Come on, do the Sluefoot? That I can resist.
The fifties were Hollywood’s golden age — one of them, at least — of the May-December romance. The “first wave” of leading men since the advent of the talkies — Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, et al. — were still box office, but when it came to the ladies, fresh faces were preferred. Thus, the dewy-eyed Grace Kelly ended up in the seriously mature arms of Gary, Cary, Clark, and the ever-so-fortunate Bing Crosby,1 while Audrey Hepburn was passed around by Humphrey Bogart, Henry Fonda, and Coop, not to mention Fred himself.
Fred, of course, was no stranger to such pairings. Back in 1943, at age 44, he had appeared with 17-year-old Joan Leslie in The Sky’s the Limit. Eight years later, he appeared with 22-year-old Jane Powell in The Royal Wedding. But at 56, playing a sugar daddy chasing 24-year-old Leslie Caron, Fred looked just a little too gray. The age-defying magic that had propelled Fred through his two great “late” films — Royal Wedding and The Band Wagon — was starting to disappear.
Gene Kelly brought Leslie to America to star, appropriately enough, in An American in Paris. It’s not my favorite Kelly,3 but with a whole lotta Gershwin goin’ on, and with Kelly, Leslie, and Georges Guétary to do the singin’ and dancin’, well, things can’t go very wrong, and they don’t. In The Band Wagon, Fred had snitched, rather heavily, from Gene’s classic Singin’ in the Rain, borrowing scriptwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green4 as well as Cyd Charisse, who brought along her famous “bad girl” routine from the “Gotta Dance” closer for Singin’. So choosing Leslie as his next dancing partner probably sounded like a pretty good idea, and it was.
Leslie Caron, if not another Cyd Charisse, was awfully damn close. A chunky ballerina sounds like a contradiction in terms, but petite Leslie’s delightfully muscular torso and thighs gave promise of some seriously pneumatic bliss. Plus, she had that mock innocence thing — always a specialty with French chicks — down cold.
So what’s hurtin’? Classic songwriter Johnny Mercer came through with both words and music for “Something’s Gotta Give,” but the rest of the film’s score is no more than functional. Screenwriters Henry and Phoebe Ephron, working off of Jean Webster’s 1912 novel Daddy Long Legs,5 about an orphan girl who falls in love with her mysterious benefactor, “Daddy Long Legs,” proved even less inspired. In theory, you can update just about anything (in theory), but the stars were not aligned in the Ephrons’ favor.The spirit of Eisenhower was settling over the land, and, in large part, Daddy Long Legs proves just too damn ’50s for fun. The sparkle, impudence, and Manhattan pizzazz that was the 20s’ gift to American popular culture was just about dead. Its successor, stirring in the womb at the Sun Records recording studio down in Memphis, was yet to be born.
Daddy Long Legs was Fred’s first and only film for Twentieth Century-Fox, which was very much into Cinemascope back in the day. Cinemascope really didn’t work very well for Fred, since he was into couples rather than spectacle, but the suits, particularly at Fox, were convinced that the big, big screen was Hollywood’s “answer” to television back in 1955.6
Griggs is continually telling Jervis that a man in his position can’t do the things Jervis likes to do, which, of course, is exactly what Jervis likes to hear. Yeah, listening to some big-band music, that’s definitely some wild and crazy stuff, isn’t it? Fred I tries to enlighten Fred II on “The History of the Beat,” a Johnny Mercer patter number that is only half there. Fred gives us the set-up, “Because I hold you in great affection and esteem/I shall now begin/To instruct you in/What the jazz elite/Call the modern beat,” but the actual history — a lot of rat-a-tat-tat rhymes along the lines of “Don’t la-di-da or lorgnette it, Count Basie or Charlie Barnet11 it” — was dropped.12 Instead of singing, Fred launches into a quick, all-too-brief dance number, only about a minute long, and the bit is over almost before it’s begun, which is a shame, because Fred looks terrific. He hasn’t lost a step, but there just aren’t enough of them.
Once that’s over, we have to get Fred over to France, so he can visit an orphanage and become enchanted with orphan Julie Andre (Leslie, of course) and provide for her to go to college in the U.S. This involves hanging with yet another prissy stuffed shirt, Ambassador Alexander Williamson (Larry Keating), but Julie does make it to America and “Walston College,”13 which provides the occasion for a very uninteresting song, “Welcome Egghead.”14
Unsurprisingly, Julie much prefers college to the orphanage, even if it is in the U.S., and she writes long letters to her unknown sponsor, which Fred is too busy to read, but his secretary Alicia (Thelma Ritter15) does read and file them. Eventually, Griggs and Alicia shame Fred into reading the letters,16 leading eventually to one of the best numbers in the film, a “dream ballet” in which Fred imagines himself to be the fantasy sugar daddies that Julie imagines her Daddy Long Legs might be.
But Julie finds Tex a little wearing. Too loud, too gauche! He’s replaced by an international playboy, surrounded by comely babes begging for attention. Fred bestows about three seconds of attention on each gal, sufficient to cause her to roll ecstatically on her back and throw her legs up in the air, the erotic implications of which are diminished by shooting the whole bit in a long shot, necessary in part to fill up that damned gigantic Cinemascope screen.
