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ROYAL WEDDING/THE BELLE OF NEW YORK

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Fred Astaire, Jane Powell, Keenan Wynn, Vera-Ellen, Marjorie Mann
Directors: Stanley Donen, Charles Walters
Audio: English monaural
Subtitles: English, French
Video: Color, full-screen
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: Private Screenings with Stanley Donen, featurette, outtake, radio interview, Musiquiz short, three cartoons, alternate dance sequence, two trailers
Length: 174 min.
Release Date: July 24, 2007

"If you think nice things, all doors open to you."

Films ****

The 1946 MGM film Blue Skies was supposed to be Fred Astaire's swan song before a well-deserved retirement.  However, when MGM's other top male dancing star, Gene Kelly, was injured for 1948's Easter Parade, Fred Astaire was persuaded to come out of retirement to be Kelly's replacement.  The film, co-starring Judy Garland, proved to be such a smash hit that Astaire found himself embarking on a second career in movie musicals.

Following the triumph of Easter Parade, Astaire waltzed with a procession of talented co-stars for his next few films, including a reunion with Ginger Rogers in The Barkleys of Broadway and a pair of films with the exceptional Vera-Ellen, MGM's latest dancing sensation.

The success of 1950's Three Little Words with Vera-Ellen led to 1951's Royal Wedding.  Originally, the film was to reunite Fred Astaire and Vera-Ellen, but then MGM considered pairing Astaire up with Judy Garland instead.  At the time, Charles Walters was the slated director for Royal Wedding, having just completed a thoroughly exhausting production of Summer Stock with Judy Garland.  Upon learning that the difficult actress was being considered for Royal Wedding, Walters essentially panicked and immediately quit (Stanley Donen would quietly take his place as director).  In hindsight, perhaps some patience might have been prudent, as Judy Garland was never a serious contender for the role that would eventually go to Jane Powell, a young little miss firecracker with a spectacular voice.

MGM certainly was not lacking in impressive singers, but Jane Powell was one of the studio's best young discoveries.  Not only would she receive ample opportunity in Royal Wedding to demonstrate her vocal talents, but she would also prove herself to be a capable dancer and partner for the incomparable Fred Astaire.

Royal Wedding was to be based loosely upon Astaire's own real-life experiences as a vaudeville dancer.  While best-remembered for his RKO and MGM musicals, Fred Astaire had actually enjoyed a long and successful career dancing on stage with his sister Adele (who he'd always considered his best partner).  The siblings danced together for years until 1932, when Adele married into nobility with her first husband, an English lord, while Fred set his sights on Hollywood.  The rest, of course, is history.

Royal Wedding attempts to recapture some of the spontaneity and joy of Astaire's early days in the theater.  In the film, Astaire and Powell portray Tom and Ellen Bowen, a fictional brother-sister dance team that takes its show to England just in time for the wedding of Princess Elizabeth to Prince Philip.  Ellen proves to be a playful pixie with too many boyfriends, in contrast to level-minded Tom and his protective disapproval.  Nevertheless, by the film's end, both Tom and Ellen discover true love, Tom with a promising young dancer and Ellen with a dashing young lord.

In reality, of course, there was a huge age disparity between Astaire and Powell, making them unlikely actors to play siblings.  This fact apparently did not faze either Arthur Freed, who produced the film, or audiences, who flocked to see the delightful musical.

Cast as Astaire's love interest was Sarah Churchill, daughter of the one and only Winston Churchill.  This instance of gimmick casting apparently worked quite well.  Cast as Powell's love interest was socialite Peter Lawford, a future Rat Packer who certainly looked and sounded the part of a debonair English lord.

Royal Wedding opens with "Ev'ry Night at Seven," an amusing little dance skit about a crafty king chasing after his coquettish maid.  After the performance, the Bowens' agent (Keenan Wynn in a goofy dual role as twins Irving and Edgar Klinger living in New York and London, respectively), arranges a booking in London.  So, the Bowens pack up their bags, board an ocean liner, and set sail for England.

While on board the ocean liner, Ellen meets John Brindale (Peter Lawford), a young lord and ladies' man who has one too many girlfriends.  Naturally, Ellen and Lord Brindale are ideal for one another.  This ocean voyage also offers a couple of musical numbers, one a famous coat-rack dance solo by Fred Astaire ("Sunday Jumps") and the other an amusingly slippery "Open Your Eyes" dance duet between Astaire and Powell on an unsteady boat during a storm.  This duet was based on an actual experience by Fred and Adele Astaire!

