Brent Phillips knew he wanted to be a dancer from the time he first saw the movie Singin’ in the Rain, at the age of 13. The revelation inspired a ritual unusual for someone his age—tuning in to his local PBS channel each week to watch Hollywood musicals of the 1940s and 50s.
It also shaped the course of his life: Within a decade, Phillips would become a soloist in New York City’s renowned Joffrey Ballet. But when he finished his career dancing, a new passion emerged. To ensure that the beauty of each fleeting performance lived beyond photos and newspaper reviews, Philips transitioned to work as an audiovisual archivist at NYU’s Fales Library, where since 2003 he’s been safeguarding nearly 90,000 pieces of media in the library’s theater, music, dance, television, and cinema collections.
Over the years, though, Philips never quit thinking about something that had puzzled him since those adolescent days geeking out in front of the TV. Who was Charles Walters? He’d noticed the name in the credits to several favorite movie musicals—Easter Parade, High Society, and many others—but when he searched for details on the mysterious man, he rarely found more than a bare-bones biographical sketch: “dancer turned choreographer turned director.” His curiosity grew and grew.
Finally, Phillips realized that if he wanted to learn the whole Charles Walters story, he’d have to piece it together himself—by pouring over archival documents, searching for rare footage, and interviewing Walters’ few surviving colleagues and friends. In December 2014, the University Press of Kentucky published his book Charles Walters: The Director Who Made Hollywood Dance, the first-ever full-length biography on the idol he now refers to familiarly as “Chuck.”
Walters, born in California in 1911 and raised on a diet of touring vaudeville shows, headed east to dance on Broadway for a decade—to rave reviews in shows like Cole Porter's Jubilee and DuBarry Was a Lady and Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's I Married an Angel—before making a go at Hollywood. Though he had little formal training and liked to describe himself as “a lucky, poor little son of a bitch from Anaheim who never had a dancing lesson,” Phillips points out that in New York he worked with legends like George Balanchine and Albertina Rasch—and closely shadowed Robert Alton, the veteran Broadway choreographer who would eventually create the dance sequences in beloved films such as White Christmas.
Starting out on just a four-week contract, Walters quickly made himself indispensable to MGM by demonstrating a knack for accommodating the idiosyncrasies—and overcoming the insecurities—of the day’s A-list personalities, from Joan Crawford and Esther Williams to Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby.
Walters was particularly adept at making non-dancers feel comfortable with choreography, and cultivated a close personal and professional relationship with Judy Garland, whose movement he directed in Meet Me in St. Louis, including that film’s famous trolley scene. The fact that he was gay and relatively open about it, for the time—sharing a home with his longtime partner John Darrow, a prominent Hollywood agent—didn’t seem to hinder his success.
Crucially, Walters developed a reputation for being able to “save” pictures that just weren’t working—including Gigi, for which director Vincent Minnelli ultimately won an Academy Award, but only after Walters smoothed the edges of some scenes that hadn’t gone over well in a sneak preview. Evolving from dance director (on 14 films) to director (on 21 films) over the course of a 22-year career at MGM, Walters choreographed Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ final dances together in The Barkleys of Broadway, directed Doris Day in her last last big musical, Jumbo, and led Debbie Reynolds to an Oscar nomination for The Unsinkable Molly Brown, among a long list of achievements. He earned his own Academy Award nomination for director for Lilli, starring Leslie Caron.
After a brief stint teaching film at the University of Southern California, he died of lung cancer in 1982.
Beyond giving this largely forgotten Hollywood hitmaker his due, Phillips’s book also offers a fond look back at a style of film whose open-hearted earnestness and unbridled exuberance some of us, in this, an age of irony and cool aloofness, might miss more than we’d care to admit.
As Ethan Mordden put it in a review for the Wall Street Journal, “This is the story of a time in American culture when our life coaches were singers and dancers, because they made happy endings look easy, even deserved. Forget your troubles and just get happy.”
NYU Stories asked Phillips, with his dancer’s eye for joyous elegance, to try and help us recapture that feeling.
