Bright Lights Film Journal

Fred Astaire, Two Steps Forward and One Step Back: Fred and Vera-Ellen, Not Quite Walking on Air in The Belle of New York

Can quantity trump quality? Not so much

A lot of things went right for Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding, one of the best of his postwar films — a first-rate co-star in the person of Jane Powell, good tunes from Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner, including the over-the-top tour de force “How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Loved You When You Know I’ve Been a Liar All My Life?,” and, best of all, lots and lots of first-rate choreography and dancing from Fred (and Jane).

In Royal Wedding‘s successor, The Belle of New York, Fred had one of his most technically accomplished partners, dancer Vera-Ellen, and tunes by Tin Pan Alley legends Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer. Furthermore, The Belle of New York is one musical that doesn’t skimp on the singin’ n’ dancin’: fully one half of the film is taken up by musical numbers. Sadly, there’s a lot here to enjoy, but not much to love.

The weaknesses of The Belle of New York are many. The plot, less than perfunctory, establishes Fred as a Gay Nineties playboy/weakling in Old New York who’s constantly getting engaged but never making it to the altar, while Vera-Ellen is the “Belle of New York,” the prettiest girl in the “Daughters of Right,” a Salvation Army style organization, whose masculine audience is drawn entirely by her good looks. Bizarrely, the Daughters are led by Fred’s dreadnaught aunt, Marjorie Main, who somehow functions both as a society matron on the Upper East Side and a soul-saving evangelical down in the Bowery.1

The whole setup is overly cute and schematized, and neither Fred nor Vera does anything to fill out their roles.2 And, although there nine tunes in the film, none is a winner. Warren, who had been very big in the twenties and thirties, was clearly running out of gas, and Mercer was similarly uninspired. There was a painful shortage of good tunes in Hollywood in the late forties and early fifties. Postwar prosperity made Broadway the place to be for the biggest composers — Hollywood profits, Manhattan lifestyle, and your name over the title! Who could ask for anything more!3

Most frustrating of all is the dancing. A bad plot in a Fred Astaire film is not exactly a novelty. And the tunes, while unmemorable, do have a beat, and you can dance to them. So why aren’t we having fun?

Fred just didn’t seem to mesh that well with Vera. They had danced together before in Three Little Words, similarly noticeable for a lack of terpsichorean fireworks. Unless pushed, Vera had a tendency to rely on her superior technique as a means of distancing herself from the audience and from emotion. She seems to me to have been comfortable in the role of the lovely Dresden dancing doll — too tiny, too polished, and too perfect to work up a sweat.4 Her severe Daughters of Right wardrobe adds to the sexlessness of her performances. Fred, of course, was never exactly prone to work up a sweat himself. If his co-star didn’t bring some warmth, things could start to get downright chilly. And that’s the problem with The Belle of New York. There’s lots of technique, but just no heat.

The film starts with a bunch of suspiciously secular gents serenading Vera as “The Belle of New York,” much to her embarrassment, because she’s in the company of her fellow Daughters. Yes, the fellows come to church, and listen to her sermons, but Vera isn’t fooled. She can smell the serpent.

Across town, Fred is holding a bachelor party, for himself, and all the guests are his old girlfriends! There’s a bit where Fred dances with all his old girls, which might have worked, except that all the gals have on these voluminous skirts — there are definitely too many voluminous skirts in this film — and Fred’s apartment seems rather clogged with overstuffed furniture as well — an excess of upholstery all the way around. There’s just not enough room to maneuver.

Keenan Wynn shows up as Fred’s attorney to offer his best wishes, in an exchange unfortunately too typical of the film’s dialogue:

You know, you’re my biggest client.”
“I’m your only client!”
“You’re my best friend.”
“I’m your only friend!”

