This article was published on February 21st, 2016
Charles Walters never wanted to be in the spotlight. Born in Southern California in 1911, he quickly developed a passion for show business he longed to manifest from a dream to a reality. When it came to tapping his toes, he was superb. The acting and singing sides of his triple-threat desires needed more attention, though with dancing feet like his, he quickly landed a role in Cole Porter’s Jubilee (1935). There, he didn’t have the want most other performing men his age had: to be the handsome leading man. In fact, he desired only to be the witty sidekick of the second couple in a musical, forwarding the story with laugh-out-loud lines and gorgeously sung duets. With Jubilee, however, the sidekick became the prince who fell in love with Ginger Rogers. The rest, as they say, is history as this prince would go on to direct Hollywood’s biggest named stars in musical movies that are still revered today. It’s about time someone gave this man his long overdue biography.
Brent Phillips’s newest book Charles Walters: The Director Who Made Hollywood Dance is a compulsively readable look at one of Hollywood’s unsung directors who directed such beloved movies as Summer Stock (1950), High Society (1956), and The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964). Little has been written on Walters, for reasons unknown, so Phillips’s book comes as a refreshing look at the Golden Age of a director and the time he lived in. It deserves a coveted place on the shelf between Simon Callow’s Charles Laughton: A Serious Actor and Sam Wasson’s Fosse.
And what a time to be alive. Post-Ginger Rogers, Walters made his way from the Great White Way to La-La-Land where he started directing with the June Allyson/Peter Lawford musical Good News (1947) which earned him the reverence and acclaim to direct Easter Parade one year later; Summer Stock (1950); and High Society (1956), the Cole Porter adaptation of The Philadelphia Story, with Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby, and Frank Sinatra in roles originated by Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and James Stewart.
Even with this canon of titles, Walters never achieved the name recognition of George Cukor or Vincent Minnelli–highbrow directors who flaunt their personal lives in the spotlight more so than Walter would have ever imagined doing.
In contrast to his peers, he was extremely humble in the Hollywood life he lea. An out gay man who lived with his partner, a Hollywood agent, Walters was liked by all, yet never was the cause of controversy or scandal. Phillips does a remarkable job illustrating a seemingly unremarkable man, concluding that what makes this director worthy of such an exhaustively researched biography is his ability to work with a wide range of actors and actresses. Phillips also concludes that Walters was as creative of a director as he was a choreographer, using elements of editing and acting to produce excitement in a musical number, even when the star was not much of a dancer.
Case in point: staging the “Trolley Song” in Meet Me in St. Louis, one of the highlights of his career. Through fast cuts and quick editing, the girlish excitement of Garland’s character and song is felt in the viewer because Walters does not make the song about dance. What Walters does, instead, is make the musical number about what is being sung: the perpetual excitement of first love. The camera stays stagnant, cutting from Garland chasing the train to her huddling with her girlfriends, yet the entire segment has a mobility that evokes the personification of a fluttering heart. Indeed, the sequence is all about the music of the number, not the spectacle of a production number that would often rob audiences of MGM musicals of hearing a well-written song. Or, reflect on High Society as Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly sing the Oscar-winning “True Love”: The camera follows them, but for the most part remains stationary, allowing the music to be heard and experienced by the characters and audience.
Brent Phillips, like Walters, has a love for this kind of sentimentality. His biography, while thoroughly readable, is incredibly dense with research and anecdotes about the period–sadly, very little anecdotes exist about Walters himself. Though densely researched, Phillips’s prose is accessible and engaging, introducing us to a wide variety of Hollywood characters who all play important roles in the shaping of Walters as an artist and citizen. Phillips even includes some dishy gossip on the stars of the day such as Fred Astaire (“Fred was never happy” (138)) and the ever troubling yet lovable Judy Garland who Boris Pasrernak once described as “Perfection was her goal” (71).
Phillips’ prose is one of pure admiration for Waltrs, describing him as having “A singular drive and inborn talent [that] led him through a lifetime of often-joyous productivity and contribution” (253). The book is dense with sources and quotes of artists talking about Walters, recollections of Walters quotes on set, and very little directly from the man himself. Yet, his life is no longer one of ambiguity, as Phillips has woven these quotes into a tapestry of a man of humble talent.
Phillips does the theatre world a remarkable feat by giving it this biography. If you are a film buff or lover of these films, you will find yourself in awe over the accomplishments of Walters and the fact that this biography is the first on the director. The enthusiasm of the book is palpable, evoking the joy that Walters brought to his films. It is an exhilarating read and one to cherish for a long time.