Friday, January 30, 2015

Charles Walters: The Director Who Made Hollywood Dance by Brent Phillips

Charles Walters: The Director Who Made Hollywood Dance
by Brent Phillips
Hardcover, 368 pages
ISBN: 9780813147215
November 2014
University Press of Kentucky

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“He was born to dance.” – Brent Phillips on Chuck Walters

When I started my classic film education I spent very little time learning about the people behind-the-scenes: the directors, producers, costume designers, make-up artists, etc. It left a gaping hole in my film knowledge, one I’ve been trying to fill up ever since. I had never heard of director Charles Walters until I acquired Brent Phillip’s biography. This is an utter shame because Walters directed and choreographed my favorite musical of all time: Good News (1947). I was happy to have an opportunity to correct this egregious error and I dived right into the book.

Charles Walters: The Director Who Made Hollywood Dance is an honest yet celebratory look at the life and career of a lesser known yet very important figure from film history. Walters was a born dancer and although he wasn’t classically trained, he came to the film industry with years of experience performing on stage. His background in dance and choreography made him the perfect director for musicals. He also directed numerous non-musical films and choreographed the movement of the camera and the actors. Walters’ had varied style. He was a veritable chameleon and could adapt himself to different scenarios.

“These prized celluloid moments, capturing nonpareil performers at their unqualified best, possess one thing in common each spring from the imaginative mind of Charles “Chuck “ Walters – dancer, choreographer, director.” – Brent Phillips (preface)

Charles Walters & Lena Horne - Photo Source Brent Phillips & WSJ

I was particularly struck by how Walters was a “teach-by-example” type of director. He would demonstrate the movements to the actor or actress right before they filmed a scene or sometimes even during the scenes as it was being shot. This fascinates me! There is a wonderful photo in the book of Charles Walters and Tony Martin filming a scene for Easy to Love (1953). Mirroring each other, Walters and Martin simultaneously do an open armed gesture as Martin sings and performs for the camera. This style of directing was definitely influenced by Walters’ background as a dancer. He was also a master of pacing and clever camera shots.

“Timing and pace are important in any film, whether it be comedy or drama. And how better to learn the fundamentals of these show show business ingredients than by dancing?” – Charles Walters

I very much admired Charles Walters’ work ethic. He was a very efficient filmmaker, often finishing a film on time and under budget. I was particularly inspired by this quote:

“I had to work harder. I couldn’t do the social thing, and play the game the others were playing. I had to work that much harder and handle the ‘evils’ by doing good work.” – Charles Walters

Walters was gay and while he didn't try to hide it he was discreet about it. He had a long romantic relationship with John Darrow, actor-turned-agent whose greatest success was Gene Kelly.

Relationships, both personal ones and working ones, really drove Walters' career. He collaborated with Helen Deutsch, Busby Berkeley, Vilma Ebsen (Buddy Ebsen’s sister) and Arthur Freed. If he worked well with someone he always tried to make sure he worked with them again in the near future. For example, Walters got along so well with assistant director Al Jennings that they worked on a total of 11 films together.

Many actresses found Walters a delight to work with. He had a long and fruitful creative partnership with troubled actress Judy Garland and had a good rapport with her. One could say he brought the best out of her performances. He worked with and became close friends with Gloria Swanson. Walters’ leading ladies included Grace Kelly, Joan Crawford, June Allyson, Doris Day, Leslie Caron, Esther Williams and Debbie Reynolds.

Phillips includes several quotes from different actresses praising Walters:

“For me Chuck was – besides Astaire – the best dancer in the world world. He was fantastic [and] knew exactly what to do with young people. He knew how to put them together and work with them, because he was so kind.” – June Allyson

“He was the greatest male dancer I had seen since Fred Astaire.” – Gloria Swanson

“He’s the first director who has ever helped me with my acting. It’s a whole new world. We rehearse, and then I do it in one take. Working with him is like going to drama school. It’s wonderful!” – Esther Williams

The book is filled with on-the-set anecdotes. Films discussed include:

Good News (1947) , his directorial debut
Easter Parade (1948)
Summer Stock (1950)
Torch Song (1953)
Lili (1953) , nominated for Best Director Oscar
Dangerous When Wet (1953)
Easy to Love (1953)
The Tender Trap (1955)
High Society (1956)
Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (1960)
Billy Rose’s Jumbo (1962)
The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964) , last film for MGM
Walk Don’t Run (1966)

This biography is full of fun facts. Did you know Charles Walters taught Ingrid Bergman how to waltz for Gaslight? He also directed the famous trolley scene in Meet Me in St. Louis. About the scene John Fricke said “everything seems simple, but it’s constant, pure storytelling – and an audience gets caught up in that.” Walters was good friends with Tyrone Power. They both got their start in Hollywood around the same time and were even roommates.


Worked with MGM for many years and Phillips noted that “he was a genuine company man” (p 76). His career at MGM was very successful and he made numerous box office hits. His track record wouldn't last for long.

“It’s an awful burden. You want the fame and fortune and you have this awful load to carry.” – Charles Walters

The end of his career is rather sad. His last films for MGM were flops and he missed an important resurgence of musicals in the mid 1960s. However in his last years he was appreciated and had a chance to teach and give lectures at a university.
It is clear that author Brent Phillips, a dancer himself, has a lot of admiration and appreciation for the life, work and legacy of Charles Walters. The book is beautifully assembled, filled with interesting facts and stories and is clear and concise in a way that makes the book approachable and informative. I really appreciated the book's structure, Phillips sticks to a strict chronological narrative. There is an insert of black-and-white photos in the center, many of the pictures are from the author's personal collection.

I used to dance so I have much appreciation for the art form and how Walters applied his skills as a dancer to his work as a director. I really enjoyed learning about Charles Walters and am glad to know a lot more about his work.

Classic film buffs, dancers and musical enthusiasts alike will enjoy this book! If you enjoyed the recent TCM Friday Night Spotlight series with the author introducing Walters films, then this book will be a must-read for you if you haven't checked it out already.

Thank you to University Press of Kentucky for sending me a copy of this book for review. I had so much fun reading it. It was a wonderful learning experience.


5 comments:

  1. Can't wait to read this book. Thanks for great review.. Love that scene in Torch Song where Charles pretends to make a mistake when he is dancing with Joan Crawford.

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    Replies
    1. Vienna - There is a good amount of information in the book about Torch Song and Walters working with Crawford on that! I still have to see that film.

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  2. Really enjoyed your review, Raquel! I'm looking forward to reading and reviewing this book. :)

    Best wishes,
    Laura

    ReplyDelete
  3. Boy, I really have to hunt down a copy of this book. The name was vaguely familiar ( my sister and I are avid screen credit readers ) but I didn't realize that he directed so many of the movies that I really love. Thanks for a great review!

    ReplyDelete

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