Royal Wedding has an astoundingly formidable pedigree within the world of classic musicals: it boasts two featured dance numbers in That’s Entertainment, a cast that includes Fred Astaire, Jane Powell, and Peter Lawford, and a director (Stanley Donen) who was smack dab between directing On the Town and Singin’ in the Rain when he worked on it. And yet, as a whole, Royal Wedding is also a bit of an underperformer, seldom factoring into discussions of Hollywood’s greatest musicals, and barely broaching similar name recognition to Astaire and Donen’s other pictures.
The story is loosely, loosely based on Astaire’s experiences early on in his career, where he grew to fame as part of a dancing act with his sister, Adele. Their partnership lasted from childhood through the early 1930s, spanning kids’ contests to dance halls to Broadway. Royal Wedding concerns itself with the period that led up to the end of their career as a duo—nothing exceptionally salacious, unfortunately—as it was the result of Adele’s choice to marry a British lord (to whom SHE proposed, I may add), instead of continuing on with her dancing career. Fred, of course, recovered this setback and went on to many great successes on his own.
In Royal Wedding, Astaire plays Tom Bowen, and Powell is his kid sister, Ellen. They’re performing a Broadway run of their royalty-themed show, Every Night at Seven, when they get invited to bring the production to London. That would be exciting enough by itself, but it’s also the “wedding season”—the celebration leading up to Princess Elizabeth marrying her duke, Phillip, in the slightly distant past of 1947. (The movie was made in 1951.) Tom, like Fred, is hardworking and focused primarily on his dancing, and sees this as a great opportunity to advance his career. Ellen is something of a player, inspiring fistfights of dueling beaus in her wake, and also sees it as an opportunity—though her sights are more focused on the opposite sex. On the ship to England, Ellen finally meets her match in Lord John Brindale, played by Peter Lawford. John and Ellen share similar dating philosophies—Ellen first encounters him pledging his pure and eternal love… to a series of ladies who’ve come to see him off. Upon arriving in London, Tom meets Anne (Sarah Churchill), who conveniently turns out to be one of the dancers in the new production. So, the players are set, and from the title, you can probably accurately surmise how it all turns out for everyone in a city with wedding fever. (It rhymes with schmouble schmedding.)
Directed by Stanley Donen, Royal Wedding is full of the inventive choreography and creative, colorful numbers that made the Arthur Freed unit at MGM so iconic. (Other Freed outputs include minor stuff like, oh, Singin’ in the Rain, The Wizard of Oz, and An American in Paris.) Like a lot of other 1950s musicals, Royal Wedding delivers heavily on the possibilities of spectacle in film. Audiences already knew Astaire could dance beautifully, so this film of course delivers upon that promise… and then some. The sets and costumes all fully employ the most vibrant range of Technicolor’s capabilities, and nearly all of the numbers in the film include some sort of “twist” that elevate them beyond the standard choreography you might have seen on stage. “Open Your Eyes,” for instance, starts out as a fairly standard waltz, with Tom and Ellen performing for the ship’s captive audience. But midway through, the ship hits a storm and begins rocking—tossing the dancers around the floor as they to make their loss of balance look elegant. And, of course, since it’s Fred Astaire, it most certainly does, despite the feigned imbalance.
As I mentioned, Royal Wedding is one of a handful of films that appears more than once in the original That’s Entertainment compilation—others include Anchors Aweigh, The Barkleys of Broadway, and Gigi, among just a few others. Both of Royal Wedding‘s entries are spectacular solo dances by Astaire, and perfectly evocative of his talent. The first, called “Sunday Jumps,” occurs as Tom idly waits for Ellen to show up for rehearsal in the ship’s gymnasium. (This was apparently a fairly common occurence with Fred and Adele.) Ellen never appears though, so Tom performs the dance with a series of inanimate objects—brooms, pins, hat racks, and the like—and his skill elevates the objects into true dance partners. It’s a fun, playful number, and a delightful example of Astaire’s ability to make incredibly difficult things look incredibly easy. By the way, this number may look familiar even to non-musical fans… as the scene was harvested for a 1997 Dirt Devil commercial.
The film’s second entry is a crowning achievement in cinematic history, a number called “You’re All the World to Me”—the name may not sound familiar, but the visuals certainly should. Built on a rotating set with a fixed camera, Tom demonstrates that he is head over heels in love with Anne by dancing—on the floor, the walls, and the ceiling. Astaire makes these movements look effortless, fluidly melting into the ceiling and playing off elements in the room, and the effect is so smooth that it looks impeccable even to the CGI-trained eyes of the modern viewer. Astaire was so good at conveying a character’s emotion through his dance, and this one is so unmistakably joyful that it’s entirely proper that it became one of his trademark numbers.
Outside of the musical numbers, the plot is certainly fluffy, and the titular royal wedding is rather shoehorned in—the first time I saw this movie, I was really expecting either John or Anne (or both!) to secretly be part of the royal couple, and assumed that Tom and/or Ellen were about to cause an international incident through their love. But no, Elizabeth and Phillip are mostly just a backdrop for the setting, and an excuse to use a brief bit of news footage to pad out the scenery. The film, though, is a magnificent example both of Astaire’s pure technical dancing skill, as well as the benefits of film as the perfect medium to document it. Astaire’s dancing is masterful in any imagined plane of the universe, but it becomes truly magical when the camera, too, can be choreographed.
This post was inspired by Movie and Music Network‘s selection of vintage films available for streaming on their service! Royal Wedding is available here. I have a few discount codes available, so if anyone is interested in testing them out let me know!