High Society (1956)

Directed by Charles Walters; Written by John Patrick

A star-powered show about the romantic entanglements of the 1%

A luminous comedy set on the manor grounds of the über-wealthy, High Society enchants with Grace Kelly as a sparkling centerpiece flanked by the overwhelming musical firepower of Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. 

In Newport, Tracy Lord (Kelly) is due to be married to self-made businessman George Kittredge (John Lund). She’s controlling and self-centered, he’s a stiff bore with a joyless mustache. She’s to be his trophy wife, he’s to be her toothless beau whose propriety makes him an ideal piece of furniture in Tracy’s prim existence. 

But before the wedding bells ring out, ex-husband Dex (Crosby) arrives back in town. They divorced because Tracy felt he lacked ambition in becoming a pop music composer (read: jazz and rock’n’roll) instead of the more dignified pursuits of diplomacy, or at the very least composing classical music. He’s still charming, though. To complete the suite of suitors, a reporter (Sinatra) is sent to cover the wedding and do a cutting exposé of the aloof elite. His outsider novelty and skepticism makes an honest woman out of Tracy, offering her a chance to break with high society’s expectations of her. Who to choose?

There’s a scene early on where Sinatra and his colleague inspect the gold and silver dining sets being readied for the wedding, roaming through a near-endless array of forks, knives, serving bowls, plates, platters and other items only the astronomically rich could think necessary. The collective shine of it all almost makes you squint, and the amount of talent gathered in High Society has a similar effect. Sinatra and Crosby deliver an all-time great insta-buddy duet in “What A Swell Party,” putting aside their famed crooner personas to deliver instead a back-and-forth champagne-popper of a song, and few films can boast an in-house band in the shape of Louis Armstrong and orchestra. 

But above all this sits Grace Kelly’s performance and magnetism, giving shape to a film that revolves entirely around her, as Tracy navigates her three suitors and the feelings they each evoke in her. It takes something special to sideline Crosby and Sinatra, but Kelly does it.

John Patrick’s witty script is done justice by Charles Walter’s direction that keeps an emphasis on the interplay between the characters and places the camera far enough back to wholly capture the chippy exchanges that give High Society its pace and sparkle. With this much star power on the call sheet, it’s the only right thing to do, and the end product is a classic of its genre and a testament to Kelly’s stardom. 

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