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Charles Walters

Charles Walters: The Director Who Made Hollywood Dance

Brent Phillips
Series: Screen Classics
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 368
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  • Book Info
    Charles Walters
    Book Description:

    From the trolley scene inMeet Me in St. Louis(1944) to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers's last dance on the silver screen (The Barkleys of Broadway, 1949) to Judy Garland's timeless, tuxedo-clad performance of "Get Happy" (Summer Stock, 1950), Charles Walters staged the iconic musical sequences of Hollywood's golden age. During his career, this Academy Award--nominated director and choreographer showcased the talents of stars such as Gene Kelly, Doris Day, Debbie Reynolds, and Frank Sinatra. However, despite his many critical and commercial triumphs, Walters's name often goes unrecognized today.

    In the first full-length biography of Walters, Brent Phillips chronicles the artist's career, from his days as a featured Broadway performer and protégé of theater legend Robert Alton to his successes at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He takes readers behind the scenes of many of the studio's most beloved musicals, includingEaster Parade(1948),Lili(1953),High Society(1956), and The Unsinkable Molly Brown(1964). In addition, Phillips recounts Walters's associations with Lucille Ball, Joan Crawford, and Gloria Swanson, examines the director's uncredited work on several films, including the blockbusterGigi(1958), and discusses his contributions to musical theater and American popular culture.

    This revealing book also considers Walters's personal life and explores how he navigated the industry as an openly gay man. Drawing on unpublished oral histories, correspondence, and new interviews, this biography offers an entertaining and important new look at an exciting era in Hollywood history.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4723-9
    Subjects: History, Performing Arts, Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface What a Swell Party
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. 1 The Anaheim Hoofer
    (pp. 1-11)

    He was born to dance. The expression is a cliché, uttered virtually every time an infant intuitively bounces to a musical beat. Yet in the case of Charles Walters, the overused idiom is remarkably accurate. He could not help himself; dance was within. This predisposition, he’d relate, started “even before my birth. … [M]y mother said that when she was pregnant, each time she went to a concert she had to leave before the end because I danced the whole time.”

    Far from distressing, such mild discomfort made Winifred Taft’s first pregnancy all the more memorable. Only recently had the...

  5. 2 A “New Face” in Town
    (pp. 12-20)

    Flush with moderate success (and despite Pasadena Play house opposition), Sillman took hisLow and Beholdto the Hollywood Music Box. He justified the move by saying that the new venue would give the underpaid performers “their only chance to show their talents to production and casting agents” in Los Angeles.¹ Soon after, Kay Thompson warned that she would remove herself from the encore engagement if people didn’t stop saying “hell” and “God damn” around her. “When I asked her what the hell had gotten into her,” Sillman recalled, “she quit.”² Chuck and Ty almost followed suit when offered full...

  6. 3 Beginning the Beguine
    (pp. 21-27)

    Fox and Walters wasted no time mourningFools Rush In. Less than two weeks later, in January 1935, they set sail aboard the SSStatendam, appearing nightly throughout a West Indies cruise. On their return, they received an invitation to appear at the Versailles, then one of New York’s trendiest supper clubs. The duo took private delight in knowing they had auditioned for the swanky establishment in a wardrobe priced at no more than twenty-five dollars. “My gown,” said Fox, “cost exactly seventy-five cents.”¹

    By a bit of luck, they had already met Virginia Volland, future Broadway costume designer of...

  7. 4 The Show Is On
    (pp. 28-38)

    Reveling in his newfound celebrity, Walters began 1936 at socialite Elsa Maxwell’s New Year’s masquerade ball at the Waldorf-Astoria. He appeared with Knight on a bill that additionally featured Beatrice Lillie, Ray Bolger, and Adele Astaire. It was obvious to him just how far he had traveled since his Leonard Sillman days.

    Throughout the five-month run ofJubilee, Fox and Walters did some moonlighting as well. They were praised by theTimesas having “made such sensational strides in the past year,” and they were the final dancers to appear at the Central Park Casino before it was replaced by...

  8. 5 Broadway’s “Ranking Dancing Juvenile”
    (pp. 39-48)

    Known to play down his achievements on the New York stage, Walters would later sum up his performing career in a mere eight words: “Season after season, I was young and charming.” After patiently listening to Jack Buchanan’s marital woes for ninety-three performances, he took his final bow inBetween the Devilon March 12, 1938. The tepid farce had been moderately endorsed (“They’re all like nice people in a nice house at a dull party,” wrote critic Ira Wolfert), but after Walters left he immediately began rehearsals for one of the decade’s masterworks—a musical with wings.¹

    I Married...

