A Hitchless Coda: High Society(1956): The Tail of a Shooting Star

Though she didn’t know it at the time, after To Catch a Thief, Grace Kelly would make only two additional films before an abrupt and permanent retirement.

The first was The Swan, in which Kelly plays a princess marrying a prince.  While visiting Cannes for their famed filmed festival, Paris-Match magazine arranged a meeting between Grace Kelly and Rainier III, Prince of Monaco.  The meeting lasted thirty minutes and was heavily photographed.  The magazine ran an article about how the actress playing a princess met a real prince.

And that was that.

Each wrote the other a customary formal thank you note.  Then another letter followed, and another.  Soon enough, Kelly and the Prince were revealing more and more of themselves in these letters.

These two lonely people, both longing for a love match, marriage, and children, found solace in these communications.

Two private people who were embarrassed by the attention their jobs garnered unintentionally found a way to get to know one another away from the prying eyes of the press.

When Rainier visited the United States, the press correctly sniffed out that he was going to propose, but no one could figure out who he intended to marry.

How could they?  Though they kept laser focused on both, Kelly and Rainier had had no real life contact outside that brief publicity stunt.

They fell in love through their letters.

Rainier III and Kelly

By the time she began filming on High Society, Grace Kelly was engaged and on the cusp of becoming the Princess of Monaco.

High Society is a remake of the 1940 classic The Philadelphia Story, directed by George Cukor and starring Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and James Stewart, who won his only Oscar in the film.  Playwright Philip Barry wrote the play and the part of Tracy Lord specifically for Hepburn, who played it to great acclaim on Broadway and used its success to vault herself triumphantly back into Hollywood after being unceremoniously dubbed box office poison.

To jazz it up a little, and perhaps to justify a remake, MGM made High Society a musical.  Kelly took up the part of Tracy Lord, and Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra brought the singing chops for Tracy’s two suitors.

Both versions tell the story of Tracy Lord (Hepurn/Kelly), a haughty rich socialite who demands perfection of herself and everyone else.  She harshly judges her philandering father and her ex-husband, CK Dexter Haven (Grant/Crosby).  The story opens on the eve of her wedding to a self-made bore, and the private Tracy is forced to allow two reporters to cover her wedding in exchange for suppressing a compromising article about her father’s affair with a ballet dancer.  She gets drunk and goes for a midnight swim with the reporter (Stewart/Sinatra) before realizing it’s Dex she loves after all.

Many reviewers now and at the time complain that Kelly is miscast, but I disagree, at least to a point.  No one but Hepburn will ever be exactly right for the part of Tracy Lord, who is essentially her alter ego.

With that stipulation, Kelly is as good a substitute as will likely ever be found.  The character of Tracy Lord is seen as a goddess, a remote marble statue of perfection.  The men (except for Dex, which makes him perfect for her) revere her as a thing of beauty they wish to place on a pedestal.

“I don’t want to be worshipped,” Tracy says in both versions, “I want to be loved.”

This persona applies perhaps even more to Kelly than it did to Hepburn.  Like Hepburn, Kelly was raised on the east coast, and had a sense of the proper way to do things.  Each pushed back fiercely against the studio heads to protect their career from bad parts.

Both had more respect for the theater than for Hollywood.

Both had immense power derived from the unusual fact that they didn’t need to be movie stars.

Both had an untouchable quality.

But of course, Hepburn’s image was one of a modern woman.  She was an eccentric who did as she pleased, wearing pants and living, as she said, “like a man.”

She elaborates:

“I have not lived as a woman. I have lived as a man. I’ve just done what I damn well wanted to, and I’ve made enough money to support myself, and ain’t afraid of being alone.”

This is not Grace Kelly, who broke several engagements because her family did not approve of the man in question.  Kelly was a style icon, and would not have been caught dead sprawled out or sitting crossed-legged as Hepburn often did.

Howard Hawks, Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn on the set of Bringing Up Baby

But I’ve just unintentionally illustrated the core problem with High Society.  I’ve spent more time talking about Katherine Hepburn than I have about Kelly.  

