donald Ogden Stewart's Oscar-winning screenplay: the locale was changed from Main Line Philadelphia to Newport, Rhode Island; sportsman and recovering alcoholic C. K. Dexter Haven was converted into a carefree songwriter; and Tracy Lord's younger sister, Dinah, was inexplicably renamed Caroline.

Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra
and Celeste Holm in a publicity still
High Society reunited Frank Sinatra with his The Tender Trap (1955) co-star, Celeste Holm, as well as that film's director, Charles Walters. A trained dancer, Walters was among the first to do both coreography and direction at the same time, most notably in the musical Good News (1947), starring June Allyson and Peter Lawford. Although he staged all the musical sequences in High Society, at that point in his career he usually did only the «star» or «intimate book» numbers, such as Judy Garland's routines in Summer Stock (1950).

Sinatra, who had grown up with a picture of Bing Crosby in his room, was thrilled at the prospect of starring alongside his boyhood idol. In fact, when Sinatra had started singing in the mid-1930s, he had tried to copy the casualness of Crosby's raspy vocal style and would even walk around in a yachting cap in imitation of his hero. In spite of a rumored rivalry between the two crooners, Sinatra and Crosby got along very well during the making of High Society, sharing each other's preference for fast work, which allowed them to complete most of their scenes together in a single take. They did, however, have a completely different attitude and personality. Constantly restless on the set, Sinatra was given the nickname «Dexedrine,» while the resolutely laid-back Crosby earned the moniker «Nembutal.» Sinatra would later provide a cameo appearance in Crosby's The Road to Hong Kong (1962), before co-starring again in the «Rat Pack» musical Robin and 7 Hoods (1964).

A member of one of Philadelphia's most socially prominent families, Grace Kelly was no stranger to her part in High Society — her final stage role as a student at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York had been Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story. High Society also paired her a second time with Crosby, who had previously played her husband in George Seaton's critically acclaimed drama The Country Girl (1954). They had even enjoyed a brief romantic affair that ended when she refused his marriage proposal. Kelly had briefly met Sinatra when she appeared opposite his then wife, Ava Gardner, in John Ford's Mogambo (1953) and the two became close friends after High Society, until her tragic death in 1982. According to Kelly, Sinatra was «the perfect companion in a movie.» She invited him to her wedding, but he was unable to attend since he was on tour at the time.

Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby in
«Well, Did You Evah!»
The task of writing the score for High Society was entrusted to Cole Porter, in his first film assigned since George Cukor's Adam's Rib (1949). Commissioned for $250,000, Porter wrote nine original songs for the film and invited Sinatra, Crosby and Kelly to his home to listen to them. In the end, musical director Saul Chaplin decided to add an extra number for a mock-tipsy Sinatra and Crosby duet, Porter's «Well, Did You Evah!,» originally performed by Betty Grable and Charles Walters in the 1938 Broadway show DuBarry Was a Lady.

One of High Society's best musical numbers is «True Love,» performed by Crosby and Kelly in a flashback sequence recounting Dexter and Tracy's honeymoon abroad their sailboat, the True Love. Due to her lack of singing experience, Kelly had to take voice lessons before she and Crosby could record the duet. Another great number is «You're Sensational,» beautifully sang by Sinatra directly to Kelly in a three-minute sequence which serves to start «the thawing of ice maiden Tracy.» But perhaps the most fondly remembered sequence in the film is «Well, Did You Evah!,» sparked by a dialogue between a drunk Mike and the imperturbable Dexter, as they discuss Tracy's feelings for each one of them. This particular number was a tough assignment, but Sinatra and Crosby make it appear that they are improvising the entire four-minute routine, just like Cary Grant and James Stewart had so expertly done in the equivalent scene in The Philadelphia Story.

Due to Kelly's impending marriage to Prince Rainier, High Society was filmed on an unusually tight schedule for an MGM «first-class» production, beginning in mid-January and ending in early March 1956. Playing a comparatively small role, Sinatra found the time to perform in Las Vegas during the shoot, a break that further enhanced his good mood throughout the making of High Society. His only flash of temperament originated from a disagreement with the film's second musical director, Johnny Green, over one of his songs. Green believe the first recording fell short of the singer's normal high standard and requested a retake, which Sinatra adamantly refused to do.

