Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Belle of New York (MGM, 1952)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The Belle of New York is a 1952 MGM musical, directed by Charles Walters and starring Fred Astaire as a playboy in 1890’s New York and Vera-Ellen as a pretty rescue-mission proprietor with whom he finally finds true love (Anita Ellis was her voice double, since she could dance but not sing). It’s not one of Astaire’s really great films, but it does have a nice charm, with a pleasant score by Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer and some really good comic supporting performances by Marjorie Main as Astaire’s rich aunt (who has control of him by the purse strings) and Alice Pearce (as the drummer in Vera-Ellen’s mission band). — 1/20/96


The film was The Belle of New York, a 1952 musical from MGM (Arthur Freed produced) starring Fred Astaire and Vera-Ellen in a very loose adaptation of an old stage show that had been an enormous hit in the 1890’s in both New York and London. But the only thing the writers — Chester Erskine (“adaptation”), Robert O’Brien and Irving Elinson — kept from the old show was the female lead, Angela Bonfils (Vera-Ellen), who’s grown up in the “Daughters of Right” ministry where she works under the direction of rich do-gooder Mrs. Phineas Hill (Marjorie Main). Hill’s scapegrace playboy nephew Charlie (Fred Astaire) runs into Angela while she’s on the street banging the drum in the mission band and is instantly smitten with her — though he’s got six previous fiancées, all of whom he’s paid off, the last of whom is a crack shot in a circus who bills herself as Dixie “Deadshot” McCoy (Gale Robbins, whose part was hardly big enough — frankly I was hoping for a scene in which this character threatens to shoot up Charlie’s and Angela’s wedding — am I really springing any surprises on you when I note that the two ill-matched lovers get together at the end?). Arthur Freed had had this one on his production schedule since 1946, when he’d planned it for Astaire and Judy Garland — but he could never get them together at the same time, and when he finally did it was to make Easter Parade (with Astaire a last-minute substitute for Gene Kelly, who’d injured himself playing touch football) instead.

Then in 1950 the stage show Guys and Dolls opened on Broadway and was an enormous hit, and Freed got the greenlight for a similar story involving a nice mission girl and a ne’er-do-well but charismatic man from the dark side (or as dark as a Production Code-era musical was allowed to get). The Belle of New York, stylishly directed by Charles Walters (though one can’t help but imagine what Vincente Minnelli could have done with this script!) and with a good score by Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer that didn’t generate any standards (the best song, “I Wanna Be a Dancin’ Man,” was obviously too tailored for Fred Astaire to work for anyone else!), tends to be a forgotten stepchild among Astaire’s movies even though it has one of his most audacious dance inventions. Wondering how on earth he was going to top his gravity-defying around-the-walls-of-a-room dance to “You’re All the World to Me” in Royal Wedding, his immediately previous film, Astaire concocted the idea of doing a dance solo in mid-air — or at least on a pane of thick glass (thick enough to support his weight, thin enough so a camera could shoot through it and the lights wouldn’t reflect off it) that could be suspended above a painted backdrop to make it look like he was dancing in mid-air. To add to the irony, the song he did this physically impossible but utterly joyous dance to was called “Seeing’s Believing”! (Some of the shots of Astaire and, later, Vera-Ellen floating in space were done with process work as well; MGM’s usual effects people, Warren Newcombe and Irving Ries, really did a beautiful job on this.)

Otherwise it’s a comfortable movie, with Astaire once again using the device that made his films with Ginger Rogers so deliciously entertaining — they’d hate each other until he somehow got his leading lady on the dance floor with him, whereupon the sheer romantic sensation of them dancing together would dissolve her resistance and get her to fall in love with him — only the two stars get together with over half an hour of this 82-minute film still to go and the writers have to work overtime to plug in enough complications to keep the film going longer than that. (They do that with a scene in which Vera-Ellen’s lumpen friends come to Astaire’s palatial home and insist that he drink toast after toast to her charms — and he gets drunk and so hung over the next day he misses their scheduled wedding.) The plot of this one is even more pretextual than usual for an Astaire musical, but the numbers are so delightful, who cares? According to Robert Osborne’s intro (this wasn’t included in TCM’s “Star of the Month” tribute to Astaire but it was shown there later as one of the “Bob’s Picks” nights), 40 percent of this film consists of singing and/or dancing — a much higher percentage than usual in an Astaire musical (Arlene Croce noted that just 10 of The Gay Divorcée’s 107 minutes were devoted to Astaire dancing alone or with Ginger Rogers, then said, “The film’s enduring popularity is a testament to what those minutes contain”) — including big numbers about Currier and Ives (they kept the turn-of-the-last-century time setting) and Astaire’s tribute to a horse pulling a streetcar (the song was called “Oops” and is just about the only piece in The Belle of New York that got a cover version — Louis Armstrong recorded it for Decca). While one can imagine the heartbreak Judy Garland could have brought to this character (she was nowhere near as good a dancer as Vera-Ellen but at least she could sing — Vera-Ellen’s voice had to be dubbed — and she was a far better and more inspiring actress), as it stands The Belle of New York is one of Astaire’s more engaging movies, not one of his very best but certainly entertaining — and the “Dancin’ Man” solo is a virtual compendium of what “Fred Astaire” — dancer, singer, actor, personality, star — was all about! — 6/18/14