Directed by Charles Walters
Written by Chester Erskine, Robert O'Brien, and Irving Elinson (based on the play by Hugh Morton)
There are several contenders for the most dance-heavy of the dozens of dance-heavy Old Hollywood musicals, and I've made ill-advised claims about the subject before: something like Give a Girl a Break can feel like it's entirely made out of dance sequences simply because its dancing is more narratively dense than its screenplay; and something like Invitation to the Dance, of course, literally is an all-dancing anthology film, the most ambitious hour and a half of Gene Kelly's career; and there are the revue-style movies (Ziegfield Follies, for example) that fling their unrelated song-and-dance numbers at you, and depending on how you're counting it, they could have a lot.
But as far as integrated musical narratives go, The Belle of New York might be the winner. This is not necessarily to its credit: the nearly 40 minutes of dancing provided by Fred Astaire and Vera-Ellen is, by and large, and needless to say, great (sometimes astoundingly great, like "top 10 MGM musical dance sequences" great), but it's hard to say it's always carefully-deployed, given the way the sequences are jammed into one of the flimsier plots even a mid-century musical ever got away with, including two duo routines stacked basically right on top of one another with almost exactly the same basic point, and a special-effects driven solo with Astaire that reaches for some profoundly ambitious ideas (not quite "Royal Wedding ambitious," but arguably in its league), and exceeds its technological grasp almost right away.
Plus another solo with Astaire that exists solely to prove that Astaire is Astaire, in case we hadn't noticed, while the actual movie, pushed off to side, politely waits for him to finish, so it can finish with startling abruptness. This sounds negative, but damned if Belle of New York isn't awfully easy going down, a silky little confection that I'd happily call one of the most effortlessly-watchable musicals of its era. The runtime helps (just 82 minutes long, making it one of the shortest musicals of its era). But I only have real, legitimate objections to it once a plot any more complicated than "dance-based romantic comedy courtship ritual" finally flips on about twenty minutes before it ends, whereupon the movie at long last promises some manner of actually-interesting character convolution, which it allows to fizzle out almost immediately—pretty much, in fact, the instant that Vera-Ellen's music dubber Anita Ellis has finished singing about them.
That story, anyway, is theoretically based on Hugh Morton's 1897 musical play, adapted for the screen once already in 1919 as a silent film, which suggests a certain emphasis on narrative in Morton's libretto that isn't quite so apparent here. Morton duly gets his credit (Gustave Kerker, who wrote the play's music, does not, but then they don't use his music, nor Morton's lyrics; Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer fill those respective functions here). In practice, the 1952 film really only has use for Morton's central conceit: a young woman has been blessed, or cursed, with such great beauty that it keeps getting in the way of her calling as a turn-of-the-20th-century social reformer, but when a wealthy cad meets her and keeps following her around, her virtue really does (eventually) start to rub off on him. Arthur Freed's '52 production was slated to be made nearly a decade earlier, with Astaire and Judy Garland. Both of them disliked the story enough—Judy Garland and Fred Astaire thought a musical romantic comedy's story was too weak—that it only managed to get made once only one of them was still around to complain. In the meantime, Charles Walters was tapped to direct, which helps explain why it's such breezy fun in spite of its flaws. Perhaps the script changed between the mid-40s and 1952, too, perhaps not (either way, Astaire never liked it, though he praised Vera-Ellen's prodigious talent, as he should considering she was probably the most versatile dancer he ever worked with besides, maybe, Eleanor Powell), but what we've got here is not unrecognizably different from the play it's nominally based on.
Still, maybe it's telling that they don't even keep the original beauty's name: instead we meet Angela Bonfils (that's Vera-Ellen) as the opening title cards fade to a male chorus acclaiming her "the Belle of New York," a status hard to deny despite her gray, almost paramilitary attire, and the constant stream of moralistic exhortation that issues from her mouth. The widow Lettie Hill (Marjorie Main), Angela's boss at her Salvation Army-like missionary organization, the Daughters of Right, is hardly thrilled about the gaggle of men who show up less to be redeemed from alcohol and gambling and girls and more to drool at Angela—though as her pal Elsie (Alice Pearce, contrasted with the hottie in a terrifically gracious and slightly discomfiting comic performance as the nottie) remarks, it's not Angela's fault she's hot. Lettie has troubles closer to home anyway, namely her wastrel nephew Charles (Astaire), who is this very minute celebrating the latest in a long and seemingly-neverending series of bachelor's parties with his loyal inner circle of rowdy, sexy showgirls, to the chagrin of his best friend/parasite lawyer, Max (Keenan Wynn), as he prepares to marry a showgirl even sexier and rowdier than these babes—well, "prepares," that is, in the sense that it's heavily implied that he told her he'd marry her as the most expedient way to bang her, and that he has no intention of actually showing up to their wedding. Which, to be sure, he does not.
