Daddy Long Legs (1955)
20th Century Fox presents the only movie Fred Astaire ever made for that studio: 1955’s Daddy Long Legs.
It’s what every girl dreams about: plucked from obscurity and sent to another country by an old millionaire benefactor, given trunks of gorgeous clothes, spunky roommates with handsome brothers at a classy college, and plenty of opportunities to dance, whether choreographed college numbers, terrace bound duets, or dream/nightmare ballets. And then you get to marry a man three times your age whom you really don’t know very well! Sign me up.
Boiled down, the movie is this: a millionaire anonymously sponsors an orphan and eventually falls in love with her. And everything is uncomfortably stretched to fill the monstrous length of CinemaScope. I think we’re done here.
But we’ll continue anyway, because despite my earlier sarcasm, it’s a visually striking movie with a wonderful cast, and I do enjoy the trunks, the roommates, and the dancing.
This version was its fourth movie adaptation: Mary Pickford played the orphan in 1919, Janet Gaynor took the role in 1931, and Shirley Temple played the little sister of the orphan (Rochelle Hudson) in 1935’s Curly Top. That’s the film that gave us “Animal Crackers in My Soup” and this adorable tapping-on-top-of-the-piano-number.
Twenty years later, Fred Astaire was offered the role of the wealthy benefactor opposite Mitzi Gaynor, whom you might know from a little movie called South Pacific (1958).
Fox wanted to film it in CinemaScope, a first for Astaire. Look how wide the image is! For a more detailed discussion of CinemaScope and ratios, check out this great website.
Astaire liked the script, especially because it treated his relatively advanced age (he was 56) as a plot point instead of just pairing him with a 20-year-old ingenue and asking the audience to go with it. He was intrigued by the idea of choreographing for CinemaScope, too, but he wasn’t thrilled with Mitzi Gaynor.
He really wanted to work with Leslie Caron, having been very impressed with her previous work, especially An American in Paris (1951). So he asked for Caron, and the script was tweaked to account for her French accent; now Astaire discovers her while on a visit to France…
French stuff was all the rage, and Daddy Long Legs happened to be the first of three Astaire “French” musicals. Funny Face (1957) sends fashion photographer Astaire and novice model/philosopher Audrey Hepburn to Paris for shoots and shows.
Silk Stockings (1957), a re-make of Ninotchka (1939), sees Cyd Charisse as the straitlaced Soviet sent to corral four of her comrades who have become corrupted by and in Paris. Astaire is the American film producer who gradually shows Charisse what she’s been missing.
But back to the first musical in his French trilogy. Astaire is Jervis Pendleton III, a very, very wealthy man from a long line of very, very wealthy men. The movie opens with a docent leading a tour in Astaire’s New York City mansion, which looks more like a museum. The tour ends with a look at three family portraits: Jervis Pendleton the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd (Astaire).
His grandfather was painted by Whistler, his father by Sargent, and Jervis by Picasso. Director Jean Negulesco painted the Picasso-style portrait himself. The portraits are a quick visual way to show 1. the family has been rich and important for a while 2. the family resemblance is terrifying and funny, and 3. the current Jervis is into modern stuff.
Number three is reinforced when jazz blares out of an opened door upstairs. Jervis likes to drum along to his favorite records, even when his right hand man Griggs (Fred Clark) is trying to discuss stocks and State Department trips. Jervis is not an uptight, dull millionaire, you see. His tie is even untied! What a fun loving guy he must be. Since he’s also Fred Astaire, it’s a safe bet there will be an inventive dance happening soon.
Yup. He dances with a pair of drumsticks in his very midcentury modern office/drum room. Griggs watches, looking bored. You can watch it here. I’m rather partial to the “Drum Crazy” solo in Easter Parade, but this one is nice, too, especially when he throws the sticks around.
At the end of the dance, Jervis finally tells Griggs that yes, of course they will go on the State Department trip to France. Apparently Jervis is an economic genius and the U.S. wants to get his expertise on how to improve France’s economy. Or something. It’s an excuse to meet Leslie Caron, so it doesn’t really matter.
He and Griggs join the group in France but their car goes into a ditch and Jervis decides to walk down the road to get some help. He decides that an orphanage is just the ticket. Clearly the production did not go on location to the French countryside…
Once there he sees a lovely young woman in a blue gingham shirt. (He doesn’t yet know that the orphanage received a donation of thousands of yards of blue gingham. So everything is blue and white checked, including the curtains and the clothes.)