Aunt Marjorie,5 storming up from the Bowery, arrives to put the kibosh on Fred’s wedding, deciding that he can’t possibly marry his latest fiancée, Dixie “Deadshot” McCoy, who is portrayed as just a teensy bit dykey, thus making Fred look doubly ridiculous. Not only does he have terrible taste in women, he can’t even get married, because his aunt won’t let him!6

A despondent Fred goes for a carriage ride to escape the hurt, and catches Vera’s act, in the company of her fellow Daughter Alice Pearce,7 and of course immediately falls in love. This sets up a tiresome conceit, that when you fall in love you can walk on air. Fred, finding himself airborne in Washington Square, proceeds to dance around the top of the triumphal arch.

Dancing on air is, I guess, a logical progression from the famous “dancing on the ceiling” number from Royal Wedding, but in this case it was a flight of fancy too many. Somehow, the trick photography involved in making a character walk on air looks more fake than that involved in making a character walk on the ceiling. We feel that Fred is selling us a bill of goods, and we don’t enjoy it.

Still, we haven’t given up hope, and things do get better when Fred and Vera finally meet, in the not-bad getting to know you dance “Baby Doll,” which was written by Roger Edens, with words by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. This is one of the numbers when we want something more from Vera — some flash, some sparkle, some swagger, some sex — but instead all we get is pristine restraint.

For whatever reason, there’s very little eye contact between the two, here or in their other dances together. Ginger was always looking back at Fred, to make sure he had his eye on her, as he damn well ought to, and giggling with delight when she saw that he did. But however closely Fred and Vera dance together, they rarely share emotions.

Still, Fred scarcely merits a second glance at this point, because he’s a wastrel who’s never worked a day in his life. To prove himself worthy, Fred goes job hunting, eventually getting a gig handling a horse-drawn streetcar. Vera, out on the town and in need of a lift, is hailed by Fred, who gives the line “Streetcar, Miss?” the same intonation he gave to the line “Cab, Miss?”, addressed to Ginger in Top Hat so many years before.

This leads to what was surely one of Johnny Mercer’s worst lyrics, “Oops! My heart went whoops!”, which would have been just as bad the other way around. Fred and Vera dance on and off the streetcar here in a number that comes very close to being a keeper.8 The sequence in particular in which they dismount and mount the moving car is a lot of fun, and one only wishes it had been a little more developed and extended. A brief sequence where they “dance” on the horse’s back should have been deleted.

The streetcar ride melts Vera’s heart, convincing her that Fred is the man for her, and they journey to the portrait studio to have photos taken of themselves using Currier & Ives9 style backdrops. This results in an elaborate series of settings — Fred and Vera playing badminton, Fred pushing Vera in a swing, Fred and Vera skating — with lots of little dance bits culminating in an elaborate dance number where, once again, Vera displays lots of excellent technique — perfect symmetry but little passion, almost like a dancing metronome, despite the complexity of the number, which she handles without the slightest difficulty or emotion. And Fred’s choreography doesn’t bring us to a climax either.10

Of course, the picture can’t end yet, so the wedding doesn’t happen. All the Bowery bums that Vera saved naturally want to toast her wedding with Fred night before, and naturally Fred is too much of a gentleman to refuse, with the result that he’s too wasted to make it to the church. (The bit about Vera’s admirers, many of them reformed criminals, is not well set up at all. The guys just appear out of nowhere.)

Fred, with nothing else to live for, gets a job as a singing and dancing waiter. Vera, with nothing else to live for, decides that she’ll try a walk on the wild side. We see her striding about her apartment in nothing but a corset and opera hose, showing off a beautifully tanned, and beautifully bare, back and shoulders, making us wish we’d seen them before. Once she pulls on her gown, she sings11 and dances to “Naughty but Nice,”12 showing off her legs in a number that isn’t bad but again doesn’t give us a sense of release.13

She and Alice show up later, of course, at Fred’s restaurant, where he performs “I Wanna Be a Dancin’ Man,” the one genuine keeper in the whole show. It’s a “sand dance,” similar to the “Fancy Free” number Fred performed over Ginger’s ceiling in Top Hat. The sand allows smooth, swooping slides, but seemingly precludes a slam-bang finish, but Fred cleverly finesses the issue by having the drums supply the percussion while he kicks up his heels at the climax. It’s a very simple number, with no gimmicks but the sand, and no props but Fred’s hat, but it’s still very nice Fred.

