Charles Walters Taught Hollywood to Dance
Like many old-school Hollywood directors, Charles Walters was put to pasture after the mid-1960s and was overshadowed in memory by the likes of Vincente Minnelli and Robert Wise. And like many of them, he found a semi-retirement career. Walters directed a few television specials and lectured to film students.
As author Brent Phillips acknowledges in his biography, Charles Walters: The Director who Made Hollywood Dance (University Press of Kentucky), Walters has been “continually overlooked.” Phillips will no doubt disagree with my opinion that Walters made only one great film, the sparkling High Society (1956), but no one can argue about his importance in the industry. He was a commercially successful director from Easter Parade (1948) through The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964). He worked with a constellation of stars including Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly and Grace Kelly, staged such memorable scenes as Judy Garland’s “Get Happy” number from Summer Stock (1950) and was especially beloved by dancers for his choreography. Of course, most of his movies for M-G-M were thinly plotted if exuberantly dressed trifles, intended as entertainment and nothing more.
Walters began his career as a dancer on Broadway and whole-heartedly endorsed the maxim that there was no business like show business. He was a trouper who worked well within the old studio system; his diligence and skill enabled him to live a comfortably closeted yet relatively open gay life at a time when homosexuality was illegal and gossip columnists circled like hawks. The moguls looked the other way and the stars found him charming. He prospered.
But the old Hollywood system, with studios acting as nations unto themselves, producing movies on a creative assembly line, had already began to unravel as Walters began work at M-G-M as a director and the final implosion coincided with his finale.
It was a sweet coincidence that Cary Grant and director Charles Walters ended their long careers with the same movie, Walk, Don’t Run (1966). Grant announced that the film would be his last before saying goodbye to Hollywood. However, Walters had no idea he would never work again on a major motion picture.
Phillips, a former Joffrey Ballet soloist, writes with warmth and engagement about a characteristic and, yes, overlooked figure from the mid-century movie industry