After all, Charles has fallen in love all over again: by chance, his carriage has pulled him past Angela and Elsie as they're fundraising out in Washington Park. Angela sees through his superficial rich boy charm but he's walking on air—oh dear, quite literally—and he resolves to put in the work to become something less repulsive to his new crush, even to the extent of getting a job (incompetently: he manages to acquire and lose several in what seems like a single day). Somewhere between then and there he actually does transform, heart and soul, into a turn-of-the-century Christian prude, who's capable of winning Angela's affections, but who winds up so disgusted with himself when he semi-accidentally gets drunk on the eve of their wedding that he calls it off, because he figures she is too good for him. (But too old? Heavens no! And while it's actually not that bad this time around—52 and 31—there's still a huge dissonance between Astaire's physicality and a role that was never rewritten to be older, which I personally find pretty amusing since it gives us a man in the throes of middle age continuing to play the bachelor rake whose inheritance is still controlled by an aunt barely older than he is.)
Well, it's at this extremity that Belle's plot takes on any actual shape, and as jilted Angela schemes to get her fiancé back by entering his world of sex and depravity, it strongly suggests that Charles's sex and depravity—tempered by his newfound good heart—is potentially much more enjoyable than banging a tambourine for Jesus or holding temperance rallies at the Daughters of Right headquarters. (Which itself is a low-key victory for Cedric Gibbons and Jack Martin Smith's art direction and Richard Pefferle and Edwin B. Willis's set decoration, in that every room there is a hideous colorless slab festooned with cringe-inducing cross-stitched word art with lame inspirational phrases that frequently rhyme.)
Anyway, "is fun fun?" turns out to be very much the point of Belle's solo for Vera-Ellen, "Naughty But Nice." A bit of a reverse striptease in her room while Angela dresses, in its way it's even more spectacular than the other way around would be, for it revolves around Helen Rose's champion women's costume for the film, a brilliant Technicolor black-and-green number that couldn't be further away from the drab, rigid Godbotherer uniform that's defined Angela up till now. The sequence showcases Vera-Ellen's insanely impressive command over her body—it's completed with her signature scorpion kick move, that many dancers could emulate but few could match—and benefits likewise from Hill's dubbing which manages to turn lyrics that are less suggestive than you'd think into something genuinely sultry. (On the other hand it suffers from a makeshift doll prop—a tambourine with a smiley face drawn on it—which unfortunately crosses a line from "ha! Vera-Ellen made a DIY sex toy and invented being a camgirl" to "this is getting unintentionally creepy," mostly because of the smiley face's uncanny amount of detail. On the plus side, Pearce gets to do a verse in a sillier register, and Rose offers her an outfit exactly as lovely as Vera-Ellen's, only in the hottest of hot pinks. Incidentally, Belle ultimately does pretty decently by Pearce: it's the tiniest subplot, but whereas the Belle of New York gets an old man who I suppose looks nice in top hat and tails, Elsie gets the beefcake Irish cop.)
It's my second-favorite dance number in the film, for character-building reasons that go beyond "Vera-Ellen in a state of undress" and even beyond "Helen Rose costumes designed to accentuate fierce whirling movements," but whatever had been compelling about this prospect of two characters growing towards one another gets cut short when, by the end of the next reel, Belle more-or-less halts rather than concludes, bringing its romantic plot to a thudding happy ending that feels like this 82 minute film somehow just plum ran out of time—though thankfully it doesn't feel entirely forced.
That's because it calls back to the film's most out-there attempt at doing something new with cinematic dance, "Seeing's Believing," instigated by Angela when she angrily tells this dumb swell that he doesn't know what love is, and while she has no interest in showing him, she does inform him that it's like walking on air. Charles discovers this firsthand, as Astaire finds himself not-very-persuasively matted into a "weightless" dance around and atop the Washington Square Arch. It is super-cute and you desperately want it to be successful—having seen it twice, I liked it better than the first time—but Astaire admitted it flopped photographically, and he's not wrong, not least because his "weight" and the surly bonds of gravity upon it are arguably more apparent in this "weightless" number than in most of his regular dance routines. His further comment, however, that it didn't come off story-wise, I'd quibble with: the dance itself is mostly a misfire (a bit with doves works), but it primes Walters, against all sense, to play with anti-gravity in the actual diegesis, and this brings off some of the most utterly delightful surprises, ultimately even doing emotional work on behalf of our couple that the story otherwise barely attempts.
In fairness, that story must've been written in subordination to what was expected to be a movie that would always sell its emotions through dance, and once it starts putting Astaire and Vera-Ellen together, it really never quite puts a foot wrong until the finale. And it's not like it isn't successful before they get together, either: the screenplay may be unsound, but it's still funny, providing Astaire, Main, Wynn, Pearce, and even Vera-Ellen with a surfeit of solid comedy banter and hi-jinx; and while it's decidedly middling work, I rather like "Who Wants to Kiss the Bridegroom," Astaire's dance on a table with Charles's pastel-hued harem.