  9. 6 Backstage
    (pp. 49-54)

    Dennis King was the first to give Walters the opportunity to choreograph an entire Broadway-bound musical. Their association had begun withI Married an Angel, and the tenor now was assembling a creative team forShe Had to Say Yes—the quintessential vanity production. As the show’s producer, principal backer, co-author, and leading man, King had enlisted commitments from ballerina Viola Essenova and songwriters Sammy Fain and Al Dubin. He convinced Walters to accept third billing in the role of Tony MacFarland and to provide dances for the chorines—drolly referenced in the playbill as “A King’s Court of Queens.”...

  10. 7 “You Think Like a Director”
    (pp. 55-63)

    On Sunday, December 7, 1941—whileBanjo Eyeswas improving in Philadelphia—the Japanese bombed the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt went before a joint session of Congress the following day to call for a declaration of war against Japan. On December 11, Adolf Hitler declared war on the United States. The future was suddenly much more precarious for all men of draft age, and Chuck embraced the idea of remaining in California with his parents and John as long as he could.

    He already had participated in a mass sign-up for duty. In...

  11. 8 Putting His Best Foot Forward
    (pp. 64-74)

    At its most basic, the phrase “Hollywood dance director” refers to the individual responsible for creating a dance or a series of dances for a particular motion picture. A popular, if simplistic, definition, it is often a wild underestimation.

    Dance historian Larry Billman has ventured beyond this rudimentary description, recognizing that it was such a director’s duty “to create the overarching concept for a film’s musical sequences, which usually comprised the bulk of each feature’s running length.”¹ The best dance directors closely worked with musical arrangers, conferred with costume designers, and had influence over art directors. “As dance directors were...

  12. 9 A Company Man
    (pp. 75-84)

    For all the quick acceptance of his work, Walters found there was still much to learn about Metro protocol. He was particularly humbled when, duringGirl Crazy’s protracted production, Freed delivered a blistering crash course in the collaborative spirit that guided his unit.

    “As soon as I would get an inspiration,” Walters recounted, “I always wentrightto Roger [Edens]. So I presented this idea, and Roger said, ‘That sounds marvelous.’ Arthur called me [within] a couple of hours, and said he had heard the idea. Well, I thought Roger had presented itas his own. Storming up to Freed’s...

  13. 10 Good News
    (pp. 85-94)

    Metro kept its dance directors busy. Between 1944 and 1946, Walters (officially) provided steps for eight M-G-M feature films overseen by six different producers. He would later comment, “I never knew when the phone rang what they’d tell me to do next.”¹ Besides supplying dances for Freed, he was asked to spruce upThree Men in White(1944; the thirteenth entry in the popular Dr. Kildare series),Thrill of a Romance(1945; an Esther Williams–Van Johnson vehicle),Weekend at the Waldorf(1945; an all-starGrand Hotelremake), andHer Highness and the Bellboy(1945). The last featured Walters’s peculiar...

  14. 11 A Swell Couple
    (pp. 95-102)

    “Freed was a hero-worshipper of talent,” wrote lyricist Alan Jay Lerner, “and if you were one of the fortunate ones whom he respected, his loyalty knew no bounds.”¹ That being true, nothing prepared Walters for his second directorial assignment from Arthur.

    The producer had been focused for much of 1947 onThe Pirate, a plush Caribbean musical fantasy starring Judy Garland and Gene Kelly. Despite Kay Thompson’s manic vocal arrangements, the rushes seemed stylistically imaginative, and Freed planned to immediately re-team Garland and Kelly forEaster Parade. They would be joined byPiratedirector Vincente Minnelli, choreographer Alton, writers Frances...

  15. 12 Fred and Ginger
    (pp. 103-110)

    During this period, Walters’s home life remained tranquil. John Darrow’s client roster continued to grow and now included such future stars as Gwen Verdon and Gene Nelson. The agent also expanded into real estate, having begun purchasing land around Malibu in 1944. Lured by the spread of its undeveloped shoreline, John convinced Chuck to relocate from Santa Monica (their brief homestead after the war) to a sizable stretch of beach at 22506 Malibu Road in 1948. The bungalow-style house they built faced the Pacific and provided sophisticated, bohemian living quarters befitting a top talent agent and rising Hollywood director. One...

  16. 13 Metro-Goldwyn-Schary
    (pp. 111-118)

    1949 marked Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s twenty-fifth year of filmmaking. To hype its “Silver Jubilee,” the studio threw a lavish luncheon on sound-stage A for exhibitors, executives, and the media. Heralded as arriving royalty, contract players (plus one well-behaved collie) were announced by George Murphy as they entered and then assembled—primarily alphabetically—at dining tables on a tiered stage: Gable next to Gardner, Lansbury next to Lanza, Hepburn next to Horne. Behind all the pomp and white linen, however, was a movie company in uncertain transition.

