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By Phil Hall | September 3, 2010

BOOTLEG FILES 339: “Royal Wedding” (1951 musical starring Fred Astaire and Jane Powell).

LAST SEEN: Available on various online video sites.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: On public domain labels.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A lapsed copyright.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: A properly restored version was released in 2007, but the crummy dupes are still being churned out.

One of the problems in sitting through the majority of the musical films of Hollywood’s Golden Age is dealing with the non-musical stretches between the song-and-dance numbers.  Indeed, if you excised the musical elements and released the films straight-up, people would never waste their time watching them.

The 1951 MGM film “Royal Wedding” is typical of this situation.  The film is home to three classic moments in movie musical history.  But without those sequences, the rest of the film requires an awful lot of patience to endure.

“Royal Wedding” concerns a brother-and-sister Broadway revue act that get the chance to perform in London. While they are in the British capital, a royal wedding is going to take place.  (The film doesn’t identify who is getting married, but it is assumed to be Princess Elizabeth – the future QE2 – and Prince Philip.)  The sibling performers each find their own true love during this period – she hooks up with a handsome but impoverished aristocrat and he is smitten with a dancer in his show’s chorus. Throughout the story, nine songs by Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane are performed.

Okay, this may seem charming in concept.  But when the film starts to unfold, things become ridiculous.

For starters, Fred Astaire and Jane Powell play the siblings. It might be easy for someone walking into the film at the midway point to mistake Astaire and Powell for father and daughter – he was eight inches taller and 29 years older than her (and he looked every year of it). And for a duo that supposedly made an unbeatable double-act, the imbalance between their talents was fairly striking: Powell’s dancing was nowhere near Astaire’s level, despite his best efforts to tone down his footwork abilities in order to make her look good.

Then, we have the problem with actors that play the love interests.  Peter Lawford was never a great actor, and his performance in “Royal Wedding” rests on his crisp diction and ability to smile with well-disguised insincerity at Jane Powell.  Sarah Churchill, as Astaire’s object of affection, walks about with an air of distracted indifference. Even when she’s smiling, the emptiness of her gaze is difficult to miss.

And let’s not get started on the bad novelty casting of Keenan Wynn as twin brothers who run a talent agency.  One brother is based in New York and sounds as if he received diction lessons from Leo Gorcey.  The other brother is based in London and sounds like the New York brother doing a bad phony English accent.

As stated earlier, much of this mess can be forgiven thanks to three classic musical numbers. But in order to get the bad news out of the way, we need to point out the other six crummy musical numbers that pollute the film. These include “I Left My Hat in Haiti” (which presents the Caribbean nation as an all-white location where people live dance the salsa), “Open Your Eyes” (a lame slapstick dance number performed on a cruise ship that hits rough ocean) and “What a Lovely Day for a Wedding” (with the faux-British Keenan Wynn and a small army of phony Cockneys waving Union Jacks in anticipation of a ceremony that none of them will see in person).  There is also a soggy ballad called “Too Late Now,” and that somehow got an Oscar nomination for Best Song (it lost to a much better song: Hoagy Carmichael’s “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening” from “Here Comes the Groom”).

Mercifully, there are those three golden musical numbers that save the film from the trash bin.  “Sunday Jumps” presents an extraordinary dance number with Astaire using a coat rack and gym equipment for partners.  The imaginative use of these unlikely props is nothing short of astonishing, and it is one of the most refreshing solo numbers that Astaire ever performed.

Many people, however, consider Astaire’s “You’re All the World To Me” as being the film’s crowning moment.  This is the scene where Astaire appears to defy gravity and dance his way up the walls and across the ceiling.  The effects were achieved with a special rotating set, and if you watch the number carefully you can determine just when the set is moving by Astaire’s subtle pauses.

The best of the three classic numbers is the one with the longest song title in movie history: “How Can You Believe Me When I Said I Loved You When You Know I’ve Been a Liar All My Life?” Astaire and Powell perform this as a stage routine – he’s a two-timing bum and she’s the gum-chewing moll who is violently tired of his philandering. The number is fast, funny and wonderfully rude, and it is the only time in the film that Astaire and Powell work together as equals.

In case you are wondering about the odd star pairing, it is because Powell was not the original choice to star in “Royal Wedding.”  June Allyson was originally scheduled to star, but she dropped out of the film during the rehearsal period after learning she was pregnant.  MGM replaced her with Judy Garland, and that caused director Charles Walters to quit.  Walters worked with Garland on her previous film, “Summer Stock,” and hated the star.  He was replaced with Stanley Donen.

But what happened next has been disputed. Some sources claim that Garland was fired after willfully refusing to show up for rehearsals, while others claim that she was abruptly fired by the studio after calling in sick with a migraine headache. The relation between MGM and Garland had been souring for some time, and this was the proverbial last straw – her days as the reigning star of MGM’s musicals ended with this film. Powell, a minor star in the MGM roster, took over for Garland.

But this was not the only problem with casting.  MGM wanted Moira Shearer, the Scottish ballet star of “The Red Shoes,” as Astaire’s love interest.  Astaire, however, rejected the choice.  Sarah Churchill, the daughter of Britain’s wartime prime minister, was signed instead; this would be her only U.S. film.

“Royal Wedding” had another familiar face in its cast: Scottish comic actor James Finlayson, the longtime heavy in the Laurel and Hardy comedies, had an unbilled bit part as a taxi driver.  This was his final film appearance.

MGM neglected to renew the copyright on “Royal Wedding” and it fell into the public domain.  For years, it has been the subject of duped prints offered by cheapo labels. The public domain status also enabled the Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner brand to use footage of Astaire’s “Sunday Jumps” number in a commercial where the star appears to be dancing with a vacuum (the appliance was digitally inserted in place of the coat rack).

Warner Home Video, which owns the MGM classics library, issued a fully restored version of “Royal Wedding” on DVD in 2007.  This represented one of the few times that a public domain film received a proper commercial release from its original producer.  However, the cheap dupes are still being churned out.

The best advice on this film, however, is to seek out those three aforementioned classic numbers and enjoy them on their own.  The rest of the film, sadly, is left alone.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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