The Belle of New York (1952)
In 1897, a musical called “The Belle of New York” by Hugh Morton premiered on Broadway. It was the story of an earnest Salvation Army girl who captures the attention of a playboy and tames his wildness. (It’s Guys and Dolls without the gambling/show business storyline.)
The play had a lackluster response in New York and lasted only 56 performances, but it enjoyed a spectacularly successful run of 697 performances in London before touring Europe. (For more on the play, read this interesting article.)
About twenty years after its Broadway premiere, The Belle of New York finally came to the screen in 1919 starring Marion Davies. Another thirty years after that, a musical version starring Fred Astaire and Vera-Ellen premiered in February 1952. And that’s the subject of today’s post!
The movie had been in the works for almost a decade. MGM bought the film rights in 1943, and first assigned Astaire to the project in 1946. But he retired from show business before production began. MGM and Astaire agreed that if he ever came back to movies, he would make Belle and thus fulfill the assignment he’d left unfinished.
Meanwhile, MGM shelved the film, though rumors that they were making the movie with Marge and Gower Champion, or Judy Garland, or Lina Romay appeared in the trade papers.
When Astaire’s short-lived retirement ended in 1948 with Easter Parade, MGM re-assigned the star to this project. He was paired with Vera-Ellen, his co-star from Three Little Words (1950).
Arthur Freed, the musical producer behind such gems as Meet Me in St. Louis, An American in Paris, and Singin’ in the Rain took on the project, with excellent director Charles Walters in the director’s chair.
Wonderful character actors round out the cast: Marjorie Main plays Astaire’s extremely wealthy, terribly respectable aunt, Alice Pearce is Ellen’s best friend and comic foil, and Keenan Wynn is Astaire’s somewhat useless attorney and friend.
But before we get too far, I must say that although I try not to make value judgments when it comes to movies (or, more accurately, I try not to be negative about films because I recognize that my taste differs from other people’s, so what I find horrible another person might love and vice versa), I must admit that this movie doesn’t really work.
The central idea of “walking on air” when one is in love falls flat, and the plot can hardly hang together between the many musical numbers. Also, Astaire looks really old, especially next to fresh-faced Vera-Ellen. Besides the stars, the turn-of-the-century setting feels silly, the sets looks stagey and fake, and it’s difficult to become invested in the characters and their various troubles.
The last issue is partly due to the abundance of musical numbers. An astonishing forty-one minutes of the short eighty-two minute film are taken up by songs and dances. Most of the non-musical scenes feel like placeholders or bridges designed mostly to get from one song to the next one.
It’s sort of lucky that half of the movie is devoted to musical numbers because they are the best things about this film, but it also makes it difficult for the movie to sustain plot and tension. It’s one of those films where the romantic leads fall in love with each other immediately without clear reasons why, and most of the other plot elements happen just as inexplicably.
This movie is still worth watching (I wouldn’t write about it if it wasn’t), but don’t expect a musical masterpiece. That being said, sometimes a flop can be more interesting than a hit. For example, Belle‘s failure is especially strange because it was made by the very best in the business. With Astaire, Arthur Freed, Charles Walters, songwriting team Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer, who wrote seven songs for this movie, and all of MGM’s talent, money, and expertise, it’s odd that it failed to deliver.
The film opens on a New York street around the turn of the century. A whole crowd of men have gathered outside of the Daughters of Right “welfare house,” a sort of Salvation Army mission. But they aren’t there to reform. No, they are there to serenade “the belle of New York,” Miss Angela Bonfils (Vera-Ellen), the prettiest lady in town and the most popular member of the Daughters of Right.
Fun fact: Vera-Ellen filmed a dance to this song, “When I’m Out With the Belle of New York,” with the chorus, but it was cut from the movie.
The oddly-in-tune crowd of strangers scatters when Mrs. Hill (Marjorie Main) arrives. She thinks that such romantic nonsense has no place at the welfare house, and she scolds Angela for encouraging it, though she recognizes that Angela can’t really help how gorgeous she is. Mrs. Hill does opine that Angela is so called to this work (her parents started the welfare house), because her loveliness tends to distract from the mission. You can watch the opening scene here.
