Thursday, August 21, 2014

Dear Old Daddy Longlegs

It may not be super obvious based on my past posts here, but I have a penchant for old movies made in the 1950s or roughly around then. Sadly, it's an age fraught with a variety of problems around representations of women and racial minorities, but I still look on it as a golden age of film in many respects (and I'm not alone). This time period saw the heyday of iconic actors including but not limited to Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Marilyn Monroe, and so many others that I love. It's also a time filled with spectacular directors such as the great Billy Wilder, whose movies are all worth watching for one reason or another. And it's also the era of the big studio musicals, movies designed to show off the various singing and dancing talents of the main stars and churned out with some regularity. Think of such classics as White Christmas, Easter Parade, and Singin' in the Rain multiplied several times a year per studio, and you've got the idea. Nowadays, musicals seem mostly relegated to the realm of children, specifically for Disney movies. There are still some musical movies for adults hitting it big today (Les Miserables being a recent example), but these tend to be few and far between, nothing like the days of old when you couldn't swing a dead cat without hitting into another musical.

All that long introduction is to say that when Netflix recommended I watch Daddy Long Legs, a musical starring Fred Astaire that I hadn't seen yet, I jumped on the opportunity. Fred Astaire isn't a name I feel like I have to explain, but I will note that he starred in some of my favorite old movies to watch over and over again - 1957's Funny Face in which he co-starred with Audrey Hepburn (and the movie that first got me into watching older movies) and 1951's Royal Wedding where he shared the spotlight with Jane Powell, Sarah Churchill (daughter of Winston), and Peter Lawford (brother-in-law to JFK). As an interesting aside, it's worth noting the latter movie contains the famous scene of Astaire "dancing on the ceiling" because he is so in love with Churchill's character. Daddy Long Legs co-stars a young Leslie Caron, better known for her title role in 1958's Gigi as well as her breakout role in the 1951 musical An American in Paris.

Original movie poster for Daddy Long Legs
Like many of Astaire's films (and indeed 1950s musicals in general), the movie Daddy Long Legs seems to be built up around the musical numbers with the plot following as secondary, almost becoming a vehicle in place merely to hold together the singing and dancing in one handy location. This method is successful at times ... and other times, you end up with something like Daddy Long Legs. There are so many long song and dance numbers that they seem to crowd out the development of the characters into fully actualized beings who change over time in a way that at least slightly resembles realism. Meanwhile, literally years pass by in the movie without being explored in terms of characters or plot. If the movie were something scrapped together by hack screenwriters looking to expand upon some musical numbers by a big composer like Irving Berlin or George Gershwin, this would be more understandable. But there is actually a source material that the screenwriters could have used for a more fully fleshed out story. (Incidentally, the screenwriters in question were the husband-and-wife team Henry and Phoebe Ephron who wrote such classics as Desk Set and There's No Business Like Show Business. The pair also produced four daughters who turned to writing careers, including screenwriters Delia and Nora Ephron, who in turn wrote more modern romantic comedy standards such as Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail.)

Daddy Long Legs is evidently based on a book published in 1912 by Jean Webster (great-niece of Mark Twain), written in the epistolary style, and designed for an audience of young women in high school and college. Hence the protagonist - Jerusha "Judy" Abbott in the novel and re-branded as Julie Andre in the movie - is a teen-aged girl entering into college at the beginning of the story. While I've never read the book, from what I can gather the novel Daddy-Long-Legs (note the hyphens in the book's title) and the movie Daddy Long Legs (sans hyphens) share a very similar plot but vary greatly in presentation and exploration of themes. As Astaire is the bigger star here, the perspective of the story of Daddy Long Legs shifts dramatically from that of Daddy-Long-Legs. Here the focus is largely on Astaire's character of Jervis Pendleton and we actually see very little from Julie, as opposed to the book being almost entirely from Judy's point of view and voice as she writes letters. Therefore, Webster's exploration of a young woman coming to age and learning about herself is nearly entirely obliterated. Apparently Webster was greatly interested in women's suffrage and chose to explore themes related to women's issues in her books - something that becomes completely irrelevant and untouched upon when the movie switches the narrative perspective to that of the middle-aged male Pendleton.

