Royal Wedding (1951)
No, not that royal wedding. And this movie isn’t really about a royal wedding at all, though then-Princess Elizabeth’s nuptials to Philip Mountbatten in 1947 form the backdrop to this delightful MGM musical.
Fred and Adele had been a hugely popular dance team for almost three decades (they started when they were young kids) from the early 1900s to 1932.
They were the toast of Broadway and the West End, but after performing in The Band Wagon in 1931 (no real relation to Fred Astaire’s 1953 film The Band Wagon), Adele married Lord Charles Cavendish, the second son of the Duke of Devonshire.
Fun fact: the Cavendish family is one of the grandest in England, and their estate Chatsworth often plays Pemberley in Jane Austen films.
After marrying Lord Charles, Adele retired from show business and went to live in her husband’s ancestral home in Ireland. Meanwhile, her brother started a solo career in Hollywood.
Two decades later, MGM producer Arthur Freed invited Broadway lyricist Alan Jay Lerner (Brigadoon, An American in Paris (1951), My Fair Lady, Gigi) to try his hand at screenwriting. Lerner was inspired by the story of Fred and Adele Astaire, and decided to set his new movie against the backdrop of the royal wedding.
Charles Walters was assigned to direct, and Fred Astaire and June Allyson were cast as the brother and sister. Allyson was delighted with the project, as she had wanted to work with Astaire for a long time.
Fun fact: originally, in early 1949, Allyson and Astaire were linked for a movie called Niagara Falls which was about a honeymoon. But Hal Roach Studios owned that title because of their 1941 film, so MGM scrapped that preliminary idea and instead assigned the stars to Lerner’s script.
But the Astaire-Allyson pairing wasn’t to be. Allyson found out that she was pregnant just a few days into rehearsal for Royal Wedding, and she decided to give up the role.
Fun fact: as soon as Allyson got the good news, she called Fred Astaire. She said, “I want you to be the first to know, I’m pregnant.” After a shocked pause, Astaire asked, “Who is this?”
Now that Allyson was out, Freed cast Judy Garland as Ellen Bowen. She and Astaire had worked together on Easter Parade (1948), but Garland had been struggling in the last few years. Indeed, Garland had barely made it through her last movie, Summer Stock (1950). It had been such a difficult experience that Charles Walters, who had directed Summer Stock, asked to be removed from Royal Wedding because he didn’t want to nurture Garland through another movie.
So Freed gave the film to Stanley Donen. Donen had worked with Gene Kelly for years and had co-directed On the Town (1949) with the star, but this was his first film as solo director. He would go on to a fantastic career with movies like Singin’ in the Rain, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Funny Face, and Charade.
Garland and Donen started rehearsals, but almost immediately things began to crumble for the star. Garland claimed that she couldn’t work both mornings and afternoons, so a compassionate Arthur Freed allowed her to come in for half-days.
But Garland started calling in sick just days before filming began, and MGM knew they were in trouble. They suspended the star for not showing up to work on June 17, 1950, and Freed made the tough decision to remove her from the movie for good because he feared it would never get made.
This was the final straw for MGM, who had suspended Garland before for similar behavior. That September, MGM cancelled her contract, ending Garland’s fourteen years with the studio.
Freed had to scramble to replace Judy Garland, but fortunately Jane Powell was available. “Ellen” was Powell’s first real “grown-up” role after six years of playing teenagers. In fact, her two previous films, Nancy Goes to Rio (1950) and Two Weeks with Love (1950), were both stories of a teenager falling for a much older man and desperately trying to grow up.
Twenty-one-year-old Powell must have been excited to step out of that teenager storyline and into a role as an adult woman in Royal Wedding.
Astaire and his third leading lady started shooting in July 1950, and filmed through late August with retakes in October. Apparently the two stars got along well, and Powell does a great job keeping up with Astaire on the dance floor, especially since she was a singer first, not a dancer.
And although Astaire was used to being paired with much younger women, he got a nasty surprise when he learned that Powell had been born in 1929, just three years before he and Adele ended their showbiz partnership! Astaire was three decades older than his perky blonde partner, which makes their brother-sister roles just a little hard to believe.
The number ends with an (unrealistic) proposal (kings generally don’t marry their maids) and plenty of pomp and circumstance. It’s a fun routine by dance director Nick Castle.