Fun fact: Marjorie Main’s role was originally intended for Mae West. But the budget did not stretch far enough to afford the legendary Ms. West, so Main got the part instead.
That evening, Angela delivers a rousing call to reform at the welfare house. She welcomes the men who have deserted “wine, women, and song” for the “virtues of clean living and hard work.”
Her voice is full of passionate belief as she tells the assembled crowd, “This is the life!”
The film immediately cuts to Charlie Hill (Fred Astaire) who repeats Angela’s words, “This is the life!” with a very different meaning to a very different crowd. He’s a wealthy playboy and this is his bachelor party.
In fact, it’s his fifth bachelor party, since he has been engaged five times though he never goes through with the wedding. He has assembled his “best pals” (a whole gaggle of beautiful girls) to eat, drink (a lot), and be very merry before he (maybe) gets married in the morning.
The pastel gowns make for a gorgeous kaleidoscope as Charlie and the ladies dance around the room to the song “Who Wants To Kiss The Bridegroom.” Helen Rose designed the women’s costumes for this film, and Gile Steel was in charge of the men’s. As is typical of classic Hollywood’s take on period films, both genders are clad in 1950’s fashions with only slight 1900’s tweaks. Everything is more daring, more colorful, less pigeon-silhouetted, and much more sparkly than true turn-of-the-century fashions.
The champagne flows, the skirts twirl, and the women giggle as they take their turn with Charlie for a spin or a dip. In the midst of this shimering party, Charlie’s lawyer Max (Keenan Wynn) arrives.
He asks Charlie if he really wants to marry the sharpshooting actress Dixie “Headshot” McCoy (seen on the painting behind them).
Max isn’t just concerned for his friend’s happiness; indeed, his main worry is that Charlie’s aunt, Mrs. Hill, will cut off her nephew for such a foolish and scandalous marriage. And then who will pay Max? Charlie is his only client…You can watch the scene here.
Charlie ensures him that everything will be fine, but then his aunt storms through the pastel cloud of ladies. She is furious about his wedding plans, and warns him that she will immediately disinherit him if he goes through with it.
The strange thing is that Astaire looks about as old as Marjorie Main (she was sixty-two), and anyway, isn’t he too old to be cowed by an aunt? Shouldn’t he have stockpiled enough personal wealth by now? It would all be more believable if Astaire was a fresh-faced twenty-two year old. But he was fifty-two when he made this movie (Vera-Ellen was thirty), and it shows. I think he looks older in this film than in other movies that he made about this time or even after.
Anyway, Charlie doesn’t seem concerned by his aunt’s threat; after all, there is a very slim chance that he will actually show up at the church the next morning. So he decides to take his favorite chartreuse-draped lady friend for a ride through the city while he thinks things through.
As they pass Washington Square Park, Charlie sees Angela performing with the Daughters of Right band. Naturally, he looks right past Angela’s best friend, Elsie (Alice Pearce) who provides comic relief in the ancient role of “ugly best friend to pretty main character.”
Fun fact: you may recognize Pearce and her nasal voice from Bewitched. She played Gladys Kravitz, Samantha’s nosy neighbor, for two seasons until she died of cancer in 1966. She won a posthumous Emmy Award for her work on the show.
Back to the film. Charlie falls in love with Angela instantly, jumps out of the carriage, and gets as close as possible to the beautiful woman in the stern dress.
See what I mean about the sets looking fake in this movie? It looks like a stage set, but not enough to be purposefully faux. Instead, it just looks like a failed attempt at verisimilitude.
Angela tells Charlie to leave her alone. She is truly committed to her cause and has no interest in an annoying playboy. But she feels bad about her rudeness and stupidly returns to poor, lovesick Charlie as he sits on the curb reeling from her rejection.
Charlie professes his undying love for her, but she doubts his sincerity. She tells him that love makes you feel like you can “walk on air,” and a degenerate hedonist like him isn’t capable of such an emotion. Plus, they don’t even know each other.
