Tuesday, March 1, 2011

"Daddy Long Legs' Is Excellent, Despite Being A Departure for Astaire

It's no secret that I'm a fan of a good musical. For the most part, they were backed by a good story and decent acting. But, especially in the Astaire/Rodgers era, they could become monotonous and formulaic. It's hard to take the song and dance out of a song and dance man like Astaire. He was often cast in a facet of show business, persuing somebody else in show business, or somebody aspiring to be in show business. This film, however, is not such a story. It was a departure for Astaire, but, of the post Astaire/Rodger's films, this was one of the best.

Astaire plays Jervis Pendleton III. Now here's where the film becomes an original Astaire film. Pendelton is not in show business. He is, in fact, a very wealthy and shrewd New York businessman. While traveling in France with his entourage, their car breaks down, and Jervis takes it upon himself to go for help, and get away from his headache that is everybody who has become dependant on him. He arrives at a large country home, looking for assistance. What he finds is an enchanting eighteen year old orphan, Julie (Leslie Caron), acting as school teacher for the other orphans. He soon finds out that she longs to attend college in America, but does not have the means to do so. Enchanted, but very aware of their age difference, he becomes her benefactor and anonymously sends her to a prestigious college in New England. She takes it upon herself to write her benefactor and thank him for his generosity, and keep him updated on her progress. For three years, she doesn't receive the response that she so richly desires. Then, fate injects. Pendleton arrives from New York to chaperone a dance at the behest of his sister and long lost (to him) niece. Julie just happens to be his niece's roommate. Unaware that Jervis is the "John Smith" to which she's been writing , Julie falls for this "Daddy Long Legs" as she describes him (from the shadow he cast on the wall at the orphanage where she first meets him), and he, in turn falls for her. It's not until the finale of the film that Julie's mysterious "John Smith" is revealed.

There's not an Astaire film that I've met that I haven't liked. I undoubtedly have my favorites, but the ones that I've seen have been excellent. It's true that, at times, the story lines to these films were recycled, with only the details and names changed. But each of these films have become classic examples of story telling. Modern day stars of the "Great White Way" have no doubt studied Astaire and his choreography and nuance. He was notorious for being a perfectionist when staging a dance, often pushing the other actors to the point of exhaustion. There are several complex dances in this film, most of which were choreographed by Astaire himself. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that his films have gone down in cinematic history as some of the best. He was an early version of Christopher Walken. In that, I mean that his acting didn't really change from one film to the next, except in rare instances within the context of the film. He didn't have to adapt to a film. The film and it's actors would adapt to him. While Astaire can be credited for this, the same can be said for the other actors in his films. They also have to adapt to his style of acting, his drive to make everything perfect, and his particular style of choreography. Leslie Caron was famously discovered by Gene Kelly when he was casting for "An American in Paris". Kelly and Astaire are excellent dancers in their own rights, but Caron is equally, if not more amazing, because she danced with both men, and she had to adapt her style to match her respective partner. Certainly, no easy task, but she was able to do it as well as anybody else.

Having seen several Astaire musicals, I would say that I enjoyed this one very much. It has a different feel than his films he made with Ginger Rodgers did ten to twenty years before, but this was nonetheless an excellent film that has endured in the last fifty-plus years since it's debut. Great story and acting make this film a must see for the fan of the nearly bygone musical film.

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