After the big finale, the curtain comes down and Ellen and Tom immediately break character. This is the last performance of their smash hit revue, they are tired, and the theater is very, very hot.
As Tom wipes his face and then Ellen’s, he tells her that her performance was a little “ragged,” and that he almost caught her when he was chasing her around the throne.
It’s fun to see the pair “backstage” out of the spotlight, especially because until the camera pulled back at the end of the number, we didn’t realize we were in a theater.
Unlike many other “backstage musicals,” such as Easter Parade or Summer Stock, this one doesn’t follow the pair from the bottom of the showbiz heap up to eventual stardom. Instead, when Royal Wedding begins, the Bowens are already established stars and are finishing up a sold out Broadway show. That’s why they aren’t beaming with delight at another successful performance–they’ve been doing this for years!
And they’re going to do it a little bit longer. After the show, their agent Irving (Keenan Wynn) tells them that he has managed a prime booking in London. They are going to take the whole show overseas and will be there for Princess Elizabeth’s wedding!
Costume appreciation break. I really love this pleated, floaty maid’s costume. The pale blue/grey and yellow are a popular combination in 1940s and ’50s films. MGM designer Helen Rose supervised the costumes on this movie.
You can see similar color design in other Technicolor films from this era:
Back to the film. Tom and Ellen leave New York on an ocean liner. Two of Ellen’s boyfriends (she always has a few fellows hanging around) show up to see her off. They get into a fight as the ship pulls away when they realize that they are waving at the same woman!
Interestingly, Ellen isn’t shown kissing her boyfriends, though we see this man (Peter Lawford), smooching both of this girlfriends. Ellen is allowed to be a little daring, but I think that it may have been too much in 1950 to show her kissing two different men. Lawford’s character can get away with it (boys will be boys!) but Ellen must be a very chaste lady despite her multiple beaus. (For more on that, read my History Through Hollywood: Vice post.)
Once they are out to sea, Ellen meets the man she saw kissing all of those women. He’s Lord John Brindale, an impoverished but very posh Brit. And he’s quite interested in pretty Ellen.
She’s interested, too, so interested that she forgets to meet her brother for dance rehearsal in the ship’s gym. You can watch John and Ellen’s meet-cute here.
Recognize that deck? If you’ve ever watched an MGM movie set aboard ship, you’ve probably seen it.
Anyway, while Ellen is off beginning a new romance with John, Tom is hard at work crafting a new routine. It’s the famous “Sunday Jumps” number where he dances with a hat rack and various other gym equipment. It’s an amazing scene, mostly for the dancing but also for the look at a 1950s gym.
Fun fact: in 1997, Dirt Devil used some of this routine in a commercial. They digitally altered it so that Astaire dances with a broom-vac instead of a hat rack. It was made after Astaire’s death and approved by his widow, though his daughter thought it was disgraceful. I agree with his daughter.
One evening, the ship’s captain asks the Bowens to perform. The ship is getting into a storm and he thinks that a performance will distract the passengers.
It all goes well until the ship gets into some bad waves and starts listing and rocking. Soon, Ellen and Tom can barely keep their feet as the floor pitches beneath them. It’s a great, funny scene. You can watch it here.
Fun fact: the idea for this crazy number was based on a rocky evening when Adele and Fred Astaire sailed to London in 1923. Apparently they had trouble performing due to the high waves just as Ellen and Tom do in this movie.
Here are Powell and Lawford between takes with the crucial bowl of oranges and apples from this scene:
Costume appreciation break. Ellen’s floaty dress with sequin stripes and velvet sash is something else! Notice the different color of her petticoat. It’s close to the periwinkle of the dress, but slightly pinker and brighter.
Irving, their American agent, has a twin brother named Edgar who is overseeing the British version of the show. It’s Keenan Wynn, of course. After talking over some business with Edgar, Ellen takes off for a date with John while Tom heads to the theater to oversee some auditions.
You can see the same street in many different films, including Easter Parade.
As Tom walks to the theater, he mistakes a pretty woman in a blue coat for Irving and asks her for a light. She walks away and is distressed when Tom “follows” her. They’re both going to the same theater, but they don’t know it!
Anne feels badly that she was mean to him on the street, but all is forgiven. He casts her in the show at once and then asks her to dinner.
