'Royal Wedding' in Classic, Cool Context

This Saturday at 9 p.m., KCET brings you the 1951 Fred Astaire film "Royal Wedding." It's the latest entry in KCET's "Classic Cool Theater" series, which aims to give you not only a great film but also a vintage cartoon, two newsreels and an of-the-era musical number. All those extras add up to what makes "Classic Cool Theater" so special: context. In the spirit of this unique package, we're offering you a peek at the America -- and the Los Angeles -- that received the original "Royal Wedding" back on March 8, 1951.

The "Classic, Cool Context" recap for last week's film, "Happy Go Lovely," told the bittersweet story of actress-dancer Vera-Ellen and her relatively short time in the spotlight. Despite the personal trauma that plagued her life, however, Vera-Ellen maintained a keen sense of humor, and was once quoted as saying the following about her on-screen dancing partner, Fred Astaire: "[He'll] never say, though he's always asked, which of his dancing ladies was his favorite partner. If you ask me, he preferred the solo turns."

If Vera-Ellen's take on Astaire was accurate, then Astaire surely relished filming "Royal Wedding," for it features two standout solo performances. The first has Astaire proving that he is so nimble-footed that he can make a decent dancing partner out of a coat rack. It may be most familiar today, unfortunately, as the routine that Dirt Devil manipulated into a poorly received 1997 commercial, but it's still a testament to how much this man could do with an inanimate object. Check it out here:

The second number combines Astaire's abilities with special effects for a marvelous result. You may recognize it as "that one where Fred Astaire dances on the ceiling." It still looks magical today.

But perhaps the real star of "Royal Wedding" isn't Fred Astaire, but his sister, Adele Astaire, who doesn't even appear onscreen. In "Royal Wedding," Fred plays Tom Bowen, half a brother-sister act that's completed by Ellen Bowen (Jane Powell). The characters' onscreen relationship mirrors that of the Astaire siblings, who performed a vaudeville act together at the turn of the century. And just as Jane Powell's character falls for a British aristocrat (Peter Lawford), so too did Adele Astaire: In 1932, she wed Lord Charles Arthur Francis Cavendish, son of the Duke of Devonshire, and subsequently hung up her dancing shoes. As a result of these parallels, the movie plays like a tribute to Adele's show business days that seems all the more touching when you consider that her brother played such a major rule in the production. And if that weren't historical context enough, here's one more bit: Though released in 1951, "Royal Wedding" takes place in 1947, during the wedding of now-Queen Elizabeth II to Prince Phillip.

Take a Closer Look Back:

March 8, 1951, wasn't only a big day for the onscreen duo of Fred Astaire and Jane Powell. Two other famous duos would have been fresh in American minds, though with less positive associations. The same day that "Royal Wedding" hit theaters, people across the country would have been reading about the execution of the Lonely Hearts Killers, Martha Beck and Raymond Martinez Fernandez, who conspired together to murder and rob women who placed personal ads. And just two days previous, the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg began.

Locally, the front page of the March 8, 1951, issue of the L.A. Times detailed staggering numbers of flu cases. As explained by city health officer Dr. George M. Uhl, approximately 500,000 people, or one-fourth of the L.A. population at the time, had fallen sick with influenza-like symptoms within the past few weeks. He termed it "mild epidemic," and a 2009 L.A. Times report on flu rates would concur: 1951 was not a pandemic year.

Have a look at some news photos from the week "Royal Wedding" hit theaters:

Boxing, Art Aragon vs. El Conscripto -- March 7, 1951 (Photo: Los Angeles Times photographic archive, UCLA library)
Federal agents seize Nat King Cole's Hancock Park home, Los Angeles, Calif. -- March 15, 1951 (Photo: Los Angeles Times photographic archive, UCLA library)
Cabbage farmer Chiyeko Suzumoto in Gardena, Calif. -- March 12, 1951 (Photo: Los Angeles Times photographic archive, UCLA library)

Via Curbed L.A., see what fancy houses looked like back in 1951. For example, there's the fantastically mid-century home that served as a swanky Palm Springs pad in an episode of "Mad Men." Also, Harrison Ford has just recently put his 1951-constructed Brentwood home on the market. Brentwood too stuffy? Then this head-scratcher of a Silver Lake home boasts a deep turquoise paint job and a handcrafted Japanese Tatami mat room -- you know, like you've always wanted.

If you saw Eames House reconstruction at LACMA, you might be interested to know about the "What Makes the California Look" room, which was inspired by an October 21, 1951 cover of a Los Angeles Times magazine.

See the LACMA Eames House and read more about "the California Look" here.

And while we're on the subject, check out the July 1951 issue of a Palm Desert-based publication, The Desert Magazine. It's a dream for mid-century typography wonks, but you might be most surprised by how contemporary the overall aesthetic looks today.

The same year as "Royal Wedding" hit theaters, that classic LAPD drama "Dragnet" premiered on NBC. Check out the intro that audiences would have watched for the first time ever on Dec. 16, 1951.


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