Bright Lights Film Journal

Astaire Reborn! Jane Powell Gives Fred a Lift in A Royal Wedding

“I hope he knew how much the world loved him.”

After the severe misfortune of being forced to appear with, and take second billing to, Betty Hutton in Let’s Dance, Fred Astaire deserved some good luck and he got it in his next picture, A Royal Wedding. Back in the day, Americans took the British royal family very seriously, and the 1947 wedding of Princess Elizabeth, heir to the British throne, to Prince Phillip,1 Duke of Edinburgh, was considered a sufficient hook for a film shot in 1951.

June Allyson was the first choice as Fred’s leading lady, though it’s hard to say why, because she hadn’t made much of a splash as a musical comedy star, mostly appearing in specialty numbers. But she was an up-and-coming star, cast as Jo in the 1949 remake of Little Women, which also starred Elizabeth Taylor as Amy and Janet Leigh as Meg. June exited the picture after she discovered she was pregnant, and Judy Garland was cast as her replacement but eventually bailed or was bailed. Ultimately, MGM fired her,2 not just from the picture but from the studio, and replaced her with Jane Powell, who proved to be a little gift from heaven for Fred and for us.

Someone could, I believe, write an intriguing Ph.D. thesis on the early films of Jane Powell. Powell was signed by MGM at age 14 in 1943, and was groomed as a replacement for Judy Garland in the teen musical genre, which Judy had made enormously successful, in partnership with Mickey Rooney. Jane lacked Judy’s preternatural oomph, but she could hit high C, which Judy couldn’t, and which, given the curious state of Hollywood in the forties, helped create that most unusual genre, the teen/light classical/Latin musical.

Books have been written about the flood of musical talent that poured from Europe to the U.S. during the thirties, thanks to the rise of fascism and, eventually, the outbreak of World War II.3 Most are devoted to the “outrageous” incongruities of geniuses like Arnold Schoenberg struggling to write for MGM and ending up eking out a living giving lessons to morons. Rather less attention is given to more flexible talents like Spanish pianist José Iturbi, who knew how to work a crowd4 and who appeared successfully in films throughout the forties.

A recording by Iturbi of Chopin’s “Polonaise in A Flat,” performed in the film A Song To Remember, sold a million copies in 1945.5 Anything involving the number “a million” is going to catch Hollywood’s attention. Most of the musicals featuring Iturbi had a mix of classical and pop, but some, like Music for Millions,6 had an almost exclusively classical score. Chopin was no Irving Berlin, of course, but unlike Irving he didn’t demand $250,000 per picture.

At the same time, because World War II shut off the European market, a lot of WWII films were given a Latin flavor, and this continued after the war as well. Some genius at MGM decided to mix the two together in relatively low-budget films, many of them with a largely teen cast. Powell, a newcomer with a light soprano voice, fit right in. The first of these outré concoctions, A Holiday in Mexico, was released in 1946. Xavier Cugat,7 very popular at the time, appears with Jane and José, who brought along his sister Amparo Iturbi, also a pianist. Jane, José, and Amparo handled the fancy stuff, while Cugie kept things cooking with “The Walter Winchell Rhumba.”

Jane was reunited with José and Amparo in Three Daring Daughters, with Jane’s idol, and film’s leading soprano, Jeanette MacDonald, in the lead. The flick has a seriously coloratura soundtrack, but just to keep things real, Jane joins José in Bobby Troup’s salute to postwar randomness, “Route 66,” which would definitely be worth hearing. Unfortunately, this film is still not out on DVD.

OK, we’ve kind of lost Fred, haven’t we? Anyway, June got pregnant, Judy got fired, and Jane got hired, and it’s hard to believe that either of the first two could have filled Jane’s shoes.8 She’s short, blonde, and bubbly, and an ever-evanescent ball of fire, and quite likely the best partner Fred ever had in his late films. As a dancer her technique certainly couldn’t match either Vera-Ellen or Cyd Charisse, but her vivacity was more than a match for either.9Lyricist Alan Jay Lerner took his first shot at writing a screenplay for A Royal Wedding, generously helping himself to a slice of Fred’s bio, a trick that would be repeated in The Bandwagon a couple of years later. Lerner cast Fred and Jane as Tom and Ellen Bowen, “Broadway’s favorite brother and sister,” lifting directly from Fred’s early career with sister Adele, marrying her off to an English lord, which happened in real life as well. In real life, Fred was thirty years older than Jane, but somehow the film gets away with it.10 Hey, this is show business, right?

