Royal Wedding is one of those ’50s musicals I grew up with, and on my latest rewatch I decided I would finally review it. Royal Wedding isn’t exactly the deepest musical out there, but it is a lot of fun for someone like me who likes that type of thing. The plot is pretty standard but there are some truly amazing musical numbers and the cast does a great job.
Brother and sister Tom and Ellen Bowen (Fred Astaire and Jane Powell) have a musical act that is just closing in New York and opening in London during the marriage of Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip in 1947 (hence the title). The royal wedding is used as a backdrop upon which to show the romantic lives of the siblings, who both struggle to balance their newfound attractions to Lord John Brindale (Peter Lawford) and Anne Ashmond (Sarah Churchill) with their theatrical careers. Along for the ride are the siblings’ twin brother managers, Edgar and Irving Klinger (both played by Keenan Wynn).
Despite being produced by Arthur Freed, this is not a musical film in which all the musical numbers spring seamlessly from the plot and the feelings of the characters. While that is the case for about half of the numbers, the rest of them come directly out of the Bowen’s show and don’t necessarily make much narrative sense. However, that doesn’t mean they’re not enjoyable. Critically, I have to acknowledge that this musical is somewhat inferior because many of the musical numbers overshadow the plot. Neither the plot nor the characters are very exciting though, so actually this was probably the right decision. A lot of the musical numbers are very impressive though, and the characters have quite a bit of snappy banter between them. The film still ends up being a lot of fun, if almost completely escapist. (Though a contrary theory to that can be supplied in the fact that much of the plot relates to Astaire’s act with his sister Adele during the ’20s and ’30s, which broke up when each of them married.)
The most remarkable and well known number in the film is without a doubt “You’re All the World to Me.” In it, Astaire is so in love that he makes what his love interest has previously dreamed a reality; he is so in love that is able to dance on the ceiling. The whole thing is an incredible technical achievement, and the result is a moment of pure cinematic magic. In order to get Fred to dance on the ceiling, Donan and crew rotated the entire room, which necessitated gluing and/or bolting all of the objects down and making the drapes out of wood. Astaire has make dancing on a rotating surface seem natural, and the cameraman is also rotating so he had to be strapped in. The number is also done in relatively long takes; in the clip I linked to I only counted six cuts, and a couple of them are before and after Astaire starts dancing. Editing is only used sparingly to make things easier on Astaire and the crew. It’s mind blowing to think how they were able to pull this off, but it’s so effective that shortly into the number one just gives up trying to figure it out and simply marvels at the overall result.
My other two favorite numbers are “How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Loved You When You Know I’ve Been a Liar All My Life” and “Sunday Jumps.” The first is notable because for once Powell’s voice doesn’t get on my nerves, and more significantly Fred goes completely against type here. He’s a good for nothing heel, as the song says, which is not generally Fred’s style. It’s a wonderfully comic number. “Sunday Jumps” is a great number, which was horrifically parodied in the ’90s in a vacuum cleaner commercial. Deprived of a human partner as Powell’s character hasn’t showed up to rehearsal, he makes do with the equipment in the gym, most notably a hat rack. It’s amazing how Astaire can manipulate objects that can’t respond as a human would; he gives life to that hat rack. I already mentioned my aversion to Powell’s singing voice, and it comes as no surprise the numbers in the film that feature it aren’t among my favorites.
Royal Wedding is a remarkable film on a technical level, though the plot unfortunately has to take somewhat of a backseat. I wouldn’t call it a great film, though not for a lack of enjoyment on my part, that’s for sure. However, it is a great showcase for some of the most impressive dance numbers ever filmed.
“I used to close my eyes and pretend I could dance all over the floor, walls, and even the ceiling.”
Long story short: 3/4 stars