Directed by Stanley Donen
Written by Alan Jay Lerner
1951's Royal Wedding was the first Fred Astaire movie I ever saw, and it's still the best. That must be qualified by admitting that I haven't seen all of them, nor even quite a majority of them (I could have seen twenty and still not seen a majority of them, though), and so I would not have my worldview shaken to discover that, e.g., Blue Skies is better. But I have seen enough not to be shocked if it weren't, for the performer appeared in a great many movies with sterling reputations that I simply don't like, despite the undeniable talent (not even just dancing talent!) they boast with Astaire and, usually, his female lead. Which is a testament to Astaire in itself: I've never seen a bad Astaire movie where it was his fault.
And then there's Royal Wedding, where Astaire is customarily great, and which has also been relieved of all the weaknesses that so often crop up when a writer's overriding goal was to contrive an adversarial romance, plausibility be damned, that will, maybe eventually, justify a dance sequence or two. The downside, if it even is a downside, is that it achieves this by effectively casting aside much of any story whatsoever, at least insofar as stories are supposed to have sharply-expressed conflicts, or plots beyond the chronological unfolding of their events, or characters whose arcs can be distinguished from straight lines. That may be what I love the most about it, though—okay, not really, what I love most about it is the same thing as everyone else—but it's at least amongst its finer qualities. In any event, Royal Wedding's screenwriter-lyricist Alan Jay Lerner (joined for the music by Burton Lane) abandoned the effortful plotting that almost invariably attends the genre; and, in the absence of farce, or twists, or many-sided love polygons, what he found was a lovely little dramedy about humans anyway. It is, quite possibly, the single nicest movie ever made. Yet it remains subtly emotional nonetheless, overcast with the melancholy nostalgia of its star, who presumably must have had some significant input into Lerner's screenplay. For Royal Wedding is, above all, an allegorical biopic of Fred Astaire and his sister and best friend, Adele, albeit one tinged with enough fantasy that this time, rather than being widowed by an alcoholic, Adele got a truly happy ending—even if Fred's happy ending remains at least slightly more ambivalent.
They are not called "Fred" and "Adele," of course, though it's not exactly much of a leap: Royal Wedding concerns the brother-sister dancing duo of Tom and Ellen Bowen, and yes, Ellen being portrayed by Jane Powell makes it pretty unlikely they have the same mother, and with Powell at 22 and Astaire at 52, it's frankly barely plausible they even have the same father. Powell was not MGM and producer Arthur Freed's first choice for the role, but then, it's not as if the woman who was—Judy Garland—would've been very much more credible. So, if this is the direction they were going to go, it's just as well that they put Powell in it—though I wonder why not Ginger Rogers, then 40, and the only good reason that springs to mind is ten films' worth of audience association with Astaire and Rogers as lovers, not siblings. (Not that this stops Tom and Ellen from putting on numerous vignettes where they play romantic partners, starting with the film's very first scene, involving King Astaire and Powell as his attractive scullery maid. I guess it's fine to find all this off-putting, though it seems to reflect the Astaires' act as it was.) It was probably just a contractual thing, though maybe Astaire and Rogers thought they said all they needed to say about their long-running collaboration a few years earlier, in their only MGM (and only color) musical, 1949's The Barkleys of Broadway, which feels like a unintentional companion piece to Royal Wedding anyway, particularly in that it uses Astaire's relationship with his other most important partner for its drama, and at least looks like it could be an allegory for Rogers's career.
So: in Royal Wedding, it's 1947, the year of Princess Elizabeth's wedding to Philip Mountbatten that had been such a cause célèbre. (Indeed, Jack Cardiff's footage of the event is used to buff up this film's bona fides; it is not what you'd call seamless.) Well, Tom and Ellen are induced by their manager Irving Klinger (Keenan Wynn) to move their successful Broadway show from Manhattan to London in order to capitalize on the hype, Irving putting them in the care of his twin brother across the pond, Edgar (also Wynn). This entails Ellen saying her none-too-emotional goodbyes to the small army of men she's been juggling while Tom looks on with amusement, confident that Ellen's catting around means that her commitment to their show remains unshakeable. But as they prepare to embark aboard a London-bound liner, Ellen makes the acquaintance of a man with much the same problem she has—that is, how to say farewell to multiple lovers at the docks without causing a scene—except he navigates his circumstances more successfully, and even manages to hit on her in the very act of kissing one of his girlfriends goodbye. This man is Lord John Brindale (Peter Lawford), and it's not very long before Ellen and John recognize that, as a pair of heartbreakers, perhaps they were destined to come together. As a result, Ellen's work suffers, and it becomes obvious that once their relationship reaches its natural consummation, the Bowens will be no more. This saddens Tom a great deal, but of course something like it was always going to happen, it was only a matter of when; and Tom finds some consolation when he finds a possible new partner, in the form of Anne Ashmond (Sarah Churchill, Winston's daughter), and, deep into middle age, he finally realizes that maybe he's marriage material, too.
