Musical Monday: The Belle of New York (1952)

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:
The Belle of New York (1952) – Musical #239


Charles Walters

Fred Astaire, Vera-Ellen, Marjorie Main, Keenan Wynn, Alice Pearce, Clinton Sundberg, Gale Robbins, Lyn Wilde (uncredited)

Set in the early 1900s, Charlie Hill (Astaire) is a wealthy playboy who is often engaged but never married. Angela Bonfils (Ellen) works at a mission house, which is run by Charlie’s aunt (Main). When Charlie meets Angela, he falls in love and finds himself floating in the air. Anglea soon too finds herself floating on air (literally). As the two make plans to marry, Charlie worries he isn’t good enough for Angela.

• “I Love to Beat the Big Bass Drum” was a song written by Johnny Mercer and Harry Warren for the film but wasn’t used.
• Originally set to star married dancing couple Marge and Gower Champion, according to the Hollywood Reporter.
• Loosely based on a 1897 Broadway musical of the same title.
• The story was first told on film in 1919 in “The Belle of New York” starring Marion Davies. The film is now lost.
• MGM purchased the screen rights to the story in 1943. Arthur Freed originally wanted it to be a musical scored by Rodgers and Hammerstein and starring Judy Garland and Fred Astaire, according to the book “Charles Walters: The Director Who Made Hollywood Dance” by Brent Phillips.
• Charles Walters originally wanted Mae West to play the role of the aunt, but MGM wouldn’t meet her price, according to Phillips’s book.
• Alice Pearce’s second film role after “On the Town” (1949)
• Vera-Ellen is dubbed by Anita Ellis
• Produced by Arthur Freed
• Costumes by Helen Rose

• Fred Astaire’s dance number where he is “walking on air.”
• The “Currier and Ives” number.

“Currier and Ives” number. Screenshot by Jessica P.

Notable Songs:
• “Dancin’ Man” performed by Fred Astaire
• “Belle of New York” performed by the chorus
• “Baby Doll” performed by Fred Astaire
• “Seeing’s Believing” performed by Fred Astaire

Astaire dancing on air and on top of the Washington Square art in the “Seeing is Believing” number. Screenshot by Jessica P.

My review:
“The Belle of New York” (1952) has all the right elements of a top-notch MGM musical:
• Fred Astaire and Vera-Ellen in the lead
• Songs by Johnny Mercer and Harry Warren
• Vibrant Technicolor cinematography
• Humorous supporting cast with Keenan Wynn, Marjorie Main, Alice Pearce, Clinton Sundberg
• Costumes by Helen Rose
• Produced by MGM musical gurus, Arthur Freed and Roger Edens

It has all the right pieces, but somehow the equation doesn’t add up to a hit – either in 1952 or today.

Now don’t get me wrong – “Belle of New York” (1952) is not a terrible movie. It’s actually quite fun. It just certainly is not in Fred Astaire’s top 10 best films.

Astaire plays a wealthy playboy, Charlie Hill, who falls in love with mission worker, Angela Bonfils, played by Vera-Ellen. They both find that when they fall in love, they literally float on air. Charlie has been engaged many times though and begins to wonder if he really is good enough to marry sweet Angela.

Interspersed through this 82-minute film are seven solo and duet dancer numbers performed by Astaire and Ellen, who are two of the best dancers of Hollywood’s Golden era. There is dancing in the air, ice skating and duets. The film includes Astaire’s “Dancin’ Man” number where he taps on “the sands of time” – this has been called one of his best solo numbers on film.

And then there is a “Currier and Ives” sequence where Astaire and Ellen recreate the Currier and Ives-like images through different seasons, and it’s really very beautiful.

But something is lacking.

This largely could be because “Singin’ in the Rain” was in production at the same time as “Belle of New York.” With both produced by Arthur Freed and “Rain” including many of Freed’s original songs, the “Belle” production wasn’t given much attention, according to the book “Charles Walters: The Director Who Made Hollywood Dance” by Brent Phillips.

“There were no conferences; there were no set meetings; nothing. It just sort of wandered along,” said Lela Simone, of MGM’s orchestra.

“Wandered along” is a perfect description.

The film lacks energy. Astaire and Vera-Ellen don’t have the spirit that they do in other films. Their paring in “Three Little Words” (1950) two years earlier proves that they were enjoyable co-stars.

There is probably no energy because Astaire hated the film. Director Charles Walters would be amazed by how happy he was in a scene and as soon as “cut” was yelled … “his face would drop, the shoulders would drop, and he would say ‘Oh it’s terrible, I can’t stand it. I hate it,” according to Phillips’s book.

Also, other than “When I’m Out With the Belle of New York” and “I Wanna Be a Dancin’ Man,” the songs aren’t good.

Astaire having to sing “My heart went oops,” was something I could certainly do without.

Astaire was reportedly grateful for the casting of Vera-Ellen (a professional dancer), so that he didn’t have to adapt his dancing to another “novice,” according to Phillips’s book.

Astaire had previously turned down this film role years earlier, so perhaps there was a lack of desire to be in the film.

That said – the dances are impressive. While the “floating in the air” aspect seems a bit silly today, remember that this was quite impressive in 1952.

Also – try to spot Lyn Wilde of the Wilde twins in the beginning number of the film, “Who Wants to Kiss a Bridegroom.”

While I feel indifferent about “The Belle of New York,” it still was entertaining and visually gorgeous. Though it isn’t the best film of either Astaire or Vera-Ellen, I do think it’s worth seeing if you are a Fred Astaire fan.

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