Try as I might, I cannot watch High Society without constantly comparing it to The Philadelphia Story and finding it wanting.  Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, though wonderful crooners, just don’t hold a candle to Cary Grant and James Stewart in the acting department, and are much more miscast in their roles than Grace Kelly.  It’s impossible to imagine either one being in this film if it wasn’t a musical.

It’s a film difficult to judge on its own merit.

It would be like remaking Gone With the Wind, or The Godfather and not talking about Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, or Marlon Brando.

The film is a fun enough romp, and essential viewing for Grace Kelly fans.  The MGM musicals of the 1950s are pleasant and fun, and it is no hardship to watch this film.  Watching Louis Armstrong and his jazz band alone is worth the price of admission, as is seeing Grace Kelly’s real-life engagement ring from Prince Rainier, which she wears in the film.

If it sounds like I’m damning this film with faint praise, with some regret I suppose I am.

Grace Kelly did not believe that High Society would be her final film.  

She came close to returning a few times—most notably for Hitchock’s Marnie, but she ultimately dropped out.  A film was made starring Nicole Kidman that presented this drop out as one fueled by political intrigue and suggested that Kelly lived miserably in a gilded cage.

According to biographer Donald Spoto, the truth was much less dramatic.  Kelly became pregnant shortly before she dropped out, but eventually miscarried the baby.  

The truth was that although she missed acting, Kelly never returned to Hollywood because she didn’t want to.  She put her children, her husband, and her people above her own desires to act again.  Hollywood would’ve welcomed her with open arms at any time and Rainier would’ve agreed for the right film under the right conditions.

As she herself said:

“I never really liked Hollywood.  Oh, I liked some of the people I worked with and some friends I made there, and I was thankful for the chance to do some good work.  But I found it unreal—unreal and full of men and women whose lives were confused and full of pain.  To outsiders, it looked like a glamorous life, but it really was not.”

In many ways, Grace Kelly’s body of work doesn’t merit the reverence and memory of her.  After all, she made only 11 films over a period of five years before retiring at twenty-six.  Compare this to even Jean Harlow, who died at the same age after making double the number of films.

However, few actors have ever done more with only 11 chances.  Kelly worked with the greatest male leads—Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, James Stewart, Cary Grant, William Holden, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra.  She was directed by no less than John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock.  She was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Mogambo and won Best Actress for The Country Girl.

She played in a western, a war film, a musical, a costume drama, and a thriller.

She had the guts to play an iconic role originated by Katharine Hepburn.

Few are more efficient.  Elon Musk isn’t that productive.

She lives on in our minds as the cool Hitchcock blonde, the princess, the fashion icon.

Kelly was a shooting star – burning bright but going out quickly.  

There’s not a longing for the films she didn’t make, the way there is with Carole Lombard, or Jean Harlow.  Perhaps that’s because death cut their careers short, or perhaps it’s because Grace gave us all she had to give and moved on.

Hollywood:  Grace came.  She saw.  She conquered.

Sources:

  • Spoto, Donald. High Society: The Life of Grace Kelly

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

8 thoughts on “A Hitchless Coda: High Society(1956): The Tail of a Shooting Star

  1. Pingback: Golden Age of Hollywood Reference List | Melanie Novak

    • Yes, I’m sad that she never got to make a movie with a man her age…her leading men were all 40-50 when she was 24-26. I would love the alternate universe where she got to make a film with Rock Hudson or Montgomery Clift….

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Well, I love High Society, and it’s a shame they didn’t make it less like a Philadelphia Story and add more musical or dancing sequences. For a musical that hardly anyone likes, this has a number of great tunes and a perfect cast.

    Wait, who do I know that has a Hitchcockian name?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Based on the feedback, my audience was not with me, and liked High Society much better than I did. I like your take, though, that I might’ve liked it more if they had gone full musical or been less faithful to the original. I just felt like Katharine Hepburn, especially, was all but haunting that film 🙂

    Like

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