And, yeah: this isn't a story. It's barely a scenario. If you try to get ahead of it, you'll find there isn't even really anything to get ahead of: if, for example, you guess that Tom will try to sabotage Ellen's relationship, or use Anne as a cudgel against his former partner before realizing what a heel that makes him (cf. Astaire's hoofer in 1948's Easter Parade), or even just lash out at one of the women in his life because change is scary, you would be dead wrong. The closest to fraught Royal Wedding ever gets is in the nuisance of Anne being technically engaged to a Chicagoan she hasn't seen in two years; and there is, I guess, the mostly-notional possibility that Ellen could choose her career over marriage, though I don't think Royal Wedding actually asks you to take this possibility seriously. Instead, it asks you to sit in the low-key heartache of characters who would, all things being equal, prefer not to be separated, because they love each other and greatly enjoy their work together, but whose lives will soon pull them apart even so. It's a movie that begins with perfunctory goodbyes to people who don't matter to its characters, then reminds them that they have lots of feelings after all. About two-thirds of the way through, we come across a quietly-made little scene, devoid of any obvious or bombastic drama, announcing itself in no way as the crux of the film. It's legitimately moving anyway: the love song that Ellen's "rehearsing" is imbued with far more significance because of John's presence, and Tom watches Ellen and John, while they largely forget he's there. It could be the best capital-A acting Astaire ever did in his life; he wears an expression that's hard to read, as he uncertainly tries to decide if he's happier for his sister than he is sad about her leaving him. I don't think Astaire ever quite resolves this (though maybe Tom's supposed to), even by the time the movie's over.
Since it pursues these emotions so softly, that leaves the balance of the film's non-musical runtime for other stuff, for example Helen Rose's costumes, which are spectacularly colorful (a non-trivial amount of joy in any mid-century MGM musical comes from the costuming, and Astaire in particular was always a wonderful figure on which to hang fashionable clothes, and even unfashionable clothes usually looked good on him). Mostly, of course, it's just Tom and Ellen, which works surpassingly well—it even helps the small drama of the scenario, by grounding it in such warm, personable characterizations—and Royal Wedding is in the running for the funniest of the mid-century MGM musicals. Astaire and Powell are, ridiculous age gap aside, exceedingly charming in their sibling relationship, sarcastic and quippy throughout in ways that just underline the affection they have for each other; Astaire gets to homage his early film roles' penchant to have him stalk his leading lady for a while when he accidentally winds up following Anne through the streets, though Royal Wedding has the good sense to keep this to about four minutes of screentime rather than, e.g., The Gay Divorcee's forty-five (and it never involves a fucking car chase); Wynn gets a hilarious splitscreen bit with himself wherein his characters find themselves separated by their common language, a running gag that would've been overplayed in a less-disciplined screenplay, but not in this one. (Wynn also gets the "related" line when the Bowens announce they're getting married, pitching this as a confused reminder rather than as an alarmed objection, and it's the precise amount of edgy snark required to acknowledge that sexy sibling dancing was weird even for the sensibilities of 1951; it's placed perfectly, right at the end of the film.)
What isn't done softly, however, are the dance sequences, and if I've spent a fair amount of time on the pleasant, bittersweet character drama, it's only because I think it's badly overlooked as one of the comparatively few mid-century musicals with a great (if unconventional) screenplay, and that the real-life context that gives it a genuine resonance is all-too-frequently forgotten.* But Royal Wedding was also the first solo outing for a director who'd make himself known as one of the best directors of musicals in history, Stanley Donen. It is a quantum improvement over his and Kelly's 1949 effort, On the Town, to say the least. Royal Wedding can get dismissed as a mere vehicle for its dance sequences—I think the fact its home video versions are in ratty shape thanks to MGM neglecting to renew their copyright doesn't help (Criterion, if you're listening, this would've been a much better choice for restoration than Swing Time)—but, obviously, I can see why its slip of a story can get ignored in their favor.