At any rate, throughout the film's middle stretch, Vera-Ellen and Astaire get three big pas de deux. The first two are, as noted, pretty darned great, even if structurally they're kind of piled on top of each other with about five minutes of diegetic narrative between them, the bare minimum amount of connective tissue to allow you to believe Angela's seen enough to fall in love with this joker. The first, "Baby Doll," finds Charles still in stalker mode as he attempts to woo her in Astaire-ish style at the Daughters of Right, and takes advantage of that awful word art as a central component of the comedy (one suggesting that Charles is, in fact, the devil, but they do say he may take a pleasing shape). The second finds Charles having lived up to Angela's ideals by lowering himself to work as a trolleyman, and it ranges across Charles's streetcar, an MGM backlot dressed as a minimalistic and enchanted vision of "Old New York," and ultimately onto the back of Charles's friendly horse, Jinx, though you can relax, it's only a prop. Vera-Ellen charts a character through these shenanigans, from intrigued-but-unimpressed to loosening-up-with-a-little-tap to fully-in-love-with-this-stranger, and it's all good stuff—technically unimpeachable stuff—presented in protracted-but-varied sequences that never grow stale.
They're not, however, masterpieces. But Belle does have eight and a half minutes' worth of masterpiece left to get to, and given that teeny-tiny runtime, that's no trivial percentage of the whole. It's treacherous to give Walters too much of the credit for what Belle does right, not with Roger Alton (who'd helped choreograph his masterpiece-all-the-time feature debut, Good News) serving as the credited musical sequence director. And so it is uncertain whose ideas are being expressed, or who's expressing them. But to the extent Belle still maintains any reputation as a dance musical, it's thanks to a scene with a sleepy love song that peters out into reprised music in the form of an even waltzier version of the opening waltz, "When I'm Out With The Belle of New York," and only arrives at dancing qua dancing at the end. This is "Currier & Ives," and this is the "top 10" thing I breathlessly mentioned earlier, and in lieu of music or dancing it's a tour of absolute force for Gibbons et al's production design and Rose and Gile Steele's costuming, premised on a newly-engaged Angela and Charles's visit to Currier & Ives to either be photographed against or drawn into a Currier & Ives print, something I have no evidence that the famed printmakers ever actually did, but whatever. Check this out:
The thrust of it is probably obvious: Astaire and Vera-Ellen thrown into a series of vignettes based on the contemporary nostalgia for the general attitude of the Currier & Ives studio's landscape art, and, indeed, at least two very specific Currier & Ives prints. There's a bit of an organizing principle otherwise, in that it tracks Charles and Angela's marriage-to-be through the seasons (oddly, it gets the order wrong), and the soundstages are tricked out with faker-than-fake backdrops; our couple, after all, have now entered a paper world where only their love is truly real. But where it really gets nuts is where it decides Currier & Ives is insufficient, and therefore hybridizes the printmakers' aesthetic with the bombast of an MGM Technicolor musical operating at full-tilt. As slavishly faithful as it can be to the subject of the prints, no tasteful Currier & Ives print is as garishly vibrant as the vision here. (Thus, whoever's idea it was, there's no way they weren't aware of Mary Blair's animated precursor from Melody Time.)
It's utterly, utterly charming, spinning out from lazy badminton in a verdant glade with the duo dressed as, essentially, bumblebees, and into an elegant winter skating sequence on a frozen pond busy with big hoop skirts and petticoats of many colors, and onward into a blistering tap routine at the beach for summer. The topper, while not exactly a new idea, is the use of extras as literal props, in the background during the skating sequence and then freezing in place, mid-dance, during the summer at the dock, in magical deference to the romantic dance at the center of this world. It's just one of the most amazing things, executed for the most part very well, and it remains amazing even though one of the winter guys in the background fucks up, and keeps fucking up, like all through one of the long-take shots of the skaters. The summer finale, on the other hand, is flawless, and if Walters and/or Alton don't use the camera to their best advantage as choreographers throughout "Currier & Ives" (it is, if I'm being honest, a little static), all the better to show off the sumptuous artifice of all those wonderful sets and costumes.
This is also the weakness of the worst dance sequence of the film, though, which happens to be the last, an Astaire solo shoehorned in by virtue of Charles moonlighting as a singing waiter. This is "I Wanna Be a Dancin' Man," which exists today as viewable in two different takes and which gets a lot of attention for how it showcases Astaire's precision, which tends to overlook that it's narratively superfluous, which isn't a crime, and that it's boring, which is; it actually has some pretty decent editing, but they're quiet little changes in shot scales or buttons for emphasis, and the premise of this number is "Astaire is on a stage, in front of a blue screen, perhaps the blue screen we can still see pieces of in 'Seeing's Believing,' " which is a pretty pitiful way to end a movie that even at its clumsiest had never been less than feverishly visually ambitious. (It's also not a great climactic dance number for a musical romance, I might add.) But most of these last twenty minutes aren't used well. It's kind of irrelevant: just for being a genial good time, I'd still probably give it a pass. But for harboring one of the best things any MGM or MGM-style musical ever did at the height of that genre's powers—for even in the year of Singin' In the Rain and Lovely To Look At's blowout dance numbers, "Currier & Ives" is still a peer competitor—I can scarcely keep myself from getting stupid and just calling The Belle of New York "great."