If Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen are the two greatest directors from the heyday of the MGM musical (roughly between 1944 and 1958), then fellow directors George Sidney and Charles Walters are the two men who directed just about all of the beloved MGM musicals not helmed by either Minnelli or Donen. Mr. Sidney gave us Anchors Aweigh (1945), The Harvey Girls (1946), Annie Get Your Gun (1950), Show Boat (1951), and Kiss Me Kate (1953), while Mr. Walters directed Good News (1947), Easter Parade (1948), The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), Summer Stock (1950), and Lili (1953). Neither man is well remembered, except of course by devout movie-musical lovers. Mr. Walters, who died at age 70 in 1982, would have turned 100 on November 17th.
Before making the transition to directing in 1947 (with the spirited Good News), Walters’ most significant contribution to film was as Judy Garland’s dance partner in “Embraceable You” from Girl Crazy (1943) and in the finale of Presenting Lily Mars (1943). He would go on to direct Garland in two of her best vehicles, Easter Parade and Summer Stock, making her one of several stars directed by Walters at least twice (and sometimes three times), among them Fred Astaire, Leslie Caron, Frank Sinatra, Esther Williams, Debbie Reynolds, Doris Day, and Shirley MacLaine. Caron (Lili) and Reynolds (The Unsinkable Molly Brown) received Best Actress Oscar nominations under his guidance.
Walters’ best film is the beguiling Lili, which you can read about elsewhere on this blog (in the post titled Lili, Gigi, Gaby, Fanny…Leslie). It won him an Oscar nomination for Best Director, an honor never bestowed upon either Stanley Donen or George Sidney. And look at Walters’ competition that year: Fred Zinnemann, Billy Wilder, George Stevens, and William Wyler. Not bad for a hoofer! (Zinnemann won for From Here to Eternity.)
In the same year as his entrancing and heartfelt Lili, Walters directed a different kind of classic, a camp classic called Torch Song, in which he also appears (again hoofing). It looks as though Joan Crawford thought she was stumbling upon her very own All About Eve, playing a major theatre star, inexplicably of the singing and dancing variety. Crawford devours this cardboard backstage drama, nasty to everyone but her fans, alive only onstage, lonely anywhere else. You get the idea. The character is a hard, tough, controlling bitch, acted by Crawford without any nuance or shading, merely coasting on her considerable reserves of flash. All until blind pianist Michael Wilding comes into her life, and, well, you can guess the rest. After guiding Leslie Caron to such an honest and beautiful performance as Lili, Walters had his work cut out for him in dealing with an object as immovable and impenetrable as Crawford is here. On the 25th anniversary of her stardom, Crawford seems preoccupied with showing off her legs, even though the rest of her is a fright: short orange hair, enormous face, heavy eyebrows, and a straight-across red gash of a mouth. It was, after all, her first all-color vehicle. (Watch for Maidie Norman as her secretary-cook, nine years before she tended to Crawford’s needs in a similar vein in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?) It is perverse fun that Walters cast himself as a dancer on the receiving end of Crawford’s ire, when he trips over one of her intimidating gams and is told by her that he’s being paid to dance around that leg! If Lili soared on indisputable emotional simplicity, Torch Song is mired in showy but false veneers.
Walters reteamed with Leslie Caron for The Glass Slipper (1956), obviously yet another Cinderella movie, this one a semi-musical. On paper, it must have seemed destined to be a beauty. However, it just doesn’t come off. Caron may be the best acted Cinderella you’ll ever see, but she acts a little too well, making this Cinderella seem more in need of therapy than Prince Charming, kind of an irritatingly ”Method” Cinderella. Torch Song’s Michael Wilding is the sensitive prince, again saddled with a stinker of a role, coming off as dull and sexless. The Roland Petit ballets are turgid and unimaginative, and Walters’ direction oddly lacks rhythm and pace and sweep. The only genuine magic here comes from Estelle Winwood as the fairy godmother, played here as an eccentric, shoplifting bag lady. It’s an inspired, unpredictably funny and wise performance. The Glass Slipper is what is known as an interesting and honorable failure.