Her daddy surrounded by chicks with their legs in the air? No, that’s not what Julie wants. The playboy vanishes and is replaced by Fred as Julie’s guardian angel, which leads to a very sweet dance, Fred hovering unobtrusively behind an innocent Julie and giving her a little magical assistance from time to time — helping her to get up on her toes, for example, and warding off a scaffold that threatens to collapse on her. From what I’ve read, Fred wanted very much to work with Leslie, and here we can see why. If the sweetness never quite progresses into greatness, perhaps because of a lack of moral depth, well, we shouldn’t complain. The potentially tragic dimensions of a “look, but don’t touch” relationship just don’t fit into a film like Daddy Long Legs.
Coming down from his cloud, Fred decides that playing Pygmalion to Leslie’s Galatea in his dreams isn’t enough. He wants to do it in the flesh — exactly what he ought not to do, of course, but when you’re Jervis Pendleton III, you don’t play by the rules. This leads to more tedious consternation on the part of Griggs, as well as some by Gertrude Pendleton (Kathryn Givney) Jervis’ sister-in-law, whom he’s been stiff-arming for years — because she’s boring, like everyone else in his life.18 Suddenly Jervis wants to renew family ties, because Gertrude’s daughter Linda (Terry Moore), whom he’s never met, attends Walston.
Things get worse when Jervis and Julie go inside and join the kids on the dance floor. When you’re 56 — really, when you’re 26 — you don’t belong on the dance floor with a bunch of college kids. The setup becomes particularly unfortunate when Ray and the Boys launch into “Sluefoot,” a novelty dance number with ’50s faux-funky lyrics like “You sticks your old posterior out and you manipulates it about.”20
Fortunately, we don’t see Fred do this, and the number isn’t terrible, except that, as I’ve said, Fred just doesn’t belong there. Naturally, we have to see Jervis winning Julie away from all the young bucks, Jimmy McBride (Kelly Brown) in particular, which only makes things worse. Jimmy may not be a stunner, but he isn’t 56 years old.
Jimmy’s young, and Jimmy’s persistent. Fortunately, he also wants to be a mining engineer, and Jervis and Griggs, inspired perhaps by King David’s handling of Uriah the Hittite,21 find Jimmy a job in one of Jervis’ tin mines in Bolivia. With Jimmy out of the way, Jervis, as John Smith, romances Julie in a more serious manner, bringing her to a fancy hotel in New York, where they enjoy dinner on the terrace of her lavish suite. Getting seriously carried away, Fred/Jervis sings “Something’s Gotta Give,” and, naturally, we get an excellent romantic dance, very sweet, not much emotional depth, very reminiscent of Fred’s “I’m Old Fashioned” number with Rita Hayworth in You Were Never Lovelier, but without quite the same wonderful brio of that performance, but maybe I’m just being grumpy. Who’s getting old, Fred or me?
Anyway, this leads to a magical night on the town, and it seems that “John” and Julie are set. Unfortunately, Ambassador Sullivan has the adjoining suite, and the adjoining terrace, and when he hears the two enjoying breakfast together the next day, he blows a gasket, even though, naturally, “nothing” happened. Jervis, lacking the nerve to resist the dead hand of conformity, gives way to the ambassador’s bullying, and tells Julie that he has to go abroad.
Fortunately, Julie doesn’t go mad. Instead, she heads for New York to finally see Daddy in the flesh. In a fairly clever bit of recapitulation, she arrives at the Pendleton mansion to listen to the same gallery tour that we heard at the beginning of the film. Jervis summons up the courage to go down and confront Julie, telling her that he is both John and Jervis, and that he loves her. And so, of course, they dance.
Daddy Long Legs was easily Fred Astaire’s most painful shoot, because his wife was dying of cancer at the time. At one point, he wanted to cancel the production, offering to pay the costs out of his own pocket. After it was done, however, he frequently cited it as one of his favorite films.
Leslie Caron was one star who exploited the star system for her own purposes. She followed Daddy Long Legs with Gaby, a reworking of Waterloo Bridge, playing a ballet dancer turned prostitute. She had an enormous hit with Gigi, which she followed with an English production of The Doctor’s Dilemma, based on a play by George Bernard Shaw.23 In 1960 she appeared in The Subterraneans, an absolutely hysterical take on the Jack Kerouac novel, which tragically, tragically is not available today. Throughout the ’60s she worked in English, French, and Italian films. Her last big Hollywood picture was Promise Her Anything (1965), co-starring with her then current May-December boy toy, Warren Beatty. It was Caron who persuaded Beatty to take an interest in the script for Bonnie and Clyde, thinking that she and Warren would star in it together. Her last appearance has been in Law & Order SVU in 2006. Unfortunately, she doesn’t seem to be much of a name today, and many of her films are still not available on DVD.