Jervis watches the girl and is very taken with her. She’s got a gift for life, he thinks. She never sees him.
He learns that she is eighteen-year-old Julie Andre, who has been at the orphanage her whole life. He also learns that a fat old farmer in the village wants to marry her, and that he will probably prevail because there are no other options for Mademoiselle Andre.
And perhaps in the back of Jervis’ mind, he thinks “She can’t marry a fat old farmer! She should marry a skinny old millionaire!” But in the front of his mind he begins to ponder adopting her so she can have a better life.
He asks for the American ambassador’s help in adopting Julie. First, it’s a wonder the three men can hear each other since they are so spread out. CinemaScope is great, but in this film it feels as though they are trying too hard to utilize the extra width, and it often comes across as pointless stretching in the blocking, set design, and choreography. Though well done on that cocktail set on the table.
Stanley Donen and Michael Kidd use the ratio to great effect in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, but they’ve got the great outdoors (painted sets though they may be) and often seven people, and sometimes fourteen or more, to move around in space.
Daddy Long Legs has a tiny cast in comparison, and most of its dances are solos or duets. It’s harder to fill CinemaScope’s vastness with one, two, or three people, even if one of them is Fred Astaire.
Anyway, the ambassador and Griggs are shocked by Jervis’ adoption request, especially when they find out the girl is eighteen (!). The ambassador scolds Jervis and refuses to help, saying that it’s scandalous and rotten, and Griggs agrees.
Jervis protests that he has nothing naughty in mind, and amends his adoption idea to an anonymous sponsorship. He’ll send the girl to college in the U.S., and give her a generous stipend, but he’ll keep his distance and it will all be anonymous and totally innocent.
Julie gets the happy news in another stretched shot:
And then she walks dreamily around the orphanage, the interior of which is bathed in blue light, while yellow suffuses the outside. Very pretty, but awfully mannered.
She learns from some of the orphans that they saw her anonymous benefactor, but in truth they only saw his elongated shadow. So they tell her he looked like a daddy long legs, and that’s what she calls him from then on.
She arrives at Walston College, an idyllic girls’ school where they also do scary hazing for new students.
They call Julie “Egghead” and pull her clothes and push her hither and thither before being nice girls again and welcoming her to Walston. Okay, so it’s not that scary, but I imagine for a jet-lagged French orphan whose English isn’t perfect and who is probably self -conscious about her very tidy blue gingham shirt and shabby suitcase it’s a bit terrifying.
She’s shown to her elegant dorm room which she’ll be sharing with two other students. One of these is Linda Pendleton (Terry Moore), Jervis’ niece.
It’s not a coincidence; Jervis made it happen so that he could arrange for Julie’s summer vacations and activities without anyone knowing he’s the one doing it. Linda just gets invited to use Jervis’ various summer houses and things, and is encouraged to bring her friends!
Julie’s other roommate is Sally McBride (Charlotte Austin), who’s one of my favorite parts of the movie. (Linda’s the blonde, Sally the brunette.) When Sally first meets Julie she tells her that although she won’t be much help with English grammar, “I have got a brother at Harvard who’s real smooth, so if I were you, I’d cultivate me.”
Soon two trunks are wheeled into the room. Pervis made sure Julie would be properly outfitted…
She opens the trunks, and it’s practically heaven. Linda pulls out the hanging bar (these trunks are amazing) and slides dress after dress out of the trunk. Sally says, “I’ll swap you a date with my brother for a chance to wear this dress!” It’s also fun because later on we see Julie in that flame colored dress, and in the cream-colored printed day dress. We never see that blue strapless number, unfortunately. Costumes for this film were designed by Charles LeMaire and Kay Nelson.
Julie explains to her roomies that her guardian is the one who sent the clothes, but they’re suspicious. Linda asks Sally, once Julie is out of earshot, “Do you think he’s really her guardian?” and Sally replies, “Well, I don’t care what his intentions are; his taste is divine!”
Well, Julie enjoys college. She writes to Daddy Long Legs a lot, but never receives an answer, which makes her sad.
