Charles Walters name doesn’t immediately find itself in the pantheon of most memorable directors. You’d be hard pressed to find him in the top 10, 20, or even 30 of greatest directors, and that’s a shame because, as the title of his biography indicates, he “made Hollywood dance.” Walters is responsible for directing countless iconic musical moments. When Judy Garland sang “Get Happy?” Directed by Charles Walters. Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra singing “Did Ya Evah” in High Society? Charles Walters. What about Leslie Caron dancing around on “The Night They Invented Champagne” in Gigi? Yep, Charles Walters did it and reading Brent Phillips’ biography on the director/choreographer is just as bouncy and lyrical as the director it’s about.
Charles Walters didn’t have a life filled with scandalous Hollywood intrigue or a fractured family life, that in itself is refreshing. Phillips’ book is interested in the work, bouncing from film to film with a clear presentation, numerous quotes, and a narrative that doesn’t get wrapped up in mundane A to B to C storytelling. Too often biographies overstay their welcome, opening up every single element of a subject’s life and that works if there’s enough meat to cut. For Walters, he didn’t have any significant hardship short of his desire to make good work. Walters was a director able to make a film efficiently and, most importantly, under budget.
If anything, Walters’ major hurdle was being homosexual in Hollywood, something that limited his potential but, oddly enough, was completely irrelevant to the money men. Various interview subjects mention Hollywood’s antipathy to homosexuals during the period, but because Walters’ pictures made boffo business, his personal life was a moot point. And that’s exactly how Phillips treats it, moot. It would have been easy for the biography to explore the problems of a poor guy trying to tackle Hollywood despite his sexual proclivities, but he didn’t have to and the book doesn’t make it bigger than it is. Walters did date, having a long-standing relationship with Hollywood agent John Darrow, but the book never gives the relationship more time than in a biography about a heterosexual couple.
Maybe I’ve read too many biographies, but Walters just seems like a nice guy. There’s virtually nothing ill written or spoken about him. Normally this would be cause for concern; no one’s perfect. But it’s evident in Phillips’ research that Walters was an affable man able to get along with everyone, and his resume certainly proves it. He was fortunate to work with some of the greats: establishing a trusting relationship with Judy Garland when she was most vulnerable; Grace Kelly, right before she became Princess of Monaco; Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra; and, in one of the book’s hilarious sequences, seeing Joan Crawford entirely nude during the making of Torch Song. In reading Walters’ quotes, as well as quotes from other dancers, it’s easy to see the laid-back guy Walters’ was. In a world of Hollywood exposes, it’s unique hearing about someone others genuinely liked and wanted to be around, it reaffirms your reading of the text.
After reading Busby Berkeley’s latest biography, it’s hard avoiding comparisons (and Berkeley did work with Walters on a few things). Where the Berkeley book made viewing the films a requirement to understand the impact, Phillips eschews discussing the dances in great detail. Walters’ story is about a choreographer seguing into respected director who, unfortunately, doesn’t have the recognition he so rightly deserves. Hopefully this biography will give us all a chance to rectify that.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.