Before I get too much further ahead of myself, I'd like to take a step back and give you a brief overview of the plot of Daddy Long Legs before analyzing it in the terms of an entirely different movie's title, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Daddy Long Legs opens with an irresponsible Jervis Pendleton III being far more interested in playing on his drums all day (literally) than in working for his family's company, which rakes in millions of dollars for him. Later on a trip to France, a mishap with the car leads Pendleton to an orphanage where he espies a pretty young girl working with the younger children. The matron of the orphanage explains that the 18-year-old woman, Miss Julie Andre, was herself raised in the orphanage and now has no where else to go. Although he doesn't meet her, Pendleton is struck by the grace of Julie and decides he wants to "adopt" her. When he approaches officials by this, they are shocked at the suggestion and presume that Pendleton is looking for a young mistress or some other nefarious purpose. When Pendleton says he merely wants to give her a chance at a college education in the United States (apparently there are no colleges for women in France?) and declares that he will be an anonymous donor who will not contact Miss Andre, a deal is struck. Miss Andre is packed off to a small all-girls college in Massachusetts and writes updates to her anonymous donor who she has dubbed "Daddy Long Legs" based on the orphanage children telling her that he was very tall when they caught a glimpse of his shadow retreating from the orphanage. Meanwhile, Pendleton is happy to go on living his carefree life until his business manager Griggs and his secretary Miss Prichard insist he read the letters written by Miss Andre that have been piling up in a filing cabinet. He does so and is touched by the young woman's desire to meet him, but he still remains aloof. As his niece attends the same college as Julie (and Griggs has arranged for them to be roommates), Pendleton decides to visit the school just in time for a dance, at which he woos Julie before almost immediately afterwards ditching her because of his continued concerns about appearances. Julie spends the rest of her college days ruing over her lost love of "Uncle Jervis." But eventually all's well that ends well ... Hey, I have to leave a little bit of mystery for anyone who actually wants to watch this movie after my not-so-glowing review of it. Now onwards to my interpretation of the movie's merits and demerits.

The Good

Publicity still from Daddy Long Legs
The movie succeeds best at delivering on its star quality. Astaire and Caron make for an interesting duo, with his talent lying more in tap and hers in ballet. There are a few notable sequences in Daddy Long Legs, particularly of interest for their exploration of dream-like states, which makes for a rather logical break from relative realism into a song/dance routine. (It is frequently a criticism of musicals that no one breaks out into song and dance during real-life day-to-day activities. Clearly these people never have any fun and don't "whistle while they work," so to speak. Also, I'm not sure if these people then only watch super-gritty and realistic movies and avoid all romantic comedies, superhero, science fiction, fantasy, and action movies altogether. If so, well, bully for them, but I think the rest of us prefer a little bit of entertaining escapism now and then. And some of us like that escapism to occasionally be expressed with song and dance.) These dream-like routines are a rather fascinating departure from many studio musicals and are rather avant-garde in that respect. They remind me of a musical version of Dali's dream sequence, which also seemed like an unusual - but fitting - inclusion in a classic Hollywood film. But back to the musical numbers of Daddy Long Legs. Namely, these sequences stand out amongst the pack:

- A long daydream sequence based on the fantasy musings of Andre regarding the personality of her anonymous patron. This is composed of three shorter sequences - "Texas Millionaire," a feisty tap dance sequence with a solo Astaire all fluid motion and making it look easy; "International Playboy," a brief sequence based more in the world of ballroom dance, in which Astaire dances about and with numerous amorous female partners (this is, however, the weakest part of this sequence as Astaire does very little dancing in here); and "Guardian Angel," a lengthier sequence with ballet influences featuring both Astaire and Caron together. This last one is especially interesting for introducing the stage-like scenery of storefronts, an art direction that will emerge again later in the movie as a secondary dream-like dance sequence also makes uses of stage scenery. These sets are beautifully done throughout the movie, showcasing various artistic styles with panache. Also, Caron's en pointe dancing here does the unthinkable in stealing the limelight away from Astaire for a change. As she twirls about, it is impossible not to watch her and Astaire seems to fade into the background with just a few swooshes of his own for good measure.

