Film Title: The Belle of New York
Studio: Metro Goldwyn Mayer
Silent or Talkie: Talkie
- Fred Astaire
- Marjorie Main
- Keenan Wynn
Poor Charlie Hill (Fred Astaire) and Angela Bonfils (Vera-Ellen) both have problems. He keeps proposing to young ladies, backing out at the last minute, and leaving his aunt Mrs. Phineas Hill (Marjorie Main) to pay-off the discarded fiancées, “All the cheques I’ve written to Charles, five of them. Supposedly for his pet charities. Well I’m through being charitable to everyone he pets.” Angela is just too pretty for the welfare work she does for Daughters of Right, financed by none other than Mrs. Hill. When Mrs. Hill brings this to her attention, Angela pleads, “Oh, but Mrs. Hill, this has been my home, my life, and I’ve tried so hard to equip myself for this kind of work!” Her somewhat plainer coworker Elise Wilkins (Alice Pearce) retorts, “If you ask me, it’s your equipment that’s causing all this.”
When Charlie and Angela meet it seems that their problems are solved. Angela: “There’s nothing wrong with you.” Charlie: “Yes there is, I’m in love.” Angela: “Love.” Charlie: “You probably don’t know about love.” Angela: “Well I certainly know it isn’t about being numb, weak at the knees.” Charlie: “What is it?” Angela: “Well, love is an emotion that’s alive, exciting, vibrant. You feel like a billowy cloud, and you walk on air. And good night.” She turns to leave and Charlie literally walks on air up to the top of the Washington Square Arch and sings and dances all over it to “Seeing’s Believing.” Of course, there are minor complications and setbacks, but by the last fadeout, Charlie and Angela are waltzing in the air together above the Arch to the strains of “The Belle of New York”.
This vehicle had been in the works as an Astaire project since the mid-forties, planned as a pairing with Judy Garland. This is one of ten pictures he made at MGM between Broadway Melody of 1940 and Silk Stockings in 1957. Vera-Ellen had been previously paired with Astaire in 1950’s Three Little Words, and was a busy dancer, first on Broadway, then in films beginning in 1945. She is often considered one of the most technically proficient partners Astaire ever worked with onscreen. She is perhaps best remembered today as Rosemary Clooney’s sister in the classic Christmas film White Christmas released in 1954.
Was there ever a more affable yet debonair presence onscreen than Fred Astaire? He seems effortless in his dancing, singing and in his delivery of lines. Amazingly, he was 53 years old at the time he made this film, and he does not seem out of place romancing the 32 year-old Vera-Ellen and depending on the financial support of his aunt played by 62 year-old Marjorie Main. Vera-Ellen is charming, and if her delivery of lines does not match Astaire’s ability, she can sure dance up a storm. And MGM always surrounded its stars with a great cast of character actors: Marjorie Main, Keenan Wynn, Alice Pearce (probably best remembered now as the original Gladys Kravitz on the 1960s television series Bewitched), and Clinton Sundberg.
The Belle of New York is very light on plot. Very loosely based on a 1897 Broadway musical flop that became a London hit in 1898, all of the musical numbers were excised and replaced with a new score by Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer. The Belle of New York’s ratio of music to plot is much higher than most musicals of the era. Astaire was often teamed with singer/actresses like Judy Garland, Jane Powell, and Betty Hutton, or with non-musical actresses like Joan Fontaine and Paulette Goddard, but when he was teamed with an actual dancer, as he was here, the dancing could predominate. In this film Astaire is allowed three solo numbers and three pairings with Vera-Ellen. Vera-Ellen also has a comedic solo number although she was not a singer, and she was dubbed here by Anita Ellis. Astaire’s solo in the aforementioned “Seeing’s Believing” is ambitious, but the technology of the day couldn’t quite pull it off. His solo in “I Wanna Be a Dancin’ Man” is iconic Astaire. A classic song and sand-dance, this number showcases Astaire at his best. Composer Johnny Mercer wrote it as a tribute to his friend. An alternate take of this number is presented as an extra on this disc and the two takes were placed side-by-side in 1994’s That’s Entertainment III and demonstrate Astaire’s mastery of his art. He teams with Vera-Ellen on “Baby Doll”, “Oops”, and an extended Currier and Ives inspired production number, a syncopated waltz with tap elements. The first two numbers are very fun, but the last one really showcases both Astaire and Vera Ellen at the top of their form. It has been described as “a duet which in terms of virtuosity is equaled only by the famous ‘Waltz In Swing Time’ Astaire-Rogers dance from Swing Time.”
The film was not a financial success in its initial release, nor was it embraced by most critics of the day. The whimsy of allowing Astaire and Vera-Ellen to literally float, as they are so much in love, proved to be more whimsy than contemporary audiences could swallow. The film is not well remembered today. That’s too bad, because it offers Astaire at his very best and paired with a dancer who could match him step for step. With a running time of only 87 minutes, I’d estimate that about two-thirds of that time is comprised of musical numbers. And why do you watch a Fred Astaire musical in the first place? To see him dance, of course!
Warner Home Video has released a stunning transfer of the film to DVD. The image is sharp and clear, the sound is clean, and boy do those Technicolor colors pop! Extras include:
• Musiquiz, an amusing Pete Smith short (I scored only 2 out of 6)
• Magical Maestro, a genuinely funny Tex Avery cartoon featuring a magician and an opera singer, who, of course, both happen to be dogs
• I Wanna Be a Dancin’ Man alternate take
• Theatrical Trailer
This is the only film Astaire did at MGM that I had never seen. It was quite a pleasant discovery. Fred Astaire was teamed with an actual dancer in Vera-Ellen, and some of Astaire’s best and most charming work is on display in this one. If you need a little more plot with your musical numbers, I’d stick with The Bandwagon, Royal Wedding, or Easter Parade, all classic films. But if all you’re really looking for is to see Astaire at his dancing best, check this one out. Even the extras are good here.
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