Unbeknownst to Julie, her benefactor never sees her letters. Jervis instructed his secretary Ms. Pritchard to put them all in a “Julie Andre” folder in his Personal Files. He’s determined to hold up his end of the bargain and keep his distance.
Ms. Pritchard is played by Thelma Ritter, who steals the show as the only “human” in his office. She reads all of Julie’s letters, sometimes cries over them, and she tries to get Griggs interested in them, too. She thinks it’s disgraceful that Jervis won’t even read the letters that Julie so devotedly writes.
She finally gets her way. Jervis sits down with the swollen folder of years worth of letters, one of which includes Julie’s musings of who Daddy Long Legs might be. Cue the first dream ballet.
Swirling smoke on a yellow background fades to Jervis as a Texas millionaire. He struts and sings in his orange cowboy boots against the painterly background of oil wells and a million dollar bill.
This section of the ballet is notable as the only time in Astaire’s career that his voice was dubbed–the deep cowboy voice belongs to Thurl Ravenscroft, who also voiced Tony the Tiger and sang the original “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” I suppose Ravenscroft’s deep, textured bass voice suits the scene better than Astaire’s slender tenor.
Astaire doesn’t sing at all in the next section of the dream ballet. Again colored smoke, this time orange, fills the screen. When it dissipates we have Jervis as an international playboy, a ladykiller who tosses women aside left and right. He’s in the same suit, but he’s traded his boots for spats, his red western tie for an ascot, and his cowboy hat for a top hat.
Women throw themselves at him, including the hat check lady who appears to be wearing an apron over black stockings. Risqué! He has no interest in any of them, and after he passes they become part of the backdrop by falling on the floor, or arranging themselves in uncomfortable but visually interesting shapes.
It looks like Wardrobe Director Charles LeMaire and designer Kay Nelson glued cotton balls to the dancers’ dresses, but it’s probably something much nicer than that. It just looks like cotton balls. The muted, pastel dresses, are an interesting choice against that burning backdrop.
Then we move to Julie’s fondest imagining of Daddy Long Legs. White smoke swirls and reveals Jervis as guardian angel in a remarkable set.
The sets throughout the film, especially those in the dream ballets, are very striking. They’re huge and painted in a flat, cartoonish style that reminds me of the “Broadway Melody” ballet in Singin’ in the Rain (1952), or the painting-based dance numbers in An American in Paris (1951). Or Ludwig Bemelmans’ classic children’s book Madeline. The sets are pure fantasy that use the extreme width of the image, and art directors John De Cuir and Lyle Wheeler were nominated for Best Art Direction.
This is the first time that Jervis and Julie dance together. He follows her around as she window shops and eats an ice cream cone (notice the pet shop and the balloon man in the right corner, too…yup, they went ahead and infantilized her for her dance with her “daddy”)…
She looks so cute as she peers into the ice cream shop in her striped sweater. Her costume is odd in this number, especially the blue scarf tied around her waist.
Then they have a lovely duet in a blue world. Although this is a beautiful dance that incorporates ballet elements to showcase Caron’s skills, I think the CinemaScope is a bit wasted. With just two people the space looks absolutely huge. It works okay because the backdrop suggests they are dancing in the sky or something, but I think Astaire’s choreography works better in a less extreme ratio. His precision and grace don’t need CinemaScope to come across on film, and they get a little lost in the widescreen.
I can’t think of many dream ballets where the female dancer is clad in a sweater, pants, and toe shoes. Not to mention the hip scarf. But don’t worry, there are some epic tutus and dresses coming up.
You can watch the guardian angel ballet here.
After reading Julie’s letters, Jervis decides to stop being invisible and get to know his French orphan, proprieties be damned! He calls his sister, Linda’s mother, and invites himself to the college’s spring dance.
The Ray Anthony band, a very famous group in the 1950s, provides the music.
Julie wears her flame colored dress that flares into an excellent twirl skirt, and Jimmy McBride, Sally’s brother, seems to like Julie quite a lot. Jervis says to Linda, “Mr. McBride seems to be quite taken with Miss Andre.” She answers, “Taken? He’s Georgia and she’s Sherman marching through!” That’s one way to put it.
But Jervis doesn’t seem concerned. And I guess he didn’t get the memo about wearing a light colored jacket. But look how nicely the red flower in his buttonhole coordinates with Julie’s dress…better than dear Jimmy’s black pocket square and dull tie.
