Friday, December 05, 2014

TCM Friday Night Spotlight: Charles Walters

Tonight a very exciting series begins on Turner Classic Movies, as the Friday Night Spotlight turns its attention to MGM director and choreographer Charles Walters (1911-1982).

The series will be cohosted by Brent Phillips, author of the brand-new book CHARLES WALTERS: THE DIRECTOR WHO MADE HOLLYWOOD DANCE. I anticipate reviewing this title, just published by the University Press of Kentucky, at a future date.

This series is special to me for a couple of reasons: First, I love Chuck Walters' movies, which played a significant role in turning me into the classic film fan I am today; and second, as I wrote half a decade ago, I had the opportunity to meet Chuck, not long before his passing, and he was a lovely man who was very kind to a fascinated teenager. (As a matter of fact, biographer Brent Phillips emailed me years ago, after reading my blog post, but I didn't have more substantive memories I could contribute to his research.)

In addition to sitting in on a couple of the night classes Chuck taught at USC, which my parents audited, I had the chance to sit and chat with him at a post-class gathering and listen to his stories. For someone who fell in love with MGM musicals around age 10 or 11, I couldn't believe my good fortune.

A favorite memory: When I spent a month studying abroad a letter from my parents caught up with me at a hotel in Switzerland which had a note scrawled in the margin by Chuck: "Hello, dear, how are you doing?" Needless to say, I treasure it, especially as he passed on a year later.

At Christmas around that time, in the late '70s or early '80s, my parents gave me several original stills of Chuck "in action" as a director, all personally signed to me by Chuck. (I also have custody of one signed to my mother!) A couple of those are shown here, along with an autographed class syllabus. A postscript, the professor listed on the syllabus, Drew Casper, taught several of my daughter's film courses at USC, three decades later.

So tune into TCM tonight to learn more about the life and work of a wonderful man, "one of the least heralded but most accomplished of the behind-the-scenes talents responsible for the great MGM musicals," as the TCM site describes him.

Charles Walters started out as a choreographer and on-screen dancer, then moved into feature film directing with GOOD NEWS (1947), the very first film shown tonight, December 5th. GOOD NEWS, starring June Allyson and Peter Lawford, is an effervescent film which just gets better with the passage of time. It's hard not to feel a sense of joy when watching Joan McCracken in "Pass That Peace Pipe" or Allyson and Lawford zooming through French phrases in "The French Lesson." The big crowd dancing and singing "The Varsity Drag" at the end is a colorful moment which for me epitomizes what I love about MGM musicals.

Next up is Fred Astaire and Judy Garland in EASTER PARADE (1948), which has to be one of the movies I've seen the most, thanks to annual viewings dating back to early childhood. It contains so many memorable moments, whether it's Fred and Ann Miller in "It Only Happens When I Dance With You," Peter Lawford adorably plowing through "Fella With an Umbrella," or Judy singing so many great numbers.

I've previously reviewed two films showing tonight, Fred Astaire and Vera-Ellen in the charming THE BELLE OF NEW YORK (1952) and Jane Wyman, Van Johnson, Howard Keel, and Barry Sullivan in the comedy THREE GUYS NAMED MIKE (1951).

Also showing tonight: Fred and Ginger in THE BARKLEYS OF BROADWAY (1949), plus three films Walters choreographed, DUBARRY WAS A LADY (1943), SEVEN DAYS' LEAVE (1942), and BROADWAY RHYTHM (1944).

On Friday, December 12th, the evening starts with Gene Kelly and Judy Garland in SUMMER STOCK (1950), an unassuming yet thoroughly entertaining film which, like GOOD NEWS, only gets better each time it's seen.

That's followed by the only film for which Walters was Oscar-nominated, LILI (1953), starring Leslie Caron.

There are also a pair of movies that night starring Walters' friend Esther Williams, DANGEROUS WHEN WET (1953) and TEXAS CARNIVAL (1951); plus TORCH SONG (1953) with Joan Crawford, which he directed and also danced in; more onscreen dance roles in a pair of films starring his friend Judy Garland, GIRL CRAZY (1943) and PRESENTING LILY MARS (1943); and MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944), where he served as dance director.

On Friday, December 19th, the night starts with HIGH SOCIETY (1956), starring Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Celeste Holm. This musical version of THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940) is quite fun and deserves to be enjoyed in its own right separate from comparisons to the original.

That's followed by a really special movie which should be better known, Leslie Caron in the Cinderella tale THE GLASS SLIPPER (1955).

THE TENDER TRAP (1955), with Frank Sinatra and Debbie Reynolds, is an old favorite seen countless times, and it includes what I think is one of Celeste Holm's finest performances. And EASY TO LOVE (1953), also showing on the 19th, is one of Esther Williams' very best films; Van Johnson and Tony Martin costar.

The 19th also includes the Glenn Ford comedy DON'T GO NEAR THE WATER (1947) as well as a couple more films for which Walters served as dance director, BEST FOOT FORWARD (1943) and HER HIGHNESS AND THE BELLBOY (1945). An onscreen appearance in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO IN HOLLYWOOD (1945) is included as well.

The series wraps up on December 26th starting with Doris Day in BILLY ROSE'S JUMBO (1962) -- the movie's best scene is shown at the left -- and PLEASE DON'T EAT THE DAISIES (1960).

Also shown that night: Debbie Reynolds in THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN (1964) and Shirley MacLaine in TWO LOVES (1961). There's also another film he choreographed that evening, SUMMER HOLIDAY (1948), and one for which he directed a Judy Garland segment, ZIEGFELD FOLLIES (1946).

There's not much missing from this series: a couple feature films like ASK ANY GIRL (1959) and WALK DON'T RUN (1964) -- WALK DON'T RUN will, however, be shown December 29th as part of Cary Grant's Star of the Month lineup -- and a couple other films for which he served as choreographer, including SINCE YOU WENT AWAY (1944) and GIGI (1958), for which he staged "The Night They Invented Champagne." All in all, it's a very thorough series which does Walters' career proud. Only on TCM will one find such an amazing retrospective!

A highly recommended series. "That's entertainment!"

For more on TCM in December, please visit TCM in December: Highlights, TCM Star of the Month: Cary Grant, and TCM in December: Christmas Movies.


Blogger mel said...

I found it quite striking to realize that, of all the films that Charles Walters directed, there are only four that I don't have in my collection, which includes two that were uncredited.

What a wonderful experience it must have been to meet the man himself, Laura.

2:03 AM  

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