THE BAND WAGON (1953)

  • Director: Vincente Minnelli
  • Writers: Screenplay by Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and Alan Jay Lerner, Music by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz
  • Starring: Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Oscar Levant, Nanette Fabray, Jack Buchanan, James Mitchell, and Robert Gist
  • Accolades: 3 Oscar Nominations (Best Original Screenplay, Best Adapted Score, and Best Costumes); 2008 Cahiers du Cinema Top 100 list (#83)
  • Where to Watch: Buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, and Apple TV

The Band Wagon was made by the great Arthur Freed musical unit at MGM, the same as An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain, among many others, sharing many members of its cast and crew with those movies, as well as its status as primarily a “jukebox musical” using songs already in the catalog owned by MGM. It is probably the least known of those three films today, but I am going to go out on a limb and say it’s definitely the one I’d be most inclined to rewatch. Some of that is me, on a basic level, preferring Fred Astaire’s seemingly effortless elegance over Gene Kelly’s undeniably impressive athleticism. But I also enjoy The Band Wagon because it just works better for me as a movie. It has characters with motivations beyond just “I fell in love,” the songs are, if occasionally non-sequiturs (some more than others), far more justified in context, and at least some of the satire more biting and specific. I’ll take this movie’s long, climactic “ballet” sequence, a film noir pastiche in which Fred Astaire ends up dance punching-and-kicking a bunch of goons (a surprisingly strong case for Astaire-as-action-star) over the way Singin’ in the Rain climaxes with twenty minutes of bizarre, completely incoherent (if sometimes visually impressive) silliness.

Sorry, there were some run on sentences in there. What I mean is, I liked The Band Wagon more than I expected to. A somewhat older than you might be used to Astaire plays “Tony Hunter,” who seems to be an only slightly-veiled version of Astaire at the time. Tony is a former “song and dance man” star of Hollywood musicals who people still remember but who hasn’t done a movie in a few years and is no longer a subject of lots of hot gossip. In the opening few minutes he is excited to learn that there are dozens of reporters waiting for his train from Los Angeles to New York (even in the era of air travel it seems like this should be way more of a thing still, but that is a long tangent and I won’t take the bait), but is soon let down when he learns that they’re there because Ava Gardner (playing herself in a cameo) is on the same train. In an effort to revive his career, in New York he reluctantly takes on the lead role in a new musical written by two of his old friends, a husband/wife team played by Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray.

These two (also a thinly-veiled version of real people, in this case Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who wrote both this movie and Singin’ in the Rain) intend their musical (also titled “The Band Wagon,” though no reason for the title is ever given) to be “fun entertainment” about a crime novel author who wants to do “more serious” writing. However, when they’re pitching their show to hot Broadway director “Jeffrey Cordova” (played by Jack Buchanan, heavily inspired by Jose Ferrer), he seizes on a comment that the writer has “made a deal with the devil” to turn the whole production into a “modern version of the Faust legend.” Cordova manages the public relations coup of casting a famed ballerina (played by Cyd Charisse) as the female lead, but his pretentions cause the opening night out of town to be seen as a total failure. Soon after, however, Hunter is vowing to keep things going with his own finances, the much lighter version of the musical turns out to be a hit, and Astaire and Charisse kiss at the end even though when they first met they hated each other.

Most of the songs in The Band Wagon were written by the songwriting team of Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz for a series of Broadway revues in the 1930s, the most successful of which was also called The Band Wagon and also starred Fred Astaire, though weirdly the two shows otherwise have almost nothing in common in terms of story. The song composed specifically for the film, interestingly, turned into by far its most memorable number and biggest hit. “That’s Entertainment!” was supposedly composed in about 45 minutes after producer Arthur Freed asked the duo for a new song for a certain spot in the movie. Despite a remarkable number of lyrics about Oedipus (“Where a chap kills his father and causes a lot of bother”) and Hamlet (“Some great Shakespearan scene/Where a ghost and a prince meet and everyone ends in mincemeat”), the song became a huge hit and was essentially adopted by MGM as its theme song. In the 1970s MGM started cashing in on its back catalog by releasing “compilation” films of clips from past hits, a series it chose to title That’s Entertainment!

Certainly I would not argue with the premise that “That’s Entertainment!” is the most memorable song in the movie, though an early, random scene where Fred Astaire gets a shoeshine and weirds everyone around him out by doing a very lengthy, involved dance about it (“Shine on Your Shoes”) is also pretty great out of context. There are actually 15 different musical numbers over the course of the movie, though some of them are surprisingly short and I think you might be struck over the course of the movie by the relatively small portion of the running time given over to singing and dancing. Or at least it felt that way to me, I don’t have actual math to back that up.

In their outlines, both The Band Wagon and Singin’ in the Rain are backstage satires, and both have “trying to save a seemingly disastrous show/movie” as their basic plot engine. But The Band Wagon’s characters, rather than being blindsided by the sound era like those in Singin’ in the Rain, are all simply getting older, and there is some hubris that has to be reined in. I’ll also take the supporting cast in this movie, particularly Jack Buchanan as the pretentious (which the movie thinks of as a bad thing), but basically a good guy, theater director who leads everyone nearly to ruin. Buchanan had actually been known as the “British Astaire” at one point, singing and dancing in 1930s musicals.

For his own part, Astaire is full on great here, though he was certainly, like his character, seen as past his prime from a box office perspective at the time. The Band Wagon was not a financial disaster but wasn’t seen as a big moneymaker for MGM at the time, certainly compared to many similar movies from the same time period. This might be why it has taken the movie a long time to settle into its spot in the canon. This would not be the last of the Astaire musicals (that would be 1968’s Finian’s Rainbow, which was probably a bad idea, and came more than a decade after the last “classic” Astaire performance, in 1957’s Silk Stockings, also with Charisse), but it feels very much like a swan song. It doesn’t have the very best dances or the very best songs, but I think overall this is probably my favorite of the big 1950s musicals that I’ve seen.

2 thoughts on “THE BAND WAGON (1953)

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