Sally meets Jervis, and before beginning to dance with him, she asks if he can handle this dance– love these inside jokes. He’s Fred Astaire, I think he can handle it. What confuses me is Sally’s relatively drab dress and the bouquet of flowers threatening to burst from her bosom.
Jervis eventually meets Julie, and he suggests a walk in the garden. She hesitates and then takes his arm. As they leave the dance, Jervis’ sister looks shocked and disapproving.
Of course they begin to dance in front of a statue of Jervis’ grandfather. And of course they move well together. We already knew that, though, because we saw their dream dance.
Their dreamy dance is interrupted by Jimmy fetching Julie for the Sluefoot. What is the Sluefoot? It’s a dance that Astaire was really sure would become the next sensation. It didn’t.
First Jimmy and Julie dance together along with almost every student in the place. That’s Linda in the peach colored dress to the left of Julie. I don’t know who is in the gold dress, but I wish I did.
Astaire watches Julie with a big smile on his face. Then the group of young men he’s standing with suddenly surge forward, jostling him so that he accidentally ends up on the dance floor, displacing Jimmy as Julie’s partner.
Just like Esther Williams getting into the water, it’s always amusing to see how Fred Astaire dives into a dance. You know Esther’s going to swim, and you know Fred is going to dance, but how will it start? The Sluefoot happens “accidentally.”
Once he and Julie are dancing together, the once packed floor becomes very empty. No, the students don’t flee in disgust at the old guy dancing their hip, youthful dance. They stop dancing to watch, and they seem to love it. (Duh, it’s Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron, even if they are doing the Sluefoot.)
Linda is thrilled, Jimmy isn’t, and Jervis’ sister can’t stand to watch. Oh, the embarrassment!
Finally the rest of the students join back in, but not before Julie and Jervis wow them with their own mini-finale and vaudeville bow:
Then they all dance together:
I don’t know about you, but every dance I’ve ever been to ends with everyone lifting up the best dancers and clapping wildly.
But what a fantasy, right? You show up at a dance, you immediately and inexplicably know the entire routine, you dance it brilliantly with your perfect partner, and you’re acknowledged as the greatest dancer ever. Ahh, musicals. You can watch the Sluefoot here.
Jervis is falling for Julie, she’s crushing pretty hard on him, and so after the dance he invites Linda and Julie to New York for the weekend. Fortunately, the Sluefoot did not damage Julie’s pointy nails.
But Linda gets the sniffles and sends Julie alone. She arrives looking sharp with her purse and traveling case. Jervis is delighted but also discomfited. It wouldn’t look right if anyone saw them together and thought he’d arranged a weekend just for Julie.
She suggests they have dinner in her hotel room, and Jervis is foolish enough to agree. She wears a beautiful white dress with V-back and front, and layers and layers of chiffon skirt. It’s made for dancing, literally. And of course they dance, and unlike the wacky Sluefoot, this is a lovely, romantic, typical-Astaire duet. Their music is Johnny Mercer‘s “Something’s Gotta Give.” It was nominated for Best Song, and now it’s a standard.
They dance out the door and keep at it as signs of New York hotspots flash by. In her autobiography Thank Heaven, Leslie Caron remembers that they never actually rehearsed this “Nightclub montage.” She was busy rehearsing the “Nightmare Ballet” when she was told to hurry into makeup and hair: they’d budgeted a whole day for Astaire to film a solo scene, but he’d done it in one perfect take, and he wanted to knock out the “Nightclub montage,” too.
She protested, explaining that she had never rehearsed it and couldn’t possibly film it before learning the dance! But Fred said he would guide her through it, and he did. So they just danced, and Fred led her from step to step: “His large hand on my back, I knew just what to do next. He was an amazingly skillful partner.”
When they dance back to the hotel, Jervis flings Julie around on a room service cart, which seems very dangerous to me. He loses his grip, she slams into the wall. But he doesn’t lose his grip. They’re in love.
But then Jervis realize he’s being creepy. Of course a young woman would be swept off her feet by a millionaire who dances divinely! He’s got to get out of her life so she can marry Jimmy McBride. So he does, and he brings Jimmy back from the Bolivian mine where he’d sent him (just like Preston Foster in Love Before Breakfast! I guess millionaires always find far-off jobs for their romantic rivals, but then bring them back.)
