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The real-life love story of England's Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip, who married in 1948, provided the plot hook for this 1951 musical, but the script actually was loosely based on the life of Hollywood musical royalty, Fred Astaire. Either way, the results were sheer magic, but as so often happened with Hollywood's great musical, the road to the screen was a rocky one.
Broadway lyricist Alan Jay Lerner had just scored a hit with Brigadoon when MGM producer Arthur Freed convinced him to give screenwriting a try. He was only supposed to spend ten weeks exploring story ideas at MGM but ended up staying six months. During that time, he crafted an Oscar-winning script based on George Gershwin's An American in Paris (1951) and explored his own idea for a musical based on Fred Astaire?s early days on stage, when his sister Adele was his dancing partner. The team had broken up when Adele married a British lord she fell in love with during a tour to England. That gave Lerner the idea for a film musical about a brother-and-sister act who find romance when they take their show to England for Princess Elizabeth's Royal Wedding (1951).
Initially June Allyson was assigned to co-star, with former dancer Charles Walters directing. The role was a big thrill to Allyson, who had long wanted to work with Astaire. But when she fell ill during the first days of musical rehearsals, her doctor informed her that she was finally pregnant after years of trying. She called Astaire first, breathlessly informing him that, "I want you to be the first to know, I'm pregnant." After a stunned silence, he asked "Who is this?"
Then somebody decided to give the role to Judy Garland. Given her frail mental and physical health at the time, it was hardly the wisest choice. And after spending a year-and-a-half nurturing her through her pervious film, Summer Stock, Walters begged to be spared a similar ordeal. Instead, Freed decided to make Royal Wedding the first solo directing assignment for Stanley Donen, who had helped stage some of Gene Kelly's best dance routines and had co-directed On the Town (1949) with Kelly.
But it would take more than a new director to get Garland through the film. After a few days of rehearsal, she protested that she couldn't work mornings and afternoons, so Freed let her cut back to half day. A few days before filming was to start, she started calling in sick. Freed reluctantly had her dropped from the film, which led MGM to cancel her contract after 14 years with the studio. The move made headlines and triggered Garland's first suicide attempt, but Freed still had a movie to make.
Fortunately for him, Jane Powell had just finished work on another musical. Astaire urged Freed to snap her up but was less than happy to learn during rehearsals that Powell had been born the year he and his sister had stopped dancing together. Powell would become pregnant during filming, too, but so late her condition did little to interfere with shooting.
Garland's departure brought one unexpected boon for Astaire. One of the songs written for her, "You're All the World to Me," didn't seem right for Powell, so it went to Astaire, who sang it to a picture of leading lady Sarah Churchill (daughter of Sir Winston). He had long dreamed of doing a number in which he would dance on the walls and the ceiling, and this provided the perfect opportunity. To accomplish it, the furniture and fixtures were all nailed down, and the room was placed in the middle of a rotating barrel. Cameraman Robert Planck was strapped to a large ironing board, along with his camera, so he could rotate with the room. Then Astaire simply danced rightside-up as the room revolved around him, creating one of the most fondly remembered routines in movie musical history.
Director: Stanley Donen
Producer: Arthur Freed
Screenplay: Alan Jay Lerner
Cinematography: Robert Planck
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Jack Martin Smith
Music: Johnny Green
Cast: Fred Astaire (Tom Bowen), Jane Powell (Ellen Bowen), Peter Lawford (Lord John Brindale), Sarah Churchill (Anne Ashmond), Keenan Wynn (Irving Klinger/Edgar Klinger), Albert Sharpe (James Ashmond).
C-94m. Closed captioning. Descriptive video.
by Frank Miller
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