Not all of them, unfortunately, including most of Astaire and Powell's diegetic stage numbers. So if I have any real criticism of the film, or Astaire's work at MGM, it's that I do not understand why his numbers with his female leads there were so frequently terrible—here, presumably, it's to reflect the garbage pile of vaudeville that Fred and Adele climbed out of. That makes it better-justified than Barkleys' reluctance to actually have Astaire and Rogers just dance together, or, for that matter, Easter Parade's Astaire/Garland (deflated sigh...) comic hobo routine. And yet "How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Loved You When I've Been a Liar All My Life" is only more fun to watch in that Powell's stage costume doesn't include stubble and blacked-out teeth (Astaire's costume, however deliberately, is an abomination), and that it's an actual song rather than whatever the fuck Astaire and Garland's "A Couple of Swells" was, though its attempt to find its humor in the folkways of the poors is barely any more funny. The most likeable thing about it is that monstrosity of a title. (John Mueller's monograph on Astaire, meanwhile, cites this as the first time he dispensed with his usual class, though I guess Mueller must've forgot "Mr. Bojangles.")
Then there's "I Left My Hat In Haiti," choreographer Nick Castle's (not that one's) contribution to the film. It's significantly more enjoyable as a work of dance—it has some nice mechanized stage design and some great timing from Astaire involving a monkey (!)—though it's obviously "dated" by which I mean "racist," and for some reason the song chooses the one place in the Caribbean where there are almost literally no white people to do its all-white dance number. I don't know what was wrong with Havana (Lane's music, with its Latin inspiration, evidently can't tell the difference, anyway). As for "Ev'ry Night At Seven," the film-opening "royal wedding" the Bowens put on in Manhattan, I've nothing against it; but Powell and Astaire get a lot more out of "Open Your Eyes," a waltz they perform for their fellow passengers en route to London, which due to rough seas (and Donen's deployment of a gimbal) puts the performers on an unsteady footing as the floor rolls around and obstacles suddenly appear in their paths. It's alright, and rather charming, though it's a missed opportunity for some magic, since while the Bowens are at least game enough to finish the number, they actually do fall, and I think it'd have entered Astaire's top tier if they'd been choreographed instead to carry on as if the heaving deck and the spilled fruit didn't perturb them in the slightest.
But there are two numbers that do reach Astaire's top tier, and very effortlessly. They're both solos, and at least one is in the running for the best solo dance of all time. The other is still very spiffy: taking Astaire's penchant for using props as "partners" to its logical extreme, "Sunday Jumps" finds Tom sitting alone in the ship's gym while Ellen's off with John, and, in a fit of inspiration (and, I think we're meant to understand, in a fit of loneliness), he dances with a hat rack, and the sequence only gets more elaborate from there, though the athleticism and grace involved in animating that hatrack and imbuing it with his tender feelings, foreshadowing the loss still to come, makes it an astoundingly beautiful scene. That leaves us with the film's obvious centerpiece, and very much the centerpiece of Astaire's whole career, to my mind: "You're All the World To Me," better known as "The one where Fred Astaire dances on the mother fucking ceiling."
(And, equally importantly, the walls.)
This is almost always attributed to Donen, though Astaire evidently came up with the idea something like two decades earlier. It was Donen who told him it could be done, and worked out the mechanical aspects of it, with careful coordination between Astaire and a rotating set with a camera attached. It is a marvel, not just of dancing—though what could better communicate the dizzy ecstasy of realizing you're in love than this?—but of filmmaking, too. It is mind-blowingly persuasive, giddily so, and Astaire does his part, with a number of flourishes that utterly sell the illusion that he can dictate when and where gravity takes him. (Do I wish that, technologically, or within the bounds of safety, they could have accomplished a leap from the ceiling to the floor as a finale? Sure, but you can't have everything.) It probably sounds like a gimmick, and it is, but it's also one of the finest pieces of cinema of its whole decade (hell, ever), and would've earned Astaire a legacy all by itself, even if the whole rest of his career hadn't.
Of course, by 1951, that career certainly had earned Astaire his legacy, and though he kept dancing throughout his sixth decade on planet Earth, Royal Wedding retains its valedictory feel, in the best way possible, from the boundary-pushing union of technology and technique that it brings to Astaire's solos to the way it sweetly, simply tells his and his sister's story. If it had been his last movie, it would've been one hell of a goodbye.
*Consider, for example, a recent Letterboxd review from an Actual Paid Film Critic, who's written for publications you've heard of: "Miniature rant: I hate that Fred Astaire and Jane Powell have to be a brother-sister duo instead of just professional friends because of the Pence families of the world." To me, this cleanly sums up the whole state of film criticism in 2021. We could start with how that's not a "rant" as usually defined, but I think it speaks for itself.