Then she walks away, so she doesn’t see her suitor suddenly rise through the air. Charlie climbs through the night up to the top of the Washington Square Arch where he performs a spirited solo. It seems that his love is true after all, and he can literally “walk/dance on air!” You can watch it here.
This effect of walking-on-air was achieved with a traveling matte, basically a proto-green screen that combines two or more images, in this case Astaire in the foreground and the city in the background, into one image. A “traveling” matte just means that the images move instead of remaining stationary, which allows Astaire to dance around. (Mattes are as old as movies, but they have changed as technology changes. You can read more about the process here.)
You can see slight bluish feathering around the edges of Astaire because he was most likely filmed in front of a blue background which was then replaced with the New York background. The matte isn’t perfect, and if you look closely you can see some of the “mistakes.” For example, the smoke from Astaire’s cigarette disappears as soon as it leaves the edges of his body, and you can see bluish bursts around Astaire and the set sometimes, as when he jumps between the poles jutting from the arch. It appears that they used trampolines between the poles to create the effect of jumping on air, but it’s hard to cover such quick motions with the matte.
All that being said, it’s quite impressive for a pre-digital film. But it looks fakey to our eyes, and it seems to have struck audiences in 1952 the same way. Astaire would write in his autobiography, Steps in Time, that he enjoyed making this movie because of the “interesting dance ideas,” but unfortunately “…the element of fantasy which prevailed backfired on us. One trick which we hoped would prove effective was dancing on air and that above all failed to register…” It’s not just that the matte isn’t perfect, but also that the whole concept seems gimmicky.
This despite the fact that Astaire had tried something similar in his previous film Royal Wedding (1951) with the ceiling dance, which worked brilliantly.
I think the difference is in both the execution and the scope. As I wrote in my review of Royal Wedding, even though I know how they accomplished the gravity-defying stunt (visit this post to learn how they did it), I still find myself getting lost in the “magic” because it’s executed so perfectly. The “how” disappears behind the result in an expression of pure love and joy.
But Belle’s fantasy element fails to enchant because the mechanics behind the effect keep intruding. It’s not perfect, and it doesn’t look real. When the matte fails even the tiniest amount, or Astaire looks obviously fake striding high above the streets, it kicks you out of the “magic” and reminds you that it’s all a trick.
When it comes to the scope, the ceiling dance and the “walking on air” gimmick are the only fantastical elements in otherwise realistic movies. But the ceiling dance is just one routine, whereas the walking-on-air bit appears frequently throughout Belle.
Plus, the ceiling dance is cued as being in Astaire’s imagination because it starts with him singing in voiceover. Also, he returns to gravity at the end, which effectively bookends the magic and gradually brings the audience back to “reality.” But Belle tries to do too much with its fantasy, returning to the gimmick again and again, and clearly marking it as part of reality, not a dream or flight of fancy. Also, no one seems that shocked by it, which rings false.
To sum up, Astaire’s gravity defying dance in Royal Wedding works because it is perfectly executed and appears in only one dreamlike scene, whereas Belle’s gravity defying effect is not well executed and appears far too frequently.
Enough complaining! Back to the movie! Charlie fails to show up at his wedding the next morning because he is busy courting Angela.
His furious bride Dixie (Gale Robbins, who played Adelaid Adams in Calamity Jane (1953) and enjoyed a long career in television) shows up at his apartment. She tells his aunt and lawyer that unless they pay her $10,000, she will splash highly unflattering articles about Charlie in every paper in the country. So they give her the money and she promises to never bother them again.
Mrs. Hill is shocked to find similar check stubs in Charlie’s checkbook, and Max admits that they’ve paid off Charlie’s four other jilted brides, too. That’s it—he’s cut off!
Fun fact: MGM’s artists were kept busy creating portraits of Astaire. They made that one with the dog for Belle, and then three more representing Astaire and his ancestors for Daddy Long Legs (1955):
Charlie doesn’t care that his aunt has cut him off because he is busy romancing Angela. He goes to her office and tries to prove his love by shooting to the ceiling. She is aghast: “But, that’s ridiculous! You’re only supposed to feel that way!”