What enabled the great midcentury golden age of Hollywood musicals?
Perhaps the greatest producer of Hollywood musicals of all time was a man by the name of Arthur Freed. Thankfully, MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer pretty much gave him carte blanche in the early 1940s. The first thing that Freed, a former songwriter himself, did was recruit Broadway talent—and not just performers, but behind-the-camera talent too. So choreographers, librettists, songwriters, art designers, costume designers, and scenic designers from Broadway started coming to join what was known as “the Freed unit” at MGM. At a similar time, Broadway was becoming keen on the idea of the integrated musical, in which song and dance didn’t stop the action but instead helped further the story. Freed also favored that sort of integration, and with the company he assembled at MGM he made Meet Me in St. Louis, Easter Parade, Singin' in the Rain, The Bandwagon, Gigi—the greatest Hollywood musicals that were ever produced.
Walters was known for much of his career as a “dance director.” Is that the same as a choreographer?
Chuck preferred being called a dance director rather than a choreographer, a term that came from the ballet world. A choreographer chooses the music and the steps and the dancers, where as a dance director, especially working in Hollywood, would often be stuck with a script, a song, stuck with a performer who might or might not be able to move—and out of all that he had to create a nice musical moment. Though a dance director like Chuck did choreography, he also did a lot more—anything to do with movement. In George Cukor's Gaslight, for example—a 1944 melodrama and not a musical at all—there’s a section in which Ingrid Bergman, the star, has to do a little waltz in her parlor. When another choreographer refused, Chuck stepped in and taught Ingrid Bergman how to waltz—and he wasn’t credited for it. In a film like Easter Parade, too, you’d think the film’s choreographer Robert Alton did all of the musical sequences, when in fact Chuck did some of them. There wasn’t a lot of credit grabbing, unlike today. At MGM you were under contract full time, so one day you’d be doing one thing, and the next day you’d be doing something else—a favor here, a favor there. That’s what your job was: to show up and help. And Chuck was a great helper. He was the ultimate company man.
What did it mean to be “openly gay” at the time Walters was working in Hollywood? Do you think MGM tolerated him just because his films made a lot of money?
This is a story I didn’t realize I’d be telling when I started the book, and yet I find it fascinating. If you sit down and do the math, Chuck Walters is one of the top-grossing MGM directors of all time. On the other hand, when I was doing interviews for the book, there were some people, even today, who didn’t want me to reveal that Chuck was gay. Then I’d explain that I actually see it as a great strength, that he was able to have this kind of commanding presence and that people at MGM respected him. It really throws away the myth that there were so few openly gay people at the top in Hollywood at the time. And he was beloved, too. It wasn’t just that he was respected because he was making money—even gossip columnists like Hedda Hopper loved this guy. He was funny, and he realized early on that he needed to work harder than other people. In a factory like MGM, some people got by on looks or nepotism, and Chuck got by through 22 years of consistent hard work.
Also, he was really smart in how he maneuvered Hollywood. I asked everyone I could find about Chuck’s political leanings, and everyone said he wasn’t a political man. Maybe he wasn’t, or maybe he was just smart enough not to talk about it. You know, we say “openly gay,” but there’s no real context for what that entailed back in the day. I was surprised to find, even with an ultra-conservative mogul like Louis B. Mayer running things in the 1940s, John Darrow’s name listed for events as Chuck’s plus-one. Yes, Darrow was a Hollywood agent, so there would have been another reason for him to be there, but people knew that they were living together in Malibu, and they’d show up as a couple. Walters was discreet, but he wasn’t dishonest. I think people probably respected him for that as well.
What do you make of Walters’ relationship with Judy Garland? Why did he seem to work so well with her, when others found her difficult?
Chuck gave many interviews about this after Judy died in 1969, and though he was always very candid about the problems—the cheerleading and the mollycoddling she needed in her darker years—he was also very direct and sincere in saying that she was one of the greatest talents of the 20th century. He always said that when she was healthy and rested and didn’t have a work schedule that was crazy, you could find nobody funnier or more loyal as a friend.