Once he’s done dancing, Fred’s outrage at Vera’s bad-girl behavior bubbles over, and the two have it out. After an hour and a half of lame comedy and heavy-handed fantasy, the film ends on a funny, fantastic note: as the two lose themselves in argument, their real feelings will out, and they float into the air all unaware, until, far above the Great White Way (with, presumably, all of New York looking up Vera’s dress), they finally come to grips with the fact that they are in love. The airborne waltz that follows isn’t much, but the presence of even one clever conceit in this film comes as a welcome gift.

Afterwords

Vera-Ellen’s finest moment, easily, was as Gene Kelly’s partner in the “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” number in the Rodgers & Hart biopic Words and Music, choreographed by Gene. The kitsch level in this dance is quite high, but I love it. She also appeared with Gene in On the Town, and was heavily featured as Donald O’Connor’s partner in Call Me Madam and with several partners in White Christmas, her last film. She was active in films for less than a decade, and several of her early films, from the late forties, are still unavailable on disc.

  1. Main also seems to live with Fred in a fancy townhouse and also live in the mission with Vera and the rest of the daughters. And Fred doesn’t know anything about the daughters and they don’t know anything about him. []
  2. Part of the problem is that fifty-something Fred doesn’t quite cut it as a lady-killer, while Vera, though definitely cute, doesn’t look like the Belle of New York. []
  3. Mega-hits like Oklahoma! and My Fair Lady could run for a decade, and roadshow versions could last for a similar length of time. The invention of long-playing records created another cash cow, the original cast album. []
  4. “I’m sweatin’ like a man!” girls say when they’re really working. []
  5. According to online gossip, the suits considered both Mae West and Beatrice Lillie for Marjorie’s role. They certainly would have gone in different directions. []
  6. Dixie, obviously inspired by Annie Oakley and played by Gale Robbins, shows up to confront Marjorie, in an unfunny bit that wastes screen time that could have been used to make Fred and Vera more believable as characters. []
  7. . Poor Alice, almost entirely devoid of a chin, is the butt a hundred ugly girl jokes in this film, none of them funny, which I’m afraid was a day at the office for her. []
  8. There’s one great bit where Fred leans over to pick a flower and Vera takes a perfect forward cartwheel over him. This film needed more cartwheels. []
  9. Currier & Ives prints, still fairly well-known, I would assume, were once the symbol of 19th-century America — “the way grandma and grandpa used to live.” []
  10. At the end of the dance, instead of looking at other they look ecstatically up into the sky, arms outstretched. Aren’t they supposed to be in love with, you know, each other? []
  11. She’s dubbed by Anita Ellis. []
  12. In “Naughty but Nice” Vera promises to “care less than Eva Tanguay,” the once notorious “I Don’t Care” girl. Tanguay, a huge vaudeville star who retired in the twenties and never appeared in film, was the subject of a 1953 biopic, The I Don’t Care Girl, starring Mitzi Gaynor as Eva, released the year after The Belle of New York. To learn (a lot) more about Eva, check out this Slate article by Jody Rosen. []
  13. In “Naughty but Nice” Vera promises to “care less than Eva Tanguay,” the once notorious “I Don’t Care” girl. Tanguay, a huge vaudeville star who retired in the twenties and never appeared in film, was the subject of a 1953 biopic, The I Don’t Care Girl, starring Mitzi Gaynor as Eva, released the year after The Belle of New York. To learn (a lot) more about Eva, check out this Slate article by Jody Rosen. []