Saturday, March 7, 2009

Target #262: The Band Wagon (1953, Vincente Minnelli)

TSPDT placing: #157
Directed by: Vincente Minnelli
Written by: Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Alan Jay Lerner (uncredited)

In the 1950s, nobody could beat M-G-M when it came to producing musicals, and The Band Wagon (1953) is certainly among their best. A musical comedy based around the staging of a musical comedy, Vincente Minnelli's joyously entertaining picture does for stage shows what Singin' in the Rain (1952) did for making movies. Fred Astaire, who retired in 1946 only to discover that he couldn't stop tapping, here successfully lampoons his aging public image (he was 54 years old), and yet somehow manages to make a romantic relationship with the stunning Cyd Charisse (32 years old) seem entirely plausible. Bing Crosby attempted to tackle a similar age discrepancy with Grace Kelly in High Society (1956), and, I'm afraid to say, didn't quite pull it off {though that film is still worthwhile viewing for all musical fans}. Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray provide light musical and comedic support, while Jack Buchanan is a veritable laugh riot as Jeffrey Cordova, a pretentious Orson Welles-like theatre director who manages to transform a light musical comedy into a desolate modern incarnation of "Faust."

Tony Hunter (Astaire) is a has-been, a washed-up musical comedy star who's all but faded from the public memory. Anonymity is a fate he's since accepted. When offered the starring role in a stage show written by his friends (and two remaining fans), Tony is at first reluctant, and even more so when he finds out that he'll have to stand his own alongside a beautiful and popular ballet dancer, Gabrielle Gerard (Charisse). It doesn't help that the director (Buchanan) seems oblivious to the show's intended genre, cramming in so much doom and gloom that the premiere audience leaves the theatre in a hushed despair, no doubt contemplating suicide. Can "The Band Wagon" be spruced up with comedy before it leaves them all bankrupt? Will Tony and Gabrielle overcome their differences and learn to like, or even love, each other? A happy ending is, of course, never in doubt, and the musical numbers are all completely enjoyable, even if songs like "Louisiana Hayride" and "Triplets" felt somewhat poorly integrated into the plot.

Certainly the most memorable of the film's musical numbers is "That's Entertainment," written by by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz, an infectious little ode to the joyfulness of the musical comedy genre. MGM musical fans would note that the song also featured prominently in the nostalgic documentary That's Entertainment: Part II (1976), in which Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire dance together, for only the second time in their careers. Cyd Charisse, whom we lost just last year, is absolutely gorgeous as ballet dancer Gabrielle Gerard, and her wordless pas de deux with Astaire in the park ("Dancing in the Dark") is one of the latter's all-time most most touching duets (equal, perhaps, with the "Never Gonna Dance" number in Swing Time (1936)). Also worth mentioning is a film noir-inspired stage musical sequence, its surrealism recalling the climax of An American in Paris (1951), with Astaire as a weary detective who is entranced by a shifty femme fatale – Cyd Charisse resurrecting her vampiric dancer from Singin' in the Rain (1952).

Currently my #8 film of 1953:
1) From Here To Eternity (Fred Zinnemann)
2) Stalag 17 (Billy Wilder)
3) I Confess (Alfred Hitchcock)
4) The Titfield Thunderbolt (Charles Crichton)
5) Le salaire de la peur {The Wages of Fear} (Henri-Georges Clouzot)
6) Roman Holiday (William Wyler)
7) Pickup on South Street (Samuel Fuller)
8) The Band Wagon (Vincente Minnelli)
9) The War Of The Worlds (Byron Haskin)
10) The Million Pound Note (Ronald Neame)


Jump_Raven said...

I hate to say this Andrew, but I watched The Band Wagon over Christmas and it made me want to vomit. I think it is one of the worst pieces of trash I have ever seen. It was everything that was wrong with musicals. I haven't seen anything good by Minnelli and that includes the overrated Meet Me In St. Louis. The only redeeming thing was the noir dance number. If only the rest of the film were as good.

ackatsis said...

Ouch! Strong words there, Raven.

As you can see, I had a lot of fun. Are you a fan of any musicals - say, "Singin' in the Rain" or "Top Hat?"

What about Jack Buchanan's performance as a maniacal theatrical director? I had a good laugh.

Jump_Raven said...

Strong words for a strong gut reaction.

I do enjoy musicals, but I don't like it when the plot of a musical is just a clothesline on which to hang musical numbers. I prefer the music to arise naturally from the story. If total integration can't be achieved then at least pay equal attention to both parts.

I love Singin' In The Rain and I always get enjoyment out of Fred and Ginger, except Follow The Fleet where they forgot that the act is Fred and Ginger, not mister can't sing Fred all by his lonesome and the occasional Ginger by herself.

My favorite musical would have to be The Music Man followed by The Sound Of Music.