If it weren’t for the musical shortcomings and the unwelcome narrative misfire, I’d be giving this a glowing recommendation.
I didn’t get the chance to see the live version of Daddy Long Legs when it played at The Repertory Theatre here in St. Louis a few years ago. Part of me wishes I had. The film version could have benefited from familiarity with the material. Then again, if work had been done on the songs and the book for the stage, then the movie would pale by comparison. Of course, Fred Astaire’s choreography and charm are fine to watch, but the musical numbers and script of Daddy Long Legs left a lot to be desired.
Astaire plays Jervis Pendleton III, the eponymous Daddy Long Legs, and Leslie Caron is the 17-year-old French orphan, Julie Andre, who he anonymously sends off to college. After receiving stacks of unanswered letters from Julie, he decides to visit her, being the uncle of her roommate. They both charm each other and soon fall in love.
Jervis is a good character for Astaire and for a musical premise in general. He’s personable, boyish, and eccentric. His unorthodox private life and blasé attitude make for good comedy quips and onscreen dynamics with his associates, namely Fred Clark and Thelma Ritter as his respective assistant and secretary. The dance sequences are in line with this as well, the best of them being the first, involving impressive feats with a pair of drumsticks.
Caron’s wide-eyed innocence and intriguing foreign charm provides good chemistry for Astaire, just not in the way the movie wants. In the setup, Jervis forgoes adoption to avoid scandalous public assumption and instead uses his money and influence to enrich the life of a lonely but promising pupil. Initially, it seems that this act is motivated by nothing more than generosity and paternal affection. So the love story that gets introduced in the second half of the film feels very off-kilter, especially since Caron barely looked twenty, and Astaire was in his fifties at the time, and it showed. The father-daughter angle that the film seemed to be headed towards initially would have been just as touching and a lot more appropriate.
Like I said earlier, the songs are truly subpar. It’s to be expected only somewhat because many dance-centered musicals aren’t about the lyrics and composition but about the physicality. But one has to wonder why even in their simplest form the songs from Singin’ in the Rain, which come from the same list of old Hollywood tunes, achieve far more than anything here. Melody-wise, there’s no issue, but some of the lyrics are cringeworthy.
But to add one other thing to the movie’s credit, the set design is wonderful. In the reality-set scenes of the film, the production design is full, lavish, and telling. Jervis’ room is fun to look at with its wood paneling and vivid colors, especially since it’s situated inside of his stuffy family estate that functions as a museum filled with marble and portraits. The dream-like dance sequences contain mystery and surrealism not just in the choreography but in the whimsically painted backdrops that create a storybook quality.
I don’t think Daddy Long Legs is a bad movie. For a ‘50s musical film, what it needs to get right—the dancing, set, and costumes—it gets absolutely right. However, while dancing is fun to watch, the songs need to also be good for me to consider it a real success. And at two hours, the story seems stretched a little too far. If it weren’t for the musical shortcomings and the unwelcome narrative misfire, I’d be giving this a glowing recommendation. Astaire’s dancing and acting are just enough to bring this movie out of the “bad arena,” but nevertheless warrants only a middle-of-the-road reaction from me, and also a shrug. | Nic Champion
Kino is releasing Daddy Long Legs on Blu-ray along with a commentary by film historian Ken Barnes and Ava Astaire McKenzie. A Movietone News reel is also included with optional commentary, along with footage from the London premier and an original theatrical trailer. As is to be expected from Kino Lorber, the video and audio quality are both great.