    M-G-M’s parent company in New York, Loew’s Inc., had demanded economic reform, and Mayer complied by...

  17. 14 Get Happy
    (pp. 119-127)

    “I was miscast,” Gene Kelly maintained in a 1974Films Illustratedprofile. “[Summer Stock] was a revamp of one of Judy’s films with Mickey Rooney. It needed a teenager, and I was pushing forty at the time.”¹ While willing to put aside those concerns so as to assist Garland during this troubled period, Kelly couldn’t hide his displeasure with the feeble script, adding, “[Chuck] had the sophistication and the grace to realize that what he was working on was a piece of crap.”²

    Summer Stockdoled out the “unknown-saves-the-show” fable that was a cornerstone of the Hollywood musical. Dependable Jane...

  18. 15 “A Dear Dame”
    (pp. 128-135)

    If it can no longer be proved, it’s certainly possible that Charles Walters’s first encounter with L. B. Mayer happened—as he claimed—eight years after he joined M-G-M. It was no secret that the conservative studio head had a checkered history with his gay or bisexual-identified staff, but “Mayer’s homophobia gave way to the higher needs of business, money, and stockholders,” reflects Fox producer David Brown.¹

    Openly gay writer Arthur Laurents, who came to Hollywood in the late 1940s and eventually worked as an M-G-M scriptwriter, remembers the industry as more hypocritical than blasé. “Hollywood only cares about image....

  19. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  20. 16 Playing the Palace
    (pp. 136-144)

    The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences held its annual ceremony at the RKO Pantages Theater on March 29, 1951. Noticeably, M-G-M received its only major award in the honorary Oscar presented to Louis B. Mayer. It was hollow recognition. Hailed by the Academy as a studio executive who “always believed in the policy of ‘the greater risk for the greater return,’ ” Mayer resigned from Metro just three turbulent months later, defeated by the parent company’s support of Dore Schary. “[It was] the beginning of the end,” reflected dancer Cyd Charisse. “[Schary] was the biggest mistake they ever...

  21. 17 Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo
    (pp. 145-154)

    In spring 1952, Metro screenwriter and Malibu neighbor Helen Deutsch arrived at Walters’s beach house with script in hand. She sought his opinion on her simply titledLili. (“To tell the truth,” recalled Chuck, “I was more impressed by Helen Deutsch than I was by the script as it was at that point.”) She had basedLili, a coming-of-age tale, on Paul Gallico’s short story “The Man Who Hated People,” first published in theSaturday Evening Poston October 28, 1950. If not completely sold on the script, Walters considered Deutsch’s work refreshingly mature and told her it could make...

  22. 18 “A Masterpiece of Modern Moisture”
    (pp. 155-161)

    In the early 1950s, Esther Williams’s pictures were among the very few foolproof box office draws, and Walters managed to direct two of them in the eleven months between the completion ofLiliand that film’s New York debut. The first was tentatively (if aptly) titledEverybody Swimsbut more positively realized asDangerous When Wet.

    “Chuck and I had a good rapport from …Texas Carnival,” said Williams, “so I looked forward to this one.”¹ Both star and director were encouraged by an amusingly folksy Dorothy Kingsley screenplay that cast the swimmer as Katy Higgins, eldest daughter in a...

  23. 19 “Two-Faced Woman”
    (pp. 162-169)

    Few Hollywood celebrities ever played the role of movie star with greater conviction than Joan Crawford. Stardom was the intense, all-consuming commitment she gratefully (if at times ungracefully) courted and cultivated. “I want sodesperatelyto be liked,” she said in 1965.¹ Of such unbending ambition, Walters once commented: “I believe if you want something badly enough, you’ll get it. But look out for what you want, because you’re apt to be stuck with it. I think Joan wanted to be a movie star so badly that she was completely stuck and enveloped in that.”²

    Crawford’s journey began in 1925...

  24. 20 Cinderella Stories
    (pp. 170-179)

    On June 29, 1953, the ever-loyal Gloria Swanson wrote to Chuck Walters, “I wish you had a public relations man, because it seems crazy that there is so little mention of all the good things you have done. As a matter of fact, I think I am going to sic some magazine and newspaper people on your trail, so don’t start turning your already up-turned nose on them.”¹

    The auteur theory of filmmaking was then in its infancy, and it would be decades before the general public began referencing motion pictures by the names of their directors rather than their...

  25. 21 In High Society
    (pp. 180-192)

    Walters retreated to Malibu to wait out the suspension. Given his studio loyalty and penchant for work (five films and one Broadway show between 1952 and 1954), such idleness was unsettling. His stress was further compounded by the situation at 22506 Malibu Road, where home life with John had splintered. Their once-devoted relationship now fluctuated between adoring and abrasive, with the latter playing out even in public. “Darrow always wanted to be the center of attention over Chuck,” remembered their friend Alan Cahan. “I’d have dinner with them, and Chuck would say something, and Darrow would say, ‘Oh, what do...

