Friday with Fred Astaire
Think back to years ago, before war for altruism became official U.S. foreign policy, before inflation and the Biden presidency—before pandemic panic and lockdown—before Trump, 2008’s financial crash, Obama and Black Tuesday. Royal Wedding with Jane Powell and Fred Astaire takes you to a lovelier time and place. Lightness makes the 1951 movie a treasure in time.
Colored in gray, red and gold, splashed with song, dance and snappy but subtle humor and pegged to the title’s impending wedding between an English prince named Philip and his bride, Elizabeth, the queen of England, this 93-minute MGM musical marks a moment in Fred Astaire’s exemplary artistic career when the then-51-year-old actor and dancer depicted a scenario similar to his own life. Dancing for hire with a sister in London, charming London audiences and enchanting its aristocrats forms a general basis for Royal Wedding, which brushes itself with nonchalance and a touch of Adele Astaire’s arch and knowing sexual liberation. Stanley Donen, who later directed the overestimated Singin’ in the Rain, makes with Royal Wedding his directorial debut.
Look for Fred Astaire and, as his sister, the estimable Jane Powell, as well as the always forgettable Peter Lawford, Keenan Wynn as twins for comic relief, Albert Sharp and Winston Churchill’s daughter, Sarah, as the melancholy Englishwoman Astaire comes to love. “What everyone seems to remember from this movie is the famous solo in which Astaire dances on the walls and ceiling,” writes Joseph Epstein in a biography of Fred Astaire, noting that Astaire’s fitness display comes courtesy of a rotating cylindrical structure with the furniture and camera nailed to the floor. It’s a fascinating exhibition of Fred Astaire’s lean, physical superiority.
My favorite dance scene decks the dancer in red socks and scarf with rolled-up sleeves in an exercise-themed solo performance with a hat rack; his moves are slow with smooth, lush orchestration. You can’t help but smile watching this dance with Fred Astaire’s whole body in view before he takes his bows to an imagined audience. Royal Wedding begins with Fred Astaire as a king on his throne as Powell plays a dainty servant dancing with a duster. The camera pulls back, revealing stiff soldiers, then farther back to show an orchestra conductor in wordless commencement of the story.
“I like weddings,” Fred Astaire’s character admits, “provided, of course, they’re not mine.” The elegant playboy dancer and his naughty playgirl sister wear stunning tuxedoes, gowns, dresses and dance costumes—with Powell’s wispy skirt falling between her dance partner’s legs as a passenger ship tilts and sways during a wild ocean storm. The couple dips, turns and touches—always with elegance, strength and control. Add London fog, jokes about “the colonies,” neat pencil skirts, men’s clothes and ladies’ dresses with pockets—as well as footage of Queen Elizabeth’s wedding to Prince Philip—and a doubledecker bus, folded into a quadruplicate marriage theme—and Royal Wedding, which ends too abruptly, tantalizes, entertains and affords a ticket back in time to a golden post-world war moment when the Fifties first began.