Tag Archives: Charles Walters

Sixty Years of ‘High Society’

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High Society promotional poster (1956). Source: Wikipedia.

On July 17, 1956, the musical comedy High Society premiered, featuring a “power house” cast of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, and Grace Kelly. The film was based on The Philadelphia Story, starring Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and James Stewart, and was directed and choreographed by Charles Walters who staged the iconic musical sequences of Hollywood’s golden age.

 

In honor of the 60th anniversary of the film’s release, here are excerpts from Charles Walters: The Director Who Made Hollywood Dance. Author Brent Phillips chronicles the artist’s successful film career, how he navigated the movie industry as an openly gay man, and the revealing backstory about his work on one of his most beloved musicals, High Society:


 

[. . .] In [Grace] Kelly, Walters had an undeniably lovely leading lady, but her gracious appeal was entirely dissimilar to the individuality of Katharine Hepburn. He spent considerable time helping Grace tap into the defenseless interior of Barry’s icy socialite. The actress acknowledged, “I tried to find the point where [Tracy’s] haughtiness was a cover for insecurity, and for the pain she felt over her father’s thoughtless behavior.” [. . .] As Alain Masson would later articulate, the key difference between Hepburn  and Kelly “lies in the fact that Hepburn— though she may lose her composed image— always seems to master the game, at least   intellectually, [whereas] Kelly sometimes is really at a loss.”

Her male co-stars, nonetheless, didn’t bother to analyze; they patently adored her. A doting Sinatra called her “Gracie” and poured on the charm, leading Chuck to privately refer to them as “Beauty and the Beast.” Crosby, victorious beau in the High Society love triangle, called Grace “kind, considerate, and friendly with everyone.”

[. . .]

 

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Walters demonstrates playful posturing for an amused Grace Kelly, High Society (1956). Photograph in author’s collection.

High Society’s biggest hit, however, came in the Crosby-Kelly ballad “True Love.” Practically a lullaby, the song required simple direction, and critic Douglas McVay later praised Walters’s “talent for musical naturalism,” adding, “This sequence (significantly not present in The Philadelphia Story), in which the newly-married couple quietly and blissfully duet . . . on board their yacht of that name, invests the love between Tracy and her former husband with a sense of physical truth, and thus makes their movements towards reconciliation in the rest of the film equally credible. . . . [The duet] emerges as one of the most persuasive illustrations of the power of song (or dance) to convey sexual passion and affection more intensely than any exchange of spoken words or fervent embraces can do.”

 

Holm recalled: “[Grace] had a very dear contralto— lovely and totally appropriate. She

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Sinatra and Grace Kelly are guided through a High Society dance rehearsal (1956). Courtesy the Cinema-Television Library, USC.

made no effort to sound like a professional singer.  On the day she was to [record] with Bing, we all hung about to hear them.” After receiving his disc from the session, Porter wrote to Metro conductor Johnny Green, “I can’t tell you how surprised I am at the singing of Miss Grace Kelly.” The public was in agreement, and sales of the “True Love” single earned Kelly her first and only gold record. “My brother,” she later said, “once made a very unbrotherly remark by saying that he thought my voice on a golden record was one of the ‘modern miracles.’ But I was very delighted about it.”  “True Love” later won a Best Song Oscar nomination, and MGM joined with Porter’s press agent to lobby hard for a win. When Doris Day’s chart-topping “Que Sera, Sera” took home the prize, the agent received a succinct cable of defeat from Porter that read: “Whatever will be, will be.”

 

Dreaming up staging possibilities for “Jazz,” “Millionaire,” and “True Love” proved unproblematic, yet Chuck ran adrift with “You’re Sensational,” a seduction song for Sinatra to woo Kelly. “I couldn’t think what to do,” he admitted. “[Then] I woke up in the middle of the night and thought, ‘Just a minute. [Frank and Grace are] getting an awful lot of money, individually and collectively. I’m going to make them do the work.’ ” The next day he showed up for rehearsal with a simple directive: “Go with it, dears.” When his stars became too artificial in their actions, he offered one final piece of advice: “Play it like a scene.” With that, the performers acted— and aced— the Porter lyric, with Sinatra, lustful and lost, melded to Kelly’s mute response. Her radiant mix of yearning and uncertainty enchanted Walters, who said, “I thought she was marvelous.”

