It’s hard to see your favorite stars stumble through a bad movie, especially when it has so many good names attached. That’s the case with The Belle of New York, a seemingly tossed-off Arthur Freed production from 1952. It stars Fred Astaire and Vera-Ellen and was directed by Charles Walters. There’s even lyrics by Oscar winner Johnny Mercer. Despite all these names, there’s a sense of boredom throughout, even when Astaire is literally dancing on air.
The plot is brain-numbingly simple. Playboy Charlie Hill (Astaire) falls head over heels in love with Salvation Army member Angela (Vera-Ellen) and, despite their differences, she ends up falling in love with him. And… that’s it. Oh, there’s some funny business with Charlie first having to prove he’s a responsible man and then missing their wedding, but all that just seems to be business to set up musical numbers.
And the musical numbers are just as dull. “Seeing’s Believing” has Astaire doing a Harold Lloyd-inspired bit on the Washington Square Arch, as he floats up into the air. But the dancing he does while up there isn’t that adventurous. “Oops” feels like it was rehashed from the Astaire/Rogers movies and “A Bride’s Wedding Day” song is a bit routine. (Although the ice skating dancing is pretty neat.)
The best number in the film – and the only logical excuse for watching it – is Astaire’s last solo number, “I Wanna Be A Dancin’ Man.”
In one of the That’s Entertainment films, they showed an alternate take with the one that landed in the movie. It gives you an idea of how well rehearsed Astaire was.
Another highlight of the film is the performances from character actors. Keenan Wynn and Majorie Main pop in to provide Astaire with some friends and excuses to push the plot forward.
The Belle of New York has some interesting ideas in it, but was poorly executed. Process photography had just not reached a point where it could be used so heavily in a cheap film like this. I will say this though, Vera-Ellen is not only gorgeous, but was an undervalued dancer. The choreography in this film might not have showed off her skills (or Astaire’s) well, but she sure is great in Three Little Works and White Christmas.