Daddy Long Legs is the story of philanthropist Jervis Pendleton III (Fred Astaire) and his relationship with the orphan he puts through college, Julie Andre (Leslie Caron).
The story gets started with Jervis’ business trip to Paris. While driving through rural roads on the outskirts of the city, he gets into some car trouble and has to ask for help. The nearest building he can find is the Jeanne D’Arc orphanage, so he explains his situation to the matron. She offers to help him by lending their gardener’s car, and as he’s waiting for the vehicle, he sees Julie Andre tending to the younger orphans. He is fascinated by how she handles the children, and the matron explains that Julie is actually an orphan there too, and is the oldest one at 18.
Jervis is moved by her story and decides that he wants to adopt her and send her to school in America. Of course, his friends – the American ambassador and his trusted secretary Griggs – oppose the idea. Their age difference is one of the big issues and they convince Jervis that it does not look proper at all. So he agrees to keep it all anonymous. Back at the orphanage, an ecstatic Julie finds out the good news from the matron. Everything will be taken care of, including her clothes and expenses, and in return she just has to write a letter to her benefactor once a month. Julie is never to know who he is and must address these letters simply to “John Smith”. As she turns to go, she sees a car leaving the orphanage, its headlights showing only a lopsided shadow of a tall man. This is all she sees of her patron, a shadow that looks like a large spider – a daddy long legs. This is what she ends up calling him in her letters.
The movie shows us how she adjusts to her new life in the States, meeting new friends and doing well in school. The only people who ever read her letters to Daddy Long Legs are Griggs and Miss Pritchard, his assistant. As the years pass, these two, especially Miss Pritchard, grow to love Julie and are proud of her accomplishments at school. But as she’s about to graduate, she sends one heartfelt letter asking if for once, her Daddy Long Legs can reply to her. This touches Miss Pritchard so much that she convinces Griggs to pass it along to Jervis. Jervis finally reads all the letters and decides to visit the college. As it turns out, Jervis’ niece Linda is Julie’s roommate, so he has a reasonable excuse. Of course when he sees Julie again, she’s blossomed into a polished, sophisticated young lady. They spend some time together at a dance, and Julie even ends up visiting Jervis alone in New York when Linda is suddenly unable to go with her. There are some complications, with their age difference and unusual arrangement being the primary concerns, but of course everything gets resolved eventually and they end up happily ever after.
This is based on the classic novel by Jean Webster, and there were many changes in the adaptation. In the book, the orphan is Jerusha Abbott, an American. But with Leslie Caron in the mix, they had to make her a French orphan and change her name to Julie Andre (which I now realize is only two letters away from Julie Andrews). In the book, Jervis Pendleton doesn’t see Jerusha until after she’s spent a couple of years in college. The only reason he sends her to college is because he spoke with one of her teachers and read an essay she wrote. He is impressed by her talent, so he wants to help her. By contrast, movie-Jervis sees Julie first and then decides to help her. Although the movie makes it clear that he is drawn to her unique way with the children and does not really fall in love with her at first sight, it makes the movie more complicated than it should have been. Because he wants to educate her after seeing her, his friends have to keep reminding him that he’s making her look like a kept woman. This is the filmmakers’ roundabout way to remind us, the audience, that she is not in fact a kept woman and that Jervis is not -in the words of the Ambassador – a sugar daddy.
In real life, there’s a huge age difference between Astaire and Caron. He was 56 and she was 24 at the time of filming. But Astaire plays Jervis as an irreverent personality, and Caron carries herself in an assured way, so it doesn’t really come across as creepy. And in a way, I have to admire how the movie dares to treat the subject matter, because I imagine such a relationship would be considered risqué for 50s movies. I know movie adaptations of books are supposed to be considered interpretations, and Hollywood doesn’t need to stick to the words on the page. But a lot of the situations in the film seemed too contrived. Jervis and Jerusha’s relationship in the book worked because they met each other several times and got to know each other well. Jervis and Julie, on the other hand, met only two times in the movie. However, it is entirely possible that there were mentions of other dates off-screen, because to be honest, I was bored and spaced out several times. I’m so sorry because I love Fred Astaire (who knew this would happen, after my initial loathing for him in Holiday Inn?) but it wasn’t that compelling.
The best part of Daddy Long Legs was Griggs and Pritchard. The scene where they were reading Julie’s last letter was both funny and poignant. The matron of the orphanage, unlike in the book, is kind and supportive of Julie. This is one change I’m happy with, because the matron is played by the lovely Ann Codee. Remember her? She played Eurythmics teacher Madame Zarka in Bathing Beauty! The movie also gives us the smolderingly beautiful song “Something’s Gotta Give”, so at least it has that going for it. But on the whole it leaves much to be desired. There are many extended ballet scenes, and I get it, they’re meant to highlight Caron’s mad skills. But most of it just went over my head. It’s not so much a musical, as it is as a dance movie. And these scenes didn’t really serve the story or move it forward. They were mostly a repetition of things that were already resolved by the dialogue. The film could have focused more on the touching story of Jervis and Jerusha/Julie, of how they were actually two lonely souls that found each other. All in all, this isn’t exactly the kind of movie you’ll want to watch over and over.