Chuck Who? Director Walters
Gets Due Credit In New Bio
Although Recognized By Song And Dance Fans For His Memorable Musicals, The Director Has Also Put His Mark On Many Other Films And Will Be The Focus Of A Special Series Of Showings On Turner Classic Movies
Images by Andrés Alvarez Iglesias and used under a Creative Commons License.
By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine
Dec. 1, 2014 — It's long overdue that director and choreographer Charles “Chuck” Walters steps out from the shadow of more recognizable names (Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Vincente Minnelli and Michael Kidd) of the grand MGM musicals of the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s and earns a curtain call of his own.
And, he gets a grand one in a new biography authored by Brent Phillips, entitled: Charles Walters: The Director Who Made Hollywood Dance.
Phillips, a former dancer with the Joffrey Ballet, is more than just a devoted fan of the Hollywood musical. He infuses his biography with exhaustive research and uncanny insight about how Walters navigated his professional and personal life as an openly gay man in an era and industry where being “out” entailed considerable professional risk.
As chroniclers ourselves of the Golden Age of Hollywood, we feel a certain kinship to this biography since we shared with Phillips during his research phase a lengthy interview we had with Walters at his Malibu home in 1980. Walters died two years later at the age of 71 from lung cancer.
The public deserves to know more about the man who directed Good News, Easter Parade, Summer Stock, Lili, The Tender Trap, High Society, and The Unsinkable Molly Brown, among many other movies. But almost as significant, Walters, as a contract director at MGM, made several uncredited directorial contributions to films, including the 1958 Oscar-winner Gigi.
Walters’ first helming credit came with the 1948 MGM screen adaptation of the 1920s college campus musical, Good News. As Walters told us, it was while running dailies of a Judy Garland number called “Madame Crematon,” (which Walters had staged for Ziegfeld Follies in 1946) that producer Arthur Freed (a maddeningly non-verbal man who had a habit of speaking in non sequiturs) announced he had just bought a property called Good News and that he wanted Walters to direct it as his first full-fledged assignment.
“It was like somebody put a firecracker under me,” Walters said.
But the dream assignment for Walters came when he was slated to direct the last Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film, The Barkleys of Broadway in 1949.
“Once I found out that Astaire was going to be in it, my knees got weak because he was my hero,” said Walters. “When you say sophistication, I just loved the way he danced, the way he walked, his entire style. I never copied a step, but just his whole attitude was wonderful. I think a lot of that rubbed off on me.”
Perhaps Walters’ most significant contribution to film was his long friendship and collaboration with Judy Garland. He directed Garland in her final film at MGM, Summer Stock (1950), in which she performed the show-stopping number, “Get Happy.”
“The interesting thing about Judy was that she was so insecure, except to get up and sing,” he said. “For instance, we were doing a number that she was scared to death of. I don’t know how I thought of it, but one day I said, ‘Judy who’s your favorite dancer?’ And she said, ‘Renee DeMarco’ (part of a famous dance team). I told her: ‘From now on, whenever we rehearse, you’re Renee DeMarco.’ From then on she was perfect. Now, if you remember ‘Get Happy,’ I told her to be Lena Horne. This got Judy away from ‘me dancing’ and she felt Lena. It worked beautifully.”
In conjunction with the publication of his book, Phillips will appear on Turner Classic Movies with host Robert Osborne to introduce a series of Walters’ films on Fridays throughout December.
David Fantle & Tom Johnson have been entertainment journalists for more than 30 years and co-authored the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV. Fantle teaches film and television at Marquette University in Milwaukee and Johnson is a former senior editor for Netflix. They can be reached at www.reeltoreal.com
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