I love talking about this, because Walters’ role as a force behind this creation that is Judy Garland hasn’t really been discussed much. As a fellow dancer, I’m hypercritical—I can tell when someone’s faking it—which is why I’m so impressed with Chuck’s work with Judy, someone who’d say, “I'm the world's number one dance faker." And yet she’s often able to match her partner—a big-time dancer like Gene Kelly or a Fred Astaire—step for step. That took a lot of coaching. You hear about director Vincent Minnelli and Garland’s musical arranger Roger Edens as the colleagues who most shaped Garland's talent, but it was Walters who worked to polish her as a dancer in Meet Me in St. Louis and several other films, and who—as a director—was able to really hone her natural instincts as a comedienne. And then he put it all together onstage at the Palace Theater for one of the greatest showcases of her career. He’s also the one who put Judy Garland in “Get Happy“ (in Summer Stock), a kind of sexy, cool number—at a time when she wasn’t known for that kind of thing.
What are some of the challenges of documenting the history of an ephemeral art form like dance?
In our many dance collections at Fales, often all we have is a photograph of a performance. A photograph is just one millisecond of a piece of choreography! You can see the costume, and that someone’s in a neat pose, but it doesn’t really encapsulate where that dance is, where that movement was going. I'm a moving image archivist, so my job is to preserve rare film and video and audio, because I know how important it is just to be able to see movement. I was thankful when researching Chuck Walters that there are a few archives that have fragments of film of live performances from when he was on Broadway in the 1930s. It was a revelation for me to see him really jumping, really doing turns—it gave me an understanding of what type of a dancer he was.
Where is the Charles Walters of today? Why don’t we have big blockbuster Hollywood musicals anymore?
One of the things that changed it all was the death of the studio system. In the 1940s and early 1950s, the heyday of the Hollywood musical, you had all these dancers, choreographers, and designers under contract 52 weeks a year, all working together like a musical repertory company. In the mid 1950s, studios stopped doing that. They let everyone become freelance, and stopped developing stars the way they used to—stopped nurturing megastars like Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, and Judy Garland. And when the studio system ended, it became extremely expensive to make a movie musical. So the studios looked to Broadway, because those shows already had a built-in audience and there was the belief the studio could recoup their investment. They thought they could make their money back. And often times they did. That’s how the film versions of Oklahoma and Carousel and The King and I got made. Then of course The Sound of Music, a mega mega hit, followed in 1965, but that proved to be something of anomaly as the 1960s progressed.
But actually, there's never been a period in cinema history since talkies began in which there weren't musicals being made. In every decade, there were musicals, and we still have them today—they’re just more edited, and almost always from Broadway. (Think Les Miserables or Into the Woods.) As for original movie musicals, the closest thing we have today to compare to the stuff that Chuck Walters and his colleagues were doing at MGM would be what Disney does sometimes in animation, where you have a totally original story, and an original score.
What’s changed in our culture? Why do some audiences seem to think musicals are cheesy?
One interesting thing I found in researching the book was that in the 1940s and ’50s there wasn’t this idea that only a certain type of individual liked musicals—everybody liked them. Men who were surveyed after a film’s first preview screening reported that they liked ballets. Musicals weren’t just for women and gay men—there was a sense that this was entertainment, and everyone liked being entertained.
There was definitely an element of optimism to the classic movie musicals, but nowadays I tend to think that a musical that’s cynical has a better chance of being a hit. Chicago, Into the Woods—these are not happy-go-lucky musicals. I’m not sure what that says about the culture today, but I think musicals will always be around. They’re always going to evolve. I love the argument some critics are making that superhero movies are kind of like musicals, because they stop the story for a five-minutes—boom-boom-boom—action sequence. These don’t really further the plot, but they're extremely entertaining, they take us away, and there's usually a happy ending. I kind of have to agree with that. I just wish everyone would sing and dance.