Friday with Fred Astaire
Daddy Long Legs
Later in his motion picture musical career, Fred Astaire made a movie with a young French actress and ballet dancer. I watched Daddy Long Legs for the first time. I find it perfectly charming. Apparently, the film has a mixed or bad reputation among predominant critics. Unsurprisingly, I reached the opposite conclusion.
Besides Mr. Astaire, who co-directs and choreographs Daddy Long Legs’s dance, director Jean Negulesco deserves credit. In this beautifully crafted two-hour film, he integrates disparate elements of street or freestyle, ballet, ballroom, jazz and modern dance, storytelling, drama, comedy and special effects. Mr. Negulesco strokes and blends them into a seamless moving picture. The result yields a lightness which is at once innocent, forbidden and emotional. Daddy Long Legs endures—against its detractors’ claims—to express pure delight.
It is, in essence, the story of two lost souls; it’s you and me against the world. He’s an older man (Fred Astaire in his mid-50s) and she’s a girl (Leslie Caron) on the brink of womanhood. He’s a free-spirited bachelor-heir about town and she’s an older orphan whom he discovers when his car breaks down while motoring in France. That he’s enchanted by Miss Caron’s charmed instruction to younger orphans—she reminds him of himself—informs the 1955 film’s delicate balance of any impropriety one seeks to find, import or project. Everything hinges upon the couple’s unorthodox alignment.
Mr. Negulesco grasps this and plays it to perfection. In layers dramatizing wealthy heir Fred Astaire’s inner moral crisis over budding romantic love, Daddy Long Legs displays and refines the girl’s dilemma, too, as she’s an outcast in love with an ideal which she won’t let go. She nourishes her imagination even as her anonymous educational sponsor—anonymity is the Astaire character’s way of resolving the problem of an older patron helping someone young and potentially romantic—refuses to engage her. In drawings, fantasies and dreams of a tenderly imagined romantic father figure, young miss Julie Andre (Caron) finds that she can’t stop wanting the stranger rescuing her from poverty to be someone with whom she can dance and love in everyday life. Why, she wonders, is love not possible for me?
What will Daddy Long Legs—her nickname for him from a fleeting moment when she once glimpsed his silhouette—do? The movie, written by the late Nora Ephron’s parents based on Jean Webster’s 1912 children’s novel, answers in an abundance of jazz (courtesy of Ray Anthony and his orchestra and Johnny Mercer’s score), colorful sets, dark shadows and, of course, dance. Opening with a generous shot of New York City’s skyline, which infuses Manhattan’s can-do, go-getter spirit throughout the movie, Daddy Long Legs is filled with rich allusions, lines and rewards.
The character portrayed by Fred Astaire, in what may be the closest role to his real life, smokes a pipe, races horses and maintains his privately, closely held wealth with intelligence, wit and good cheer. He discusses with his assistant the “lag in industrial production” and his coal mines, plays drums in his office for his own enjoyment and happily breaches tradition; he doesn’t care what others think. In fact, this may be the most selfish character Mr. Astaire ever played. For her part, Miss Caron’s character, too, thinks and acts for herself. Aware of the age difference when they meet at her collegiate spring dance and that everyone’s shocked at an older human enjoying himself with youths, she answers his expression of concern for her stature among her peers. She steps closer and baldly tells him: “Let’s destroy my reputation.”
Daddy Long Legs goes on with such elan. Here, see Fred Astaire dancing in a dazzling, bursting drum solo—as a Texas oil millionaire in cowboy boots—as a playboy in tails, pencil mustache and long cigarette holder amid glamorous women—and with Miss Caron in exaggerated dream scenes with ice cream and perfect choreography. This is a pairing—the only time ballerina Caron and Astaire were together in a movie—critics do not like. I think they miss the point of these characterizations and how they develop through the art of dance. Fred Astaire’s stiff, sharp movements snap, pop and make you smile as he mocks both aging and ageism with his breathless athleticism and, in his best dance scene, erupts with joy doing the sluefoot. Astaire sings. As ever, he makes the most of props. But he pairs nicely, contrasting his body and movement with petite Leslie Caron.
All the while director Jean Negulesco delivers plot and character development with a focused, cinematic sensibility. Miss Caron’s Julie is not merely a mindless dreamer; she reflects, listening to stillness amid singing crickets before gently kissing a cow at the country orphanage as if to bid adieu to a life she knows she’s leaving behind. Transitions from being orphaned to being welcomed and loved come with college girls, trains and trunks filled with pretty dresses. Daddy Long Legs is a love letter to mid-Fifties New York in daring bright red and primary colors in knee socks, sweaters and Trans World Airlines passenger planes. When he takes her on the town, city lights explode, showcasing New York City in its prime.
The meaning of this lovely, lively movie musical is that expressing yourself can make dreams come true. Whether Julie’s writing letters in love or dancing in anger, anxiety or joy, the theme’s that you are what you create. With help from the always knowing Thelma Ritter—and in spite of a villainous old matron and a State Department bureaucrat—Julie goes after what she wants. So, ultimately, does the freethinking gentleman portrayed by Fred Astaire. “I only tell the stories because no one believes the truth,” young Julie explains in a wise and telling line which puts this father figure fantasy in perspective with not the slightest hint of cynicism. “Something’s Gotta Give”, goes one of the best known songs. In Daddy Long Legs, something does.