Anne is played by Sarah Churchill, actress and daughter of Winston Churchill. This was her American film debut, but she had been in some British movies and had her own TV show in 1951. Here she is with her father, then Prime Minister, in Cairo in 1943.
Fun fact: the MGM publicity department was warned not to mention Winston Churchill in their campaign for Royal Wedding.
You can imagine that they would have loved to exploit that angle, but it was off the table. Sarah Churchill appears in very little publicity for the film, with most of the attention going to Astaire and Powell with a few mentions of Peter Lawford.
This isn’t so unusual, since Churchill was a newcomer to Hollywood, but it was also a conscious decision.
According to a memo to studio executives from a trailer producer, “…on the suggestion that Sarah Churchill be featured prominently in the trailer, I am not sure this is a good idea. Miss Churchill is a fine performer, but photogenically I don’t think that she would be that attractive unless people knew that she was Winston Churchill’s daughter, and as you suggest, we could not use any such reference.”
Back to the film. As Tom is hard at work casting the show, Ellen is enjoying a day in the English countryside with Lord John.
He takes her to his family’s ancestral home to pick up a wedding present for Princess Elizabeth and Philip. Like many aristocratic families, the Brindales have had to sell almost everything, and they can’t afford to live in the house anymore (it’s hard to be an aristocrat!), but they have one last set of fancy china that can serve as their gift to the royal couple.
I love the rear projection as they drive to the house! The countryside behind them looks so fake and so perfect at the same time.
John and Ellen are falling love, and Tom is crushing hard on Anne. But the Bowens are supposed to be focused on their show, not love! So that evening, both pretend to be going to bed early, but instead sneak out to see their respective love interests.
That evening, Tom and Anne have a great dinner together, though Anne waits until the last moment to tell Tom that she is engaged. Her fiancé is an Englishman named Hal who has been living in America for two years.
Tom is disappointed, but he acts as though it doesn’t matter. He doesn’t need an affair to distract him from the show! So he still goes with Anne to get her mother’s weekly alimony from her father, Jamie (Anne’s parents have been separated for three years). Then Tom walks her home.
I love how the set department included the big red British post box and the black and white pole that signals a pedestrian right-of-way crossing. And plenty of fog. Very authentic!
Days pass in rehearsal. Irving calls Edgar to check on the show, and we get a great look at an operator placing the long distance call. (For more on telephones in old movies, visit my History Through Hollywood: Telephones post.)
Irving is delighted to hear that the show is progressing nicely, though he can barely understand Edgar’s British accent and dialect, and Edgar can’t understand Irving’s American slang. Comedy!
So nice of Ellen to dress in blue-grey and mustard to match the hotel room walls and furniture! 1940s and early ’50s films just cannot get enough of that color combination!
Suddenly it’s the night before the premiere and Tom is feeling good…until Anne tells him she can’t be his date to the opening night party. She’s expecting a call from Hal, and she can’t reschedule because it has been months since she’s heard from him. Tom wants to figure out what this guy’s deal is, so he asks Edgar to do some discreet investigating…
Ellen mocks Tom for not having a date to the party, but then she gets bad news, too. John can’t make it to the opening because he has to go to a party for the royal wedding. Again, it’s tough to be an aristocrat!
We only get to see one number from the opening night, but it’s a doozy by Burton Lane and Lerner called “How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Love You When You Know I’ve Been a Liar All My Life.” The usually suave Astaire and elegant Powell dress down to play a dysfunctional, gum smacking, rough-dancing couple in a vaudeville-esque number that’s actually quite charming.
The routine is similar to “A Couple of Swells” in Easter Parade (1948) when Astaire and Garland suited up as tramps and performed a comic number on a flat street set.
Fun fact: some people say that Astaire was mocking Gene Kelly with his straw boater and bent-knees choreography in this number. And The New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther called this the best number in the film, writing that “In this one the couple shimmy-shammy and knock each other—and the audience—dead. Give Mr. Astaire a hunk of rhythm, a straw boater and a girl, and he’s your man.”
The show is a grand success. And John was able to come after all! He and Ellen ditch the party and walk by the river so she can sing a love song called “Too Late Now.” You can watch it here.
