Fred Astaire entered the final phase of his career as dancer extraordinaire in the 1950’s after a self-imposed, semi-retirement in the late 1940’s and a change of venue – first, from RKO to Paramount, then to the venerable Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, purveyors of the grandest musical entertainments in cinema history. Alas, the results were unevenly spaced and of varying quality; Astaire endeavoring to impress his audience regardless of the material offered him and, more often than not, admirably succeeding. Early on in his career, an RKO talent scout had idiotically pegged Astaire as “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Balding. Can dance a little.” Astaire’s estimation had fallen considerably since his debut on Broadway with sister, Adele. After Adele retired to start a family, Fred waffled as a solo before landing a minor role in MGM’s Dancing Lady (1933), costarring Joan Crawford. Mercifully, Astaire’s luck was about to change, teamed with Ginger Rogers for Flying Down to Rio (1933). As both movies were colossal hits, especially the latter, RKO elected to keep Astaire and Rogers together and busily churning out one lavish art deco escapist musical fantasy after the next.
But by the end of the 1930’s this cycle had run its course and the pair were dropped by the studio. While Ginger would go on to do other things, Astaire’s career seemed inextricably bound to the musical genre. Thankfully, there was still a considerable amount of steam to propel his solo career. Briefly, he was teamed with Bing Crosby, but mostly given an ever-revolving line of leading ladies, some of who could dance not a step. Ironically, Astaire ought never to have been inspired to embrace this third act in his film career. His first wife, Phyllis Potter, was ailing from the first stages of cancer that would eventually claim her in 1954. Historians have debated whether or not Astaire would have returned to the movies at all, if not for a lucky break – literally; Gene Kelly fracturing his ankle only weeks before Charles Walters’ Easter Parade (1948) was set to go before the cameras. Astaire’s return to pictures was a happy occasion. It also proved a springboard for his reemergence as ‘the grand ole man of the dance’; so lampooned in Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon (1953).
Two years before this triumph, Astaire celebrated the occasion of England’s Princess Elizabeth’s marriage to Philip Mountbatten with Royal Wedding (1951), a film also marking Stanley Donen’s directorial debut and featuring, among its many other delights, two of Astaire’s most memorable solos; ‘Sunday Jumps’ (staged in a gymnasium; his partner, a weighted coat rack) and ‘You’re All The World To Me’ – an ingeniously conceived novelty; Astaire appearing weightless as he reels, glides and bounces with spellbinding precision from floor, to walls, to ceiling. This effect was achieved by building an entire room inside a gigantic drum, nailing down all the furniture inside it, including carpets and curtains, securing a camera man to a bolted rig and then rotating the entire enterprise 360 degrees over and over again; leaving Astaire to figure out intriguing ways of camouflaging the illusion with his dance routine. The uncanny effect of sheer weightlessness marked a turning point in Astaire’s tenure as a dancer.
Royal Wedding is really a second tier offering from MGM, occasionally elevated to top tier status by Astaire, along with co-star, Jane Powell (who have wonderful chemistry as brother/sister dance team, Tom and Ellen Bowen), the genius of Stanley Donen, and, a beautiful score by Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner. The songs, particularly Powell’s solo ballads, ‘Too Late Now’ and ‘The Happiest Day of My Life’ (both amorously sung to love interest, Peter Lawford, cast as English Lord John Brindale) are of the old Metro magic ilk. Where the film falters ever so slightly is in its pas deux; Powell, not a trained dancer, but acquitting herself rather nicely of ‘Open Your Eyes’; the waltz duet with Astaire (taking place, presumably on a luxury liner, though actually, on a gimbal built to rock the set back and forth constructed on an MGM soundstage), their moment supreme deliberately ruined when the vessel encounters rough seas. Alas, none of the pair’s other routines are as eloquent or memorable.