  26. 22 Branching Out
    (pp. 193-201)

    High Societywas M-G-M’s biggest moneymaker of 1956 and ranked number five at the box office inVariety’s annual industry roundup.¹ The reviews had been complimentary if conditional. “Lacks the brittle wit of Barry’s original,” opined theNew York Herald Tribune, “[but] on the whole … an entertaining film.”² Nevertheless, it would be six more years before another Walters musical came to the screen. The times and their music were changing.

    Everybodyturned their heads away from musicals,” insists actress Jane Powell. “It wasn’t always Dore Schary’s decision. He had to answer to New York. [Loew’s president] Nick Schenck came...

  27. 23 A Virgin and a House wife
    (pp. 202-209)

    Although proving he could tackle a wider variety of assignments withDon’t Go Near the Water, Walters returned to familiar “woman’s director” territory for his next two projects.Ask Any Girlstarred Shirley Mac-Laine, andPlease Don’t Eat the Daisiestop-billed Doris Day, with both comedies benefiting from the playful approach of producer Joe Pasternak. The happy Hungarian was now working independently through his own Euterpe Corporation—which utilized M-G-M distribution channels—and he cast both women opposite refined British actor David Niven, then at the height of his film stardom. (“David was witty,” said MacLaine, “and an excellent technician...

  28. 24 Spoiled Spinster
    (pp. 210-216)

    “At M-G-M, we worked on a lot of pictures that we didn’t take credit for,” Gene Kelly once explained. “Chuck always seemed to be in line if somebody broke a leg, or went away, or whatever. They’d call on Chuck, and he’d finish a [film]. He did a lot of that.”¹ In April 1960, withDaisiesa smash, Metro asked the obliging Walters to assist in yet another cleanup job that wouldn’t have as successful an outcome asGigi.

    The studio had engaged director Anthony Mann to resuscitate the 1931 Best Picture,Cimarron, in the hopes that it would continue...

  29. 25 “What Elephant?”
    (pp. 217-224)

    In 1935,Jumboprovided a flashy, final hurrah for New York’s Hippodrome—a venue so expansive that it occupied the entire city block of Sixth Avenue between Forty-Third and Forty-Fourth Streets. Producer Billy Rose instructed designer Albert Johnson to decimate the theater’s cavernous interior and place a new stage in the center, creating the illusion of a circus ring. The minimal book, in which two rival circus proprietors coped with an unanticipated romance between their offspring, was supplied by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. In the role of a press agent for the big top, Jimmy Durante made his first...

  30. 26 Ain’t Down Yet
    (pp. 225-234)

    Months before his circus film bottomed out at the box office, Walters was nationally congratulated by Hedda Hopper, who told her readers, “[He] won’t have time to enjoy his jumbo-sized success. He’s already set forThe Unsinkable Molly Brown.”¹

    There was, however, no true surge of excitement over the prospect, as there wasn’t much of a musical to entice. “Roger and I were in New York looking at circus acts,” he recounted. “Molly Brownwas playing on Broadway, so I said, ‘Let’s go. I hear the studio is hot for it.’ Well, it was very disappointing. There were certain attractive...

  31. 27 After the Lion
    (pp. 235-243)

    AsMolly Brownhit screens nationwide in summer 1964, the guard at M-G-M changed yet again. Robert O’Brien, vice president of Loew’s, ascended to the presidency after the ambitious—if not always wise—Joseph Vogel stepped down. Guided by dictates of the board of directors, the compliant Robert Weitman remained in charge in Culver City.

    Walters by then had seen four distinct and very different hierarchies come and go during his two decades under contract. Each in its own way managed to erode what was once considered an indestructible empire. “I got along fine enough with the Jews [Mayer and...

  32. 28 Final Ovation
    (pp. 244-254)

    By the early 1970s, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was in a state of collapse. There had been ever more disastrous changes in the hierarchy. The back lots had been sold for real estate. Costumes and props were auctioned or sold at thrift shop prices. Production files, orchestrations, department records, and film outtakes were banished to landfills or dumped in the Pacific Ocean. Only minimally a moviemaking entity, Metro released a scant five feature films in 1974.

    One of these, surprisingly, became the sixth-highest-grossing film of the year, both domestically and abroad. In the process, it defied every popular movie trend—from disaster pictures...

  33. Appendix: The Works of Charles Walters
    (pp. 255-264)
  34. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 265-266)
  35. Notes
    (pp. 267-300)
  36. Index
    (pp. 301-322)