Perhaps more than any of his other films, this sparkling little gem of a musical showcases the personal choregraphing and dancing genius
of Fred Astaire
. Though the dance numbers may be considered an excuse to make a movie rather than the other way around, they are plentiful
and wonderful enough to fully justify taking the DVD
out on a rainy Sunday afternoon.
The somewhat ramshackle plot goes something like this: Tom Bowen (Astaire) and his sister Ellen (Jane Powell) are an American dancing act whose agent books them to do a show in London at a time coinciding with an unspecified royal wedding. While rehearsing for the show, both siblings fall for local love interests. However, having taken a mutual vow to avoid romantic entanglement for the benefit of their careers, they are reluctant to follow through on their emotions and face something of a dilemma. Luckily for all, Tom's lady friend (played by Sarah Churchill) steps in to fill the missing half of the dance duo, thus freeing Ellen to marry her English Lord (Peter Lawford) and presumably become his Little Lady (sorry).
Interposing a little bit of trivia here, this plot is rumoured (quite reasonably) to be an in-joke about the marriage of Adele Astaire, Fred's sister and on-stage dance partner since early childhood, to one Lord Charles Francis Cavendish. Much like Ellen in the movie, she was becoming more difficult to work with as puberty and an interest in men set in, and eventually gave up dancing to get married.
The musical contains several memorable dance and song routines, including one where Tom and Ellen are attempting a graceful, elegant and serene number aboard a wildly listing ship deck in the middle of a rough Atlantic Ocean (I am reliably informed that Morecambe & Wise did a very funny sketch based on that one). A special treat for Astaire fans is the number in which he manages to rather fetchingly portray a complete bastard, no-god-low-life-heel type of guy, an acting achievement that has always eluded him before. A much quoted and referred to number is the one where he dances with, and almost makes love to, a tall ornate coatrack that almost seems to come to life and acquire a personality in his magic hands, while remaining the whole time a real honest to god piece of wood. Lovely.
The epitomal number, though, and perhaps the one that is most often shown as a clip on shows about Astaire and film musicals in general, is the number entitled “You’re All the World To Me”. Carried up and away by the warm upsurge of his emotions, Fred dances on the furniture, walls and ceiling of a small room, addressing himself all the while to a photograph of his beloved. It is difficult to describe dance in words, but I can say that Astaire's grace, precision and, most importantly, humour, all help to make this as beautiful a dance sequence as I have ever seen. Needless to say, the technology involved in creating the illusion was far primitive to what we now have, but thanks to Astaire's remarkable talent and the shrewd direction of Stanley Donen it stands up well to the test of time and still looks seemless and magical today. To me it has always been a testimony to what real genius and accomplishment can do, with no need for fancy CGI and costly blue screen photography.
I can't make a very good case for this being the best of Fred Astaire's films, or the most remarkeable. But he did reach a peak in his artistic endeavour in it, and for that it is a a very important entry in any anthology of his work and of musicals in general. The plot you will probably forget the moment the movie is over - God knows I can't remember it and I've seen it dozens of times - but the sheer beauty of some of the dances will stay with you, after having first provided you with a very pleasant hour's entertainment.
Royal Wedding was made by MGM in 1951. Directed by Stanley Donen, written by Alan Jay Lerner with songs by Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane.
Partial cast list:
Fred Astaire - Tom Bowen
Jane Powell - Ellen Bowen
Peter Lawford - Lord John Brindale
Sarah Churchill - Anne Ashmond
Keenan Wynn - Irving Klinger/Edgar Klinger
Stats courtesy of IMDB.