Lerner also supplies the lyrics, while Burton Lane gives us the music.11 None of the tunes became a standard, but Lerner’s clever lyrics for “How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Loved You When You Know I’ve Been a Liar All My Life?,” which run on and on but never run out of gas, provide the foundation for what I find to be the funniest song and dance number on film.

A Royal Wedding begins the way every Fred Astaire film should have, with a dance number, “Every Night at Seven.” Fred is a bored king, and Jane is a perky little maid, and, well, one thing leads to another. “Every Night at Seven” doesn’t get much respect from the critics — über Fredician John Mueller finds it “rather uninspired” — but I loved it the first time I saw it and I still do. I am a sucker for the French maid thing, and even without fishnets and garter belts Jane’s thighs look awfully damn tempting.12 And, thighs or no thighs, for me this is Fred and Ginger reborn — yeah, Fred’s a little gray and we don’t have a big black and white set, but I don’t care.13

The choreography for “Every Night at Seven” is fresh and witty, reminiscent of Fred’s “getting to know you” dances with Ginger — “I’ll Be Hard to Handle” from Roberta and “Isn’t This a Lovely Day to Be Caught in the Rain” from Top Hat.

Once the kids are off-stage, we learn that Fred’s the worrier and Jane’s the pretty one who doesn’t have to worry — just as Fred and Adele were in real life. Jane has at least two or three stage door Johnnies on a string at any one time who are prone to comical fisticuffs. It would be so nice to get away from it all! Fortunately, their agent has an out: they’ve been booked in London, just in time for the royal wedding! That is so cool! They sail for London in a week!

While boarding the ship — it’s French, but if it has a name, I missed it — Jane spots a smoothie with a la-dee-da English accent bidding an anguished farewell to several babes in succession, using the same romantic line for each babe. There’s nothing like shared shallowness to bring folks together, and Jane quickly acquires a new admirer, “Lord John Brindale,” played by the stickish Peter Lawford.14

At rehearsal time, Jane stiffs Fred for Peter, leaving Fred to dance with a hat rack in one of his most famous solo numbers, “Sunday Jumps.” With his open shirt and knotted neckerchief, Fred looks a little too “artistic,” but this is a cruise, baby! Time to cut loose! Prowling around in an abandoned gymnasium, with nothing but a metronome for company, Astaire comes up with an endless number of riffs and gags on the props surrounding him, all tossed off with endless élan.

Naturally, Fred and Jane are asked to perform for the ship’s passengers and naturally, Jane dedicates a romantic ballad, “Open Your Eyes,” to Peter. Fred and Jane then perform a nice, romantic dance number, complete in itself, really, that then slides into comedy, thanks to some high seas. Both the “real” dance and the comic one are quite good — more satisfying than another “funny” dance — “I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket” — that Fred and Ginger did in Follow the Fleet, a number that I always found frustrating because we never got to see the “real” dance.

Once Fred and Jane hit London, there’s romance for Fred in the form of Sarah Churchill, daughter of Sir Winston, although she did not bill herself as such. Sarah is supposed to be a ballerina, but her dances with Fred are scarcely memorable. Her main plot function is to inspire Fred to dance on the ceiling, and the walls, in the very memorable “You’re All the World to Me.”15 If you’ve seen this number a few times, you can see Fred brace himself as the room rotates and he shifts from one surface to the next,16 but the sheer enthusiasm and delight with which he explores his newfound freedom to walk on walls never fails to sell the bit and make it seamless. This is so much fun! Why didn’t I ever think of it before!