Julie is devastated when Jervis absents himself from her life. She’s really in love with Jervis, not just with his money and his quick feet.
As graduation nears, Julie looks at the clippings she’s collected about Jervis (in Paris at the Opera, in Hong Kong, in Rio), and she writes a desperate letter to Daddy Long Legs begging to come see him. She still doesn’t know he’s Jervis, you see, but she needs some advice.
As she writes her letter, wind ruffles the clippings and they swirl and fade into colors. Dream ballet! The “Nightmare Ballet” is a twelve-minute sequence–you read that right, twelve minutes!–conceived and choreographed by Caron’s ballet mentor Roland Petit.
Most critics wish that Astaire could have choreographed the dream ballet, and thought Petit’s was too long and not relevant enough to the plot. There are three sections, each “inspired” by one of the clippings detailing Jervis’ whereabouts and social calendar.
The nightmare begins with Julie walking down a sketchy version of the hotel corridor where she danced with Jervis. The first door she tries transforms her into a ballerina at L’Opera de Paris performing “Le Papillon.”
She’s even got little stunted butterfly wings on her back, and ribbons in her hair that look like cat ears (I don’t think that was intentional.) Here she is in a publicity photo where you can see the wings:
She enters a weird dressing room and then the show begins. It all reminds me of Beetlejuice, honestly.
Jervis watches from his box as everyone rushes around like butterflies in their brightly colored tights. Tom Keogh designed the ballet costumes and just went wild with tulle.
After the performance she races around backstage and tries another door. This time she emerges at the smoky Hong Kong Club as a dancing prostitute, I guess. The right shoulder strap of her red sequined dress is permanently off her shoulder, but a flesh colored one holds up her dress. It’s a nice attempt at looking wanton and disarranged, but the fairly obvious back-up strap undermines the intended sluttishness.
She sees a white-clad Jervis in the back room of the club, and he watches her dance without moving. She has a nice time with some sailors and assorted club rats. Her dress has very high slits up both sides, so it’s basically a sequined loin cloth, though it does give her an expanded range of movement.
Then it’s off to Rio for Carnivale. She’s dressed as the sad clown Pierrot and she looks lost. “Rio” is drawn on the floor in red powder, but then a strong wind comes and blows it away. It’s a neat effect.
The floor design references the famous “wave” pattern pavements in Rio by Copacabana Beach. It’s also very similar to the optical illusion floor of the “Coffee Time” dance from Yolanda and The Thief (1945), another Fred Astaire musical in which a young woman in Latin America thinks he’s her “guardian angel.” Interesting…
Julie sees Jervis and runs to him, but revelers keep them apart.
Some other things happen and then we get to the happy ending. Julie’s in a slightly less voluminous version of the “Something’s Gotta Give” white dress (are we to infer she’s no longer a naive girl in white chiffon but a sophisticated woman in black satin? Also, she thought she was going to meet her anonymous benefactor, and in my opinion that dress is inappropriate for such an occasion.)
The dance ends with a kiss, which is really rare for an Astaire number.
Now for some production notes: Astaire is famous for being a perfectionist, which could make him a difficult partner. Caron didn’t have Astaire’s perfect rhythm and timing (did anyone?), and occasionally he would get frustrated and ask her to actually listen to the music so she would stay on rhythm…
Throughout rehearsals Fred Astaire’s wife was battling cancer. The day before they were to begin filming, she passed away. Fox postponed the film, but also contacted Maurice Chevalier just in case they had to replace Astaire. At first Astaire didn’t think he could make the movie, so he offered to reimburse the studio for the money they’d already poured into the picture. But then he decided that work was what he needed, so he returned to the lot and danced.
But sometimes between takes he would go to his trailer and cry, which is why his face is sometimes puffy and his eyes a little red. Poor Fred.
The movie did okay at the box office, and was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Art Direction and Best Song, as I’ve mentioned, and also Best Scoring of a Musical.
For some reason, the story is incredibly popular in Japan. It was made as an animated musical for TV in 1979, and also as a miniseries in 1990. There’s even a charity called The Foundation for Orphans From Automobile Accidents, which is known as the Daddy Long Legs Fund.
Here’s the trailer, enjoy!