Royal Wedding (1951)
Believe it or not, I watched Royal Wedding (1951) for the very first time EVER this week. I am actually a little embarrassed to admit to this!
Now this wouldn’t be such a big deal if I were a normal person with a healthy interest/disinterest in classic films. But as someone who has been…shall we say obsessed?…with the Golden Age of Hollywood for most of my life, I think my embarrassment is warranted!
If you missed Royal Wedding on TCM last week, you can find it here! (And if you’re a Prime member, it’s currently included with your Prime membership, so you can watch Royal Wedding for FREE!!!)
A Hollywood Classic
Royal Wedding (1951) is a CLASSIC. It’s classic Fred Astaire, with one of his most iconic dances—you know it I am sure, it’s the one where he dances on the ceiling. And of course, Astaire is supported in the film by our lovely Star of the Month, Ms Jane Powell, with the dashing Peter Lawford, hilarious Keenan Wynn, and Sarah Churchill, English Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s daughter!, rounding out the cast.
I completely enjoyed this film! It’s light, fun, beautiful entertainment. Indeed, with the lush Technicolor costumes, intricate and well-choreographed dance numbers, and catchy songs, Royal Wedding rightly deserves its classic status.
Just because I liked Royal Wedding doesn’t mean the plot is deep. Seriously, here it is: a brother and sister dance team take their show to London just before the royal wedding of England’s Princess Elizabeth. The brother meets an English gal, the sister meets an Englishman, everyone falls in love, and they get married in a double wedding. THE END!
Very simple. But what makes Royal Wedding such a memorable film is how enjoyable the path to this predictable ending is! Jane is just ADORABLE in everything she does, says, and wears, Fred is elegant and classy, and these two seem to be having a blast with each other as they sing and dance their way to the altar.
A Real-life Brother/Sister Act
As you probably guessed, the brother and sister dance team in the film, Tom and Ellen Bowen, is played by Fred Astaire and Jane Powell. A brother and sister dance team…does this sound familiar? If you’re an Astaire fan, it definitely does! Royal Wedding was inspired in part by Fred Astaire’s own sibling dance act: before Fred made a name for himself in Hollywood, Fred and his sister Adele were a popular dance team on Broadway and London’s West End! How cool is that?!
It’s fun to imagine that during the filming of Royal Wedding, Astaire was perhaps reliving some of the fun he and Adele must have had when they were dancing all around the world together in the 1920s.
Jane and Fred Meet
In her autobiography, Jane relates that her first meeting with Fred wasn’t exactly out of a storybook. Due to her awe at meeting this dance legend for the first time, Jane found herself making a bit of a faux-paux:
“I’ll never forget the first time Fred and I met…I was awestruck and didn’t know what to say to him. I hesitated and then said,
‘Mr. Astaire, I understand that you and your sister used to dance together.’
He said, ‘Yes, we did.’
And then I asked, ‘When did you stop dancing with her?’
‘Oh’–he thought for a moment–‘about 1929, I think.’
And I replied ‘Oh, that’s the year I was born!’
There was a pause. ‘They just keep getting younger every year,’ he muttered, smiled, and walked away.”
OH MY GOSH can’t we all relate to this?!!! How many times have you been desperately hoping to make a good first impression on someone you admire, only to end up sticking your foot in your mouth? (Or is it just me…?) Jane is utterly relatable once again!
Jane Rocks it. AGAIN.
Even though Jane Powell was an MGM star for her singing abilities, all those dance lessons that her parents put her in as a kid when they wanted her to be the next Shirley Temple certainly paid off! This is completely evident in Royal Wedding, for Jane totally holds her own next to Astaire in all the dance routines.
I found myself utterly in awe from the very first dance number, that Jane, marketed as a singer by her studio, not a dancer, was so graceful, charismatic, and not a bit sloppy on the dance floor. Next to Fred Astaire no less! I hope Jane realized at the time just what an amazing job she did!
