It also shaped the course of his life: Within a decade, Phillips would become a soloist in New York City’s renowned Joffrey Ballet. But when he finished his career dancing, a new passion emerged. To ensure that the beauty of each fleeting performance lived beyond photos and newspaper reviews, Philips transitioned to work as an audiovisual archivist at NYU’s Fales Library, where since 2003 he’s been safeguarding nearly 90,000 pieces of media in the library’s theater, music, dance, television, and cinema collections.
Over the years, though, Phillips never quit thinking about something that had puzzled him since those adolescent days geeking out in front of the TV. Who was Charles Walters? He’d noticed the name in the credits to several favorite movie musicals—Easter Parade, High Society,and many others—but when he searched for details on the mysterious man, he rarely found more than a bare-bones biographical sketch: “dancer turned choreographer turned director.” His curiosity grew and grew.
Finally, Phillips realized that if he wanted to learn the whole Charles Walters story, he’d have to piece it together himself—by pouring over archival documents, searching for rare footage, and interviewing Walters’ few surviving colleagues and friends. In December 2014, the University Press of Kentucky published his book Charles Walters: The Director Who Made Hollywood Dance, the first-ever full-length biography on the idol he now refers to familiarly as “Chuck.”
Walters, born in California in 1911 and raised on a diet of touring vaudeville shows, headed east to dance on Broadway for a decade—to rave reviews in shows like Cole Porter’s Jubilee and DuBarry Was a Lady and Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s I Married an Angel—before making a go at Hollywood. Though he had little formal training and liked to describe himself as “a lucky, poor little son of a bitch from Anaheim who never had a dancing lesson,” Phillips points out that in New York he worked with legends like George Balanchine and Albertina Rasch—and closely shadowed Robert Alton, the veteran Broadway choreographer who would eventually create the dance sequences in beloved films such as White Christmas.
Starting out on just a four-week contract, Walters quickly made himself indispensable to MGM by demonstrating a knack for accommodating the idiosyncrasies—and overcoming the insecurities—of the day’s A-list personalities, from Joan Crawford and Esther Williams to Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby.
Walters was particularly adept at making non-dancers feel comfortable with choreography, and cultivated a close personal and professional relationship with Judy Garland, whose movement he directed in Meet Me in St. Louis, including that film’s famous trolley scene. The fact that he was gay and relatively open about it, for the time—sharing a home with his longtime partner John Darrow, a prominent Hollywood agent—didn’t seem to hinder his success.
Crucially, Walters developed a reputation for being able to “save” pictures that just weren’t working—including Gigi, for which director Vincent Minnelli ultimately won an Academy Award, but only after Walters smoothed the edges of some scenes that hadn’t gone over well in a sneak preview. Evolving from dance director (on 14 films) to director (on 21 films) over the course of a 22-year career at MGM, Walters choreographed Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ final dances together in The Barkleys of Broadway, directed Doris Day in her last last big musical, Jumbo, and led Debbie Reynolds to an Oscar nomination for The Unsinkable Molly Brown, among a long list of achievements. He earned his own Academy Award nomination for director for Lilli, starring Leslie Caron.
After a brief stint teaching film at the University of Southern California, he died of lung cancer in 1982.
Beyond giving this largely forgotten Hollywood hitmaker his due, Phillips’s book also offers a fond look back at a style of film whose open-hearted earnestness and unbridled exuberance some of us, in this, an age of irony and cool aloofness, might miss more than we’d care to admit.
As Ethan Mordden put it in a review for the Wall Street Journal, “This is the story of a time in American culture when our life coaches were singers and dancers, because they made happy endings look easy, even deserved. Forget your troubles and just get happy.”
NYU Stories asked Phillips, with his dancer’s eye for joyous elegance, to try and help us recapture that feeling.