Remake Review: The Philadelphia Story and High Society

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“The time to make up your mind about people is never.”

There may be no type of adaptation more tricky to pull off than a remake. Unlike a more subtle retelling, a remake matches its subject–sometimes line for line and scene for scene. In many ways, remakes have more riding on them than an original film. An original film has to stand on its own, but a remake must do that and also contain within it some sparkling effervescent quality that contains the reason for its existence.

There’s a lot that can bring down a remake–nostalgia for one thing. Take a film that’s good, but not necessarily a shining example of movie brilliance like The Ghostbusters or The Karate Kid. These films are fan favorites and redoing them, however well, means that you’re putting a beloved film into competition with a film that simply doesn’t have the rosy glow time adds. Its imperfections are not the ones we remember fondly, its strengths are different and sometimes jarring.

Some remakes are done to take advantage of advances in special effects or new perspectives and social attitudes. Some are done to capitalize on successful stories (hello SpiderMan and Robin Hood adventures), and some–well some you don’t even know what people were thinking.

No story is safe from the remake bug, and I honestly think that’s okay. Remakes are part of a process of self invention and adaptation that keeps Hollywood films interesting and engaging not just with current trends but also with its own history. It’s an art form that is constantly engaging with itself and with other disciplines like theater, music, and fine arts.

 

Now let’s look at one:

I rented The Philadelphia Story from the library. I didn’t realize that it was the original and I had already seen the remake (it does say it on the back of the DVD case that I own–but who reads the back of the DVD case? I mean, except me out of curiosity or to find out the run time). This I quickly ascertained from the first few minutes of the film.

Before we get into the pros and cons of each film, let’s take a look at some of the pertinent stats:

The Philadelphia Story:

  • release year: 1941
  • director: George Cukor (also well known for My Fair Lady and Les Girls)
  • stars: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, & Jimmy Stewart
  • reception: won 2 Oscars (best screenplay, best lead actor-Jimmy Stewart), nominated for an additional 4), 5th most popular box film of the year
  • genre: screwball comedy (or remarriage comedy)

High Society:

  • release year: 1956
  • director: Charles Walters (also known for The Unsinkable Molly Brown and Please Don’t Eat the Daisies)
  • stars: Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra
  • reception: nominated for 2 Oscars, both for music–it almost received a third nomination for best story, which was one of the academy’s more famous gaffes considering that 15 years earlier they gave an Oscar to the original screenplay. It was the 10th highest grossing film that year.
  • genre: musical
  • fun fact: This was Grace Kelly’s final screen performance before marrying the Prince of Monaco.

 

Here’s the basic plot of both films: The divorced Tracy Lord is getting married again. To save her father’s reputation, she is allowing two reporters from Spy magazine to report on her nuptials. What follows is a comedy with plenty of love triangles and emotion before Tracy ultimately decides what’s important and who she’s going to spend the rest of her life with.

While High Society is definitely the more comical of the two, the original black and white film will always be the greater of the two for me.

Here’s why:

  • Both films have a great cast, but no one can steal Katharine Hepburn‘s show. The root of both characters is a seemingly goddess or queen-like disposition, but Hepburn shows much greater range of emotion than Kelly, who often comes off as a little more immature rather than complex.
  • The original film also plays up all the relationships more, so that you can really feel the tension as Tracy Lord flits between Dexter, George, and Mike.
  • Both films are well cast, but I feel that as a musical it would have done even better if they’d picked an actress who could sing. Too much of the romancing is left to the gentlemen.
  • I also think that Miss Imbrie is played better in the original film–instead of being light and comic she is observant, serious, and engaging. Her dilemmas hold more depth and her relationship with Mike becomes more nuanced. We actually see more of the background of both characters–even though they work for a gossip magazine they’re both artists–Mike is a writer with a full-length, published book, and Elizabeth is a painter. Their talent and work becomes another, deeper way of looking at the class struggles that are bared in the film.

However, I really love the relationship between Tracy and her sister as portrayed in the newer film. They have more of a good-natured rivalry going on that’s fun to watch.

Favorite moments:

My favorite stand alone scene (i.e. one that isn’t repeated in the remake) in the original is where Mike goes to the library to do research and finds Tracy there reading his book. This scene goes a long way to challenging both character’s perceptions of each other.

My favorite part of the remake is without a doubt the flashback scene to Dexter and Tracy’s honeymoon aboard the yacht, the True Love. In the original film, you don’t see any of the once-loving relationship between Tracy and Dexter, so it’s nice to have Bing crooning to Kelly.

One of my favorite sequences in both films is when the reporters come to the mansion and see the room full of silver presents and meet Tracy’s sister who has made a pact with her sister to give the reporters a show.

****

All in all, while both films have something to offer, the first is more nuanced–even the cinematography (full of close ups) signals that. The characters tend to be more dynamic and display a greater range of emotion. While Cole Porter’s songs make a lovely addition to the remake, they don’t do all that much to spur the plot along or bring much insight (aside from the ‘True Love’ song).

 

But now I’ll turn it over to you: have you seen either or both of these films? Did you like them? Let me know in the comments.

2 thoughts on “Remake Review: The Philadelphia Story and High Society

  1. hamlettethedame says:

    I’ve seen both of them multiple times, and I’ve come to accept that I just don’t like the original very well. The characters aren’t very likable, and that is make-or-break for me with most movies. But High Society charms me so much, I own a copy.

    You make great points in your post here, though, and I can’t disagree with any of them. Just a matter of personal preference!

    Liked by 1 person

    • amermelstein says:

      I do think that the remake is very charming–it’s certainly funnier. I love that Elizabeth gets more of the laughs–even at her expense. My favorite line from High Society is when Tracy first meets Liz and Mike and repeats her name back to her because she’s ‘sensitive’ to names, “Elizabeth Imbrie–it sounds like a medieval saint who was burned to death.” Cracks me up every time.

      Like

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