Judge Brett Cullum was totally disappointed when this turned out to be an Astaire musical, and not an Animal Planet special about bugs.
Our review of Fox 75th Anniversary Classic Quad: Set 3, published May 3rd, 2010, is also available.
Jervis Pendleton III: Tell me how I can adopt an 18 year-old French girl!
Daddy Long Legs was a difficult production for Fred Astaire, who lost his wife during the making of the film. He almost didn't finish it, but studio heads told him the best thing to do was keep working. The film was a success, and led to the development of Funny Face, in which he would star with Audrey Hepburn (Breakfast at Tiffany's). It's a fantastic chance to see an underappreciated gem of a musical in Cinemascope, but perhaps something of an oddity in retrospect.
Facts of the Case
Fred Astaire (Easter Parade) plays Jarvis Pendleton III, a wealthy man who spots a young French girl in an orphanage. He sponsors her education, and comes to visit her when she turns twenty-one. Thing is, he doesn't reveal himself as the now-adult Julie's (Leslie Caron, An American in Paris, Gigi) mysterious sponsor. They end up falling in love, but not without some complications.
The story is a borrowed one that dates back to a Jean Webster novel (also titled Daddy Long Legs) first published in 1912. It is a story that was adapted again and again by Hollywood, most famously by Mary Pickford in the silent era. It also became the basis for a Shirley Temple vehicle named Curly Top, with some alterations to the narrative. Daddy Long Legs wasn't meant to be a revolutionary story by any means, but instead a glossy, fashionable Twentieth Century Fox musical in Cinemascope. There's a strange sense of style over substance in the production. The movie is noted for its fanciful sequences, and for the delight of seeing Caron and Astaire dancing together. Astaire hand-picked Caron as his screen partner, despite the studio's desire to sign Mitzi Gaynor (There's No Business Like Show Business).
What makes the pairing of Astaire and Caron so interesting is they are completely incompatible in style and approach. Astaire was famous for incorporating a strangely elegant mix of tap and ballroom. He had a spontaneity that rises above his discipline. Caron was a trained ballerina, so she was infinitely more fluid and heavy with technique. It's amazing to watch them together in the Sluefoot sequence. Another aspect that seems smarmy at first are their ages. Astaire was well in to his fifties, while Caron was in her twenties. Somehow, in this era, audiences accepted these seemingly insurmountable age differences, as long as it was an older man and younger woman. It comes off as strange today as their conflicting dance styles, but somehow in the movie it seems to work.
Daddy Long Legs has only been available in a poorly translated pan-and-scan VHS version, so the DVD is rather miraculous for fans who had never seen the film on the big screen. It's a movie that would not work in anything less than its correct aspect ratio, since the production design and camera moves are designed for the theatrical framing. The transfer is amazingly vivid with rich saturation of the Technicolor palette. There is a four channel surround mix which delivers the score as a beautiful immersive tapestry of sound.
The extras are also quite hefty, to match the dazzling technical production. There is a commentary with the daughter of Fred Astaire and a film historian, and also archival sound recordings to accompany their personal recollections. It's amazingly detailed with respect to the history of the film, and what was happening with Astaire personally throughout the filming. Also included are old newsreel footage from the premieres in Hollywood, London, and New York, the standard trailers, and a nice photo gallery.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Apart from the lavish production and amazing dance sequences, I wasn't overly fond of Daddy Long Legs. It's a cute little musical, but certainly nothing I would seek out over other classics of the genre. The story is hackneyed, and I had a hard time believing a beat of it. The age difference that didn't bother audiences back in 1955 made me wince more than once. All the jokes about white slavery didn't help matters much either. Still, I will be the first to admit that if an aged dancer paid for my schooling I might be tempted to at least do a production number with them. And thankfully, Astaire nixed any kiss or suggestion of a love scene in the film, and firmly stated "We should only dance together. That's how I express love."
Musical fans will find the relatively obscure hit Daddy Long Legs a joy to finally discover on DVD. Fox has provided for a stunning transfer coupled with some hefty extras that support the film. If you're a fan of Astaire or Caron, it's a rare chance to see them together in some fancifully staged well-choreographed routines. Outside of that fan base, some may find Daddy Long Legs downright creepy, as a man romances an orphaned ward a third his age. But what else would they make musicals out of?
Guilty of being a lush, gorgeous musical May-December romance with Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron, Daddy Long Legs looks great on DVD. Check it out for the dancing and the production values.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Ava Astaire McKenzie and Film Historian Ken Barnes with Archival Commentary by Johnny Mercer
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