Perhaps more than any of his other films, this sparkling little gem of a musical showcases the personal choregraphing and dancing genius of Fred Astaire. Though the dance numbers may be considered an excuse to make a movie rather than the other way around, they are plentiful and wonderful enough to fully justify taking the DVD out on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

The somewhat ramshackle plot goes something like this: Tom Bowen (Astaire) and his sister Ellen (Jane Powell) are an American dancing act whose agent books them to do a show in London at a time coinciding with an unspecified royal wedding. While rehearsing for the show, both siblings fall for local love interests. However, having taken a mutual vow to avoid romantic entanglement for the benefit of their careers, they are reluctant to follow through on their emotions and face something of a dilemma. Luckily for all, Tom's lady friend (played by Sarah Churchill) steps in to fill the missing half of the dance duo, thus freeing Ellen to marry her English Lord (Peter Lawford) and presumably become his Little Lady (sorry).

Interposing a little bit of trivia here, this plot is rumoured (quite reasonably) to be an in-joke about the marriage of Adele Astaire, Fred's sister and on-stage dance partner since early childhood, to one Lord Charles Francis Cavendish. Much like Ellen in the movie, she was becoming more difficult to work with as puberty and an interest in men set in, and eventually gave up dancing to get married.

The musical contains several memorable dance and song routines, including one where Tom and Ellen are attempting a graceful, elegant and serene number aboard a wildly listing ship deck in the middle of a rough Atlantic Ocean (I am reliably informed that Morecambe & Wise did a very funny sketch based on that one). A special treat for Astaire fans is the number in which he manages to rather fetchingly portray a complete bastard, no-god-low-life-heel type of guy, an acting achievement that has always eluded him before. A much quoted and referred to number is the one where he dances with, and almost makes love to, a tall ornate coatrack that almost seems to come to life and acquire a personality in his magic hands, while remaining the whole time a real honest to god piece of wood. Lovely.

The epitomal number, though, and perhaps the one that is most often shown as a clip on shows about Astaire and film musicals in general, is the number entitled “You’re All the World To Me”. Carried up and away by the warm upsurge of his emotions, Fred dances on the furniture, walls and ceiling of a small room, addressing himself all the while to a photograph of his beloved. It is difficult to describe dance in words, but I can say that Astaire's grace, precision and, most importantly, humour, all help to make this as beautiful a dance sequence as I have ever seen. Needless to say, the technology involved in creating the illusion was far primitive to what we now have, but thanks to Astaire's remarkable talent and the shrewd direction of Stanley Donen it stands up well to the test of time and still looks seemless and magical today. To me it has always been a testimony to what real genius and accomplishment can do, with no need for fancy CGI and costly blue screen photography.

I can't make a very good case for this being the best of Fred Astaire's films, or the most remarkeable. But he did reach a peak in his artistic endeavour in it, and for that it is a a very important entry in any anthology of his work and of musicals in general. The plot you will probably forget the moment the movie is over - God knows I can't remember it and I've seen it dozens of times - but the sheer beauty of some of the dances will stay with you, after having first provided you with a very pleasant hour's entertainment.

Royal Wedding was made by MGM in 1951. Directed by Stanley Donen, written by Alan Jay Lerner with songs by Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane.

Partial cast list:

Fred Astaire - Tom Bowen
Jane Powell - Ellen Bowen
Peter Lawford - Lord John Brindale
Sarah Churchill - Anne Ashmond
Keenan Wynn - Irving Klinger/Edgar Klinger

Stats courtesy of IMDB.

Royal Wedding (1951)

Royal Wedding is a Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer musical comedy starring Fred Astaire and Jane Powell. It was directed by Stanley Donen and was produced by Arthur Freed (head of the famous and prolific Freed Unit). The film co-stars Keenan Wynn, Peter Lawford and Sarah Churchill (daughter of Winston Churchill. With music by Buton Lane and lyrics by Jay Lerner, the film was immensely successful at the time of its release, possibly because it was released to coincide with the marriage of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Phillip

In the film, Astaire and Powell's brother/sister relationship mirrors that of Fred and Adele Astaire. Powell's marriage to Lawford (who plays an English aristocrat), mirrors Adele's marriage to Lord Charles Cavendish, son of the Duke of Devonshire.

Dance and Song Numbers

Ev'ry Night At Seven:The song takes place on the penultimate night of the Bowens' American show and acts as a motif for the film.

Sunday Jumps: The number i often (incorrectly) referred to as the 'hat-rack' dance even though in it, Astaire parodies himself by dancing with a clothes-horse. He also parodies Gene Kelly by kicking some indian clubs in a reference to Kelly's routine The Pirate. The fame of the dance rests on Astaire's ability to animate the inanimate. The dance sequence is one of the most famous in the film, and of Astaire's career.

Open Your Eyes: A waltz sung by Powell on the ship. The Bowens' performance goes from solon song, to duet dance number before the ship begins to rock - resulting in a comedic dance routine. This number is a re-creation (choreographed by Astaire) of an incident which happened to him and sister Adele on a ship (also bound for London) in 1923.