- Kelly, one of the most elegantly beautiful women ever, had a penchant for bedding her girlhood idols, and would even sneak into Bing’s house for a sleepover, because the sonofabitch was too cheap to spring for a hotel. Such is the power of beauty that Grace’s X-rated sex life has largely been scrubbed from the Web. Face it, guys. If you want the truth about the stars, Hollywood Babylon is still the Bible. [↩]
- Having a hit at 56 isn’t bad at all, even though Fred’s version came in no more than third, behind the McGuire Sisters and Sammy Davis, Jr. [↩]
- What’s wrong with AIP? Director Vincente Minnelli’s achingly anal Paris, for one thing, so sparkling and pristine that it makes Disneyland look like Tijuana. The big “This Is Paris” ballet that concludes the film is, unsurprisingly, overripe at a minimum. When Gene got artistic, he usually got bad. Worst of all is the subplot involving rich bitch Milo Roberts (Nina Foch), who wants to make a kept man out of Gene, who naturally treats her with infinite contempt for being such a disgusting slut/lesbo cunt (worst of all, she’s old). [↩]
- For Singin’ in the Rain Comden and Green wrote an affectionate parody of Hollywood. For The Band Wagon, an affectionate parody of Broadway. Not too surprisingly, The Band Wagon worked better. Comden and Green knew Broadway better than Hollywood, and Hollywood preferred making fun of Broadway to making fun of itself. [↩]
- Rail against it as you like, there’s no doubt that Daddy Long Legs has legs. It was made into a Broadway show (1914) and four Hollywood films, starring Mary Pickford (1919), Janet Gaynor (1931), Shirley Temple (1935, as Curly Top), as well as Fred and Leslie’s 1955 version. There’s also been a 1990 Japanese anime version, as well as a Korean flick in 2005. Sadly, Webster died in 1916 at age 40 due to complications arising from pregnancy, before any of these films were made. [↩]
- When Ronald Reagan was president of the Screen Actors Guild back in the ’40s, he told union members that appearing on TV amounted to treason, though Ronnie couldn’t always resist slipping off to New York for a little easy money when times got tight, as they often were for him after WWII. A few years later, of course, it was Ronnie who sold the Guild out to the networks, negotiating a monopoly contract with MCA and, not coincidentally, negotiating a sweet deal for himself as the host of GE Theater. Like most Hollywood deals, it was a case of rape by acquiescence, and nobody complained very much. A lot of people got laid, a lot of people got rich, and only a few got screwed. Say what you like about Ronnie, he knew when it was time to deal. [↩]
- Kearns was best-known as the original Mr. Wilson in the Dennis the Menace TV series. He played a prissy, bitchy, ineffectual schmuck over and over again in 1950s TV. He was also the voice of the Doorknob in Disney’s 1951 Alice in Wonderland. [↩]
Georges Braque, co-founder of Cubism with Picasso, has always been one of my favorites, but for some reason gets very little press these days. [↩]
- The sounds are presumably from Ray Anthony’s big band, because they show up later at a college dance to perform “The Sluefoot,” a dance sensation that died perhaps three seconds after birth. [↩]
- I’m not sure if Fred has a stereo, which were very new in 1955, but the film itself is in stereo. [↩]
- Charlie Barnet was a real-life Jervis Pendleton. Barnet inherited a huge fortune from his father, a vice president of the New York Central Railroad, and used it to finance a swing band. He had a major hit with “Cherokee” in 1939. He passionately admired the bands of Count Basie and Duke Ellington and employed major black musicians like Roy Eldridge and Lena Horne when very few bands were integrated. In the late ’40s he led a “progressive” band that featured bop trumpeter Howard McGhee. Barnet liked to party, and when he was feeling drunk and frustrated he would fire the entire band and then rehire them at lower salaries. When McGhee used the occasion to demand a higher salary, Barnet paid it, and then when he got drunk he would say “You’re all fired except McGhee.” Barnet had so many wives that an exact count is apparently unobtainable. [↩]
- Reading the lyrics online suggests that the suits got it right. [↩]
- Modeled, sort of, on Vassar, which Webster attended back in the 1890s. [↩]
- Coed dorm scenes in the 1920s and ’30s were an invitation to nudity. In the ’50s, they were an invitation to ennui. O mores, O tempores, eh, motherfucker? [↩]
- Ritter is a near-legendary character actor, even today, but I always found her to be a pissy little runt. De gustibus non est disputandum. [↩]
- Shtick about humble servants encouraging their glamorous betters to do the right thing never seems to go out of style. Disney made a bundle off of it in both Pretty Woman and The Parent Trap, to name two of the most egregious recent offenders. [↩]
- And who couldn’t use another six inches, eh? [↩]
- Jervis’ brother is apparently so boring that he never even shows up in the film. [↩]
- If you’ve never heard of Ray, don’t be embarrassed. [↩]
- Who talks like this? Negroes, I guess, or maybe hillbillies. [↩]
- David had Uriah placed in the center of battle, where he was killed, allowing David to consort with Uriah’s widow, Bathsheba. [↩]
- The finale is quite reminiscent of the conclusion of the art film of all art films, Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du Paradis. It’s just not as good. [↩]
- If you didn’t need to be told that, feel free to sneer. [↩]