I’ve learnt to appreciate the Hollywood musicals of the 1930s but so far I’ve resisted the lure of 1950s musicals. I have childhood memories of seeing all the film versions of the Rogers and Hammerstein musicals, and absolutely hating them. Now I’m thinking I should give the Technicolor musicals of the 50s another chance, and Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon seemed like a reasonable place to start.
Made at MGM in 1953, The Band Wagon was a major box-office hit.
It’s a classic backstage musical. Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) is a fading movie star. Everybody says he’s washed up. Everybody except his two greatest fans Lily and Lester Marton (Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant). They’re a composing/songwriting team and they’ve just written a new Broadway musical for Tony. For reasons best known to themselves they have decided that Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan) should be the director. Cordova is talented but takes himself very seriously indeed, and has never directed a musical. He is a classical actor and he’s just a little bit pompous. In fact he’s very pompous.
Tony realises immediately that Cordova’s style is all wrong for him. Tony is just an old-fashioned song-and-dance man. Cordova wants to create art. Tony has nothing against art, but it’s not him. He’s a hoofer. But he desperately wants to get back on the Broadway stage and against his better judgment he agrees to the deal.
Cordova sees the show as a modern dance version of Faust, whereas Lily and Lester had written it as a light-hearted musical romp. Not surprisingly, when they take the show on the road prior to its New York opening it’s a disaster. The financial backers can’t back out quickly enough.
The opening night party turns into a wake, until Lester suggests that with this all this talent gathered together there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be able to put on a great show. That gets Tony Hunter all fired up and he decides they should abandon all the boring arty stuff and go back to doing Lily and Lester’s original idea of a light-hearted musical romp. Surprisingly, Jeffrey Cordova agrees. He admits he was wrong and now he wants Tony to take over the running of the show, but he still wants to be part of it.
Part of Jeffrey Cordova’s plan for an arty musical was to get prima ballerina Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse) as the female lead. Gabrielle, under the influence of her agent-manager Paul Byrd (James Mitchell), had always refused to lower herself to doing Broadway shows. But once she’s had a taste of good old-fashioned show business she’s hooked. She wants to do the show. And, in a typical Astaire touch, a dance routine between Tony and Gabrielle lets the audience in on the secret - they’re falling in love.
Ironically, for a movie that promotes the idea of lightweight entertainment over art, the movie has some very arty touches. The famous Girl Hunt ballet sequence is visually dazzling, but it’s very arty as well. It’s almost the sort of thing Jeffrey Cordova would have come up with.
Vincente Minnelli was renowned as one of the greatest exponents of the Hollywood musical and this movie is technically awe-inspiring. It’s filled with the sorts of visual tour-de-forces that can easily become sterile, just technique for technique’s sake (as in Gene Kelly’s musicals). But The Band Wagon has enough warmth and enthusiasm to avoid this pitfall. Minnelli reveals himself as both artist and showman.
And Fred Astaire effortlessly achieves the same combination of seemingly incompatible elements. This movie has a decidedly modern feel for 1953 and Astaire shows that he had no difficulty keeping up with the times. He and Cyd Charisse don’t have quite the chemistry that he had with Ginger Rogers but Charisse is likeable enough and she can certainly dance.
Jack Buchanan is perfect as Cordova. For all his pompousness he has a genuine enthusiasm for what he’s doing and he’s a big enough man to admit he was wrong. And he reveals himself as no mean song-and-dance man. The supporting cast is strong with Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray contributing to the fun.
Warner Home Video’s Region 4 release comes packed with extras, with Liza Minnelli’s commentary track (with Michael Feinstein) being a highlight. Liza clearly admires her father’s work enormously and her enthusiasm is infectious.
So has The Band Wagon converted me to the case of 1950s Hollywood musicals? Not entirely perhaps, but I’m certainly willing to explore this area in greater depth. The Band Wagon is certainly a thoroughly enjoyable concoction. Highly recommended.