Royal Wedding (Stanley Donen, 1951)

Don’t be misled by the title – though MGM probably hoped people would be. There is nothing very glitzy about this movie, not all that much pageantry, and the only “king” featured is Fred Astaire in a pasteboard crown for the opening musical number.

For the most part, the royal wedding, of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, is just a backdrop, and the film was released as Wedding Bells in the UK to make it clear the royals didn’t actually feature. The main story is an amusing and occasionally poignant backstager partly based on Astaire’s own early career, when he and sister Adele were famous dancing partners until she retired from the stage to marry a British aristocrat. However, the story is probably secondary to the stunning dance numbers, including the famous one where he dances up the walls and around the ceiling. Jane Powell ‘s beautiful singing voice is another definite plus to this movie, which has songs  by Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane and a screenplay by Lerner.

There are a lot of cheap public domain DVDs of this movie available with badly faded Technicolor, and it is also available all over the place to watch online in a similar state. Fortunately there is also a properly restored region 1 DVD available from Warner, issued as a double set with another Astaire movie, The Belle of New York, and including numerous special features.

As with so many movie musicals, this one had a number of changes to cast and crew, and this led to delays. The prince and princess married in November 1947, but this film wasn’t released until March 1951, making it a very late tie-in. According to the “making of” featurette included on the DVD, Astaire was originally cast opposite June Allyson, but she became pregnant and had to drop out. She was replaced by Judy Garland, who had starred with Astaire in Easter Parade (1948), but Garland was ill and fighting her personal demons at that time and was eventually sacked by MGM.

At this stage Jane Powell was brought in. She was 30 years younger than Astaire, which makes them a slightly unlikely brother and sister, but I don’t think this really matters very much. The main thing is that they dance and sing well together – and this they definitely do.

The director was originally going to be Charles Walters, but he quit when Judy Garland was cast as he felt he couldn’t work with her again after problems making Summer Stock. So Stanley Donen, who had co-directed On the Town with Gene Kelly, got his chance to direct on his own, and grabbed it with both hands. He tells in an interview on the DVD how he was especially pleased to get the chance to work with Astaire, who was his inspiration for going into dancing in the first place.

Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling

At the start of the film, brother-and-sister act Tom and Ellen Bowers (Astaire and Powell) have just finished a run on Broadway. Their agent decides to book them a show in London to cash in on the forthcoming royal nuptials, and they travel there by ship. During the journey, Ellen, who is usually busy juggling several boyfriends at once, falls seriously in love for once, with impecunious English aristocrat Lord John Brindale (Peter Lawford) – and, after they arrive, cautious Tom also finds romance, with dancer Anne Ashmond (Sarah Churchill). The question is whether love will break up the act, or whether the pull of the stage will prove too strong.

In many ways, the brother and sister are written as opposites to each other. She is always falling in love. He had his heart broken (“I was going to get married once. The young lady changed her mind”) and has since run scared. She skips rehearsals to have fun, whereas he is there on the dot, checking his watch. But there is a realistic warmth between them and I liked their jokey dialogue, as they often tease one another but you sense that underneath they really care about each other’s happiness. This is definitely the central relationship of the film.

By contrast, both the romances feel slightly weak and underwritten. Sarah Churchill, daughter of Winston, is beautiful, but too posh and stately to be very convincing as the daughter of a Cockney pub landlord. She also only has one very brief dancing scene with Astaire, and no songs. Lawford is charming as Lord Brindale, but doesn’t have much screen time – and his one song was cut out, featuring as an outtake on the DVD. (I’ve read that Moira Shearer was suggested for the Churchill role at one time, but Astaire was worried about dancing with her because she was a classically trained ballet dancer and he wasn’t.)

But the main joy of the film isn’t the characterisation, but the dancing. There is a great scene on the boat where Tom and Ellen are asked to dance for the passengers, but the weather turns choppy and they end up sliding around, but keep going despite everything. The floor was really tilted to and fro for this number, and everything was choreographed by Nick Castle working together with Astaire, including the spilt fruit which slides between the dancers’ feet. This whole routine is based on a real incident which happened to Fred and Adele Astaire in 1923. Another great number on the boat is Sunday Jumps, the rehearsal session where Ellen fails to turn up, so Tom ends up dancing with a selection of equipment in the ship’s gym, including a coat rack – and the result is a breathtakingly inventive Astaire solo.