June, Judy, then Jane
So you’d think the reason why Jane was so polished on the dance floor in Royal Wedding was the result of countless hours of rehearsal with Fred Astaire. But this was not the case. Here’s why.
June Allyson was first cast as Ellen Bowen in the film. But then Allyson found out she was pregnant, and had to drop out. Next, the role was offered to Judy Garland. Judy accepted, but was going through some personal difficulties by the time principal photography started, so Judy was out. Then the role was offered to Jane, who jumped at the chance to both play an adult character for the first time in her career, and to star with Fred Astaire. (Who wouldn’t?!)
Teaching Herself the Moves
The problem was, Astaire had already learned and rehearsed the dances with the two previous leading ladies by the time Jane got the role. And he was just kind of done with it! As Jane shares in her autobiography:
“Fred and I didn’t rehearse together much because he had already taught June and Judy the dance routines!…I had to learn all the numbers in three weeks, which at the time was quite a feat. I rehearsed privately because the numbers had already been set, so I didn’t get to spend much time alone with him.”
So poor Jane was left to her own devices, and ended up mostly teaching the routines to herself! Can you imagine? But all you have to do is watch Royal Wedding to see that Jane’s rehearsal methods worked! She is so good in their biggest dance number, “How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Loved You When You Know I’ve Been a Liar All My Life,” I actually got goosebumps! (“Our big number with the world’s longest title,” as Jane jokes in her book!)
Sarah Churchill Didn't Dance
Sarah Churchill plays Anne in the film, Astaire’s love interest, who he meets when she auditions for one of the dancing spots in the Bowens’ London show. Churchill has to do a little dance routine at this point in the film because, hey, she is auditioning for a spot in a dance show. But…she doesn’t dance well…so you kind of have to believe that Astaire’s Tom must be super nuts, head-over-heels for this girl, because why else would he give her a role in his dance show when she can’t dance?!
Apparently, Churchill got the role of Anne at least in part because the producers of Royal Wedding were somehow led to believe she was an accomplished dancer.
Jane shares a funny little piece about this in her book:
“Sarah Churchill was said to have studied ballet, but she was not a good dancer. I had never heard of Sarah Churchill, and when her name was mentioned, I asked, ‘Who?’
‘Winston Churchill’s daughter. She’s a great dancer,’ the powers [at MGM] said. Until they saw her dance.”
Watch Royal Wedding and you’ll see what Jane means! Churchill does fine as the English Rose that Astaire falls for when she’s not dancing, but it’s a little comical when Astaire’s Tom, towards the end of the film, says,
“She [Anne] loves to dance and she shows a lot of promise.”
You kind of wonder if the studio, after seeing Sarah Churchill actually dance, had to add Powell’s response to Tom’s enthusiasm about Anne’s dance skills to keep the audience’s suspension of disbelief from breaking:
“Do you really think so? I thought she was a little awkward, myself.”
A Lawford Note
Before I close, a quick bit on Peter Lawford in the film. Lawford plays Powell’s love interest in Royal Wedding, the playboy Lord John Brindale who changes his ways when he falls for Ellen.
Lawford is suavely dressed throughout the film, indicative of his character’s interests and social standing. However, when Lawford’s Lord Brindale walks out of the chapel towards the end of the film, there is a fashion mistake hidden from us that Jane comically brings to light in her book:
“One image of him [Peter] sticks with me: in the film Peter walks out of the church wearing a top hat and tails, but in reality he has nothing on his feet. He was a confident, handsome, formally attired man with bare feet.”
Amazing what a camera angle and good editing can do, isn’t it?
More Jane Next Week!
Well, there you have it! My thoughts and favorite behind-the-scenes facts about 1951’s Royal Wedding.
Did any of you watch it on TCM last week? Any of you see it for the first time like me? What do you think, does Jane hold her own next to the great Fred Astaire?
Check out the TCM film schedule for next week, our last week of Jane Powell films! Can you believe we are already at the end of the month?