Despite all the romance, not to mention the royal nuptials, Fred and Jane do have a show to do, and they come through in the classic “How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Loved You When You Know I’ve Been a Liar All My Life?” Powell is absolutely perfect as a tough little Jane pushed to the wall by Fred’s repetitive boorishness, while Fred, in a flamboyantly tasteless outfit, gloats over his endless infidelities and outrages. Lerner’s clever lyrics, running through two complete choruses, seem untoppable, but the dance that follows is a match. Powell, blank-faced and earnestly chewing gum, keeps a Keaton-like deadpan throughout the slapstick knockabout, demolishing Fred’s hat and eventually beating him to the floor. As a topper, they stay in character during the curtain call, Jane ordering a sullen Fred around with fierce tosses of her head and upper torso.

As we head down the home stretch, neither the Jane-Peter nor the Fred-Sarah coupling is generating much heat, so Lane and Lerner come up with a big Caribbean production number, “I Left My Hat in Haiti,” which, like “Every Night at Seven,” doesn’t get a lot of respect from the critics. Fred looks great in a tropic suit the hue of fresh butter, and the enigmatic lyrics about a lady who seemingly collects gentlemen’s fedoras give a slight flavor of mystery. There’s quite a bit of nice dancing, and some nice local color — if you can get your mind around the idea of an all-white Haiti, which I admit is a stretch. The problem is that there’s no payoff. Jane shows up, but she’s in a bit part. Is she the hat lady? We don’t really know. There’s no tension, no conflict, no romance, and no release.

There is more to A Royal Wedding — three marriages, as a matter of fact — but no one’s paying much attention. But after what was easily Fred’s best picture since Easter Parade, no one’s complaining.

Afterwords

MGM inexplicably let the copyright lapse on A Royal Wedding, and for years it circulated exclusively in low-budget formats. Fortunately, Warner Brothers, which now owns the MGM library, or at least some of it, reissued it in an excellent restoration. It’s available in a twofer with Fred’s next film, The Belle of New York.

The only early film I’ve seen of Jane’s is A Date with Judy (1948, right), which falls into the “hilariously unwatchable” category with a resounding thud. Based on a popular radio series, the film borrows heavily from the ambience of the Garland-Rooney flicks. Judy (Jane, of course) is growing up sweet n’ sixteen in Santa Barbara, with not a care in the world except for rich girl/bad girl/queen bee Carol, the hilarious and eminently watchable Elizabeth Taylor. Carol sabotages Judy’s date to the big dance with her high-school band leading brother “Oogie” (Scotty Beckett) but it’s Carol’s turn to cry when Judy arrives at the gym on the arm of new boy in town Robert Stack.17 At this point, Xavier Cugat shows up, not looking, or sounding, very happy, along with Carmen Miranda, looking, I have to say, much the worse for wear. In fact, poor Carmen looks, and sounds, almost as needy as Sammy Davis, Jr., which is a terrible thing to say about anyone.

I was fast-forwarding through most of this, so I don’t know if Bob knocked up both Jane and Liz and then skipped town (probably not), but I do know that Jane thinks that Pop (Wallace Beery) is screwing Carmen, when really she’s just giving him rhumba lessons so he can impress Mom (Selena Royle). Kids! Also, Judy’s folks have a maid, Nightingale (Lillian Yarbo), who spends most of her time singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” as black people are so wont to do.18 If you want a slice of Ronald Reagan’s America, check this out.

A Royal Wedding helped leverage Powell into adult roles, and she had her biggest hit a few years later, the strapping Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, probably the outdoorsiest damn musical ever. After the demise of the fifties musicals she worked a lot on TV, last appearing in a 2002 episode of Law and Order SVU.

Jane Powell’s autobiography, The Girl Next Door, is generally sunny and cheerful, as one might expect, although she has a few sharp words for Shirley Temple, who gave Jane some attitude when Jane first hit town.19 She also wasn’t too fond of Wallace Beery, accusing him, among other things, of stealing a canoe. Regarding Fred, Jane says she was once interviewed by the BCC, then making a documentary on Astaire that included interviews with all of his dance partners. “I can’t tell you much about Fred, because I didn’t really know him,” she told the interviewer. “That’s what everybody says,” the interviewer told her.