Angela realizes that he is sincere in his love, but tells him that she won’t even consider his courtship unless he can put in an honest day’s work. If he can do that, she will let him hang around. He has never worked before, but he is willing to try anything for Angela.
But before going on the job hunt, he whirls her around the floor to the song “Baby Doll.” It’s a typical Astaire “fall-in-love” dance that begins with him persuading his reluctant partner onto the floor and ends with an enthusiastic, romantic dance. It’s a pattern you’ll see in almost every Astaire film, particularly those with Ginger Rogers that almost always begin with Rogers hating his guts. Until they dance…
Astaire and Ellen got along quite well, and she is perhaps the most technically brilliant dancer Astaire partnered, though she isn’t quite as emotive as Rogers or Cyd Charisse. But they’re still amazing to watch together—two incredible dancers doing what they do best.
Ellen is so tiny (she most likely suffered from anorexia) that she seems to skim the floor like a weightless pixie. Her flexibility is terrifying, so her kicks and bends are pretty extraordinary, too. Her dancing seems more self-assured in White Christmas (1954), her most famous role, but perhaps she is holding back because her character is supposed to be a restrained, retiring sort of girl.
Dance director Robert Alton did a nice job on this film (though Astaire generally choreographed his own numbers.) The dances are quite enjoyable.
Fun fact: this song was originally written by Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer for Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949) for Gene Kelly and Esther Williams. But it was cut from the film, though you can listen to it here. The version that Astaire and Ellen perform in Belle kept the music by Warren, but substituted new lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green.
After this exuberant routine, Astaire heads out to find a job. First, he tries to be a Western Union delivery guy, but he gets distracted by Angela and crashes through a storefront. Then he works as a street sweeper, but causes a massive mess in the streets when he starts dancing with his broom (for Angela) and falls into a wagon.
His third and most successful effort is as a streetcar driver. Naturally, he uses his position to stalk Angela (like so many movies, if you replace the well-meaning but obsessive suitor with a more dangerous fellow it becomes a horror film.)
Once again, Charlie charms Angela through dance. They drive through the streets frolicking on the street car, and at one point they even dance on top of the horse. I know it’s a fake horse, but it’s still awful!
Fortunately, that part of the routine is fairly brief and they return to solid ground for the finale as the streetcar pulls into the garage.
This dance completely wins Angela over. She floats to the ceiling as evidence of her love and Astaire joyfully joins her high above the ground.
You can watch the dance here:
Now that they’re both “walking-on-air” they get engaged and announce their intentions to Mrs. Hill and Max. Mrs. Hill is delighted that her nephew has finally found a “nice girl,” but she is a little concerned that Angela is too innocent and too good for her playboy nephew. He insists that he has changed, though, and everyone believes him! Hurray!
Preparations get underway at once for their wedding. Angela immediately morphs into a high society dame in pretty dresses who does little besides get ready to be a bride. Her passionate dedication to the welfare house, which had been her strongest characteristic, seems to disappear overnight. It doesn’t make much sense.
For instance, she doesn’t seem to mind exchanging her plain grey dress for frilly, stylish ones, and finds nothing wrong with posing all day instead of working to reform lost men. But it makes for visually interesting musical numbers, so we let it go.
For example, Angela and Charlie visit the Currier and Ives studio to pose for engagement prints.
Currier and Ives was a famous and influential firm that created affordable lithographs, often hand-colored, of famous paintings and original scenes. They advertised themselves as “Publishers of Cheap and Popular Prints” who found a ready customer base in “respectable” families who liked the wholesome and sometimes historical images produced by the company. So naturally, a wealthy couple like Charlie and Angela go to them for a lithograph celebrating their engagement.
Charlie and Angela pose and sing a sappy and annoying song about how boys and girls turn into grooms and brides and then husbands and wives, and Currier and Ives preserves that fleeting moment before marriage. It’s cloying and weird, because Charlie is definitely not a “boy!” Also, this is his sixth engagement!
