Thursday, October 9, 2014

Fred Astaire portraits in Daddy Long Legs

You know just as well as I do that I don't like to write about films that I haven't seen. I feel like it is a sacrifice of my artistic and critical credibility. But, you probably also I love breaking my own rules in very special instances. And I found one such instance when reading about Fred Astaire. I found some really incredible artistic homages in his great film with Leslie Caron, Daddy Long Legs (1955).
In all honesty, I have actually seen parts of Daddy Long Legs but unfortunately (for me now that I want to write about it), I didn't finish the film. It's a fairly standard 50's musical- fairly cliche plot, a lush score, and indisputably incredible talent. As I've written before, one of my favorite musicals from the period is the wonderful Ginger Rogers-Fred Astaire reunion vehicle, The Barkleys of Broadway (you can read about my analysis of it here). But Daddy Long Legs has a lot going for it. In my eyes, Fred Astaire can do no wrong especially when he has a beautifully talented costar (in the form of Caron), a gorgeous soundtrack, and some Technicolor action. Also, not going to lie, any film with Thelma Ritter in a supporting role can't be all that bad.
Thanks to the marvels of the internet, it's easy for me to catch myself (and you) about the plot. Fred Astaire plays the titular Daddy Long Legs, who stumbles across a lively young French girl, played by Caron. Entranced by her optimism, Fred decides to anonymously pay for her college education in the US. Several years later, he visits the school (and her) and (lo and behold), despite their sizable age difference, they fall in love. If that's not a classic musical, I don't know when else true love would be borne out of unknown tuition payments. Actually, now that I think of it...maybe its not so crazy....
So, why do I bring up Daddy Long Legs. Certainly its not for an original or artistic plot (though the dance sequences that I have seen exhibit the classic 50s art vibe. But, the reason I found the film in the first place was because there are some of the most wonderful and fun art homages I've ever seen in the movies.
Like I said, Fred Astaire plays a suave American gentleman from a wealthy, established New York family. The film sets this in place visually by showing a number of portraits to establish that the family is well... established. A series of three portraits are shown: apparently of his grandfather, father, and himself. Each represent not only a dominant historical artistic genre, but dominant artists as well. I'll work out all three with you because they are just so much fun.

The first portrait is supposed to be the "grandfather" portrait. Not only is it painted in the style of James Abbott McNeill Whistler; but it is a direct allusion to his famous painting, commonly known as "Whistler's Mother" (1871). (For you art historians, the painting is officially titled Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1, but that's only for sticklers).
The second portrait (the "father" portrait) is painted in the style of one of my favorite artists, the famous turn of the century portrait painter, John Singer Sargent. You may remember, I did a serious look at Sargent's influence on the style and look of both art and period pieces of that time period in film. The Sargent portrait is, if nothing else, an excellently rendered realistic portrait of Astaire.
The final portrait is an attempt at Picasso cubism. The attempt at modernism is quite impressive and we all clearly get what the artist is going for. It is really wonderful how it is obviously cubism, but at the same time it is still clearly Astaire. Sure, he might be abstracted, but you could tell that face anywhere. And of course, Fred would never be underdressed, not even in a Cubist portrait.
Not surprisingly, Astaire served as the subject for all these portraits. They are fairly clearly pictures of him. Interestingly, though, the artist was director Jean Negulesco (according to TCM sources). Negulesco had artistic training and was involved in the artistic scene of the day. In addition, he contributed to the artistic dance scenes in the film and borrowed real Braques and Picassos for the set to make Astaire's character seem like a very legitimate establishment figure.

The art of the film befits the gorgeous look that was provided to the film. I was very pleasantly surprised to see that real modern art pieces had been used instead of studio imitations. Better yet, I was glad to see that real effort had been put into what is honestly an interesting, but minor, stylistic detail. If anyone defined class and sophistication, it was Fred Astaire and the fact that his films mirrored this dominant personal quality is both pleasant and refreshing.
Not too much analysis can be given to Leslie's chalk drawing
of her "Daddy Long Legs." 

TCM Source From http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/359272%7C0/Daddy-Long-Legs.html 

2 comments:

  1. A very entertaining post! I had forgotten Daddy Long Legs plot line but remember liking Caron in it a lot. The painting of the "grandfather" is best. That's EXACTLY how an Astaire ancestor should look like! Did I ever tell you about the dude with the white carnation in his lapel who appears in several films? A painting that is. He's an older gentlemen painted in that same-old Singer Sargeant style. Now I'll have to think of the names of the films he was in.....

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