Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 35: Royal Wedding (1951)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Royal Wedding (1951) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 158 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “Of the other movies I love, some are simply about the joy of physical movement.”  One of his examples includes “when Fred Astaire dances on the ceiling.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): Ebert never officially reviewed Royal Wedding, but in a 1997 “Movie Answer Man” column he did address a series of Dirt Devil television commercials that appropriated imagery from the movie to sell vacuum cleaners. He complains, “Special effects were used to remove Astaire from Royal Wedding (1951), where he danced with a coat rack, and insert him in a TV commercial, where he danced with a Broom Vac. Rights to use Astaire’s image were sold by his estate. I was reminded that when the late Ginger Rogers was honored at the Kennedy Center, Astaire’s widow refused permission to use any clips of Astaire in the tribute. What would Astaire have thought about those two decisions? A man who could dance on the ceiling would have no difficulty spinning in his grave.”

It’s embarrassing to admit, but the earliest memory I have of watching Fred Astaire dance onscreen was in a series of television commercials from the 1990s, where his image was posthumously altered to advertise Dirt Devil vacuum cleaners. As a child, watching Old Hollywood footage of a man dancing on the ceiling was a potently memorable novelty even with the vacuum cleaner added in, but I assume that same novelty was horrifying for older folks. Evoking one of the world’s most beloved movie stars to peddle digitally-inserted, CGI vacuums was a boldly blasphemous choice from Dirt Devil’s advertising team that I’m sure earned the company at least a decade of cultural side eye. The ugly truth about this transgression, however, is that the ground they were trampling on was far from hallowed. I have since learn to respect Mr. Astaire tremendously for the “Fred & Ginger” musicals he churned out with Ginger Rogers in the 1930s, but, as it turns out, the time the legend danced on the ceiling was far from his creative pinnacle. The majority of Dirt Devil’s digitally-altered Fred Astaire footage pulled from the 1951 musical comedy Royal Wedding. Featuring a . . . seasoned Astaire, the film is at best an entertaining mediocrity, not at all a sacred cow to be protected from the dirty hands of 15-second Superbowl ads.

Fred Astaire & Jane Powell star as a sibling dance team who’re invited across the pond to perform for British royalty at the wedding of Princess Elizabeth & Prince Philip. Besides the complications of maintaining their various bachelor life romances in the pair’s travels to this historic event, Royal Wedding doesn’t have much of a plot beyond that basic premise. Loosely based on Astaire’s relationship with his real life dance partner (and real life sister) Adele Astaire, the film has a kind of rambling, anecdotal quality to it. The dramatic scenes connecting its dance numbers feel like a total waste of time outside providing Jane Powell an excuse to make 10,000 costume changes & proving to the audience that the siblings are not engaged in an incestuous romance. From scene one, it’s uncomfortable that the pair are so closely related, since their dance routines often require them to intimately woo each other with nonverbal body language. The opening dance number, for instance, features Astaire as an idle king ogling Powell as the maid, who tidies up his chamber while flirtatiously revealing her frilly underwear. They eventually dance together in a traditional romantic waltz, only for their sibling relationship to be revealed to the audience as soon as the number is through. To overcompensate for this awkward reveal, Royal Wedding immediately makes it apparent that the two dancers are fucking everyone in the world but each other and most of the movie concerns them juggling potential love interests between dance routines.

As lifeless & belabored as Royal Wedding feels as a 90min comedy, it functions fairly well as an excuse to feature Fred Astaire’s signature footwork. As sullied in the Dirt Devil ads, Astaire dances on the ceiling in one number, Jamiroquai style, as the room rotates but the camera remains fixed. In another sequence, a real life incident of a Fred & Adelle Astaire performance on a cruise ship is recreated with a tilting floor in turbulent waters– the dancers, audience, furniture, and loose objects sliding around the room during the routine as the ship tilts side to side. Astaire also proves he can entertain without those fancy movie magic shenanigans, wowing the audience by performing with a lifeless coat rack for a dance partner (later to be digitally replaced with a much more lively vacuum cleaner). My favorite routine in the film is a vaudeville throwback that “comically” features domestic abuse among impoverished scum. Titled “How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Love You When You Know I’ve Been A Liar All My Life?,” the song features the longest title in any MGM musical and has nothing to do with the plot, but does have a dangerous-feeling mean streak to its scrappiness that I found oddly endearing.

Any of Royal Wedding’s individual dance numbers could be worth seeking out in isolation, especially the ones that have Astaire perform metaphysical, gravity-defying wonders. However, their cumulative effect is only moderately pleasant. I’m not saying it’s right for giant companies to retroactively employ dead movie stars to shill for their products as if we were living in some real world bastardization of The Congress (spoiler: we are). I’m just glad that if Dirt Devil was going to tarnish the memory of a classic MGM musical, at least they picked one that’s so mediocre as an overall product. For every few seconds of Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling in Royal Wedding, there’s endless minutes of his character rhythmically rubbing bodies with his sister & wasting time between gigs. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that Royal Wedding‘s good name is more tarnished by its incestuous body language and total narrative lack of creative energy than it is by digitally-inserted vacuum cleaners. The only reason the movie is at all entertaining is because Astaire really is that great of a dancer.

Roger’s Rating: N/A

Brandon’s Rating (3/5, 60%)

Next Lesson: True Grit (1969)

-Brandon Ledet

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