And you can watch Judy Garland sing the song on “The Judy Garland Show” in 1963, thirteen years after being fired from the role of Ellen.
Fun fact: the “London” bridge that Powell and Lawford stroll across was the “Waterloo Bridge” on MGM’s backlot. You can also see it in The Three Musketeers (1948) and Rich, Young and Pretty (1951), as well as dozens of other films.
While Ellen is stretching her soprano pipes with John, lonely Tom goes to see Jamie (Albert Sharpe). They have become pals, and Jamie wants Tom’s opinion on his borrowed morning suit. He and his estranged wife are going to look at the Princess’s wedding presents which are on display at the palace.
Jamie tells Tom that he isn’t convinced that Anne is still in love with Hal, and that she hasn’t heard from him in months. This gives Tom hope.
He leaves the pub and steals the portrait of Anne from the theater’s display on his way home.
Once back at the hotel, Tom begins to sing to the photo. The song is “You’re All the World to Me,” which was originally assigned to Judy Garland in the film. But it didn’t work very well for Powell’s voice, so Astaire took it, instead. And gave us an incredible number. You may not know the title of the song, but you’ve probably seen it somewhere–it’s the infamous “dancing on the ceiling” routine!
Astaire begins by singing to the picture in voiceover which cues us to the “dream” aspect of the number. Then he starts singing out loud and literally climbs up a wall. Eventually he is hopping around the chandelier and twirling among the sconces. It’s extraordinary.
It’s a beautiful idea, right? He is so in love that gravity can’t possibly hold him down, so blissfully enamored that suddenly the world’s rules don’t apply. It’s one of my favorite expressions of onscreen love.
So how in the world did they film this? Well, they built the hotel room especially for this number (we don’t see it at any other point in the film) with several key features. The most important, obviously, is that it rotated–the room was built inside of a steel cage that could spin the entire set.
Inside the room, they bolted everything down–the chairs, tables, lamps, etc., so that nothing would move when the room rotates. (Early in the number, Astaire moves a chair but there is a cut afterwards to allow the chair to be bolted in place before the room starts moving.)
The camera was also bolted down and the cameraman anchored in place so that the camera remained fixed at the original spot.
Basically, everything we see is locked in place except for Astaire. So it appears as though he is the only thing moving, but actually the entire room is revolving.
You can read more about it here, and watch a great behind-the-scenes explanation here:
The film Inception (2010) used the same technique for its famous hallway fight scene, though on a much grander scale. You can read about that here, and watch a brief video about how they did it fifty years after Astaire.
Even though I know how they accomplished this effect, whenever I watch it I’m utterly captivated by the magic and completely forget the method.
Oddly enough, when this film was released in 1951, most reviews didn’t devote much attention to the ceiling dance, instead focusing on the “How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Love You…” number.
Fun fact: although Donen later claimed that screenwriter Lerner came up with the ceiling dance idea, Astaire has always said that he dreamed it up, and had been wanting to incorporate it into a film for years.
(You can watch Dirt Devil’s version of this scene in their 1997 commercial. It’a a bit of a bummer because Astaire is gazing at a handheld vac while dancing on the ceiling.)
After the ceiling dance, the film cuts to the next morning. The Bowens’ show has gotten marvelous reviews, so everyone is happy! Tom brings Jamie to meet Anne and her mother for their wedding present viewing, and it seems as though Anne’s parents might be reconciling.
That evening before the show, Edgar tells Tom that he has checked up on Anne’s fiancé, and discovered that the jerk is married! Hal apparently forgot to tell Anne it was over before he started a new life with someone else.
But he has a number to do! Ready for the sultry beats of “I Left My Hat in Haiti”? As I mentioned, the Bowens’ show is a revue, so it’s a series of unconnected numbers. “Haiti” has nothing to do with “Every Night at Seven” or “How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Love You.” Fun fact: we only get to see these three numbers from the show, and we never see Anne dance on stage besides at her audition.
“I Left My Hat in Haiti” is the biggest number in the movie with a large set and cast. A man in a butter-colored suit sings about leaving his favorite blue-grey fedora in Haiti and decides to return for it, but really he’s searching for the woman who stole his heart (and his hat.)
You can watch it below. The quality of this clip isn’t great–Royal Wedding somehow fell through the cracks and MGM failed to renew its copyright on its 29th anniversary. It came into the public domain, and it can be difficult to find a good copy, which is why I’ve waited so long to write about it. (I got mine at ClassicFlix!)
