Royal Wedding starring the legendary dance master Fred Astaire and Jane Powell is an excellent way to kick off June – the month of marriages. Fred and Jane play a brother and sister singing and dancing act that heads off to London, England for the royal wedding of Princess Elizabeth to the Duke of Edinburgh. Fred Astaire is elder brother Tom Bowen to little sister Jane Powell as Ellen – and I do mean elder brother. Fred, while still an elegant and imaginative dancer, is 29 years, 11 months and 10 days older than Jane. Neither of the siblings has any interest in serious relationships and, heaven forbid, marriage. But once in London, and surrounded by the breathless royal wedding preparations, Fred and Jane begin to be caught up in their own romantic whirlwinds.
Royal Wedding is a light-hearted and breezy film from 1951 filmed in spectacular Technicolor and filled with some of Fred Astaire’s best dance routines ever. Fred was legendary for his perfectionism and it really shows in the dance routines in this film which is very loosely based on his own life with his sister and early dance partner, Adele. Fred makes it all seem absolutely effortless as he whirls through a wide variety of styles from a romantic-comedy dance during a storm at sea to a love-struck fantasy dance on the ceiling to partnering with a hat rack to rocking a Caribbean theme. Fred’s dance with the hat rack to the song “Sunday Jumps” show cases Fred’s “ability to animate the inanimate”. He starts out parodying his well-know real-life obsessive rehearsal habits and smoothly swings a wooden hat rack to life. It is definitely not as easy as Fred makes it look. He later revealed that he tried dancing with more than 30 different store bought hat racks before giving up and having the prop department make him a special hat rack at a cost of $900 at the time (the special rack mysteriously disappeared after filming). For the spectacular and imaginative dance to the song “You’re All the World to Me” – “one of the most famous dance numbers ever filmed” – MGM built a 20 foot diameter rotating barrel and then built the set inside it. They nailed all the furniture down, attached the camera and harnessed the cameraman to it, then Fred Astaire worked his fancy footwork as the set rotated around him and he magically appears to dance on the walls and ceiling.
Other wonderful dance routines include the lively opening dance to “Every Night at Seven” where Fred plays a bored king eager to romance his chambermaid Jane. The song “Open Your Eyes” has a lovely romantic waltz sung by Jane Powell that turns into a comic dance routine as Fred and Jane try to keep their balance in a ship’s ballroom during a storm at sea. This routine was based on a real-life balancing act that Fred and his sister Adele danced in 1923. The routine to the song “How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Love You When You Know I’ve Been a Liar All My Life” (the longest title of any song in MGM music history) is the first time ever that Fred does a completely comic song and dance in the vaudeville style. The song “I Left My Hat in Haiti” has an energetic and colorful Caribbean theme. Jane Powell has several lovely ballads including “Open Your Eyes”, “The Happiest Days of My Life”, and “Too Late Now” which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song.
Royal Wedding actually came out 4 years after the real royal wedding of Princess Elizabeth. MGM tried to get the film out earlier but they kept having leading lady troubles. June Allyson was originally cast as sister Ellen Bowen but June got pregnant and had to be replaced. The studio then picked Judy Garland. The original director, Charles Walters, loudly objected – he had worked with Judy before and was well of her personal problems and did not want to deal with them again. The studio fired Walters, replaced him with Stanley Donen, and went ahead with Judy Garland. But Judy immediately sank into her usual troublesome routine. First she could not possibly manage full rehearsal days so the studio allowed her half days. Then Judy began calling in sick and missing rehearsal entirely. Finally MGM fired Judy and canceled her 14 year long contract and 2 days later she locked herself in a bathroom and cut her neck with broken glass. Judy survived and on a later radio show even managed to joke about her short lived involvement with Royal Wedding – she said she was set to star when Leo the Lion (MGM’s mascot) bit her. The studio then hit gold with their third choice of Jane Powell.
MGM also had some problems with the United Kingdom release of Royal Wedding. The UK would not allow the studio to use any actual wedding footage (the carriage shown in the film was not the wedding carriage). The UK demanded a title change from Royal Wedding to Wedding Bells because they did not want movie goers to think the film was a royal documentary. Fred Astaire’s love interest in the film is Sarah Churchill who was the daughter of legendary British Prime Minister Winston Churchill but the UK would not allow the studio to mention this connection in their ad campaign. As a result Sarah was pretty much left out because the studio thought no one would know who she was without mentioning her famous father.
Royal Wedding was released on March 23, 1951 and runs 93 minutes. The color is bright and vivid and perfectly fits the light-hearted feeling of the film and the lovely dance routines. Video and sound quality are excellent. Jane Powell has a wonderful strong singing voice. Fred Astaire’s also has a nice effortless voice even though he was always very insecure about his singing voice. The age difference between Fred and Jane is rather extreme and silly – couldn’t the studio find anyone even a little closer to Fred’s age? Peter Lawford plays Jane Powell’s love interest and he looks suitably handsome plus his colorful personal life makes him extra interesting (this love story was loosely based on Fred Astaire’s sister’s real-life marriage to a British nobleman). Keenan Wynn has a fun dual role as trans-Atlantic twins, one very Americanized and one very British. All of which serves to make Fred’s love interest, Sarah Churchill, sort of fade into the background. If you do not know who her father is then you kind of have to wonder what there is about her that makes Fred Astaire dance on the ceiling. Of course the songs and dance routines are the real stars of the film. Lovely, colorful, fun, and imaginative, the dances really make Royal Wedding memorable. It is really mind-blowing how Fred ‘s elegant grace and strength just makes every dance seem so naturally effortless. You really believe he can dance on the ceiling.
MGM Studios screwed up and forgot to renew the copyright registration of Royal Wedding and several other musicals so movie fans can enjoy Royal Wedding FREE in the Public Domain. The Internet Archive has an excellent copy that can be downloaded or watched online completely FREE!