Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Making of Daddy Long Legs (1955)

This is my contribution to the CinemaScope Blogathon hosted by ClassicBecky's Brain Food and Wide Screen World.


Daddy Long Legs was, at its root, aimed to teenagers all over the globe.  The simple story was based on a 1912 novel written by Jean Webster.  The premise is simple: a millionaire plucks an 18-year-old orphan from an orphanage and sends her to college as her guardian.  The orphan (Jerusha 'Judy' Abbott in the book) writes to her guardian, whom she calls Daddy Long Legs, but he never answers back.  But she gets to know him later on (not knowing he is her guardian), and they fall in love.

Ok, let's be fair.  The movie takes some liberties from the book.  In the first place, Judy's name is changed to Julie André, so that the part would suit French-accent-possessing Caron better.  Also, the orphan was American in the novel, and French in the movie.  All rather petty details, though.

Many people seem to find Daddy Long Legs creepy, because of the premise of a guardian falling in love with his charge.  Well, I'll go ahead and share my opinion on this.  I think that if anyone else other than Fred had played the role, it would have come off incredibly creepy.  Gene Kelly, for example, wouldn't have worked.  It just would come off wrong.  Astaire is somehow ageless, I think, and therefore the movie works and comes off well.  After all, at least in this film his age (he was in his late 50s) was worked into the script, instead of just sticking him with a 25 year old and asking the audience to accept it.  Even in Funny Face, released three years later, Audrey was much younger than Fred.  And, mind you, Funny Face is one of my favorite films.

But let's get on to the making of the film.  By the time the idea for Daddy Long Legs came rolling around, it had already been made into a film three times.  (Yes, three.). Once in 1919, starring Mary Pickford, once in 1931, starring Janet Gaynor, and a very different from the original book adaption, starring Shirley Temple.  So it wasn't exactly a new vehicle.  But the story goes that Darryl Zanuck, the then production chief of 20th Century Fox, was dining at Romanoff's one night.  At the time, Astaire was in retirement (for the second time), and had no intentions of returning to the big screen.  But when Zanuck spotted Fred and his wife Phyllis dining, an idea struck him: why not a musical Daddy Long Legs?  That hadn't been done before.  Zanuck didn't waste any time calling up Fred's MCA agent and giving him his proposal.  The agent passed it on to Fred, and he was rather interested in doing the film.  He was even more interested when he learned that the talented dancer, Leslie Caron, was being asked for his co-star.  When Caron was set in stone to do the film, Fred agreed to star, and filming was set to start September 1954.

Everything seemed to be going just swimmingly, until a few incidents where Phyllis Astaire seemed to have cancer in her lungs (she was a longtime smoker). Fred was sure at every surgery that Phyllis would recover and be just fine....and she was fine for the first two surgeries.  The cancer even left her for a few months.  But in July 1954, the cancer was back.  And Phyllis needed another operation.  And, this time, despite all of Fred's fervent hoping and praying, Phyllis didn't recover.  She died in September.

Fred loved Phyllis....a lot!!  The blow of her death was a lot to take for him, and he didn't report for rehearsals or filming for a while.  The production of the film continued on without him, as Leslie filmed the extended ballet near the end of the film entailing the clown, café, and ballet sequences.  Production continued just fine for a while, but as time went on, it would have to halt if Fred didn't come back.  Fred understood this completely, and felt horribly for holding up the film, but he felt even worse over Phyllis' death.  He just couldn't return to work; he was absolutely fraught with grief (yes, I cried when I found this out). He offered the producer, Sam Engel, something entirely unheard of then or now: he said he would pay for all the production expenses out of his own pocket until he returned to the film.  Engel wouldn't let him do that, hoping against hope that Fred would return soon.  But as Astaire himself put it: "...I am shattered.  The worst thing is that Phyllis wanted me to do this picture.  But I can't.  The prospect of going to the studio and smiling is just impossible.". But the day after Fred said that, he marched himself down to 20th Century Fox and told Engel he would try working on the film.  He didn't know if he'd make it, but he was willing to try it.  So Daddy Long Legs was a really hard film for Fred to make.  He would even go back to his dressing room between takes and just cry.  That, my readers, made me positively bawl too.

Leslie, on the other hand, remembers fondly her time working with Astaire.  Once, she has said, the director had scheduled an entire day to shoot a complicated scene with she and Fred.  Astaire didn't do multiple takes...that scene was filmed in one take flat.  Done.  So the entire crew and cast had nothing to do for the rest of the day.  Therefore, Caron was told to go to makeup and wardrobe, and have her white evening dress put on for the dance with Julie André and Jervis Pendleton, which would be double exposed over shots of nightclubs, restaurants, and sightseeing.  The dance hadn't been rehearsed, and Leslie was frantic.  But she got out to the set, and Fred was there waiting.  "And Fred said, 'Oh, don't worry. Just let me lead you. Here we go — one, two.' And we went through it once, and we shot, and that was it.  That was Fred. He was that good.". Looking at that scene now, you'd never guess that the scene wasn't rehearsed from the fluidity in it.  As for the lovely Something's Gotta Give scene immediately preceding the aforementioned unrehearsed dance, Fred was dissatisfied with how he sang the said song.  I, on the other hand, love it.