Upon arrival in England, Tom Bowen has a quaint meet-cute encounter with aspiring dancer Anne (Sarah Churchill) when she mistakenly believes that he is following her.  What musical comedy is ever complete without a case of mistaken identity or simple misunderstanding?  In actuality, both are merely on their way to the same theater for auditions for the new Bowen show.  Regardless, perhaps stoic, career-minded Tom Bowen will now discover that there is more to life than just performing on stage.

From this point onwards in the film, Royal Wedding bounces from song to dance to song again with a few interludes developing the budding courtships between Tom and Anne and Ellen and Lord Brindale.  The climax of all this love in the air is, of course, the royal wedding between Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, which provides the impetus for Tom to finally propose to Anne and for Ellen to finally accept Lord Brindale's own proposal of marriage.

Royal Wedding boasts some of the most pleasant original songs in Astaire's latter musicals.  There are a pair of stellar Jane Powell solos - "The Happiest Day of My Life" and a lovely rendition of the Oscar-nominated "Too Late Now."  This film also contains two of Fred Astaire's most famous dances - "You're All the World to Me" in which he gleefully dances on the walls and ceiling of his London hotel room and the aforementioned "Sunday Jumps" in which, having been abandoned by his sister during rehearsal, he uses a prop coat rack instead as his dance partner.  Still, perhaps the very best number is the surprisingly hilarious vaudeville song-and-dance in which Astaire and Powell play a gangster and his exasperated, whiny moll - "How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Loved You When You Know I've Been a Liar All My Life" (almost certainly the longest title of any song in any MGM musical).  Keeping in line with the film's light-hearted tone is the goofy and garishly-Technicolored "I Left My Hat in Haiti," which includes a rather sexy little jig by Jane Powell.

Given Royal Wedding's semi-autobiographical tendencies, one wonders how Fred Astaire's film career might have developed had his sister Adele joined him in Hollywood.  Certainly, if their stage chemistry had been remotely as entertaining as that between Fred Astaire and Jane Powell in Royal Wedding, the Astaires would surely have enjoyed a stellar film career together.

This DVD release of Royal Wedding is packaged with another of Fred Astaire's later films, The Belle of New York (1951), a quaint period piece celebrating the magic of love.  Vera-Ellen may have missed her opportunity to appear opposite Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding, but she gets her chance for this film and is in fact the film's belle in question, Angela.

Angela is a lovely young charity worker for the Daughters of Right, a welfare house.  Her attractive countenance draws many men of all walks of life to the welfare house (for personal salvation and spiritual guidance, naturally).  Among those men is Charlie Hill (Fred Astaire), a lifelong rounder and playboy who has regularly surrounded himself with lovely women.  Until now, he has also made a nuptial habit of abandoning would-be brides (five and counting) at the altar.  However, upon meeting the good-hearted Angela, Charlie becomes positively smitten, determined to win her heart even if that means dropping his carefree ways and earning an honest living about town.

Angela is a romantic at heart and wants a man who will sweep her off her feet, "a man who walks on air."  Well, that's Charlie, who quite literally does just that soon after meeting his angel.  The "walking on air" motif, introduced in the Astaire solo "Seeing is Believing," is woven directly into the fabric of the story itself.  Yes, it is a little corny, but since it proves essential for the storyline, just accept it.

Playing Charlie's no-nonsense Aunt Phineas Hill is Marjorie Mann (of "Ma Kettle" fame).  She strongly disapproves of his philandering ways and threatens to disinherit him if he should marry one of his regular showbiz floozies.  Hearing of his latest crush, Aunt Phineas objects until she learns that his new love is the proper and upstanding Angela from the Daughters of Right welfare house.  After that, everything is fine and dandy!

But, will Charlie be able to adhere to his pledge to reform and to turn over a new leaf?  Or, will he leave Angela at the altar as with his previous brides-to-be?  The Belle of New York follows a typical boy-wins-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-wins-girl-again formula, so therein lies the answer.

There are a trio of notable dance duets in this film between Astaire and Vera-Ellen.  He woos her with the "Baby Doll" dance in the charity house then later during the "Oops" number alongside a horse-drawn trolley.  Most elaborate is the extended "Currier and Ives" fantasy dance sequence as the amorous couple imagine how a wedding might appear during each season of the year.

As usual in his films, Astaire gets a chance to work some solo magic with his feet.  Aside from the gimmicky "Seeing is Believing," there is also the sandman solo "I Wanna Be a Dancin' Man" in the film's finale. Vera-Ellen also gets her own solo with the sexy "Naughty but Nice."

Regrettably, after The Belle of New York, Fred Astaire and Vera-Ellen never danced together on film again.  Vera-Ellen had personal health problems which would lead to the premature conclusion of her short but brilliant MGM career.  Furthermore, times and societal tastes were changing, and by the 1950's the movie musical was beginning to lose its magical hold on film audiences.