Fun fact: Vera-Ellen was obviously a talented dancer, but she wasn’t much of a singer. Her songs in this movie were dubbed by Anita Ellis, who was also the “voice” of Jeanne Crain and Rita Hayworth in several films, including Gilda (1946).
Costume appreciation break. The purple dress with its sheer overlay was part of Debbie Reynolds‘ collection. It went on the auction block in 2003, looking sadly discolored and rumpled.
You may have noticed that all of Ellen’s costumes cover her neck. This is typical–it’s rare for Ellen to appear without chokers or high-necked outfits in most of her movies. Rumors have flown about this for a long time, namely that after suffering from anorexia for years, Ellen’s neck was scarily thin and prematurely aged, so costume designers covered it up. The anorexia part is true, sadly, but the neck stuff seems to be false. Footage and photographs of Ellen from movie premieres and random events throughout her career show her wearing outfits exposing her neck and it looks fine. The neck coverage seems to have been a choice, not a necessity.
Anyway, that sickly-sweet section of the song is replaced by seasonal dance routines inspired by the backdrops Currier and Ives offered to Angela and Charlie. Each season begins with a still image in a frame that then begins to move. First it’s spring:
Angela’s buttercup-yellow dress reminds me of Calamity Jane‘s day dress, though fortunately Angela doesn’t end up face down in a muddy creek as Calamity does.
Next up is winter. We’ve apparently gone several decades back in time, too, judging from the hoop skirts. Fun fact: according to IMDB, you can see the refrigerant pipes used to freeze the “pond” water in several shots. Also, they dyed the water to make it look better in Technicolor!
I wouldn’t be surprised if this scene was filmed on Soundstage 30, otherwise known as Esther Williams’ stage because it was retrofitted with various tanks and state-of-the-art plumbing in 1944 when MGM started making swimming musicals. Freezing one of the smaller pools to make an ice-skating pond would not have been difficult for MGM’s wizards.
Fun fact: this scene appears to be a recreation of an actual Currier and Ives print from 1862, down to the bridge, buildings, and even the ermine trim on Angela’s coat (note the woman with the red coat in the left foreground):
Then it’s on to summer by the shore and a really glorious, lengthy routine by Angela and Charlie. It’s delightful to watch these two dance together.
You can watch the eight-minute Currier and Ives number here:
After all the dancing, we return to the narrative. It’s the day before the wedding, which is somewhat inexplicably taking place in the welfare house. Elsie plays the bride in the rehearsal with a handsome police officer as her groom. She loses herself in the magic of pretend, and it’s a little sad. Elsie wants to get married, too, but unfortunately she’s too ugly. Or so the movie says.
Meanwhile, the real bride arrives and is greeted by the Daughters of Right organist, Gilford (Clinton Sundberg). He’s had a crush on Angela forever, and he isn’t sure he is emotionally able to play the music for her wedding. But lovely Angela comforts him and he agrees to play.
The lesson I’m learning from this movie is that if you’re pretty, good things happen for you. Angela also happens to be a good person, but so is Elsie, and she’s just the butt of people’s jokes because she isn’t conventionally attractive. Sigh.
Next, the film cuts to Charlie’s apartment. He tells Max that he has decided to give up all of his vices: drinking, gambling, and girls. So unlike the bawdy bachelor party before his last wedding, this time he is going to retire early and get a good night’s sleep.
But then Angela’s friends and admirers show up to congratulate the groom and toast the bride. He certainly can’t refuse to toast Angela! As more and more men join the party, the liquor flows more freely…Cut to early afternoon on the next day. Charlie has missed his sixth wedding, and the only one he really wanted to attend.
Max is distraught, but Charlie seems almost relieved. His failure to be “good” on the night before his wedding makes him doubt that he can ever reform. He realizes that he doesn’t deserve beautiful, pure, righteous Angela. Perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise that he got drunk and slept through the wedding.
