There are some remakes where you wonder why they were made or if the world needed them. I’m not sure whether this is one, but…it’s close to being one.
High Society is a musical remake of The Philadelphia Story, with Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly standing in for Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn and Frank Sinatra taking on Jimmy Stewart’s role. Also, the goings-on are moved from Philadelphia to Newport, Rhode Island, to capitalize on the then-new Newport Jazz Festival; which in turn lets the film bring in Louis Armstrong and his band, playing themselves, to serve as an occasional Greek Chorus.
And yet, despite those cast changes and the addition of several songs by Cole Porter, I felt like this remake really didn’t add anything to the story. Even worse, it felt like it took away some of the things that made The Philadelphia Story such a delight. In the original, Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn had a delightfully feisty chemistry – Grant was an impish rogue, and Hepburn was…well, Hepburn. Grace Kelly wisely doesn’t play Tracy Lord as a Hepburn homage; her Tracy Lord is still spirited, but it feels more brittle, somehow. Hepburn’s Tracy Lord threw someone out of the house by breaking his golf clubs over her knee; Kelly’s Tracy Lord would stamp her foot and shout a lot, but then storm off into another room and order the butler to take over. And as for Crosby…well, he sings just fine, but he seems perpetually sleepy throughout, and it’s hard to see what any incarnation of Tracy Lord would see in him.
Crosby is also twice the age of Kelly, as is Sinatra; all of Tracy Lord’s love interests are visibly twice her age, which is a little disconcerting. But even more uncomfortable is a scene between Crosby and Tracy Lord’s kid sister (here renamed “Caroline”, and played by Lydia Reed). In both films, Tracy’s sister makes no bones about the fact that she prefers Tracy’s ex-husband “C. Dexter Haven” to any of her current beaux; but in the original, it’s definitely more of a spunky, big-brother/kid-sister admiration. Dinah Lord likes Dexter Haven because he’s just a cool dude she liked to joke around with. But here, “Caroline Lord” actually has a crush on him, which in one early scene he indulges when she asks him to make up a song for her and he spontaneously composes a love song. She spends most of the song nuzzling him, and then afterward she gushes that “if Tracy doesn’t want to marry you, then can I?” Lydia Reed was barely in her tweens when she said this and Crosby was in his 40s, so it looks really, really icky.
There is one scene, though, which I appreciated from this remake. Sinatra’s Mike Connor makes no bones about his disdain for the lifestyles of the rich and famous, much as Stewart’s did (he even gets a whole duet about it with Celeste Holm, who herself was playing “Liz Imbrie”). But where the original film just saw a few pointed exchanges between Connor and Tracy about classism, this film introduces a whole sequence where Tracy drags Connor around to the various Newport mansions, pointing out how most of them are boarded up and for sale. The tax burden has become too onerous for many of the owners, despite their great wealth, she explains. In several cases the owners can’t even find a buyer and are donating them as schools or landmarks. It doesn’t completely change Connor’s attitude about the upper class, but it does give him a bit more sympathy towards them, which makes his flirtation with Tracy later on make a lot more sense.
Ultimately, though, while the music was pretty and the settings noticeably more lavish, I didn’t feel like it added anything, and kept comparing it to the original and coming up a little short.