Musical Monday: Royal Wedding (1951)

It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 600. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

This week’s musical:
Royal Wedding – Musical #55

Studio: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Director: Stanley Donen

Fred Astaire, Jane Powell, Peter Lawford, Sarah Churchill, Keenan Wynn, Albert Sharpe, John R. Reilly (uncredited), Mae Clarke (uncredited), William Cabanne (uncredited), John Hedloe (uncredited), Viola Roache (uncredited)
Himself: Les Baxter

Brother and sister Tom (Astaire) and Ellen (Powell) Bowen are a dance team and travel to England to perform for the royal wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. On the way, the two both fall in love which threatens to break up the act.

• The spinning room number for “You’re the World to Me” was accomplished by attaching the set to the camera and having them rotate together.
• The story is loosely based on Fred Astaire’s dancing act with his sister Adele Astaire
• June Allyson was originally set to star in the film but had to drop out when she was pregnant. Judy Garland replaced Allyson and Garland was replaced by Jane Powell, according to both Fred Astaire and Jane Powell’s autobiographies
• Moira Shearer was originally considered for the secondary leading lady, but she was unavailable. Sarah Churchill was cast instead.
• While Stanley Donen had co-directed “On the Town” (1949) with Gene Kelly, “Royal Wedding” was Donen’s first solo project as a director.
• Fred Astaire’s leading lady Sarah Churchill is Winston Churchill’s daughter
• Keenan Wynn is dubbed by Bill Reeves
• Mae Clarke appears as a telephone operator at :41 minutes
• Alan Jay Lerner wrote the story, script and lyrics to the songs.
• The theme music of “You’re All the World To Me” was later reused in “Torch Song” (1953)

Jane Powell and Fred Astaire play brother and sister in “Royal Wedding”

• Fred Astaire’s dance on the ceiling and walls
• All of Jane Powell’s boyfriends. It’s funny when two of them start fighting over her but she leaves the bar
• Helen Rose costumes

Notable Songs:
• “Too Late Now” performed by Jane Powell
• “Every Night at Seven” performed by Fred Astaire
• “How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Love You When You Know I’ve Been a Liar All My Life” performed by Jane Powell and Fred Astaire
• “I Left My Hat in Haiti” performed by Fred Astaire
• “Open My Eyes” performed by Fred Astaire and Jane Powell
• “You’re All The World To Me” performed by Fred Astaire

Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling

My review:
There are a few musicals that have a rare quality that if you remove the songs, they could still be an enjoyable comedy. “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952) fits that bill. And I would say “Royal Wedding” (1951), however, if those songs and dances were removed – we would miss some of the best and most famous dance routines.

“Royal Wedding” (1951) follows an American brother and sister dance act, Tom and Ellen Bowen, who take their Broadway show to England during the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip.

Tom, played by Fred Astaire, and Ellen, played by Jane Powell, both fall in love in England and have to decide if they want to either live in a different country or give up their dance act. Tom falls in love with Anne Ashmond, played by Sarah Churchill – who was Winston Churchill’s daughter. Ellen falls in love with Lord John Brindale, played by Peter Lawford.

Winston Churchill’s daughter, Sarah Churchill in “Royal Wedding”

The cast is excellent and features Sarah Churchill in her first Hollywood film. Churchill started in films in 1937 but didn’t make any appearances from 1942 to 1946. She returned to films in 1947.

While Peter Lawford was in musicals prior to this, he doesn’t do any singing in “Royal Wedding.” We also get twice the amount of Keenan Wynn, who plays a dual role of twin brothers. Wynn plays the dancing sibling’s manager in the United States and when they go to England, his twin brother is their manager abroad.

A highlight is that “Royal Wedding” was Jane Powell’s opportunity to play a more adult role. In her autobiography “The Girl Next Door and How She Grew,” Powell calls “Royal Wedding” her first important film.

Powell started out in films as a teenager, where she was cast in roles as precocious teens who sometimes meddled in her parent’s affairs and got into trouble. She was always sweet and Powell was eager to grow up. Powell wears grown-up suits, gowns and day dresses and has a bevy of young men she flirts with and who are fighting with her.

Jane Powell has always been funny, but her sass and comedic timing in this film are hilarious. Jane Powell also was not a trained dancer, but you wouldn’t know it by watching the film.

“While Janie was not primarily a dancer, I knew she could do what was required in this show. She surprised everybody by her handling of the dances,” Fred Astaire wrote in his autobiography “Steps in Time.”

“I had to learn all of the dance numbers in three weeks, which was quite a feat,” Powell wrote in her autobiography. “I rehearsed privately because the dance numbers were already set, so I didn’t spend much time alone with him (Astaire).”

“Royal Wedding” is also a visually gorgeous film. With Technicolor cinematography by Robert H. Planck, A.S.C., combined with Helen Rose’s costuming, it glows with bright colors. Films of this era knew how to use color to its best advantage: Jane Powell in a bright red suit or mustard blouse and skirt set. Sarah Churchill wears a kelly green skirt and dance shoes that match. Fred Astaire is costumed in red socks or a bright yellow cardigan. It’ s all so visually pleasing.

Something else that is a joy to watch are Fred Astaire’s dance numbers, which may be some of his most unique. In one scene he dances around the ship’s gymnasium; dancing with a hat rack as if it is a dance partner, then dancing with weights and other gym equipment. But his most famous dance routine of all time is also featured in “Royal Wedding”: When Fred Astaire dances on the ceiling. It’s amazing to watch and think of how this was achieved – by attaching the rotating set to the camera. How genius that was.

What’s also amazing is that this was Stanley Donen’s first project as a solo director. Prior, he had co-directed “On the Town” with Gene Kelly and also worked as a choreographer.

The only downside about “Royal Wedding” is that the film is in public domain. And unless you catch the musical on Turner Classic Movies, the film looks terrible and washed out. A few companies have released it and the picture is washed out.

Regardless of this unfortunate situation, “Royal Wedding” is a gloriously fun film and perhaps one of MGM’s best!

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