This reviewer would love to have been in conversation with the RKO talent scout who in 1932, upon critiquing an audition by the master of dance – Fred Astaire – glibly wrote in his referral to the front office: “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Can dance a little…balding!”
As though any more definitive proof were required to illustrate Astaire’s supremacy as the premiere American dancer of the twentieth century, Warner Home Video now unleashes two of the master’s lesser (though no less entertaining) works on a double feature DVD; the long overdue resurrection of Stanley Donen’s Royal Wedding (1951) from that travesty of lack luster and down right shoddy public domain DVD transfers, and Astaire’s second teaming with the formidable Vera Ellen (the two were previously partnered in Three Little Words 1950) in The Belle of New York (1952). Both films are a testament to Astaire’s unique blend of seemingly effortless whimsy and meticulous proficiency as a dancer.
Royal Wedding (1951) casts Astaire as Tom Bowen, half of a brother and sister dance act who has taken their Broadway success on tour to England to coincide with the pending nuptials of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. Tom’s sister, Ellen (Jane Powell) is a notorious – though quite innocent – collector of amiable young suitors; a running gag turned serious when Ellen is introduced to the attractive and roving Lord John Brimdale (Peter Lawford). As their romance gets underway, Tom – a confirmed bachelor – begins to have second thoughts regarding chorus hopeful, Anne Ashmond (Sarah Churchill …yes, Winston’s daughter). However, the course of their true love proves to be anything but smooth.
Hardly cutting edge in terms of narrative structure, Royal Wedding is fleshed out by some genuinely appealing songs and dances penned by Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane, the best, the innovative ‘You’re All The World To Me’ that Astaire sings, then dances all over the floor, walls and ceiling of his hotel suite – whirling about the scenery in an effortlessly staged bit of film trickery. Powell, who until this film had been relegated to playing winsome ingénues, graduates to full womanly maturity. Her vocals on ‘The Happiest Day of My Life’ and ‘Too Late Now’ throb with an emotional intensity that is poignant and pure. The film also contains a dated Vaudeville number that holds the dubious distinction of having the longest title in song writing history – ‘How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Love You When You Know I’ve Been A Liar All My Life?’
The other half of this Astaire double bill is Charles Walters’ The Belle of New York (1952); a polite and gentile comedy set at the turn of the last century. All about a randy and commitment shy womanizer, Charlie Hill (Astaire) who is reformed by the love of a good woman – Salvation Army mistress, Angela Bonfils (Vera Ellen). One can see varying shades of Guys and Dolls in this rather plot-less offering. At first Charlie is determined to do right by Angela. He courts her in the customary manner of a gentleman and even wins the approval of his benefactor aunt, Mrs. Phineas Hill (the undaunted and irrepressible Marjorie Main). Ah, but then Charlie’s cold feet begin to kick up a storm and it is every bride for herself.
At the time of its’ release, The Belle Of New York was considered something of a disappointment – a curiosity, since the film is no better or worse than the aforementioned Royal Wedding, and, in fact, brims with some truly stellar terpsichorean skills: Astaire’s charming ‘Seeing’s Believing’ that has him literally floating on air; ‘A Picture by Currier and Ives’ in which Charlie and Angela dance against lush painted recreations of the famed portraitures, and ‘Oops’ – a gingerly flamboyant pas deux aboard a horse drawn trolley car. All in all, this isn’t a landmark musical, but it is a highly enjoyable diversion nonetheless.
Warner Home Video has done a fine job restoring Royal Wedding to its original brilliance. The Technicolor full frame transfer exhibits bold, rich and vibrant colors. Flesh tones are a tad on the pasty side, but quite acceptable. Contrast levels are bang on. Blacks are deep and rich. Whites are bright but never blooming. There is only a slight hint of modest grain and NO digital artifacts for an image that is smooth and wholly satisfying. The audio is mono as original recorded but delivering a prominent and clear sonic presentation.
On The Belle of New York, the Technicolor isn’t quite as rich or flamboyant, though overall this too is an adequate transfer. The image is sharp and well defined. Contrast levels are a tad low, but will not distract. Again, modest grain and NO digital anomalies make for a very smooth transfer. A hint of age related artifacts occasionally intrude but do not distract. The audio seems a tad muffled in spots, presumably due to an oveuse of noise reduction in the mastering effort.
Extras on Royal Wedding include an informative – if brief – featurette on the making of the film, an outtake reprise of ‘Every Night At Seven’ sung by Lawford, and Private Screenings with Robert Osborne interviewing director Stanley Donen. Extras are a tad scant on The Belle of New York – an alternative take to Astaire’s ‘I Wanna Be A Dancing Man (previously featured on That’s Entertainment III), and the film’s theatrical trailer. Recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Royal Wedding 3.5
The Belle of New York 3.5
Royal Wedding 4
The Belle of New York 3.5
Royal Wedding 4
The Belle of New York 2