But Angela doesn’t give up that easily. She is waiting at his apartment when he stumbles home. (Apparently she time-traveled to the 1980s to buy her wedding dress.) Angela dismisses his concerns and says that she still wants to marry him. Charlie is so in love with her that he walks on air, and that’s what she wants.
She goes in for a kiss, hoping to send him to the ceiling and prove that he truly does love her. But he grips the fireplace to keep himself planted firmly on the floor. She doesn’t notice the obvious trick and leaves, heartbroken.
A few weeks have passed and Angela has gone back to her old life with the Daughters of Right. She and Elsie are marching down the street with the band when Charlie appears. Angela ducks down as Charlie runs over to ask Elsie how Angela is doing. Somehow he doesn’t notice her…
Elsie says that Angela has left the group and become a “disillusioned woman.” Charlie is shocked and dismayed, and tells Elsie that if she ever needs him, she can find him at Webber’s Casino every night.
This gives Elsie and Angela an idea. They decide to get themselves tarted up and visit Webber’s to show Charlie their new (fake) life. It doesn’t make much sense, plot-wise, but let it go. Their plan gives Angela the chance to put on a black corset, silk stockings, and a gown with a slit up to there!
She accessorizes the gown with a matching yellowish-green boa, which is oddly similar to the one the woman in the carriage was wearing when Charlie first spotted Angela…
Now that’s she’s “naughty,” Angela sings and dances to “Naughty but Nice.” She draws a face on a tambourine to be her paramour, because that’s what you do.
Oddly enough, Vera-Ellen would dance in another number with face-tambourines in White Christmas!
You can watch “Naughty but Nice” here:
Fun fact: the song’s reference to Eva Tanguay refers to a vaudeville star from the turn of the century who was famous for her bold, suggestive songs. She was a bigger-than-life star who was extravagant (and naughty) on and off the stage. You can listen to her sing her signature song, “I Don’t Care,” here. Tanguay is a fitting role model for Angela on this wild evening.
Ellen’s black and yellow costume from this number was also put up for auction. I’m always a little surprised at how lifeless and unexciting the costumes look in real life compared to the screen!
After Angela’s song, we cut to Elsie’s room where she performs her own rendition of “Naughty but Nice.”
At one point, she pulls out a plain, conservative dress from her trunk and then throws it across the room to emphasize her new, naughty style. The dress she throws is the one that Cyd Charisse wears for her solo with the piano player in The Harvey Girls (1946)!
I love finding recycled costumes! It wasn’t worth making a new dress for that (literally) throwaway moment, so one can imagine Helen Rose sending an underling to search through MGM’s enormous costume collection to find one that Elsie could toss.
The two ladies head to the casino in their flashy new duds. They seem to be enjoying themselves tremendously despite their extreme “goodness.”
What they don’t realize, though, is that Charlie is at the casino every night because he works there! He is one of the singing waiters.
You might think that Angela would realize her mistake and perhaps even feel glad that Charlie really did turn his life around and is gainfully employed.
But instead she just continues with her plan to play a “disillusioned woman” and make Charlie jealous/angry/sad/something? It’s unclear.
When Charlie sees her, he drops his tray of dishes in shock. He begs Angela and Elsie to leave, but they refuse and instead order champagne. He brings them soda water, and the idiots can’t tell the difference. They’re enjoying being “disillusioned women” but of course it’s all naive make-believe.
Before he can persuade them to go, he has to leave to perform a number, thank goodness. His dance is far better than anything happening plot-wise.
Astaire performs one of his most famous solos, the aptly titled “I Wanna Be a Dancing Man.”
Fun fact: Johnny Mercer wrote the lyrics as a tribute to Astaire.
Besides being an excellent, classic Astaire routine (though it is only the second sand-dance he ever performed on screen, with the first coming in Top Hat (1935)), this number is also notable because Astaire filmed two different versions.
First, he performed the number in his waiter costume in front of a red curtain. But that casual look didn’t seem to fit the number nor Astaire’s star image of a classy, debonair gentleman.