‘Every Night At Seven’ casts Astaire as an aged Prince Charming, chasing after a scullery maid (Powell); narrowly averting a parade of royal guards. Thematically, at least, this puts the audience in the mood for the main plot. But the number is flawed, with frequent cutaways to the audience – something Astaire deplored. ‘I Left My Hat in Haiti’ finds Astaire and Powell in a stage-bound tropical island setting; colorful, but exceptionally frenetic and fragmented, Astaire affecting something of a loose-limbed samba, but mostly hopping about the painted scenery in search of his discarded fedora. Finally, there’s ‘How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Loved You When You Know I’ve Been A Liar All My Life’. The song holds the rather dubious distinction of possessing the longest title ever registered with ASCAP; the Vaudevillian routine, a transparent stab to recapture or at least partially bottle the elusive magic of Astaire’s ‘Couple of Swells’ ragamuffin routine with Judy Garland from Easter Parade. Herein, the charm wears thin/the treacle rather heavy as Powell’s gun moll begs, cajoles; then, finally demands a good-for-nothing con artist (Astaire) take her back.
Yet, despite these drawbacks, Royal Wedding emerges as a fairly amiable little gem with a few unexpected surprises along the way; not the least, in the casting British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill’s daughter, Sarah as Astaire’s love interest, Anne Ashmond. Plum parts also go to Albert Sharpe (as Anne’s caustic and estranged father/barkeeper, James) and Keenan Wynn, playing both sides of the Atlantic as Tom and Ellen’s slang-talking American agent, Irving Klinger and his twin brother; cultured British booking agent, Edgar. Pip now! Royal Wedding doesn’t really strain the girth of any of these formidable talents. Nevertheless, it affords each the opportunity to charm us with familiar warmth most MGM musicals of this particular vintage possessed.
The Alan Jay Lerner screenplay opens in New York; the final performance of Tom and Ellen Bowen; the toast of Broadway for quite some time. As is something of a habit with Ellen, she has been courting two potential suitors at the same time (Francis Bethencourt and William Cabanne); neither of particularly amorous interest. Tom is hardly concerned, despite the fact Ellen frequently talks about giving up the stage to marry and live a quiet life (shades of Fred and Adele’s professional relationship at play). The couple boards a luxury liner for London where their new musical revue is set to begin rehearsals. Happily ensconced in a suite of rooms at the Ritz, Tom inadvertently sees Anne shopping. He pursues her with flirtatious intent, but is easily shot down before she realizes who he is. Alas, a short while later, Tom sneaks into the theater during rehearsals and quietly observes as Anne auditions for his show. At the most inopportune moment, he emerges from the shadows, startling Anne for a moment or two. She politely apologizes for her curtness earlier and elects to take Tom with her to James’ pub for a conciliatory drink to smooth things over, but also to collect money for her estranged mother, Linda (Kerry O’Day).
After some initial cynicism (James regarding all ‘Yanks’ with general contempt over an unpaid bar tab), Tom offers to smooth things over by settling this debt. James informs Anne that Tom is a much nicer ‘bloke’ than the American chap who left her high and dry after the war, but has repeatedly promised to send for her once he gets reestablished. Tom is bitterly disappointed to discover Anne is somewhat ‘engaged’ to this never-to-be-seen fellow. Still, he elects to pursue Anne in friendship, all the while more steadily becoming romantically attracted to her. In the meantime, Ellen has rekindled her friendship with Lord John Brindale, a man she met while still on board the luxury liner. John is quietly passionate about Ellen. She adores him. But something is holding her back; perhaps, knowing Tom would never approve of her forsaking their act – not even for true love. Tom and Ellen’s show opens and is a huge smash. However, as the royal wedding draws nearer, Tom begins to realize he has fallen deeply in love with Anne. He contacts Irving back in New York to do a little creative investigating about her long lost beau, discovering the man is, in fact, already married. Ellen and John quarrel and part company, though not for long. Eventually, Tom informs Ellen he cannot live without Anne and Ellen explains she feels the same way about John. Finding one another amidst the chaos of the royal nuptials, this reconciled foursome agrees to meet at Westminister Abbey at three o’clock after the reception; emerging from the chapel as men and wives; arms locked and stepping into the crowded streets.
Royal Wedding is a pleasant, innovative and effortless enough affair. Its standout musical moments are real showstoppers, somewhat diffused in their potency by the occasionally lackluster romantic machinations sandwiched in between. Sarah Churchill is an ill-fit as Astaire’s coryphée paramour, possessing little oomph and even less pizzazz as she cordially ingratiates herself to Astaire’s more laid back impresario. Jane Powell has better chemistry with co-star, Peter Lawford, whose one solo (a reprise of ‘Every Night At Seven’) was cut shortly before the first preview. Interestingly, both Powell and director, Stanley Donen were last minute replacements on the picture; Donen coming to the rescue when Charles Walters was assigned another project, and Powell replacing, first Judy Garland (who suffered a nervous breakdown and was eventually fired from the studio), then June Allyson (who became pregnant).
