Thursday, December 19, 2013

Royal Wedding (MGM, 1951)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched the film Royal Wedding on Turner Classic Movies as part of their month-long “Star of the Month” salute to Fred Astaire. It’s an engaging film even though it’s not one of Astaire’s major works. It was made in 1951 by the Arthur Freed unit at MGM and directed by Stanley Donen — who had previously co-directed the films Take Me Out to the Ballgame and On the Town with Astaire’s friendly rival at MGM, Gene Kelly (the friendship and mutual respect between them was readily apparent in 1974, when they made the film That’s Entertainment and each movingly narrated tributes to the other) — and was partly inspired by Astaire’s real life and partly by his previous film Easter Parade. The part of Astaire’s life that inspired Royal Wedding was the marriage of Fred’s sister Adele Astaire in 1931; she got hitched to Lord Cavendish and retired from the stage, settling in to a life as a British noblewoman, while Fred had the interesting quandary of what to do for a living now that she was no longer part of his act. (He did Cole Porter’s The Gay Divorce as his first post-Adele stage show — and, as it turned out, his last, since right after The Gay Divorce he went to Hollywood, signed with RKO and, after making his screen debut in MGM’s Dancing Lady with Joan Crawford, started the nine-film series with Ginger Rogers that made both of them superstars and legends.) So Alan Jay Lerner, who wrote both the script for Royal Wedding and the lyrics to the songs (Burton Lane, his alternate collaborator when he couldn’t get the reclusive Frederick Loewe, composed the music), cast Astaire as half of a brother-and-sister dance team who get an offer to take their hit Broadway show Every Night at Seven to London just in time for the royal wedding — the real one — between Princess Elizabeth (soon to become Queen Elizabeth II) and Prince Philip. The biggest problem in making the film was casting Astaire’s sister; the part originally went to June Allyson, who had to give it up when her husband Dick Powell (ironically, Astaire’s biggest rival among male musical stars in the 1930’s) got her pregnant.

Next they had the idea of casting Judy Garland, who had just finished Summer Stock with Gene Kelly, but at the time Judy was an emotional basket case and had had it with MGM, with moviemaking in general, and she responded in what had become depressingly familiar ways to the personnel at MGM in general and Arthur Freed in particular. “For the first week everything went well,” Hugh Fordin wrote in The World of Entertainment, his biography of Freed. “The second was a short week, and for a few days Judy worked with [musical director and arranger Saul] Chaplin on her vocals. At the end of the third week, on June 9 [1950], the Freed Unit gave a birthday party for her on the rehearsal stage. But beginning the fourth, she told Donen that she would not be able to rehearse. Donen told her that these were the last days of rehearsals before the shooting date and implored her to take this into consideration. ‘Take your choice,’ she said. Freed intervened and made the change [from morning rehearsals] to afternoons. On Saturday, June 17, at 11:23 a.m., Judy called to say that she would not be in to rehearse. Donen again pointed out to her that this was the last day before pre-recording. No matter, she was not coming in. Freed was apprised of the situation, and with much pain in his heart he had to give Judy up.” Judy Garland’s contract with MGM was suspended on June 17, and later she was given her release from the studio — and on June 19 Freed asked Astaire if he would accept Jane Powell as his new co-star. “Grab her — please!” Astaire said, even though Powell was known primarily as a singer with a quasi-operatic voice and not a dancer, and Astaire’s previous films attempting to turn non-dancing stars into dance partners (Joan Fontaine in A Damsel in Distress and Paulette Goddard in Second Chorus) had been flops. As things turned out, Astaire was able to coach Powell at least to look like she was keeping up with him on the dance floor, much the way Gene Kelly had with Frank Sinatra in their films together (“I was never a dancer,” said Sinatra, “but Gene Kelly was so talented he made me look like one”), though in deference to her he did a few more lifts in his dances than he usually did.