- The trendy new dance at Julie's college known as "Sluefoot." It starts off as a just so-so choreographed piece that turns into a thing of beauty when Astaire steps in and he and Caron end up as the only two left on the floor. Granted, it's packaged in a whole lot of cheesiness (not least of all the ending with everyone carrying the two dancers atop their shoulders), but this one also gets some bonus points for trying to make a logical insertion of a dance routine - into a college dance, of course! The Sluefoot never took off as a real dance craze and that's probably for the best, but Astaire and Caron do show off some seriously sweet steps here.

- Andre and Pendleton's somewhat accidental New York City trip leads to the introduction of the song "Something's Gotta Give," written by Johnny Mercer expressly for Fred Astaire to sing in this movie, although is now a love song standard covered by so many iconic artists. The initial blocking of the scene as Astaire sings is perhaps not the greatest, as it's always difficult in cinema to have a few minutes dedicated to just watching someone sing, but at least they try here to make it interesting. But the dance routine that follows is delightful and deceptively simple. Astaire and Caron are both so light on their feet that they appear weightless as they twirl and swirl about the hotel's balcony and out into the streets of New York. Apparently this final montage dance was never actually rehearsed, but it came out just fine nonetheless.

- The second lengthy dream sequence when Andre falls asleep to thoughts of how unhappy she is that Pendleton is traveling all over the world without her. In the first, known as "Nightmare Ballet," Caron is given a solo opportunity to show off her dancing skills in a fairly traditional ballet number, which is beautifully rendered and like a mini-trip to the ballet, giving just enough of a taste to whet the appetite for more. The second number is the "Hong Kong Cafe," a sultry and risque dance routine that is fully engaging to the eyes and ears, even if a little out of place with the rest of the movie. The final part, "Rio," is the weakest link in terms of the dance number itself, although it does illuminate Andre's state of mind and feelings regarding Pendleton even more so than the previous two segments. Part of that includes Julie dressed in the role of the sad clown Pierrot, a common trope I discussed in detail in a previous post. Apparently this three-part sequence, totaling to 12 minutes of purely dance routines, was not widely regarded as useful to the film's plotting or pace. I have to disagree as I think this part gives us more insight into Julie's mind than most of the rest of the movie! That may be a bit of hyperbole, but it certainly does lend itself to character development, which I enjoy. The surreal feel of this section of the movie is a bold move (although fitting with the other dream-like parts of the movie) that I personally loved as Surrealism is one of my favorite artistic styles. For the critics to this sequence, I'd also like to note that if watching 12 minutes of music and dance is too much for you, then maybe musicals aren't the genre for you.

- The brief sequence to the reprisal of the song "Dream" (also by Johnny Mercer) that closes out the movie. While it's a short piece with a relatively simple dance, it's again the graceful weightlessness of Astaire and Caron that steals the show.

Beyond the musical and dancing abilities of the two leads, this movie also brilliantly cast the roles of Pendleton's associates, Griggs and Miss Prichard. Played by character actors Fred Clark and Thelma Ritter respectively, these two characters breathe a little more life into the movie and serve as foils to Astaire's character. While they may seem stuffier at the movie's opening, they remind Pendleton of what it means to care for another human being. As Miss Prichard puts it (and later Griggs repeats), "a person is NOT a corporation! A person is flesh and blood ... and feelings!" It's a surprisingly modern quote as we are currently stuck in a political debate in which the idea of personhood is constantly being negotiated and corporations seemingly have it, even if they don't have flesh and blood and feelings.

The Bad

Despite actually owning copies of Gigi and An American in Paris, this is the first movie that I've seen starring Leslie Caron. I found that I'm rather surprised her name is often included in the same breath with some of Hollywood's elite classic actors, as I was disappointed with her performance. Her dancing was incredible in the finished product, as I've noted above, although rumor is that Astaire noted he had difficulty dancing with her. Her acting was only so-so at best, with her mostly wearing this placid "dumb" face (for lack of better terminology) throughout the movie. Think Kristen Stewart throughout the majority of the Twilight movies and you have the general idea. She also goes from playing the naive ingenue to throwing out saucy hints of innuendo far too quickly and then back again rapidly to innocence, although this may be a fault more of the script then of Caron's acting. At this stage in the game, it's hard to know. But what bothered me most about her was the awful accent. Perhaps the director asked her to ham up her accent, but Caron - a native Frenchwoman, mind you - has one of the worse overly dramatic nasally French accents I've ever heard. It was painful to listen to at times.

