Also featuring: Joe Niemeyer
Produced by: Arthur Freed, Roger Edens (Associate)
Written by: Hugh Morton, Chester Erskine, Robert O'Brien, Irving Elinson
Choreographed by: Robert Alton
Cinematography: Robert H. Planck
Words and Music by: Johnny Mercer, Harry Warren
Production Company: MGM
Premiere: New York, March 5, 1952
Synopsis (from VideoHound's Golden Movie Retriever 2001): A turn-of-the-century bachelor falls in love with a Salvation Army missionary in this standard musical. (2 out of 4)
In my opinion, the much aligned and hated “The Belle of New York” is Fred’s BEST movie ever…
… wait, let me finish!…
… choreographically speaking. I have very little professional experience to judge this with, aside from a few years’ worth of various dance lessons, so on what basis do I make this statement?
Well, the dancing is simply breathtaking, inspired by both the music and the lyrics in their conception. In fact, it often seems to me that the music appears to be created by the dance, instead of the dance being to the music. Creatively, Fred accomplishes many amazing things- for example, look at “Bachelor’s Dinner Song.” Fred dances alone and partnered, with one partner, with a roomful of women, and around a roomful of women, in a confined space, up on chairs, on the table, at various tempos, yet manages to tell a mini-story. No one gets in anyone’s way, and Fred never excludes any one of the women, something you think would be inevitable with 20 women in there. He moves like water in a flowing stream, like tai-chi at varying speeds.
I love “Baby Doll”, too. Vera-Ellen at her best. You can see her resistance visibly melting as she begins to enjoy dancing with Fred. The conflict builds on her face as he slowly charms her, and slowly a grin appears, first intermittently and then in full bloom as she loses herself in the thrill of the dance. They work in a funny gag with the flip cards, still timed to the music, and the high kicks out of nowhere motivate the sudden drum beats. Fred is impossibly smooth as he slides off the table, and the ending is good, with her propriety suddenly reasserting itself as he gets too enthusiastic and picks her up.
“Oops” is another incredible number. The amount of movement, again in a confined space, is incredible. The go up and down and over and under and in and out of a moving tram without missing a beat, then off into one of the funniest, most perfectly choreographed dances ever. It takes so much effort to be perfectly in sync; it takes even more effort to appear so perfectly out of sync. It’s all so beautiful! And the best bit is the simple gesture of him handing her a little flower and winning her over completely true such a simple act. Then they get on and keep dancing, without a stop. It’s funny to watch as the scenery repeats and the track repeats and if you watch the background, it often starts from the middle of nowhere. They had so little space to work in, but still managed to create the impression of a glorious amount of space through their movement and creative camera angles.
The tap conclusion to “Currier and Ives” is breathtaking in its precision, execution, and conception. Vera does several death drops over Fred’s knee, and then after the last, dances back up to standing position! This is probably Fred’s best tap duet.
Given that I’ve raved so much over the movie, why is it so unpopular? The script, for one, is not very strong, particularly the second half and especially a weak ending that was written as the were filming. It’s very abrupt and suggests that they just ran out of time and ideas. It spoiled a great movie for me- I almost got whiplash with the sudden ending!
Also, the special effects are terrible, even for 1951. They tried to show Fred “walking on air”, but the blue screen is betrayed by odd ugly blue patches appearing under Fred’s feet. It makes it too obvious that he’s standing on something, removing the movie magic and seriously straining the suspension of disbelief.
In my opinion, if Fred and Vera had been given a proper vehicle with a proper plot, they would’ve made THE greatest musical ever, no question. Their abilities together are far greater than the sum of their parts. As it was, it was left to “The Bandwagon”, which has a superior script but lesser dancing, to win the title of Fred’s greatest post-Ginger movie and contend for the greatest musical ever.
For me, “The Belle Of New York” is the height of the dancing Fred. He would go on to make better movies and more successful movie and act better and better, but dancing-wise, it’s all downhill from here (a very gradual downhill of course, but still downhill).