[. . .]

“[Grace] invited me to lunch,” she begins, along with the royals [Prince Rainier III and his father, the Duke of Valentinois], Schary, and Chuck, “who had a tendency to be enchantingly obscene.” The luncheon was given in the paneled executive dining room, which at MGM was considered a bit of a joke; it only seated eight. “So we were all sitting at the table, and I can’t imagine who would have been dumb enough to have said, ‘How big is Monaco?’ But somebody did. Well, there was a pause, and I think the Prince gave him the area in feet. Dore laughed and said, ‘Why, that’s not even as big as our back lot.’ Now that was just bad manners!” An awkward, uncomfortable silence came over the luncheon, until Holm smartly stuck a fork in her steak and propelled it across the table. “While everybody was busy getting straightened out over that,” she concludes, “I changed the subject. Nobody knew that I’d done that on purpose.”

[. . .]

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Chatting with Louis Armstrong, High Society (1956). Courtesy the Cinema-Television Library, USC.

[High Society would be Kelly’s last film performance before she became Princess consort of Monaco.]

Kelly became Her Serene Highness the Princess of Monaco on April 19, impeccably gowned by High Society designer Helen Rose. The press dubbed the event “The Wedding of the Century.” Even MGM couldn’t buy such publicity, although the August 1 world premiere at the RKO Pantages Theater in Los Angeles was carefully orchestrated pandemonium. Shouting street crowds were showered by flower petals, and the floral display was a convenient distraction from the fact that none of the film’s stars were in attendance. (Crosby was relaxing at his ranch, Sinatra and Holm were in New York, and Kelly was away playing princess.) To compensate, George Murphy presented Porter with a civic citation, Bob Hope kidded Crosby’s no-show, and Walters’s former stars Ann Miller and Debbie Reynolds represented the home studio. Ever recalcitrant, Chuck later admitted, “I wasn’t going to go to the premiere either, [until] my dear friend Earl Blackwell of Celebrity Service phoned Ginger Rogers and told her to call me. She told me to get my tuxedo out of mothballs, get a limousine, and come pick her up. And I enjoyed it. I was like a kid in a bathtub: it was hell to get me in, but once you did, I didn’t want to get out.”

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C’mon “Get Happy,” It’s Judy Garland’s Birthday!

Judy Garland Birthday Summer Stock Charles Walters

Director Charles Walters and muse: Garland’s “Get Happy” goes before the cameras, “Summer Stock” (1950). Courtesy John Fricke Collection

A very happy birthday to a classic star with a golden voice! Though best known as the wide-eyed ingenue who rocketed to fame as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (1939), Judy Garland brought her triple-threat talent to some of the greatest films of the twentieth century.

From the trolley scene in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) to “A Couple of Swells” in Easter Parade with Fred Astaire, many of Garland’s most beloved roles came out of her frequent collaboration with choreographer and director, Charles Walters, including her most iconic musical scene: “Get Happy” from Summer Stock (1950).

In Charles Walters: The Director Who Made Hollywood Dance, media archivist Brent Phillips goes behind the scenes of Walters’ life and films. He explores not only the director’s work—like Easter ParadeSummer Stock, and Lili (1953)—but also Walters’ life and associations with stars like Garland, Lucille Ball, Fred Astaire, and Gene Kelly, and how he navigated the industry as an openly gay man.

To celebrate a partnership that keeps us smiling, dancing, and happy to this day, we’re bringing you an excerpt from Charles Waltersdetailing the behind-the-scenes story of “Get Happy”:

“Get Happy,” from Charles Walters: The Director Who Made Hollywood Dance by Brent Phillips

Photography neared completion in late January 1950, with Walters running “on nothing but coffee and cigarettes.” Some of the dancers were leaving for other assignments, and a premature wrap party was organized. . .

Judy’s work on Summer Stock was deemed complete in early February—after two and a half months of filming—and she headed to Santa Barbara to rest. Meanwhile, Walters oversaw editing of the picture, and it soon became obvious that a Garland payoff was missing. “She was the star, but she never had a star turn in the final show,” he pointed out. Judy solved the problem herself, as he recalled, telling him, “I’ll give you a week. I want Harold Arlen’s ‘Get Happy,’ and I want to wear the costume from the ‘Mr. Monotony’ number cut from Easter Parade. And I want [you] to do it.” The director admitted the request seemed “a nice little challenge,” and he was pleasantly stunned when “she returned two weeks later, thin as a string.”