Caron's French girl is pretty much the only "other" character we see in the movie, which is jam packed solely with Caucasian characters. The movie is a product of the 1950s, so it's pretty much unsurprising that we don't see a single person of African, Latino, or Asian backgrounds, even when we enter a dream state taking place in Hong Kong. Given how badly 1950s movies could mess up depictions of racial minorities, it may end up being a good thing that Daddy Long Legs didn't even attempt to add in a character of color. The movie already struggles with troubling depictions of women, so why give it any more fodder for things we have to dismiss with a shrug and say, well, it's a product of its time? If you want to watch something with actual diversity in it, don't expect to find it here.

While most of the movie's song and dance numbers are the highlights of the film, there are some sequences that just seemed to drag to me. The first number is "History of the Beat," and it occurs early on in the film. Pendleton is right away introduced as a character who doesn't seem to have a lot of discipline and isn't particularly interested in making business decisions; he's much more fascinated with listening to music and playing the drums. Only thing is, we never again see this hobby again - sure, he dances a bunch later and sings a little because it's a musical, but it's no longer a key component of his personality that he plays the drums instead of working or that he has a large record collection. The dance routine here is in itself perfectly fine and Astaire once again shows off his amazing skills, but the song isn't that compelling. Moreover, the placement of this number early on in the movie when so little has been explained yet (and Julie hasn't even been on screen once at this point) leads to the feeling of this just being a fluff piece that does little to add to the movie. It did, however, add to my feeling of this being a dragging number. If a movie, even a musical, is going to lead early on with a song and dance number, it has to be a really compelling one that pushes the plot forward or does a lot to explain the characterization of a particular person or persons that isn't already explained through the dialogue or action. It can't just be a song that someone liked and couldn't seem to fit in elsewhere. There are a couple of other songs sung by Caron and others when her character is still in the orphanage and when she first enters college that also seem to be there for little purpose and seem to slow down the pacing of the movie.

The Ugly

While these complaints above are not exactly gold stars for the film, they are not enough to sink it either. But there is a much bigger problem with this film that is very difficult to overcome. And that's the fact that the movie's basic premise is just kind of creepy. Pendleton's age is never openly stated but Astaire was in his mid-fifties at the time this movie was filmed, and we can gather that his character is meant to be roughly his own age. Likewise, Caron was in her early 20s while making this film and is meant to play a character of college age, beginning the film at age 18 (specifically stated in the movie's dialogue) and ending roughly around age 22 (doing simple math gets us here). So we're talking about a 30-year age gap here. This kind of age gap in a romantic film can be done, and indeed has been done, without being as disquieting. In Funny Face, the movie I mentioned earlier as one of my favorite old movies, the age gap between Astaire and Hepburn is nearly 30 years as well; another of my favorite movies, Sabrina, pairs Hepburn with Humphrey Bogart, then several decades her senior. Those films manage to negotiate the age difference without giving the feeling that there are paedophiles just hanging all about old Hollywood. Many other films of this era also feature large age gaps between the male and female protagonists; indeed, this continues to be true today.

But there's something about this film that just adds such an ick factor to the romance. Pendleton being the guardian to Julie - even with it being done anonymously - definitely makes for an eerie incestuous vibe, especially when she addresses her letters to "Dear Daddy Long Legs." Her misconceptions of who her guardian is (since she has nothing to base her ideas of him on but her own imagination) add to this feeling as well. She describes an old, frail, bald man who she is going to care for when she gets out of college. Maybe this is meant to highlight that Pendleton is not as decrepit as all that and therefore it's okay for him and Julie to end up together, but for me it just lead to an ugly picture of a decade down the road when Julie is in her prime and Pendleton is ready for retirement. Given that Pendleton acts like a child most of the time and needs to have his feet held to the fire (metaphorically of course) by Griggs and Miss Prichard in order to accomplish anything, I can certainly picture an image of domestic life in which Julie is running about attending to all of Pendleton's needs and helping him to function like a normal person while she gets very little in return but his money. In essence, she is the definition of a trophy wife - young, pretty, and in this case, willing to do anything for her sponsor.

