Daddy Long Legs has everything going for it. Fred Astaire seems happy and fit, Leslie Caron is no less impressive than she was in An American in Paris and Lili and the CinemaScope production is handsomely designed. The picture is both funny and beautiful to look at and has a couple of indestructably memorable songs, Johnny Mercer's Something's Gotta Give and Dream. But although he'd 'come out to dance' in the movies twice more, Astaire's career was running down, and Daddy Long Legs has an odd feeling about it -- something about the effortless, lighter-than-air entertainer is starting to seem forced, as it never did before.
Fred Astaire first considered retiring over ten years before Daddy Long Legs, only to start a new phase of his career. Easter Parade and The Band Wagon are the glorious result, and his other five or six dancing features are far better than average. Daddy Long Legs has funny jokes and charming characters, and the fact that part of it is unaccountably depressing has nothing to do with Astaire himself.
Fred Astaire had made a self-deprecating joke of obsolescence in The Band Wagon but in this picture the age issue seems to have caught up with him. The 'real' world pictured in Daddy Long Legs is no longer a stylized fantasyland. Jervis Pendleton seems sort of a joke, an antiquated teenager practicing his drums and being flip with his subordinates. His diplomatic friend Ambassador Williamson (Larry Keating) has serious business to conduct and good reason to be concerned about Jervis' infatuation with a woman practically 1/3 his age. We see the young Julie Andre and know that she and Astaire don't belong together -- any more discrepancy in their ages and the film would be a reverse Harold and Maude.
And it isn't just age difference. Astaire's Jervis isn't a particularly credible character, and it just seems too much of a fantasy to see Julie truly preferring him over boys her own age. There's something about the chemistry: Jervis' complicated millionaire comes off as a real cradle-robber, and Leslie Caron's child-woman doesn't seem mature enough to make a good choice. They just don't match up. We feel warmer about the Thelma Ritter and Fred Clark characters, each of whom cares very deeply for Jervis and Julie. They live their lives for something other than their own amusement.
Setting all that aside, Daddy Long Legs has charm to spare in the musical numbers. The 'dance at the gym' Sluefoot number is a treat, and is well-staged in CinemaScope. Astaire gives the Something's Gotta Give song a classic delivery.
Daddy Long Legs makes one very serious error: It's far too long at two hours and six minutes. Act one is slow and act three just drags with too many ballet numbers of limited appeal. The story is a 30s kind of fantasy given a 50s slow build that gives us too much time to think about the casting mismatch. We end up liking Daddy Long Legs's individual parts, and are somewhat relieved when it's over. Almost every other Astaire picture has us asking for more.
Sharp-eyed spotters should look among the many actresses billed as "College Student" to find Barrie Chase (Silk Stockings), Diane Jergens (Desk Set), Lisa Montell (World Without End) and Leslie Parrish (The Manchurian Candidate).
Fox's Marquee Musicals DVD of Daddy Long Legs is presented in a handsome enhanced transfer with excellent color; I'd only seen the movie on old broadcasts where the pan-scan cropping effectively destroyed it. The audio comes in four-channel English as well as Spanish and French.
Fox gives us a welcome commentary track with Astaire's daughter Ava Astaire McKenzie and author Ken Barnes, aided by archived interviews with Johnny Mercer. They discuss the Mercer connection as well as Daddy Long Legs' position as a loner production: Astaire's only Fox film, his first CinemaScope film, his only one with Caron, etc. Burns also points out a near jump-cut in the first drum-oriented jazz number where Astaire switches from brushes to drum sticks -- the cut ellipses between two and three minutes of excised Johnny Mercer music.
Some lively premiere footage is included, along with a stills gallery. The nicely-designed cover illustration is presumably an original, but either the artwork has faded or Fox has chosen to give the art a bland light-purple cast. This makes the Daddy Long Legs packaging look as if it's sat too long in a sunny shop window.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Daddy Long Legs rates: