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In 1952, MGM released The Belle of New York, a lively romantic musical that unfolds on the sidewalks of Manhattan and stars Fred Astaire and Vera-Ellen. The film was based on the stage play of the same name and first appeared on Broadway in 1897. Written by C. M. S. McLellan (a.k.a. Hugh Morton), a movie version first appeared in 1919 starring Marion Davies, the long-time mistress of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. MGM finally secured film rights in 1943, but only after paying out $77,000 to various claimants to the material. In 1946, Astaire was lined up to star in the film, but he instead resigned from show business all together, having considered retirement for some time. MGM graciously accepted the notice under a gentleman's agreement that, should Astaire return to performing, he would be obliged to do the picture.
1948 marked Astaire's return to the screen with Easter Parade, and, true to his word, he began working on The Belle of New York shortly thereafter. He was once again paired with Vera-Ellen, his co-star from Three Little Words (1950). Vera-Ellen, perhaps best known for her later role in White Christmas (1954), was recognized as a great talent in the musical dancing genre. The only problem was that musicals were no longer in vogue by the mid-fifties. Vera-Ellen and Astaire were very compatible on and off screen, although she was once to comment of her co-star: "Fred Astaire will never say, though he's always asked, which of his dancing ladies was his favorite partner. If you ask me, he preferred the solo turns."
There was, however, considerable tension between the actress and director, Charles Walters, who was later Oscar® nominated for his work on Lili (1953). He found the actress frustrating to work with - even going so far to liken her to "a piece of moving putty." The feeling seemed mutual: when practicing knee bends during breaks, Vera-Ellen would comply with the director's commands to stop stretching and listen to him...by stopping at the bottom of her bend, making their communication difficult.
The Belle of New York boasted an impressive supporting cast, including Marjorie Main and Alice Pearce. Main, however, was not the first casting choice for her role - that distinction fell to Mae West, but the production could not afford the actress. Main was best known for her portrayal of that lovable bumpkin Ma Kettle in several films, beginning with The Egg and I (1947). Alice Pearce, with her distinctive nasal delivery, was best known for her character Gladys Kravitz on the television series Bewitched. Her performance on the show, however, lasted only two seasons before the actress succumbed to cancer in 1966; her work earned her a posthumous Emmy in recognition. Keenan Wynn, son of Ed, also features in the film. His character work spanned several decades, highlighting such films as Kiss Me Kate (1953), Dr. Strangelove (1964) and Nashville (1975).
Industry legend Arthur Freed stepped in to produce Belle; sporting a resume that included The Wizard of Oz (1939), Singing in the Rain (1952), and An American in Paris (1951), he was a tour-de-force on the set. He could not, however secure the services of Rodgers and Hammerstein to write the score, but he did hire a renowned lyricist: Johnny Mercer, the songwriter responsible for such standards as "Moon River" and "That Old Black Magic." Mercer wrote seven pleasing songs for the film, but none became a bona-fide hit.
In his autobiography Steps in Time, Astaire commented on The Belle of New York: "I liked making it, probably because Vera Ellen and I had some interesting dance ideas to keep us busy. There were five numbers of Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer's which stood out, but the element of fantasy which prevailed backfired on us. One trick which we hoped would prove effective was dancing on air and that above all failed to register...I was on Belle for eight months, beating my brains out, and all I got out of it was - a fortune. There's one thing about having a flop movie at a major studio that has it all over a stage flop. You do get paid."
Critics might not have pegged Belle as a flop but the reviews were mostly lukewarm; Variety commented, "It's all done pleasantly but not of a quality that rates more than passing interest." The film does, however, cater to the dance enthusiast: a remarkable forty-one minutes of the total running time (eighty-two minutes) are dance numbers. Astaire's talent in that arena is never in question, and Vera-Allen is an ideal on-screen partner for him - graceful and weightless. Her voice, however, was another matter: Anita Ellis did the dubbing honors, having performed similar duties for Rita Hayworth in films including Gilda (1946).
Producer: Arthur Freed, Roger Edens
Director: Charles Walters
Screenplay: C.M.S. McLellan (play), Chester Erskine, Robert O'Brien, Irving Elinson
Cinematography: Robert H. Planck
Film Editing: Albert Akst
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Jack Martin Smith
Music: Harry Warren
Cast: Fred Astaire (Charlie Hill), Vera-Ellen (Angela Bonfils), Marjorie Main (Mrs. Phineas Hill), Keenan Wynn (Max Ferris), Alice Pearce (Elsie Wilkins), Clinton Sundberg (Gilford Spivak).
C-81m. Closed captioning.
by Eleanor Quin