Fifty years ago, a wildly heated cultural battle broke out between two movie critics: a New Yorker named Andrew Sarris and a San Franciscan named Pauline Kael. Sarris was the chief American expositor of the “auteur theory,” which emerged from French film magazines in the 1950s and asserted that the director of a movie should be considered its author. Kael considered the theory utter balderdash and went at it with the take-no-prisoners gusto and snap-crackle-pop prose that would mark her as the best popular-culture critic of her or any other time.
They traded barbs and fired at each other in incendiary essays for years, if not decades. Kael went so far as to say that she thought Sarris was corrupting America’s youth and that his work should not be taught in colleges (which it shouldn’t, as film should not be taught in colleges, but that’s a matter for another day). And yet, from the distance of half a century, it is clear the two didn’t disagree quite as much as they thought they did. Both treated a film’s director as the most important creative force on a movie, found commonalities and themes in the work of their favored directors over time, and considered the movies a form capable of achieving a level of art previously defined only by important novels and plays.
But Sarris was a fundamentalist whose work was so committed to the auteur theory that it discounted the roles played by other, arguably more skilled, artisans working in the director’s service: the editor, the screenwriter, the cinematographer, the performers. Kael was more of a mainline Protestant; she accepted the director as God but found Sarris’s artistic theocracy false and off-putting.
And they were, and are, both very wrong. That much is made startlingly clear in this new biography, which tells the story of a now-obscure filmmaker who was wildly successful during the two decades (from the 1940s to the 1960s) he made A-list pictures yet never made much of an impression (Sarris called him “likable but elusive”).
Charles Walters was a wonderful dancer who became a minor Broadway star in the 1930s before making a transition into choreography. He proved to have such an intuitive eye for how to stage and photograph dance on film that he made the leap into the director’s chair just as his studio, MGM, was entering the golden age of the American movie musical. He made a string of hits, notably Good News (1947), Easter Parade (1948), Lili (1953), and High Society (1956).
He was known for two qualities. First, he helmed numbers and scenes with high energy and youthful enthusiasm, like the amazing “Varsity Drag” sequence that closes Good News and the wonderful “Well, Did You Evah” duet shared by Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra in High Society. Second, he created iconic moments for enduring stars. Sinatra endures in our collective cultural memory casually and comfortably walking toward the camera in a gray suit with a tilted fedora as he sings the title song for The Tender Trap (1955). And Judy Garland spent the last 20 years of her tragically shortened life reliving the two great moments Walters staged for her: the happy-hobo number called “A Couple of Swells” she performed with Fred Astaire in Easter Parade and the eye-popping, tuxedo-on-the-top-tights-on-the-bottom solo called “Get Happy” from Summer Stock (1950).
By all accounts a lovely and mild-mannered man of whom no one ever said a bad word, Walters was not a terribly interesting person, though he lived quietly but openly in a gay relationship with his agent for nearly 50 years. What was most interesting about him, this biography inadvert-ently reveals, was the work for which he was not credited. For while Walters never made a movie that endures as a whole on its own, it turns out that he was responsible for the most memorable sequences in several classic films. Ironically, those same films helped establish what now appears to be the largely false legend of director Vincente Minnelli. Those films were Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), Ziegfeld Follies (1945), and Gigi (1958).
Walters staged every musical number but one in Meet Me in St. Louis, arguably the first of the golden-age MGM musicals. That means he conceived the action, designed the movement, and planned the inter-action of the camera and performers. Two of those numbers in particular—“Under the Bamboo Tree” and, especially, “The Trolley Song”—are extraordinary, and Walters’s ability to build them to a show-stopping crescendo helped define the bright and energetic MGM style.