If Royal Wedding rarely strained Astaire’s talents, his next project, Charles Walter’s The Belle of New York (1952) proved a cakewalk of sorts; far too antiseptic a turn-of-the-century yarn and utterly lacking in that spark of essential creativity. The picture is based on a C.M.S. McLellan stage play, dating all the way back to 1940. Indeed, MGM had had plans to revive this stagecraft as a major motion picture as early as 1946. For one reason or another, the project never came about; the property repeatedly dusted off and re-launched. The tale of a randy playboy from New York’s upper crust masquerading as a downtrodden pauper in desperate need of deliverance from a Salvation Army worker favored shades of Damon Runyon’s Guys and Dolls. Alas, this is where all comparisons to that ‘other’ galvanic stage show end. The Belle of New York is a warhorse in the most traditional sense; its chief asset, the ebullient Harry Warren/Johnny Mercer score. Most of their songs are under-utilized in the Chester Erskine adaptation, scripted by Robert O'Brien and Irving Elinson. Too much whimsy and not nearly enough dancing to suit most critics’ tastes, The Belle of New York emerged as something of an oddity; particularly as it has Astaire and Vera-Ellen – two of the most accomplished dancers ever to grace the movie screen. Most of their choreography consisted of cloying moments and a rather rigid adherence to the time-honored dance steps circa the last century: Astaire and Ellen’s pas deux straightjacketed into subservience.
Worse, the film features several specialty numbers that turned out to be more gimmicky than graceful, beginning with ‘Seeing’s Believing’; Astaire’s notorious well-heeled pleasure seeker, Charlie Hill, floating into the stratosphere after meeting tambourine-toting social worker, Angela Bonfils (Vera-Ellen) for the first time. Astaire warbles this memorable tune with lyrical grace. But his subsequent dance is hampered by some rear projection and rotoscoping of the obvious trampolines used to suggest his ability to bounce and flutter like a bird about the nighttime skyline. The other unforgiveable mishap is A Bride’s Wedding Day Song, in which Angela and Charlie’s engagement plans come to life via a series of painted backdrops by noted photographers, Currier and Ives; seasonal transitions from summer to fall, and, winter to spring. Again, the dancing is compliant to the staging of these vignettes; the principles and extras jumping around without any sort of solid choreography. Given the obvious expense of this lavishly appointed number, the results are abysmally subpar for an Astaire musical – but especially one also featuring Vera-Ellen; whose leggy assets are barely glimpsed in the ‘Naughty But Nice’ number (in hindsight, a sort of prelude to Cyd Charisse’s similar striptease in the musical remake of 1939’s Ninotchka; Silk Stockings 1957, also starring Astaire) as she strips out of her drab Salvation Army garb and pours her sultry hourglass figure into a stunning black sequined ball gown with canary yellow crinolines.
The Belle of New York opens with Charlie’s bachelor party; flanked by a bevy of chorines, all of whom have serious doubts the groom will make it to the altar with his latest conquest; Coney Island trick shooter, Dixie 'Deadshot' McCoy (Gale Robbins). Indeed, Charles is commitment shy, toying with women’s hearts without ever following through. When his aunt, socialite, Mrs. Phineas Hill (the irrepressible and hilarious, Marjorie Main) discovers his engagement, she threatens to toy with his ‘little ole head’. No worries there, as Dixie arrives, having been jilted at the altar, and demanding a cash settlement from Mrs. Hill to remain silent. The check written, Mrs. Hill warns Charles she will cut him off without a cent if he persists in being so frivolous. Instead, Charles almost immediately falls for Angela, unaware she works for the settlement house where Mrs. Hill is a major contributor. Angela is unimpressed with Charles obvious romantic overtures. Her roommate, and fellow Salvation Army worker, Elsie Wilkins (Alice Pearce), however, thinks Charles a splendid rake.
