I've been fighting an ear infection for the past few days, so tonight I decided some old-fashioned "movie comfort food" was in order, and for me nothing fits that description better than an MGM musical.
I chose a DVD of Fred Astaire's relatively little-known film THE BELLE OF NEW YORK, which previously I'd only seen on commercial television. Fred's leading lady in this whimsical film is lovely Vera-Ellen, his partner from THREE LITTLE WORDS (1950).
The plot, some nonsense about a playboy reformed by a young lady working for a Salvation Army type organization, scarcely exists, but it doesn't really matter given that this relatively short 82-minute film showcases one great dance number after another. According to the TCM website, fully half of the film's run time is dancing! Add in rich Technicolor and Helen Rose's costumes, and you've got a very enjoyable movie.
The Mercer-Arlen score isn't one of their best, but it provides some sprightly tunes to back up the dancing of Astaire and Vera-Ellen, including "Baby Doll," "Oops" (a grand number on a horse-drawn trolley), and a Currier and Ives dance which includes a skating sequence.
The best dance of all is one of my all-time favorite solo Astaire numbers, "I Wanna Be a Dancing Man," which opens with an iconic shot of a silhouetted Astaire tossing sand onto the stage out of a straw hat. As a matter of fact, the DVD includes a fascinating extra: the number was originally shot in a much more pedestrian manner, with Astaire in his waiter's costume against a curtained background. It's an enjoyable dance, but not the stylish classic which appeared in the final cut of the film.
Vera-Ellen's singing voice is dubbed by Anita Ellis, who performed the same service in THREE LITTLE WORDS.
It's curious to me that the TCM website indicates director Charles Walters and Vera-Ellen did not get along, as so many MGM stars have raved about working with "Chuck" on screen and in print. I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Walters on a couple of occasions when my parents took a film class he taught in 1980-81, and he was a lovely man. For Christmas that year my parents arranged to have autographed for me a number of stills of Chuck with his leading ladies, including Leslie Caron and Joan Crawford, and when I spent a month studying abroad a letter from my parents caught up with me at a hotel which had a note scrawled in the margin by Chuck: "Hello, dear, how are you doing?"
The supporting cast includes MGM stalwarts Keenan Wynn, Marjorie Main, and Clinton Sundberg, along with Alice Pearce (ON THE TOWN). Gale Robbins, who previously appeared in Astaire's THE BARKLEYS OF BROADWAY and THREE LITTLE WORDS, has a small part.
THE BELLE OF NEW YORK is available on VHS and DVD. The DVD can be obtained in the multi-film Classic Musicals From the Dream Factory, Vol. 2 or as part of a one-disc, two-movie release, paired with ROYAL WEDDING (1950).
This film can also be seen on Turner Classic Movies.
The special effects may be primitive by modern standards, but as the movie ends and Fred Astaire and Vera-Ellen dance away into the sky, it leaves the viewer smiling.