Tuesday 11 March 2014

Movie Review: The Belle Of New York (1952)

A routine Fred Astaire musical, The Belle Of New York is short, sweet, silly and stuck on the sound stage.

It's early in the 1900s, and Angela (Vera-Ellen) is blossoming into an attractive woman, dangerously pretty for her job at a Salvation Army-like mission in New York City. Meanwhile, playboy bachelor Charles (Astaire) is threatening to get married again, although he rarely goes through with his threats, and instead leaves a succession of women at the altar.

When Charles meets Angela on the streets of New York, the attraction is immediate. She explains to him that being in love feels like walking on air, and sure enough Charles finds that he can float, sing and dance high above the ground. Much to the shock of his rich Aunt Lettie (Marjorie Main) and lawyer friend Max (Keenan Wynn), Charles proceeds to woo Angela by accepting a succession of honest day jobs, but his playboy reputation and tendencies get in the way.

The Belle Of New York has the definite whiff of a project slapped together in a hurry. With a small cast, stage-bound sets and a minimum of plot, the material is lightweight, and frequently threatens to be blown away with all the other floating-in-the-air cheesy effects.

Once Charles and Angela meet and the love affair starts about 20 minutes into the film, director Charles Waters struggles to generate substance. The film defaults to a succession of song and dance numbers ever so briefly interrupted by a few acting scenes and some slapstick-level humour. The dialogue is often sharp and clever, but there is not much of it. The vivid colours do add welcome vibrancy, but keeping the luminous Vera-Ellen mostly hidden in the drab clothing of a mission volunteer is quite self-defeating.

Fortunately Astaire and Vera-Ellen make for a good duo, and what they lack in chemistry as unconvincing lovers they make up for in energetic and innovative song and dance performances. Astaire hovers elegantly high above the Washington Square monument in Seeing's Believing, they team up for the cleverly choreographed Oops in and and around a horse-drawn streetcar before lighting up the dance floor in A Bride's Wedding Day Song. Vera-Ellen finally shows off her legs in Naughty But Nice while Astaire enjoys a superlative solo in I Wanna Be A Dancin' Man.

At just over 80 minutes The Belle Of New York drifts away humming a few good tunes, the featherweight airiness not leaving much of a lasting impression.

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