Eventually, Charles wears down Angela’s resolve; especially after she quietly observes him making the genuine effort to take on various menial jobs to prove his worth to her. When Mrs. Hill discovers their romance she is pleased as punch. Angela is not like the other girls Charles has known. She is level-headed, intelligent and very hard working; just the sort of influence to mold Charles’ character. Alas, immediately upon proposing, Charles suffers from the onset of cold feet. He stands Angela up at the altar, returning several hours later to his hotel suite to discover her, still in her wedding gown, patiently awaiting his return. Angela attempts to rekindle the passion they once felt. But Charles resists and Angela is humiliated. She returns to the Salvation Army and Charles, now without his inheritance, takes a job as a waiter and part-time tap dancer in a Bowery saloon. With Elsie’s help, Angela decides to play the part of a ‘fallen woman’; the pair dressing in all their gaudy finery and crashing the saloon to incur Charles’ jealousy. Their ruse works – too well, in fact; a drunk makes a crude pass at them. This raises Charles’ dander and a bar room brawl ensues. Escaping unharmed, Charles and Angela storm off together, quite unaware their heated argument is taking place miles off the ground. It’s no use. They are in love. Charles takes Angela in his arms and the two waltz off into the stratosphere; some trick photography transforming their apparel into a tuxedo and wedding dress before the final fade out.
The Belle of New York is not a terrible movie, and yet it remains a terrific disappointment. If only to judge Astaire’s career on the basis of this movie, one would sincerely have to question why he retains the moniker of ‘world’s greatest dancer’. There is very little of the ole Astaire style in The Belle of New York; the show’s spectacle predicated on gimmicks, trick photography and specialties without the benefit of some solid dances feathered in for good measure. Vera-Ellen is simply wasted; accompanying Astaire as the couple reel in and out of an empty horse-drawn trolley for the ‘Oops’ routine; bouncing up and down from seat to seat, but only occasionally given the opportunity to truly exercise their limbs with terpsichorean grace. There’s even less dancing in their ‘Baby Doll’ routine; a spirited chase about the settlement house’s prayer room. Astaire is given two solos, the aforementioned, ‘Seeing’s Believing’ and ‘I Wanna Be A Dancin’ Man’ – the latter, a soft shoe shuffle at the saloon, performed with impeccable smoothness, but never suggesting Astaire is doing anything more than simply going through the motions. In the final analysis, the best that can be said of The Belle of New York is that it neither offends the ear nor the eye; lavishly appointed and looking every bit the A-list MGM class act without ever rising to the occasion of proving its own self-worth.
Warner Home Video has done a middling job on releasing this 2-disc DVD set. While Royal Wedding appears to have undergone a considerable restoration and clean-up, The Belle of New York looks rather tired and worn around the edges. Colors pop on Royal Wedding, but appear somewhat dull and slightly muddy on ‘Belle’. Both transfers are virtually free of edge enhancement and other digital anomalies. But ‘Belle’ occasionally suffers from some residual softness and a light amount of age-related speckling, dirt and scratches. Contrast levels on Royal Wedding are bang on; slightly weaker on The Belle of New York which also tends to lack even a hint of indigenous film grain. These complaints are marginal as both transfers are highly watchable and fairly pleasing. Neither will win any awards, however, and one sincerely hopes to see at least Royal Wedding receive a spiffy Blu-ray transfer one of these days – a rather obvious choice for a Warner Archive hi-def release.
The audio is mono on both transfers, as original recorded, and adequately sounding. Extras on Royal Wedding include an informative – if brief – featurette on the making of the film, the outtake reprise of ‘Every Night At Seven’ sung by Peter Lawford, and Private Screenings with Robert Osborne featuring a truncated interview with the film’s director, Stanley Donen. Extras are a tad scant on The Belle of New York – an alternative take of Astaire’s ‘I Wanna Be A Dancing Man (previously featured on That’s Entertainment III – same routine, Astaire wearing a slightly different costume), and the film’s theatrical trailer. This 2-disc set gets my recommendation for Royal Wedding. You can skip The Belle of New York.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Royal Wedding 4
The Belle of New York 2
Royal Wedding 4
The Belle of New York 3.5
Royal Wedding 4
The Belle of New York 2