So MGM decided to reshoot the number in front of a blue background with Astaire in a white suit. It’s the same choreography, just a different look. Fortunately, the first version survives, and in That’s Entertainment! III (1994) you can watch both versions side-by-side.
This allows you to compare them visually (I think that MGM made the right choice), but also to marvel at Astaire’s impeccable timing and exhaustively rehearsed steps. It’s almost as though they digitally altered his clothes and the backdrop, because otherwise he performs the number exactly the same both times. It’s uncanny:
After the number, Charlie tries to convince Elsie and Angela (who now think they are drunk) to leave before their reputations are sullied. They still refuse.
Unbeknownst to them, Mrs. Hill arrives with Max, who has brought her to the casino to prove that Charlie really does have a job. Meanwhile, a man asks Charlie to deliver a note to Angela. She is shocked and offended by its saucy contents (she’s a nice girl despite her naughty dress!), so Charlie punches the man and starts a brawl.
Naturally, Mrs. Hill bumps into Elsie and Angela as they crawl towards the door. It’s a mess.
Charlie catches up with a humiliated Angela as she storms out onto the street. He begs her to take him back and she refuses, but soon both of them rise into the air, thus proving that they still love each other! Ta-da!
Everyone watches from the ground, weirdly okay with what’s happening. As Charlie and Angela embrace, they magically morph into their wedding clothes. Then they dance off into the night sky!
The end! Strange, right?
The Belle of New York premiered to lukewarm reviews and box office. For example, Variety concluded, “It’s all done pleasantly but not of a quality that rates more than passing interest.” And Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote: “…there’s little cooking but Vera-Ellen and Mr. Astaire in this handsomely costumed, brightly lighted, dramatically empty film. Punning upon the nursery jingle, “The Belle of New York” has only toes.”
Crowther noticed the plethora of musical numbers, and wrote:
As it is, the two nimble performers have just about all they can do to keep this slight musical moving for the brief hour and twenty minutes that it runs. Somehow the script about a playboy who falls wildly and buoyantly in love with a prim hallelujah singer on the sidewalks of gaslit New York is so thin and dramatically boneless that it couldn’t possibly move from here to there on the strength of the trifling complications with which it is barely endowed…And so Director Charles Walters desperately calls upon his stars to remedy the vast emaciation with the frequent use of their muscular limbs, to which enterprise of salvation they apply themselves with a will.
It was a disappointment to the studio, bringing in just $1.9 million dollars despite its $2.6 million dollar budget. It was also a disappointment to Astaire personally, who had worked extremely hard on the film. Astaire wrote in his autobiography that:
I liked making [Belle], probably because Vera-Ellen and I had some interesting dance ideas to keep us busy. There were five numbers of Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer’s which stood out, but the element of fantasy which prevailed backfired on us…I was on Belle for eight months, beating my brains out, and all I got out of it was–a fortune. There’s one thing about having a flop movie at a major studio that has it all over a stage flop. You do get paid.
Besides the paycheck, Astaire was likely also at least a little pleased that the dances in the film received good reviews.
Reviewers agreed that Astaire and Ellen were great together; for instance, Motion Picture Daily‘s review included this lovely line, “They make a team which is on the wonderful side of the ledger.”
Crowther was full of praise, too, writing in his review: “Add to the list of young ladies who have danced on the screen with Fred Astaire the name of Vera-Ellen and mark it with a star. For this agile and twinkling charmer, who accompanies the ageless Mr. A. in his latest if not his greatest Metro musical…is as graceful and pleasing a dancer as any that has gone before, and she adds a considerable presence to this trifle…”
Crowther enjoyed the partner dances, but singled out the solos in his review, noting that
It is separately, however, that they deliver their best, to our taste—as if vyeing with one another in pedal dexterity. Mr. A. gets first go with a dizzying and reminiscent tap, in top hat and tails, while perched precariously atop the Arch in Washington Square. That is put in the shade by Vera-Ellen when she does a delicious pantomime, in opera-length hose and ruffled scanties, to the tune of “Naughty But Nice.” And just when you’re starting to pity the old master for being outclassed Mr. A. pops back in a honey of a soft-shoe sand dance that takes the prize. The title of the tune to which he does it? With pleasure: “I Wanna Be a Dancin’ Man!”
