An excuse to stay up late (which I never need) or, I suppose, get up early—or once again to simply set your recorder: TCM is showing Royal Wedding (1951) with Fred Astaire at 5am PT on Sunday (12 September). Actually, that would never be staying up late, would it? That’s staying up all night. So TiVo that sucker.
Royal Wedding is a curious beastie. It’s a pretty late musical—1951—that feels like it was made much earlier. More like a 1930s or 1940s musical—not in any easily definable way, just in the overall feel. Though it is in colour. A strange and enjoyable cast with, in addition to Astaire, Jane Powell and Peter Lawford. But for me, the thing that makes this an important film (though of course anything with Astaire is important, if for no other reason than simply joy) is its director: Stanley Donen.
This film was his second outing as a director, the first being his work as co-director with Gene Kelley in On the Town (1949), one of the greatest musicals ever. Donen would go on to direct Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Funny Face (1957), The Pajama Game (1957), Indiscreet (1958), Charade (1963) and Bedazzled (1967), among other films. It’s a wonderful career, full of pleasure, and clearly indebted to Donen’s beginnings on stage as a song-and-dance man, and his skills as a choreographer.
In my opinion, Donen has never received anything like the acclaim and critical attention he deserves. Astonishingly, he was never nominated for an Academy Award, though he was given an honorary Oscar in 1998—a long-overdue recognition. His acceptance was one of the great moments in Academy Award history, Donen dancing with his Oscar statue while singing Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek.”
If Donen was behind the camera “the King of the Hollywood musicals” as some have argued, Fred Astaire was King on the screen, the embodiment of the purest strain of the American musical film, and the most graceful presence—and one of the most joyous—ever seen in cinema. Donen directed him twice: here, in Royal Wedding, and a few years later in Funny Face with Audrey Hepburn, on whom Donen clearly doted, directing her to great effect in three films. Funny Face is wonderful in all sorts of ways—Kay Thompson, “Think Pink” and “Bonjour, Paris!” to pick just three—but flawed as well, marred in particular by the disturbing disparity between Astaire and Hepburn, particularly in terms of age. So Royal Wedding stands out as the key pairing of Donen and Astaire, these two crucial figures in the history of the American musical.
And as befits a pairing of such terrific song and dance men, Royal Wedding has two of the most wonderful dances ever filmed with Fred Astaire, which is really saying something: Fred Astaire dancing on the walls and ceiling of his hotel room, weightless with joy; and his equally famous dance with a coat rack for a partner, an essay in dance:
This latter sequence could serve as a rebuttal to those who diminish Astaire’s achievements by noting that Ginger Rogers did everything he did, backwards, in high heels. Here, Astaire shows how in his arms even a coat rack can be imbued with grace. Not to diminish Rogers’ work—she was certainly no coat rack; she was a good dancer and a gifted comic actress, but she was also no Astaire, and never looked anywhere near as elegant or graceful in her other films as she did in his arms.
(When you’ve finished watching Royal Wedding, have brunch and go for a walk in the park—and then come home for perhaps the best Lassie film, Lassie Come Home (1943) with Roddy McDowell, showing at 11:30am PT. Then you’ve just got time for lunch and another walk before one of the very best of the Spenser Tracy-Katherine Hepburn films, Pat And Mike (1952), directed by George Cukor (and featuring a brief appearance by a young actor who would go on to fame as Charles Bronson). What a nice way to spend your Sunday.)