  1. Phil was regarded as the world’s biggest stick on this side of the Atlantic — “He has one joke, and you have to laugh,” said Joan Rivers. “‘A man’s home is his castle'” — but in England he was regarded as the world’s greatest swordsman. Marilyn, Ava, Gina, Sophia, Brigitte, none could resist his dukish savoir faire. Proof, I guess, that when you lose an empire you take what compensation you can find. []
  2. Judy appeared on Bing Crosby’s radio show and sang one of the songs from the film, “How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Loved You When You Know I’ve Been a Liar All My Life?,” of which more anon, and then reportedly ad-libbed, “Leo the Lion bit me,” in reference to her dismissal. []
  3. A Windfall of Musicians: Hitler’s Émigrés and Exiles in Southern California, by Dorothy Lamb Crawford, a recent one, is reviewed here. []
  4. According to one back-stabbing, anonymous critic in Wikipedia (where else?), “Iturbi was most renowned in lightweight, showy repertoire, and he left no impression in music that required more depth.” []
  5. “Polonaise in A Flat” was redone by once enormously successful, now forgotten, pianist Carmen Cavallero (“the poet of the keyboard”), and sold another million. Then it was turned into the pop tune “Till The End of Time” for Perry Como, and sold another million or two. Poor Chopin! He died too soon! []
  6. Along with Iturbi, the cast of Music for Millions included June Allyson, Margaret O’Brien, and Jimmy Durante. []
  7. Cugat appeared with Fred and Rita Hayworth in You Were Never Lovelier, set in Argentina. []
  8. June was pretty cute in the “Thou Swell” number from Words and Music, but she had a curious, slightly dikey subtext, and, after going fifteen rounds with Betty Hutton, the last thing Fred needed was another masculine co-star. Not to be too hard on Fred, but he needed a Ginger or a Jane to look “normal.” Playing opposite a Betty or a June, he started to look feminine. []
  9. Powell says in her autobiography The Girl Next Door that Fred wasn’t much interested in rehearsing with her, since he’d already rehearsed the numbers with both June and Judy, which makes Jane’s work all the more impressive. []
  10. Somehow, the film also gets away with showing a brother and sister who spend all their time together, walking arm and arm and sharing the same hotel suite. We even see them breakfasting together, Jane in a negligee. Perhaps even more shocking, Fred’s shirt is open! It’s show biz, folks! Anything can happen! []
  11. Lane had had a big hit on Broadway with Finian’s Rainbow in 1947. Fred came back to the screen with Francis Ford Coppola’s version in 1968. It’s supposed to be horrible. I’ve never had the nerve to watch it. []
  12. In fact, Jane’s skirt extends below her knees, but it’s, you know, swirly. And, if you watch very closely, you’ll catch several glimpses of her frilly white panties. []
  13. I watched the black and white Fred and Gingers over and over again as a teenager, but never saw A Royal Wedding until I was a serious forty-something. My life was pretty, um, dull, at that point, and somehow “Every Night at Seven” — and the rest of the film — came as a serious breath of fresh air. []
  14. Despite his upper-class mannerisms, which Powell found tedious, Lawford’s real Hollywood career wasn’t so classy. “Basically, I got girls for Frank Sinatra, and he got them for Jack Kennedy. I know it sounds awful, but it really was a lot of fun.” []
  15. The tune for “You’re All the World to Me” was taken from “I Want to Be a Minstrel Man,” performed by Fayard Nicholas, the younger of the Nicholas Brothers, in a production number from the Eddie Cantor film Kid Millions (1934). The sight of a young black kid singing lines like “Let me be your old Jim Crow” while surrounded by two dozen blonde chorines can generate some serious cognitive dissonance. []
  16. The set, and the camera, and the cameraman all rotated while Fred stayed put. []
  17. Bob looks about thirty in the film and definitely does not look like a man who should be dancing with teenagers. []
  18. If this isn’t enough to give you the creeps, both Jane and Liz wear blood-red lipstick throughout the film, looking like vampires returning from the feast. []
  19. Shirley was so old then! Fifteen! Put a sock in it, grandma! []