Frank Sinatra and Grace Kelly between takes
High Society opened on July 17, 1956, three months after Kelly's widely publicized wedding took place in Monaco. Critical reception was mixed, with the film often being compared unfavorably to The Philadelphia Story. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called it «a handsomely set and costumed film,» although he also considered it to be «as flimsy as a gossip-columnist's word.» Some reviewers criticized producer Sol C. Siegel for miscasting Crosby, pointing out that the crooner was possibly too old to play Kelly's love interest (Crosby was 53 at the time, while Kelly was only 26).

In addition, critics lamented the fact that Kelly did not seem to fit the «austere yet madcap» role which had earned Katharine Hepburn her third of twelve Academy Award nominations. Crowther, for instance, wrote, «[...] with pretty and lady-like Grace Kelly flouncing lightly through its tomboyish Hepburn role, it misses the snap and the crackle that its un-musical predecessor had [...] The part was obviously written to be acted with a sharp cutting-edge. Miss Kelly makes the trenchant lady no more than a petulant, wistful girl.»

Despite the generally mixed reviews, High Society was a huge commercial success, eventually becoming MGM's highest grossing film of 1956 and turning Frank Sinatra into one of the top ten moneymaking stars of the year. At the 29th Academy Awards held in March 1957 at the RKO Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, Saul Chaplin and Johnny Green received a nomination for Best Musical Score and Cole Porter's popular song «True Love» was one of the five nominees for Best Original Song. In a rare case of Oscar confusion, which has become one of the most famous Academy Award gaffes in history, High Society was nominated for Best Motion Picture Story, even though it was based on previous material and thus not illegible in that category. Additionally, the two writers nominated, Edward Bernds and Elwood Ullman, did not pen High Society. After some investigation, it was discovered that Bernds and Ullman did in fact write a film called High Society, except that it was a 1955 farce starring the comedy team of The Bowery Boys. Although the Academy granted Bernds and Ullman's request to have their names removed from the ballot, their nomination still stands on the final record.

Grace Kelly as Tracy Lord in High Society
In later years, Grace Kelly spoke very fondly of the time she spent making High Society and explained the creative process she went through to portray Tracy Lord in believable way:

It was one of my most enjoyable experiences. I was in love, I was engaged, I was singing a song called «True Love» — it was all wonderful, and I remember the cast as a group of amiable professionals. We had such fun making that picture. At last, I thought maybe I could put it all together acting Tracy Lord. I was never happy with my singing — it seemed awfully tentative to me when I heard our playback of «True Love» — but our director left us alone in all the long scenes of dialogue. Maybe because I was about to leave Hollywood, I felt relaxed and could just let the character have her way — I didn't impose myself on her. You know, the original story was set in Philadelphia. Well, I knew all about those Main Line snobs, but you couldn't look down on them or condemn them, or else the character [of Tracy] would have become unsufferably arrogant. I tried to find the point where her haughtiness was a cover for insecurity, and for the pain she felt over her father's thoughtless behavior.

Lastly, two interesting bits of trivia: Grace Kelly wore her actual 10.47-carat, emerald-cut diamond engagement ring as Tracy's engagement ring in High Society. Bought by Prince Rainier at Cartier in New York, the jewel had been presented to her on their engagement night on December 28, 1955 and was even favored by director Charles Walters with a sparkling close-up in the film. MGM also announced that Kelly's entire wardrobe from High Society would be hers to keep — and that they would also pay for her wedding dress, commissioning Helen Rose to create whatever gown she desired, at whatever cost. The «serenely regal» dress Rose designed for Kelly's formal religious wedding ceremony on April 19, 1956 at the St. Nicholas Cathedral in Monaco remains one of the most elegant and best-remembered bridal gowns of all time, as well as one of the most famous since the mid-20th century.

Frank Sinatra by John Frayn Turner (Taylor Trade Publishing, 2004)
Frank: The Voice by James Kaplan (Anchor Books, 2011)
High Society: Grace Kelly and Hollywood by Donald Spoto (Arrow Books, 2009)
Hollywood Musicals Year by Year by Stanley Green; revised and updated by Elaine Schmidt (Hal Leonard Corporation, 1999)
Louis Armstrong: The Life, Music and Screen Career by Scott Allen Nollen (McFarland & Company Inc., 2004)
Sinatra in Hollywood by Tom Santopietro (Thomas Dunne Books, 2009)
The Frank Sinatra Film Guide by Daniel O'Brien (B T Batsford Ltd, 2014)
The Star Machine by Jeanine Basinger (Knopf Doubleday, 2009)
TCM's article on High Society
TCM's notes on High Society
The New York Times review by Bosley Crowther


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