“Get Happy,” a quasi-spiritual from 1930, had been famously introduced by Ruth Etting as the first act finale of Ruth Selwyn’s 9:15 Revue. Thought Chuck, “What the hell am I gonna do with it? What does it say? What does it mean?” His answers to those questions proved iconic: a spare, sophisticated staging with Garland as a cool jazz vamp and accompanied by eight equally smooth male dancers.
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Dancing with ‘Charles Walters’ by Brent Phillips

via New York University Newsoriginally published March 11, 2015

The MGM ‘Company Man’ Who Made Everybody Dance

A conversation with Brent Phillips, author of Charles Walters: The Director Who Made Hollywood Dance. For more on the book, or to purchase via the University Press of Kentucky, please visit our website.

Charles Walters: The Director Who Made Hollywood Dance by Brent PhillipsBrent Phillips knew he wanted to be a dancer from the time he first saw the movie Singin’ in the Rain, at the age of 13. The revelation inspired a ritual unusual for someone his age—tuning in to his local PBS channel each week to watch Hollywood musicals of the 1940s and 50s.

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.

Eileen Reynolds

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Cupid Countdown: Day One!

Love is in the air. Can you feel it? This year, UPK will be hosting Cupid Countdown, a week-long posting extravaganza to help you and your significant other have the most unforgettable Valentine’s Day! To kick off the week, we give you this:

danceheart

What better way to express your love for someone than by literally sweeping them off their feet? In today’s post, we will teach you the basic moves to glide your way across the dance floor and straight into your sweetie’s heart.

The Jazz Square:
1. Step forward with your right foot.
2. Cross over your right foot with your left.
3. Step backward with your right foot.
4. Bring your left foot back, making your feet shoulder width apart.
5. Bring your right foot back into place next to your left.

Click here for more help on the Jazz Square!

The Cha-Cha:
1. Stand with your feet together.
2. Step forward with your right foot.
3. Step forward with your left foot, landing ahead of your right foot.
4. Pick up your right foot as you place your left.
5. Set your right foot back down.
6. Step back with your left foot, placing it behind your right.
7. Step back with right foot, placing it behind your left.
8. Pick up your left foot as you place your right foot.
9. Set your left foot back down.
10. Step together.

Altogether, it should look like this:

Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 2.26.43 PM

The Grapevine:
1. Starting with your feet together, step out with your right foot.
2. Cross your left foot behind your right foot.
3. Step out with your right foot.4. Step together with your left foot.
5. Repeat in opposite direction.

Click here for more help on the Grapevine!

Those are all the basics that you need to know to get your boogie on with your loved one this Valentine’s Day! For more advanced steps and an amazing story, check out our book, Charles Walters: The Director Who Made Hollywood Dance! You will learn a multitude on the art of dancing firsthand from one of Hollywood’s greatest choreographers!

Friday Night Spotlight: Charles Walters

Charles Walters TCM Friday Night Spotlight

Good news classic film fans, all throughout December, Turner Classic Movies is hosting a spotlight on the legendary Hollywood director and choreographer, Charles Walters! This marathon of movies will occur every Friday of this month, so be sure to tune in. The schedule of films is listed in the calendar below. If you have Time Warner Cable, you will find these movies on channel 608. For other cable providers, you can to go TCM’s website and use their live streaming feature!

To prepare yourself for this film extravaganza, check out our recently published book on Charles Walters!

In this first full-length biography of Walters, Brent Phillips chronicles Walter’s career on Broadway and his successes at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Phillips recounts Walter’s associations with Lucille Ball, Joan Crawford, Gloria Swanson, among many others, and examines his uncredited work on several films, including the blockbuster Gigi. This revealing book also considers Walter’s personal life and explores how he navigated the industry as an openly gay man. Drawing on unpublished oral histories, correspondence, and new interviews, this biography offers an entertaining and important new look at an exciting era in Hollywood history.

      

 

 

 

 

 

From Walters’ directing expertise to his flashy choreography, this is a spotlight series you don’t want to miss!