Old Movie: Royal Wedding
Dancin' on the Ceiling
Thanksgiving is a time for overeating and watching movies. So here’s flashback to 1951 and one of the grandest of the grand MGM musicals: Royal Wedding. Fortunately, no actual royal people were involved in this production, but there is an appearance by Sarah Churchill who—as daughter of Sir Winston Churchill and distant relative to Diana, Princess of Wales—is royalty-adjacent.
I caught a snippet of the famous “dancing on the ceiling” routine from Royal Wedding on YouTube the other day and it reminded me that I had never actually seen the movie. I had seen the dance number of course—it is used in almost all anthologies of great movie dance scenes—but I decided to watch the whole movie. In case you need a refresher or if you’ve never seen it before, here is the legendary Fred Astaire dancing on the walls, floor, and ceiling.
Just about everyone who knows much about the Golden Age of Hollywood knows this routine, but the movie is more obscure. That’s because the movie is like a pancake—the pancake is a vehicle for butter and syrup, not the main point. And the movie is a vehicle for some pretty iconic song-and-dance scenes. Here is another iconic moment with Fred Astaire as he dances with a coat rack.
There is also the much-less-famous scene of Astaire and his dancing partner Jane Powell slip-sliding as they dance on a cruise ship in choppy water. Long story short, if you’re watching Royal Wedding, you’re in it for the dance scenes more than the plot. And there is a lot of singing and dancing, and it all delivers.
The plots if flimsy but the acting is good, the dialog bright, and the story moves along fast. A brother and sister dancing duo in New York get a chance to travel to London to perform at the same time as some British royalty are getting married. We are spared the scenes of the royals, the story is about the dancing duo who go from New York to a luxury cruise ship to London and have a variety of adventures. The story culminates with some romantic-comedy moments in London.
The concept of a brother-and-sister dance team mirrors Astaire’s own early beginnings when he got out of Nebraska to be half of a dancing act with his sister Adele. This was not a biographical picture, just an interesting nuance.
In the film, Jane Powell, the mighty little soprano, played the sister. Powell was 22 when this film was made and Astaire was over 50, but in Hollywood, they could be cast as brother and sister. Fred Astaire’s love interest in this film in the aforementioned Sarah Churchill. Peter Lawford, whose first wife was JFK’s sister Patricia Kennedy, plays two characters in one of those dual-role gimmicks. Lawford seems very English in this film, which, of course, he was having been born in London.
The lightweight storyline is actually very effective, since the emphasis is always on the dancing. Some have said that it remains a “mystery” how the dance scene on the ceiling was created. The reason for this “mystery” is that no one yet has been able to re-create it (although I suspect Michael Jackson could have…) Here is the scoop. We know how it was done.
This complicated shot was done in one take. The reason it’s never been duplicated is not because of its technical wizardry. The reason is that so much of this scene relied on Astaire’s ability to camouflage the various transitions. There was no trick photography at all, no computer enhancements (they didn’t do those in 1951), and no fakery. But Fred was a dancing magician, making us look at him at some points when we might have otherwise seen the gimmick.
One of the best MGM musicals ever, and very few people have ever seen it.