Since we had a real royal wedding this year, I thought it would be fun to wind up my posts for Crystal and Michaela’s blogathon with a look at the 1951 film, Royal Wedding. The film is a nod to Astaire’s days of dancing with his sister, Adele, only set a few decades later. No buildup happening here–we’re just going to dive right in.
Tom and Ellen Bower (Fred Astaire and Jane Powell) are a brother and sister song-and-dance team in New York. Their agent, Irving (Keenan Wynn) tells them their show, Every Night At Seven is going to roadshow to England, where there just happens to be a royal wedding coming up. Both are overjoyed, but each handle it very differently. Tom is the steady one, and Ellen is a flighty boyfriend collector. As in, she’s got multiple ones on a string at the same time. When Tom and Ellen board the ocean liner to England, her three current beaux all come down to the pier to see her off. To their great amusement, these three guys realise who they all are, and start throwing punches.
Ellen isn’t the only one bidding fond farewells. She spies a distinguished young Englishman, John (Peter Lawford) kissing two different girls, separately, of course. The two of them later meet in the writing room, and they realize they’re two of a kind. They’re also mad for each other, and suddenly, neither one feels like keeping anyone else dangling.
Once in London, Ellen and Tom meet up with Irving’s twin brother, Edgar (also Keenan Wynn). They’re barely arrived before John calls Ellen for a date. Tom lays down some ground rules, though: Ellen has to be back by seven every night until the show opens, and she can’t miss rehearsal. Ellen happily agrees and goes off with John to see his country estate.
The rules may be a little hard for Tom to remember himself. While on the town with Edgar, he meets a beautiful young woman named Anne Ashmond (Sarah Churchill). He’s intrigued by her, but he’s got a rehearsal to get to. Wonder of wonders, though, Anne auditions for the British company of the Bowers’ show. Also wonder of wonders, Tom thinks she looks fine and hires her. He makes a dinner date with her as well, the sly fox.
Now Tom and Ellen are both in a jam, but it’s easily remedied when they feign exhaustion. Tom sneaks out to meet Anne and Ellen sneaks out to meet Peter, and each thinks they got one over on the other. Very smooth, folks.
Ellen’s date goes better than Tom’s, though. He and Anne stop in to see her dad, James (Albert Sharpe) at his pub, only he hates Americans because one stiffed him during the war. Tom squares things by paying him the money(!), and suddenly they’re old friends. Anne’s parents have been separated for three years, although it’s never stated why, and it doesn’t take much to get them back together.
Tom’s feeling very satisfied until Anne tells him she’s engaged to Hal, an American who works at a department store in Chicago. He’s not too put out, though, because he and Anne keep seeing each other. Still, when Anne’s intended doesn’t phone her when he promises to, Tom allows himself to feel a little more hopeful. He also takes it upon himself to ask Edgar to ask Irving to call the department store and see what’s happened to Hal. What will he discover? That is the big question.
Meanwhile, Ellen’s doing fine with John. Her only worry is that she’s not sure she wants to get married because it means she’ll have to stop dancing with her brother. Speaking of marriage, the royal wedding is approaching, and everyone is dizzy with excitement.
The bulk of Royal Wedding belongs to Fred Astaire–this is a film that inevitably comes up when someone’s looking for examples of his artistry and finesse as a performer. One of my favorite scenes is “Sunday Jumps,” which Fred performs in the gym on the ship to England. He starts the number by cuing up a metronome and dancing to its beat. This is so typically Fred Astaire.
Debbie Reynolds said in an interview that she was privileged to watch Fred practice once while she was preparing for Singin’ In the Rain. He was famous at MGM for rehearsing in a closed hall with just a metronome or a drummer for tempo, plus Hermes Pan or Michael Kidd. That was it. Granted, what’s in “Sunday Jumps” is much more polished than a real rehearsal would be, but it’s still a very slight peek into Fred’s creative process.
The number Royal Wedding is best known for, however, is “You’re All the World To Me,” better known as Fred Astaire’s Dance On the Ceiling. It’s a wonderful number that is a perennial feature in film anthologies, and it’s easier to show how it was accomplished than to explain it.
What many don’t know, however (and I didn’t know either until I researched this review), is that Douglas Fairbanks used the same method in the “Nightmare” scene from his 1919 film, “When the Clouds Roll By.” I haven’t seen the film all the way through yet, but now I’m itching to.
One of the things I noticed, particularly after watching Fred Astaire’s other films, is how many solo numbers he dances, or at least it felt like he did. That’s very unusual for him, because most of his movies feature him dancing with a partner about seventy-five percent of the time. In Royal Wedding, Fred dances with gym equipment. He dances on the ceiling. He dances the bulk of “I Left My Hat In Haiti” without Jane. Fred’s dominating the screen may have been because casting was so up in the air. Judy Garland was first slated to be Ellen, but was fired. Then June Allyson was supposed to take the role, only she got pregnant. Next on the list was Jane Powell, who was an up-and-comer. Fred’s solos and scenes with Anne may have been shot while the company was waiting to find an Ellen.
Fred’s unique dance sequences aren’t the only remarkable things about Royal Wedding. His romantic lead, Sarah Churchill, was the daughter of one Winston Churchill, and the film was her American debut. Unfortunately, she had a drinking problem in the nineteen-fifties. Although she’s usually not referred to as an alcoholic, her addiction was severe enough that she was remanded to Holloway Prison to dry out. She went on to have a measure of success on TV, but was never able to quite make it.
Royal Wedding is often described as “light,” which is an apt term. It doesn’t have any major conflicts, there’s no real suspense, and not much character development or plot. Some of Fred and Jane’s numbers are slightly too romantic for a brother-sister team. Fred’s chemistry with Sarah isn’t great, or even there. Elements that would inspire throwing small breakable objects in other movies are no more than a mild annoyance, if that. The ending is inevitably happy. However, it’s such a fun movie that the thin plot doesn’t matter, and that can enough.
Crystal and Michaela have more Fred and Ginger for you all at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Love Letters To Old Hollywood. Thanks for hosting, Crystal and Michaela–it was a pleasure, as always! Thanks for reading, everyone, and see you on Tuesday with another review.