Nevertheless, Royal Wedding and The Belle of New York both remain just as warm and enchanting now as in their initial releases.  If falling in love can make one dance on walls or walk on air, then perhaps we should all be so lucky as to experience such love once in a lifetime.

Video ***

Due to a major oversight by MGM, the copyright for Royal Wedding was not renewed in time, allowing this exceptional film to slip into the public domain.  As a result, many substandard DVDs of the film have been available for years from third-party companies.  Please ignore all these versions.

This new Warner Bros disc of Royal Wedding is the one to buy.  It looks superior to all previous third-party releases.  Colors are vivid and exquisitely bright in the best Technicolor tradition (but also come with the usual mild softness in detail and occasional color bleeding inherent to the color process).  Still, the video quality is relatively clear with only a few marks and dust specks.  Some of the stock footage used of London and the royal wedding itself is obviously grainier and softer in clarity than the Hollywood footage.

The Belle of New York looks slightly sharper than Royal Wedding while also benefiting from its glorious Technicolor.

Both films are presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio.

Audio ***

Both films are presented with their original monaural soundtracks.  For Royal Wedding, dialogue seems to be mixed softly in comparison to the music once the song-and-dance numbers begin.

On a side note, while Vera-Ellen was a spectacular dancer, she was not much of a singer, and like Cyd Charisse, her singing voice was dubbed in her musicals, including The Belle of New York.

Features ***

This two-disc set is included in the box set Classic Musicals from the Dream Factory, Vol. 2 but can also be purchased separately.  As an individual purchase, this double feature clearly offers the best value, particularly as it offers two knockout musicals.

Disc One contains Royal Wedding and its related bonus features.  The best of these extras is Private Screenings with Stanley Donen (53 min.), an hour-long episode from the regular TCM series.  The interview focuses on a general overview of Donen's career as an innovative choreographer at Columbia and MGM and later as the director of such famous musicals as Singin' in the Rain, Royal Wedding, and An American in Paris.  Donen also mentions his memorable comedies with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn and discusses his working relationship and friendship with Gene Kelly and producer Arthur Freed.

The featurette Royal Wedding: June, Judy and Jane (16 min.) highlights Arthur Freed's struggles to bring this landmark MGM film to screen.  Essentially an homage to Fred Astaire's stage career, Royal Wedding featured remarkable effects, fantastic songs, and numerous show-stopping musical numbers, yet the film's pre-production was mired by a revolving door of potential co-stars for Fred Astaire.  First was Vera-Ellen, who later became his co-star in The Belle of New York.  Then there was June Allyson, who had to drop out when she learned she was pregnant.  Judy Garland was considered but was not in good shape, mentally or physically.  Finally, of course, the role went to Jane Powell.  Included in this featurette are several interview clips, such as those with June Allyson and Jane Powell.  The mechanics behind the film's most spectacular dance routine, "You're All the World to Me," are also revealed.

Next are a pair of 1951 Tex Avery MGM cartoons.  First is Car of Tomorrow (6 min), which has nothing to do with NASCAR, in case you're wondering.  The second cartoon is Droopy's Double Trouble (7 min.) with the depressing dawg and his dastardly doppelganger, Drippy.

A very rare outtake is a reprise of Every Night at Seven (3 min.) with Peter Lawford and Jane Powell.  Too bad there is no audio for half of this clip.  Lawford and Powell dance behind Lawford's vocals.  Lastly, among the publicity extras are a gorgeous trailer and an audio-only radio interview (5 min.) with Fred Astaire and Jane Powell promoting the film.

Disc Two holds the film The Belle of New York and its few bonus extras.  The Musiquiz (8 min.) is a short subject featuring odd musical instruments and tricks amid six bizarre questions about music.  Magical Maestro (6 min.) is a really wacky 1952 Tex Avery cartoon about an unusual concert recital from Rossini's.  There is an alternate version (4 min.) of Fred Astaire's "I Wanna Be a Dancin' Man" number; this outtake has different costuming, lighting, and staging from the final version that appears in the film.

Lastly, there is a theatrical trailer for The Belle of New York.

BONUS TRIVIA:   Imagine Mae West as Fred Astaire's aunt in The Belle of New York!  Believe it or not, she was considered for the Aunt Phineas role eventually played by Marjorie Mann.

Summary:

If you own a previous third-party DVD release of Royal Wedding, you may now confine that disc to a dusty storage bin, as this Royal Wedding / The Belle of New York double feature is a dream come true for any fan of classic MGM musicals!

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