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The Band Wagon

The Band Wagon
Warner DVD
1953 / Color / 1:37 flat full frame / 111 min. / Street Date March 15, 2005 / 26.99
Starring Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Oscar Levant, Nanette Fabray, Jack Buchanan, James Mitchell
Cinematography Harry Jackson
Art Direction Preston Ames, Cedric Gibbons
Film Editor Albert Akst
Original Music Arthur Schwartz & Howard Dietz
Musical numbers Michael Kidd
Written by Betty Comden, Adolph Green
Produced by Arthur Freed
Directed by Vincente Minnelli

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Band Wagon may not be as inspired or original as some of its fellow MGM musicals but it's still Savant's favorite. There's no high concept as in Singin' in the Rain and unlike An American in Paris it's not necessarily out to be the most artistic picture ever made. But for this viewer it's the most satisfying. As with Fred Astaire's early RKO films, this backstage musical comedy makes do with less and achieves more. It wins us over with the bare rudiments of musical entertainment - performance and personality.


As his mementos are auctioned off, has-been Hollywood hoofer Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) returns to Broadway in the hopes of revitalizing the stage career he left two decades before. Enthusiastic writers Lester and Lily Marton (Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray) meet Tony at the station and find him in a strange kind of melancholy. But it's hard to stay neutral around the egotistical man of the theater Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan), who wants to do a high-class musical version of Faust, pairing Tony as a modern tough guy tempted by a siren played by a snooty ballet dancer, Gabrielle Girard (Cyd Charisse).

The Band Wagon is pure enjoyment from one end to the other. I've never understood complaints about the lack of a great performance from Cyd Charisse, as she's not there to recite Shakespeare but to be lovely and show off her fantastic legs in motion. She's even a more magical dance partner for Astaire than she was with Gene Kelly. The film plays at a level of pleasant artificiality that completely excuses Gabrielle Girard's rather cold way of expressing her affection.

It's Astaire's movie anyway, a picture with a sense of nostalgia for a great age passing. Both "Tony Hunter" and Astaire graciously play to the fact that sooner or later even the greatest stars have to bow out. Astaire was a 'quit while you're ahead' type of performer who needed intermittent encouragement to believe that his kind of entertainment was still necessary, and the accolades for The Band Wagon must have been quite a boost. As Tony Hunter he feels sorry for himself but is too spirited to let things get him down. Tony overcomes the shock of not being recognized around new screen idols like Ava Gardner, feels insecure about his height and is unsure of his old-fashioned style. But he jumps into Jeffrey Cordova's half-baked classical mish-mosh in a spirit of full cooperation.  1

Part of the appeal of the movie is its sense of perspective and good will. Fred Astaire could surely dictate any terms he wanted but had no trouble allowing a gentle rib at himself as a performer past his prime. Not only that, Astaire generously shares the spotlight with a great stage performer really past his prime, and one who had to be fairly obscure to general American audiences, Jack Buchanan. That's graciousness all the way.

The Band Wagon gets to be sort of an 81/2 for the dynamite writing team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green, as they essentially write themselves in as a bickering married couple. With Green being played by the cantankerous and difficult Oscar Levant, the bickering part was more or less guaranteed. Levant must have been awfully talented to have been tolerated in show business.

The parody of putting on a high-toned and pretentious play is a new twist on the backstage musicals of the thirties. Instead of hoofer chorus girls elbowing each other for jobs and the ingenue songwriter being cheated by his backers, we have a huge production being driven off a cliff by a funny megalomaniac who has lost sight of reality. The Faust rehearsals are great opportunities to bounce comedy zingers off things like overproduced scenery, ridiculous stage pyrotechnics, feuding talent and feeble writing. They even get in some fun jibes at Marlon Brando and method acting with the terrific "You can't spread ethics on a cracker" speech, the one that makes hash of over-stylized dialogue.

The first two thirds of the show covers the hilarious debacle of the Faust musical, culminating in a gloriously understated floppo opening night. Just when we think we're going to witness the show, the picture instead opts for wailing choruses of misery and shows us artwork visions of utter failure and desolation - a tumbleweed in the desert, the Isle of the Dead and the Egg that Jeffrey Codova's show has laid. It's priceless. The investors and other first-nighters leave the theater like zombies at their own funeral, and Tony finds himself the only guest at a lavish opening party.

Singin' in the Rain was conceived as a way of rounding up a group of older songs, and The Band Wagon does the same for Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz, mainly concentrating on material at least twenty years old. They provide a new song That's Entertainment that does the amazing feat of equalling the similar Irving Berlin hit from Annie Get Your Gun, There's No Business Like Show Business. The central romantic setpiece while the cast is rehearsing is Dancing in the Dark, and there's little need to describe its grace and beauty except to contrast Astaire's effortless smoothness with Gene Kelly's athletic dynamism. Astaire dances as if he's nothing human, immune to mortal concerns like gravity and fatigue.