Another original movie poster

I feel like the movie does try to address the age differential in a meaningful way but in doing so, it just makes the situation worse. As one reviewer puts it, "Confronting the age problem head on, well, that's honest, but confronting the problem isn't quite the same as solving it. Fred's still old, and Leslie's still young." There just seems to be no fixing that. In fact, that Pendleton's initial attempt to "adopt" Julie is treated with disgust and disdain, with the idea that he could only want to do so for some sick purpose, ends up planting the idea in the viewer's head that Pendleton's intentions are perhaps less than honorable. After all, he has no interest in doing anything for any other child at the orphanage, though no doubt they are also in need just like Julie - or will be in the same boat as her a few years down the line. Pendleton may go on to forget completely about her for several years but once he reads her letters (again, remember these are written to a person she regards as a father figure), he finds himself fascinated by her. He has no qualms about visiting her at school under the guise of visiting his niece. Another creep factor is that Pendleton seems to have no problem - or even need to acknowledge - that his niece and his would-be lover are the same age and friends with each other. Indeed, no one else seems to be bothered by this either. It'd be one thing if there wasn't a large age gap between uncle and niece, but we've already established there's a roughly three decade difference between them.

One could argue that the disturbing factor is lessened by Julie falling in love with Pendleton unawares that he is her guardian, making the decision more hers than his, but I think that would be a weak argument. Pendleton is pretty relentless is pursuing her at the school dance, making overtures toward her under the nominal auspice of just wanting to learn more about his protegee. He even goes so far as to hire a rival boy from a local men's college so that he may employ him in another country and thus keep him far away from Julie. It's pretty hard to make an argument that Julie had much of choice but being interested in Pendleton when he put in extra effort to make sure any competition for the art of wooing was out of sight.

Eventually, Pendleton goes away after he realizes that his wooing of Julie is perhaps inappropriate. Of course, rather than address her like a fellow adult and explain the situation, he simply drops out of sight for months on end and has no contact with her as he globe trots instead, once again showing that despite his age, he really has zero maturity. Meanwhile, Julie becomes this rather annoying character who begins to sit around moping all day and collecting newspaper clippings of Pendleton's gallivants. She seems to have no plans for her future life once she graduates college (which is now an impending deadline), whether it be a job or even a place to live. Yes, the movie was made in the 1950s, based on novel written in the earliest decades of the 20th century, but one still desires a slightly more interesting female lead than this. And again, it doesn't help with the yuck factor that Pendleton returns into Julie's life just when she's at a point in which she has no where else to go and no one else to turn to as she looks to the future. One reviewer (who actually read the original source material, unlike me) notes that the creep factor can be somewhat lessened by the Judy character (here known as Julie) because of her ability to be "awesome" and purportedly hold her own against Pendleton. We see none of that here as Julie does virtually nothing to propel her own life forward, but just sits around waiting for things to happen to her. So there's absolutely nothing to offset the feeling of perverseness surrounding a love affair between a middle-aged man and his young guardian.

All of the actions taken by Pendleton, and the relative inaction from Julie, definitely leads to the overall feeling that this romance is anything but romantic. The fact that there is basically zero chemistry between Astaire and Caron doesn't help to sell it. At the time of this movie's making, Astaire had very recently lost his wife to lung cancer and had tried to back out of making this film, so that could certainly be an element at play here. Astaire reportedly went into his trailer between takes to cry, so this is obviously not him at his happiest or most cheerful, to say the least. (He was apparently also considering a retirement from musical pictures at this point in this life, but fortunately for us decided to move on from this film to co-starring with Hepburn in Funny Face just a year after this one.) It's really hard to have a successful romantic musical in which the romance is a hard sell.

While my modern sensibilities (and especially my strong feminist streak) may be influencing me here, it's worth noting that while this movie was not necessarily a flop, it was not a huge success at the time of its release either. Whether that was due to the lack of a romance that didn't leave viewers feeling kind of grossed out or another factor all together is now probably difficult to tell. The film did manage to garner three Academy Award nominations, proving once again that the Academy doesn't always know what it's doing. However, those nominations were for art direction, score, and original song, which are pretty much the highlights of this film. Nevertheless, this is one old movie that doesn't lend itself to the title "classic" at all and one that I think you're better off missing. Check out the dance sequences linked to above in "the good" section to get the highlights and save yourself from spending a full two hours on a movie not worth it.

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