The loss of Judy Garland also indirectly resulted in one of the film’s most famous numbers: Lane and Lerner had written a big, emotional ballad called “You’re All the World to Me” to be Judy’s big featured number, and when Jane Powell came in Freed didn’t think the song would be right for her voice. So Astaire took it over and used it as the basis for the film’s most famous — and most audaciously imaginative — number, literally dancing up the four walls of his hotel room and appearing to defy gravity. The gimmick was that the room set was actually attached to a giant motor that revolved it, and the camera was bolted to the set so Astaire was always at the bottom of the set no matter where it and the camera were. Astaire and Donen are frequently credited with inventing this technique, but it was actually the product of the demented imagination of Buster Keaton, who at the end of his 1924 film The Navigator had his character and the leading lady rescued by a submarine, which does a gravity-defying turn under water which Keaton represented in the same way — a revolving set, a camera bolted to it, and an actor who looked like he was breaking the law of gravity but really wasn’t. (Later the film 2001: A Space Odyssey used the same technique to show a flight attendant serving the protagonist a drink in zero gravity.) This isn’t the only number in Royal Wedding that plays tricks with viewers’ perceptions; earlier in the film, while the brother-and-sister dance team Tom and Ellen Bowen (Fred Astaire and Jane Powell) are on an ocean liner from the U.S. to the U.K., they’re asked to perform at an on-board benefit — only the ship hits a patch of stormy sea and the floor they’re dancing on starts rocking and throwing them about at odd angles. At the end a couch comes sliding towards them and they end the number by collapsing onto it. (In many of Astaire’s musicals he dances on furniture; in this one, the furniture dances back.) It’s also the one in which Astaire does his famous dance with a hat rack, as well as some other gym equipment (he’s supposed to be rehearsing with his sister in the ship’s gym, but she hasn’t shown up), to an appealing tune by Lane called “The Sunday Jumps.” (Lerner wrote a lyric for it but it wasn’t used.) This is one Astaire musical in which the plot is even more trivial and beside the point than usual: on their way to England Ellen falls for playboy Lord John Brindale (the young and almost indecently attractive Peter Lawford), while once they get there Tom finds himself attracted to aspiring dancer Anne Ashmond (Sarah Churchill, daughter of British prime minister Winston Churchill) and not only ends up with her but also brings her estranged parents (Albert Sharpe, in a marvelously droll performance miles above the usually leaden “comic relief” in these productions, and Viola Roache) together just before the big royal wedding. Churchill got the part after Freed’s original choice, ballerina Moira Shearer, star of Michael Powell’s and Emeric Pressburger’s international hit The Red Shoes, was turned down by Astaire with the words, “I know she’s wonderful, but what the hell could I do with her?”

Though the derivation from Easter Parade — with the titular royal wedding taking the place of the Easter parade — is almost too obvious, Royal Wedding is a delight even though it’s a minor film in the Astaire canon (which is only to say it isn’t The Gay Divorcée, Top Hat, Swing Time, Holiday Inn or The Band Wagon), and aside from the numbers discussed above it also has the song “How Could You Believe Me When I Say I Love You When You Know I’ve Been a Liar All My Life?” (done by Astaire and Powell as a couple of lowlife jackanapes — it’s clearly an attempt to repeat the success of “A Couple of Swells” from Easter Parade and it’s the only number where we really miss Judy Garland, though Powell drops her usual operatic affectations and gets in the spirit of the thing) and a great big dazzling production number to a song called “I Left My Hat in Haiti.” Charles reacted to the sight of an all-white ensemble — “What sort of comprador version of Haiti is this?” he said — but when you’re watching a Fred Astaire musical about the last thing you need to concern yourself with is dramatic verisimilitude. It’s a great, bouncy number and a feast of Technicolor, also a needed reminder that once upon a time people who were making color films actually made them colorful, instead of making everything dirty green and brown and making viewers (this viewer, anyway) wonder why, if they’re going to use so little of the visible spectrum anyway, they just don’t go ahead and shoot in black-and-white. One problem with Royal Wedding was the royal wedding itself; though the film takes place (mostly) in England, it was shot entirely in Hollywood (though I’m sure they had a second unit in London taking backgrounds for process shots), and MGM needed color footage of the real wedding — which only one company, Gaumont, had. Also on the film’s plus side is a marvelous dual role for Keenan Wynn as twin brothers, the American and British producers of the Astaire-Powell show, which gets especially hilarious as they try to talk to each other in slang. Royal Wedding isn’t much as a movie, but it’s thoroughly professional and, of course, it has the incomparable Astaire, still in dazzling control of his body at age 51 and making it believable that he’s the brother of a co-star nearly 30 years younger. But then there are few things in the film world I’d rather see than Fred Astaire dance!