After Cordova's show flops, the plot has run its course and The Band Wagon doesn't pretend that it has any dramatic goals or higher themes. Everyone including Cordova throws their lot in with Tony to rework Faust into an old-fashioned string of variety numbers. With the barest of connective tissue (mostly how Gabrielle is going to extricate herself from a commitment to her boyfriend Paul Byrd) we see the stars in four or five killer numbers in a row. They're all perfect beyond words. Without comment, Nanette Fabray's writer Lily Marton graduates into a socko performer for Louisiana Hayride and Triplets. Although the numbers are simple in conception - Astaire and Buchanan just do a nostalgic soft-shoe for I Guess I'll Have To Change My Plan - the execution and performance level are way above even the MGM average - this is the A-Team, without a doubt.

The capper is the Girl Hunt Ballet, where Cordova's fizzle is distilled into a Mickey Spillane spoof so deadly-accurate, it's better than the originals. Astaire is Rod Riley, slinging tough talk like "I hit hard - And I hate hard" while making fun of private detective conventions and clichés. The ballet takes up the challenge of Gene Kelly's elaborate dance epics and creates one just as artful and twice as funny. Anybody taking film noir too seriously should consider this as mandatory viewing. The parody is so good I can imagine Bill Gaines seeing The Band Wagon in 1953 and realizing that his brand-new Mad Magazine is going to work after all.

The ending is pure corn, which matters not when we've been so thoroughly entertained. All those unrelated musical numbers are encore delights for a valued audience, and the actual finish is a curtain call.

Besides Ava Gardner, keep a quick look-out for Julie Newmar in the Girl Hunt salon - she goes by in a flash. Barbara Ruick is also visible in one of the train scenes.

The first disc of Warner's two-disc special edition of The Band Wagon has a new commentary with Liza Minnelli and performer/fan Michael Feinstein, and an Astaire trailer gallery. The second disc has a number of interesting treasures. Although only his logo is credited, Peter Fitzgerald's lengthy docu on the film has excellently-cut music to buffer a number of insightful interviews old and new. We learn that the costumer made little copies of Charisse's costumes for six year-old Liza Minnelli, who visited the set often. Actor James Mitchell, who plays the thankless role of Charisse's humorless boyfriend, felt shunned by the cast on the set as well and never saw the movie out of spite. In an older Turner interview Michael Kidd offers some great insights but the most interesting contribution is from Nanette Fabray, who reports that the shooting for this entertainment was anything but joyful - nothing but problems and aggravation all the way through. She clashed with Levant, and Buchanan used his stay in Hollywood for major dental surgery. It's almost unwelcome to learn that shooting the fiendishly simple-looking Triplets number was an exercise in masochism, with the three actors' legs bound to allow them hop off those high chairs - onto their knees. They needed novocaine shots to keep filming. We see stills of the scene where the trio does not look at all happy.

The second docu focuses on director Vincente Minnelli. It's a Men Who Made the Movies show from the early 70s (?) produced by Richard Shickel. He starts off comparing Minnelli to Gustave Flaubert and then lets a lengthy director interview trade off with career clips.

Especially welcome is a an old Vitaphone short subject with Jack Buchanan in his heyday twenty years earlier. His personality is essentially the same!

The deleted Two-Faced Woman scene is here in cut form as well as in raw dailies. India Adams sings for Cyd Charisse; anybody familiar with That's Entertainment III will already know that the audio portion of the song was immediately recycled in the excruciating Joan Crawford vehicle Torch Song.

The picture on view of The Band Wagon is fine, miles ahead of any previous video version. There are intermittent flaws in the Technicolor that bleed through, but they're minor. The movie doesn't seem to have gone through the elaborate digital recompositing of other Turner-Warner Technicolor offerings of late, but it still looks good even if skin tones don't pop as they did on Singin' in the Rain and a couple of others.

There is a slick new 5.1 track, as well as a mono original.  2

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Band Wagon rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary, two docus, trailers,short subject Jack Buchanan and the Glee Quartet
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 11, 2005


1. In On the Beach six years later, scientist Astaire and floozy Ava Gardner are supposed to have had an affair in the past, and I always thought it was amusing to relate her cameo here with their later pairing. Those in the know seem to think that the insufferable and grossly overextended Jeffrey Cordova character is a pointed lampoon of the actor-writer-director José Ferrer, who apparently was so prolific, he had plays running simultaneously in New York. That kind of mean-spiritedness wouldn't seem to be the style of the writers Comden and Green, but, if they say so ...

2. The Band Wagon was a hit, but the show to have one's money in must have been the non-existent but real-sounding movie The Proud Land. Cordova's show is rehearsing, and The Proud Land is playing across the street. When they return from a lengthy out-of-town tour, the show is still playing! The Proud Land is even featured on billboards in the Girl Hunt Ballet. A lost classic?

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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