Sarah Churchill in ‘Royal Wedding’

Later, in London, Astaire has another great solo, the most famous scene in the film, where he is singing You’re All the World to Me to a photo of Sarah Churchill and starts to dance across the floor, then up the walls and across the ceiling. This was an idea he had some years earlier and had been waiting for a chance to realise. Donen explains in the DVD extras how this was done, but I’d struggle to explain it, so will quote the Wikipedia page on the film – “The number was filmed by building the room set inside a revolving steel barrel and mounting the camera and operator to the floor so they would rotate along with the room.”

Jane Powell sings three fine ballads in the course of the movie, Open Your Eyes, The Happiest Days of My Life and Too Late Now. However, I think the catchiest song is definitely the one featured in the Bowers’ London show with what is claimed to be the longest title of any song in an MGM musical – How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Love You When You Know I’ve Been A Liar All My Life? This comedy number seems as if Lerner probably wrote it with Astaire and Garland in mind, since it has the same vulgar quality as A Couple of Swells in Easter Parade. There’s also another very catchy song and dance number, I Left My Hat in Haiti – watching this one, I always get distracted by the amazingly colourful costumes, including Astaire’s yellow and pink suit, which doesn’t suit him as much as his trademark top hat and tails.

A shipboard scene

Although most of the film is set in London, it was in fact made in Hollywood, with just some documentary footage from the royal wedding worked in. However, speaking as a Brit, I found the London settings in this film fairly convincing, and the grey/rainy weather for some of the scenes helps to make it feel authentic. The one thing which really is unconvincing is Keenan Wynn’s horrendous English accent – he plays both the Bowers’ American agent and his English identical twin brother!

This review first appeared as part of the Musical Countdown at the Wonders in the Dark website.

12 thoughts on “Royal Wedding (Stanley Donen, 1951)

  1. “By contrast, both the romances feel slightly weak and underwritten.”

    I quite agree with this reservation Judy, and I have always found Alan Jay Lerner’s screenplay as undistinguished. But I can’t deny that Burton Lane’s music is inspired, and the song “You’re All the World To Me” by Astaire is a high point. You delineate this number and scene beautifully here with Astaire’s gravity defying foot work. The film was a triumph for cinematographer Robert H. Planck and art director Cedric Giboons without question. I know the story about Garland’s dismissal (again as you well relate here) has always been brought up when this film is talked about but I agree with you that Powell’s work on on three ballads was quite impressive, and the general regard that it’s really the dancing that matter most in the film. Yes, Wynn’s accent is rather bad, and the film is at best a mixed bag. But when it soars it soars. I still need to acquire that proper Warners DVD release Judy! As always a wonderful piece of writing!


    • Very kind of you to comment on this one second time around, Sam – and yes, it is a mixed bag, but one with some goodies along the way that make it worthwhile. I definitely think the Warners release is much better than the dire PD versions, but a shame that it has been coupled with a rather poor film, ‘Belle of New York’. Thanks again!


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  3. Judy, not being the biggest fan of musical I actually was put off by the title ROYAL WEDDING, not that I have anything against the royal family (LOL). It just did not sound like my cup of tea. That said, your review does whet my appetite and watch this. Astair is always a treat to watch dancing. A wonderful informative piece!


    • John, I think the title is very misleading – it doesn’t sound like a dance backstager, which is what this is. ‘Dancing on the Ceiling’ would have been a better title for it! Not one of Astaire’s greatest movies, but still a lot of fun. Thanks very much!


  4. I was watching “How could you believe me…” recently. I love that number and although Jane was very good, I’d love to have seen Fred and Judy doing it.


    • Yes, I agree it would be great to see Fred and Judy doing that one together! I love them doing ‘A Couple of Swells’ so much.


  5. Pingback: Cam Reviews: Royal Wedding | sally cooks

  6. As I write this I’m watching royal wedding, the dance on the ceiling part. I know why it’s called spoiler now. Not sure I really wanted to know how that scene was done. I was just checking out Sarah Churchill and got a review as a nice bonus. Ps I thought Keenan Wynn was hilarious. As you say, the film is a mixed bag.


  7. Pingback: Royal Wedding (1951) | The Blonde at the Film

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