The Happiest Days Of My Life: Sung by Powell to Lawford with Astaire playing the piano.

How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Love You When You Know I've Been A Liar All My Life: Famous for being the longest song title in a Hollywood film, this is the first number in which Astaire plays an unsophisticated and deliberately vulgar character. It results in the most memorable number of the film. The hugh energy, vaudeville-style routine and, ultimately successful, comic song and dance vaudeville-style routine with Powell is part of their fictional show in London to celebrate the Royal Wedding.

Too Late Now: The third ballad sung by Powell declares her love for Lawford. It was nominated for an Oscar in 1952 for Best Music in an Original Song (written by Burton Lane, Lyrics by Jay Turner)

You're All The World To Me: One of Astaire's most famous solo dance numbers. He dances on the walls and ceilings as he proclaims his love for Churchill. This feat was achieved by mounting the camera and operator in a cage which rotated with the room.

I Left My Hat In Haiti: Choreographed by Nick Castle, this number is also a part of the fictional show in London. A blatant excuse for a musical sequence, this song and dance number features Astaire, Powell and chorus.

Feminist Analysis of Musical Numbers in Royal Wedding

When regarding the film from a feminist viewpoint, the major factor influencing the context of the musical numbers is where and how the cinematography situates the audience in relation to Ellen’s character. Instead of watching John fall in love with Ellen, the camera guides the spectator towards watching Ellen’s transition from seductress to socially respectable female as a result of her growing love for John. This is achieved by aligning the camera, and hence the audience, with the subjectivity of Ellen’s brother and dance partner, Tom. This is usually done through; a gaze shot of Tom, followed by a point of view shot and finally a reaction shot that reveals that Tom’s response is the same as that of the audience. Furthermore, the cinematography as well as the characterization of Ellen, prevents the audience from identifying with her.

This problem is one presented by most, if not all musicals of the period. Often at the start of musicals, women do not fall in line with the traditional notions of femininity and are thus not identified with by the audience. This can be seen in Ellen, Annie in Annie Get your Gun (1950), Kathy in Singin’ in the Rain, and Gabrielle in The Band Wagon (1953).

Royal Wedding begins with “Every Night at Seven”, and After the performance, Tom comments to Ellen that her performance was sloppy. Here, as in many musicals of the time, the success of a performance is bound up with the success of love, with the integration of an individual into a community or group. This is noteworthy as the film implies that Tom, the masculine, is better than the feminine from the start by stating that his performance was polished. Thus, the feminine and her performance can only aspire to reach the level of the male.

“Too Late Now” takes place in the ocean liner’s ballroom. It features not only the clearest example of exhibition of the female by the male, but also the clearest example of the male gaze in the film. Astaire leads Powell onstage, he spins her, and then backs away, thus presenting her to the ship’s audience. She sings in the one spot, until he extends his hand and guides her to a new spot. Here, it can be seen that the camera is moving in response to Tom’s movements, not Ellen’s. She continues to sing, with his gaze fixed upon her, until again he takes her hand and guides her to yet another space. This time, he sits and is framed in the bottom left hand corner of the camera. The audience views her over his shoulder, and their gaze aligns with his masculine ones. It is implied that the audience on this ship is in the same position as the audience in the cinema.

When considering this number, along with the first two, it is clear that the visual mode belongs to the masculine whilst the aural mode is that of the feminine. Once Astaire enters the performance space, the mode switches to the visual. This thereby asserts masculine dominance and control not only over both visual and aural modes, but also over the feminine. He asserts the visual (masculine) mode onto her. Thereby heightening the masculine power and satisfying audience desire. They continue with many of the same ballroom spins, box steps and dips of the first number. As he lifts her four times in succession, his gaze fixed upon her. During these lifts, her vulnerability becomes evident every time she is suspended as a “proud ornament” for the audience .

As Ellen falls in love with John, her dance numbers gradually disappear. She is placed as the female torn between her brother, who controls her dancing, and her suitor, who will come to control her life. When John proposes, Ellen is forced to choose between her career (dancing) as well as the travel and financial success that it provides, and John. Tom himself states; “Well, you can’t go traipsing all over the world and leave your husband at home. What kind of marriage would that be?” However, when discussing Tom’s marriage to Anne, neither sibling considers that he would do anything but continue to dance and travel. Ellen herself, albeit indirectly, raises the inequality of this.

Ellen: Well, it just isn’t fair Tommy.
Tom: What isn’t?
Ellen: I’m getting the short end of the stick.
Ultimately, Ellen chooses to marry John and as the musical overture begins to play, he pulls her by the shoulders towards him and kisses her. Her body, which was controlled by her male dance partner, is now controlled by her husband. Furthermore, over the course of the film, her passion (for song and dance), as well as her desires, gradually disappear in order to make her a “suitable” subservient female so that she can be married.

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