In all honesty, I find the CinemaScope feature misused in this film.  Although it is nice for the dream ballets, in the rest of the film the scenes are abnormally stretched and not filled with characters.  Even worse, the wide scope doesn't pick up some of Fred's grace and intricate dance steps.  You have to actually look rather hard to find it.  I feel that CinemaScope is better suited for such films as Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (plenty of characters to fill up the vastness), or Three Coins in the Fountain (the scenery of Rome to add interest)

The lovely costumes throughout the film were designed by Kay Nelson, and although I find all of them quite striking, the film wasn't nominated for Best Costumes.  It was, however, nominated for Art Direction (Lyle Wheeler, John DeCuir; Walter M. Scott, Paul S. Fox). And I don't wonder at that.  All of the sets are visually interesting, particularly the colorful backdrops used in the Guardian Angel dance.  The backdrops are huge and flat, bringing to mind perhaps a child's storybook.  The star and cloud-laden endless backdrop near the end has extraordinary optical illusion.  But perhaps one of my favorite sets would be Julie's hotel room while in New York, and her dorm room shared with her roommates.  (I hope I have that huge of a dorm room when I go to college!!  I say, I think I have a distorted view of college life, courtesy of classic movies.  It's all sweater sets, nice roommates, not too hard schoolwork, beautiful clothes & trunks, and dances with choreographed segments.  I better not expect that, haha.). Daddy Long Legs was also nominated for Scoring of a Musical Picture, courtesy of Alfred Newman, and Best Original Song, courtesy of Something's Gotta Give.  The film didn't win any of it's three Oscar nominations, however.

In conclusion, Daddy Long Legs is a fun movie to see occasionally.  Albeit with tragic behind-the-scenes lacings, I recommend it to all.


Ta-ta, dahlings!!



Phyl said...

I read the book but I don't really remember it... I will have to look into this movie!

I had the same view as you on college. Big disappointment(I ended up going to a college that had opened their new campus a few years before which didn't help. And it was in Florida). Someone should open up a college where you have to wear 40s and 50s clothes and have sock hops and a malt shop and a movie theater that only shows old movies!

Rich said...

That Fred. Whatta trooper. If the love of my life died and I had to go back to a job that required me to smile and sing and dance for the camera, well, I'd probably find a new line of work.

Thanks for joining the blogathon.

ClassicBecky said...

This was a fascinating article ... I never knew all of the background story of making the movie, and yes, I got tears in my eyes too. I saw Daddy Longlegs first as a teenager, so nothing seemed creepy to me. I just loved Fred Astaire, and I liked older men anyway at that age. Wonderful review! Thanks for letting us enjoy it for the blogathon!

Silver Screenings said...

Wow – that is so sad about Fred, working on a musical while he was stop grief-stricken. I had no idea he was dealing with such tragedy while making this film.

Thanks for providing all this research and background info!

Pure Golden said...

Phyl- I don't think I have ever read the book, ironically. I'll have to look into that!
Glad to know I'm not the only one with the same views on college. I like your idea of a 40s or 50s college...I probably would definitely go! ;-)

Rich- I know, wasn't he though? Such a professional. But I'd have to agree: I'd probably find a new line of work too. Thank you for letting me be a part of the blogathon!

ClassicBecky- Thank you, Becky! I appreciate it. I never saw anything creepy in the story either...I was quite surprised when I read that others did. Again, thank you for letting me join in on the fun with the blogathon!

Silver Screenings- You really would never know he was going through so much just by watching his magnificent performance. It really struck me hard when I found out about his wife...I felt so bad for him. I'm glad you enjoyed the post! :-)

Judy said...

Great piece - I really like this film and also enjoyed the book. Despite the age gap, Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron make a great combination.

Fred's autobiography is great and in it he talks about making this film and how painful it was, but I remember he says the crew were kind and helped him through.

I hope you find a college you like, even if it isn't one out of a classic movie! :)


I couldn't tell Fred was so sad while making this film, I only knew when I read a bit of trivia. Indeed, he is ageless and not that creepy to fall in love with Leslie Caron...
Uhm, I don't know if CinemaScope was misused. It's not Astaire best, it has not his best dances, but Caron shines in the great ballet!
Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

Phyl said...

Just watched this! (before they took it off Netflix in a few days). I really enjoyed it! I would probably have never watched it though if it hadn't have been for your post!! So thanks for writing it! I'm also going to check out the book again.

I can't believe they did that one dance without rehearsing it! I would have never guessed. I adored Julie's dorm room! My favorite dance was the one at the very end.