Royal Wedding (1951)

Toronto Film Society presented Royal Wedding (1951) on Saturday, June 17, 2023 as part of the Season 75 Virtual Film Buffs Screening Series, Programme 9.

Producer: Arthur Freed; Distributor: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.  Director: Stanley Donen.  Screenplay: Alan Jay Lerner.  Cinematography: Robert Planck.  Film Editor: Albert Akst.  Music By: Burton Lane (lyrics), Alan Jay Lerner (music).  Release Dates: March 23, 1951 (U.S.)

 Cast:  Fred Astaire (Tom Bowen), Jane Powell (Ellen Bowen), Peter Lawford (Lord John Brindale), Sarah Churchill (Anne Ashmond), Keenan Wynn (Irving Klinger).

Not everything went according to plan with regards to production of Royal Wedding (known as Wedding Bells in the UK), though it did start out well and (spoiler alert) – has a happy ending, or rather, two.

According to writer Alan Jay Lerner, the whole enterprise started when Arthur Freed invited him to spend some time in California for a few weeks. He developed an idea inspired by Fred and Adele Astaire’s life, including Adele’s marriage to Lord Cavendish.

The plot revolves around a brother and sister act who take their show to London at the time of the royal wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip. The brother (Fred Astaire) meets an English dancer (Sarah Churchill) and the sister (Jane Powell) meets a member of the British nobility (Peter Lawford).

Fred Astaire and June Allyson were originally cast in the two lead roles, but after eight days of rehearsals, Allyson announced she was pregnant and had to drop out. Ironically, towards the end of filming, Powell discovered she was pregnant.

Enter Judy Garland, fresh from a six week stint at Brigham Hospital. This caused director Charles Walters (who had just directed Garland in Summer Stock) to exit the project. He was replaced by Stanley Donen.

Garland lasted about four weeks during the rehearsal period, including wardrobe tests, but began to refuse to come to rehearsals, which did not bode well for production. Freed made the difficult decision to remove her from the picture, which turned out to be the final goodbye for Garland, after 17 years at MGM. She wouldn’t make another movie until 1954’s A Star Is Born.

Enter Jane Powell. Fun fact: Although they play siblings, Fred Astaire was almost 30 years older than Jane Powell. As well, the film was only Powell’s 9th feature.

One of the challenges was obtaining film of the royal wedding itself.

According to the American Film Institute, “Ben Goetz, then head of production at M-G-Ms British studios, attempted to obtain color newsreel footage of the 20 Nov 1947 royal wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, from Gaumont-British News, but was initially unable to obtain any because of the objections of the royal family.

Eventually some footage of the parade was obtained, but none that featured either the royal couple or the interior of Westminster Abbey. In order to obtain permission to use the footage included in the film, M-G-M additionally agreed to change the pictures release title in Britain from Royal Wedding to Wedding Bells to avoid any inference that the picture was about the real royal wedding.”

With the amount of talent both behind and in front of the camera, this should have been another one of MGM’s gems, but it turned out to be one of the lesser entries. Lerner admitted, “I’m not proud of the script that I did on Royal Wedding. There was so much trouble on the picture and then it finally ends up with Jane Powell.”

One of the film’s highlights is known as the “Dancing on the Ceiling” number, though the song Astaire sings in the number is “You’re All the World To Me”. How was the effect achieved? Director Donen says “it was executed simply by putting the room inside a barrel, as in a fun fair. Everything in the room had to be tied down hard in the room inside this barrel and the camera turned with it so that you weren’t aware that the room is upside down in that Fred is actually dancing on the walls and the ceiling.”

As the set turns, Astaire moves from the floor to the wall to the ceiling, to the other wall and back again, without ever being anything but upright.

Royal Wedding finished shooting on October 5, 1950 after 33 days of shooting, six and a half days ahead of schedule, on a budget of $1,590, 920 including the cost of the days Judy Garland and June Allyson worked.

It was released on March 23, 1951 and grossed $3,925,000.

How was it reviewed at the time?

Bosley Crowther wrote ‘Mr. Astaire has fared better in his lifetime—and he has also fared much worse.”

After being fired from this film, Judy Garland was a guest on Bing Crosby’s radio show, and they sang a duet of “How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Love You When You Know I’ve Been a Liar All My Life?” A recording of the broadcast survives and reveals the legendary Garland wit. She says she was going to star in this film, but “Leo the Lion bit me.”

For those of you who love the MGM musicals, if you’re not already familiar with this book, it’s a great read: The World of Entertainment! The Freed Unit at MGM by Hugh Fordin):

“A behind-the-scenes, film-by-film account of the making of his movies (which, to the exclusion of all else, were his life). From 1940 to 1970, under the auspices of M-G-M’s celebrated Freed Unit, Hollywood’s master actors, writers, directors, choreographers, composers, and set designers created The Wizard of Oz, Girl Crazy, Meet Me in St. Louis, Annie Get Your Gun, An American in Paris, Show Boat, Singin’ in the Rain, Gigi, and nearly forty others.”

Originally published in 1975, Fordin interviewed Freed himself and had access to his archives, including interoffice memos, scripts and story notes, censorship reports, budgets, cast sheets, set renderings, wardrobe breakdowns, production reports, music notes, recording reports and pre recording discs, shooting schedules, progress reports, publicity and photographs, business and personal correspondence plus the actual cost and derived income from each of the films he produced. The book is still available from Chapters and Amazon.

Notes by Mark Brodsky

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