Later, when Ellen was asked about Astaire, she said, “Fred Astaire will never say, though he’s always asked, which of his dancing ladies was his favorite partner. If you ask me, he preferred the solo turns.” He does seem to take extraordinary pleasure in those virtuosic, imaginative solos.
Here’s the trailer (it starts at 2:50)–enjoy! For more, follow me on Twitter, tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram at BlondeAtTheFilm, and Facebook. You can buy this movie here. As always, thanks for reading!
Wow! Cameron, what a tour-de-force posting! I am so impressed as to be speechless! You are something else!
Thank you so much, Jonathan! This made my day!
Love! Vera-Ellen is great!
I agree! She’s wonderful to watch!
I really do appreciate the fact that you pay attention to the less successful films from this era as well. I think it’s important to remember that not all old movies are classics, and looking at films like this paradoxically helps you appreciate the talent of the performers by reminding you how easy it is for even the best people to get it wrong. Thank You!
Thank you! I totally agree! As you say, not every old movie is a “classic” and even legends make less than legendary films! I’m glad you enjoy the lesser known and less successful films, too. Thanks so much for this comment!
Ugh. This movie. I feel like everyone worked their tail off on this film except the writers, who apparently dashed it off in an hour and went to the beach. I completely agree with you that having the characters fly was a horrible idea. The romantic musical genre is a complete fantasy anyway. Add another layer of fantasy to it and the film just floats away like a bad Disney movie..
OK everyone. Stand back. I’m going to do my hypertext incantations.
Abracadabra ala Shazam!
I agree–too much fantasy in this movie! Well done with the link! Thanks for your comment, as always!
I remember when “The Belle of New York” opened on Broadway at Loew’s State. MGM made it sound like the usual arrival of another major musical success. I, for one, good or bad, would see the film as I was a big fan of Fred Astaire and Vera-Ellen and would never miss the opportunity to see them dance together. When the reviews came out I couldn’t believe it. Despite the talents of all involved (except the writers) it arrived a major flop. Obviously, it’s the script. It just wasn’t worth it. I think MGM knew it and kept pushing the project back. That should have been a sign added to the fact that no one wanted to be in it. But with Astaire, Ellen, and Johnny Mercer’s songs they moved ahead. I can imagine how Fred felt as I believe Gene Kelly was working on Singin’ in the Rain” at the same time. I think “Yolanda and the Thief” made more money than “Belle” but “Yolanda” had slick production values, magnificent Technicolor and a slightly thicker (but not much) plot. Visually “Yolanda” was a knock out. There are little flaws (sloppy editing) left in the release print of “Belle” that aren’t up to MGM standards. At the end of the “Currier and Ives” number (a nice number) there’s a freeze as they finish dancing that (for a split second) jumps to another finish): when Vera-Ellen does “Naughty But Nice” the cape hanging on a chair falls down and it’s very obvious on screen. The picture opened faded away. So sad since Astaire and Vera-Ellen were perfect partners and had such a big profitable success in “Three Little Words”. I think MGM let Vera-Ellen down as they never tried to find another worthwhile vehicle for the two stars. Charles Walters, who did such great work at MGM directed this film. For some unknown reason he couldn’t stand Vera-Ellen and never wanted to work with her again. I don’t know what the reason was but whatever Astaire adored working with her and I never read disparaging remarks about her. I know she had a reputation for working very hard at her craft.
Thanks for this comment, Roger! I agree–this movie is not up to the usual standards despite the talent involved. Thanks so much for reading and for this great information!
What a wonderful essay about one of the lesser-known MGM musicals. I stumbled across it by chance, and enjoyed reading the history behind this film. Very well-researched and beautifully illustrated. I look forward to reading more of your articles.
Thank you so much! Hope you enjoy the other posts!