After this explosion of color, Tom and Ellen both meet up with their respective loves. John proposes to Ellen, and Tom tells Anne that Hal is married. She is positively gleeful at the news! She has been in love with Tom for ages. So Tom proposes.
Both Bowens return home but they aren’t as ecstatic as newly engaged people generally are. Neither one wants to break up the act, and they aren’t sure if they will make good spouses after so many years alone.
It goes without saying in the film that Ellen would have to retire from the stage if she married John. So Tom says that if she gets married, he and Anne will start their own act. Ellen gets mad and decides to call off her engagement. She wants to marry John, but she says that it is “terribly unfair” that Tom and Anne can travel the world dancing together and “having all the fun” while she is stuck at home. (It’s unusual for a woman in a classic film to make that argument.) Plus, she and Tom have worked so hard together for so long, and she doesn’t want to give it all up.
One can imagine Adele Astaire having this same conversation with her brother twenty years earlier…
Ellen has now talked herself out of marrying John, and Tom thinks he’d better release Anne, too. But they don’t feel very happy. The next day is the royal wedding. Tom and Ellen watch the festivities from the street.
Fun fact: MGM wanted to include actual newsreel footage from the royal wedding in this movie. They attempted to acquire film from Gaumont-British News, but the royal family objected. Instead, MGM was allowed to use clips from the parade and the palace, but nothing that shows the royal couple nor the inside of Westminster Abbey.
So the carriages we see in this sequence do not actually contain the Princess and her husband. (As film critic Bosley Crowther noted dryly, “The royal couple, not being under contract to M-G-M, do not appear in the film.”)
In order to obtain this footage, MGM had to change the title of the UK release to Wedding Bells so that people wouldn’t assume that Royal Wedding was about the actual royal wedding. That’s why British publicity like this lobby card calls the film Wedding Bells:
They realize that being with their beloveds trumps all of their other concerns. So they send Edgar to make wedding arrangements, and hurry off to find Anne and John. Ellen even chases down John’s carriage as he leaves the Abbey!
And two more couples tie the knot that day!
Despite the trouble casting the female lead, and with a relatively novice director, the film came in only $12,000 over its budget of $1,590,920. It was a hit and earned the studio about half a million dollars in profits.
The New York Times review of Royal Wedding was fine but not particularly enthusiastic. Crowther wrote:
The stars run no risk of being out-sparkled by a film for which the best that we can say is that it has one swell number in it, built on the world’s longest-titled song. [How Could You Believe Me…] But that’s how it is with “Royal Wedding” — one swell number, three or four that are good, a laugh here, a laugh there; colored newsreels of the British royal wedding and so long pal. Mr. Astaire has fared better in his lifetime—and he has also fared much worse.
As I said earlier, the ceiling dance didn’t receive as much attention as one might expect. Crowther was much more enthusiastic about the “How Could You Believe Me” routine, and only briefly mentioned Astaire’s other dances:
Or give him a novelty arrangement and a little space in which to move around and he can make old Terpsichore holler, no matter how average the song. One “single” he does in a gymnasium, with a hatrack and dumbbells for props, bears the old Astaire trademark, and he likewise makes quite a rib-tickling thing out of dancing on walls and ceiling in another done with trick photography.
Crowther was lukewarm about Miss Churchill, but was unable to resist mentioning her famous antecedents, writing that “As an English show-girl whom Mr. Astaire finds beguiling, Sarah Churchill presents an air of serene detachment, and Albert Sharpe is mildly comical as her pa—her pa, in this case, being a barkeep and not Britain’s ex-Prime Minister.”
Sarah Churchill appeared in a few more British films and TV series, as well as Jack Benny’s television and radio shows, but this was her only Hollywood movie.
Astaire kept going through the 1950s with films like The Band Wagon (1953), Daddy Long Legs (1955), and Funny Face (1956). And Powell had some big hits ahead of her, including Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) and Hit the Deck (1955).
Fun fact: the song “Too Late Now” by Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner, which Powell sang to Lawford along the riverbank, earned the film its only Oscar nomination. But it lost Best Song to “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening” by Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer from Here Comes the Groom (1951).