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Fred Astaire made his only appearance in a 20th Century-Fox picture in Daddy Long Legs (1955), the much-filmed story of a millionaire who anonymously sponsors, then falls in love with a young orphan (Leslie Caron). Although some critics complained that the two stars were too far apart in age to make a suitable romantic couple, once they started dancing, in their only film together, all thoughts of age differences were banished. And it helped that they had a sprightly hit from Johnny Mercer, "Something's Gotta Give," that accounted for one of the film's three Oscar® nominations (the others were for Best Art Direction and Best Scoring of a Musical).
As Astaire grew older, he lost none of his grace as a dancer, but his leading ladies were getting progressively younger. The 1912 novel by Jean Webster, the grandniece of Mark Twain, had been filmed three times previously. The story of an orphan given a college education by an older unseen benefactor who woos her incognito had proved highly adaptable as a vehicle for Mary Pickford in 1919, Janet Gaynor in 1931 and Shirley Temple in 1935 (as Curly Top; she had an older sister to carry the romantic story). There also was a 1938 Dutch film called Vadertje Langbeen. When the studio contacted Astaire about playing the lead he was happy to do a film that treated his age as a plot element. Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck had envisioned Daddy Long Legs as a vehicle for contract musical star Mitzi Gaynor, but Astaire insisted the role go to Leslie Caron, whose work he had admired since Gene Kelly had cast her in An American in Paris (1951). As a result, the script was re-written to have Astaire discover her during a visit to France.
Pre-production moved smoothly, but then Astaire's wife of many years died the day before filming was to begin. The studio postponed the production until he was ready to start, but also contacted Maurice Chevalier to fill in if necessary. Initially, Astaire offered to cover the money spent thus far on the film if they would cancel production, but then he decided work was the best cure. Between takes he would retreat to his trailer and cry, which accounts for his red eyes in some scenes.
Astaire's friend Mercer provided most of the songs, creating both words and music, though he was primarily known as a lyricist. The hit of the film was "Something's Gotta Give," which was recorded by The Maguire Sisters the same year and reached number five on the charts. Other notable versions include Sammy Davis, Jr.'s, Mel Torme's and Ella Fitzgerald's. Daddy Long Legs also revived Johnny Mercer's 1945 hit "Dream," sung on screen by The Pied Pipers as Astaire and Caron danced. During the "Daydream Sequence" -- in which Astaire imagines Caron's fantasies of him as a Texas cowboy, an international playboy and her guardian angel -- his cowboy voice was dubbed by Thurl Ravenscroft, the voice of Tony the Tiger and the singer who introduced "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch." That was the only time Astaire's voice was ever dubbed.
This was Astaire's first film in Cinemascope, and he planned the choreography to take advantage of what was then a new shape for the film image. In particular, he used the screen format to create distance between himself and Caron in their dance to "Something's Gotta Give" and to fill the screen with activity in the "Daydream Sequence." Astaire also incorporated ballet elements into the choreography to showcase Caron, whose background was in classical dance. She executed a variety of dance steps at the climax of the "Daydream Sequence" as he danced around her, and he used pirouettes and other twirling steps in their dance to "Dream." The number also includes a rarity in his choreography, a kiss. Unfortunately, Astaire had no connection to the "Nightmare Ballet," a 12-minute sequence staged by Caron's first mentor, Roland Petit. Critics would complain that the number, which was only tangentially related to the plot, slowed the picture down.
The Cinemascope screen also gave ample opportunities to the art department, which gave Daddy Long Legs a lavish look befitting its international setting and Astaire's character. They redressed the Los Angeles International Airport to fill in for LaGuardia and shot exteriors for Astaire's New York home at Andrew Carnegie's Fifth Avenue mansion. Portraits of Astaire, his father and grandfather were painted in the styles of Picasso, John Singer Sargent and James Abbott McNeill Whistler, respectively, with director Jean Negulesco supplying Astaire's portrait. He also painted posters for the "Nightmare Ballet" and used his artistic connections to borrow paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Braque and Claudette Colbert to fill out Astaire's gallery.
Fox also gave the film a solid supporting cast to help carry the comedy in Phoebe and Henry Ephron's adaptation. Thelma Ritter stole every scene she was in as Astaire's secretary, while Terry Moore was suitably pretty and sympathetic as Caron's college roommate. One of Astaire's dancing partners in the "Daydream Sequence" was the young Barrie Chase, who would team with him memorably in a pair of '60s television specials. Also in the company were future Broadway star Liliane Montevecchi and future Oscar® nominee James Cromwell. Daddy Long Legs also is the only movie to feature both actors who played Bea Benaderet's husband, Harry Morton, on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show - Fred Clark and Larry Keating.
The reviews and box office for Daddy Long Legs were solid, though some critics complained about the ancient tale and the stars' pairing. Later versions of the story would be filmed in Japan as an animated musical for TV in 1979 and as a miniseries in 1990, in India in 1984 and in Korea in 2005. The story was so popular in Japan it also inspired a prominent charity, The Foundation for Orphans From Automobile Accidents, popularly known as the Daddy-Long-Legs Fund.
Producer: Samuel G. Engel
Director: Jean Negulesco
Screenplay: Phoebe and Henry Ephron
Based on the novel by Jean Webster
Cinematography: Leon Shamroy
Art Direction: John DeCuir, Lyle R. Wheeler
Score: Cyril J. Mockridge, Alfred Newman
Principal Cast: Fred Astaire (Jervis Pendleton III/John Smith), Leslie Caron (Julie Andre), Terry Moore (Linda Pendleton), Thelma Ritter (Alice Pritchard), Fred Clark (Griggs), Charlotte Austin (Sally McBride), Larry Keating (Ambassador Alexander Williamson), Barrie Chase (Blonde Dancer), James Cromwell (Extra), Diane Jergens, Liliane Montevecchi, Leslie Parrish (College Girls), The Pied Pipers (Themselves).
by Frank Miller