Format: DVD from personal collection on kick-ass portable DVD player.
The Band Wagon from 1953 is one of those musicals that strikes at the whole meta-quality of a lot of musical theater. We sit and watch a film called The Band Wagon in which a cast of characters puts on a stage show called “The Band Wagon.” It’s also the sort of musical in which virtually every uttered syllable is done as broadly as possible to make sure that we in the audience get that it’s funny. An early scene in which the two playwrights talk about their idea is filled with shouting and whooping and a shit-ton of congratulations but pitifully little about their actual idea. Rough ride, right?
Well, yes and no. See this is also a musical comedy that features the talents of Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. It’s physically impossible for me to completely dislike something with Fred Astaire in it because I like Fred Astaire. I feel the same way about Gene Kelly, just for the record. Astaire is a likeable actor, and even with a thin plot and considerable overacting from most of the cast, he’s a pure pleasure to watch dance. I mean, really, if you can’t sit back and smile when Fred Astaire is swinging Cyd Charisse around, you may not have much of a soul.
Tony Hunter (Astaire) is a fading star of musical film headed to New York. His friends Lily (Nanette Fabray) and Lester Marton (Oscar Levant), have written a new musical comedy and have lined up the perfect guy to direct it: Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan). Cordova is the biggest thing in New York theater, running two hit shows and starring in a third. According to Lily and Lester, he can do anything.
What Jeff wants to do, though, is take their lighthearted comedy about a writer who sells out and turn it into a modern retelling of Faust with demons and soul selling and heavy, heavy drama. He wants to reinvent Tony Hunter, and figures that this will do the trick. He throws in the added cache of bringing in the top choreographer Paul Byrd (James Mitchell). Byrd brings with him Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse), the premier ballet dancer in New York.
As these things happen in musicals, we learn that Tony is overwhelmed by the production and intimidated by Gaby. She, for her part, is a long-time fan of Tony Hunter and is intimidated by him. When they meet, the accidentally insult each other and decide that they can’t work with each other, but are forced to. There’s the added tension that Gaby is romantically attached to Paul Byrd in addition to being his protégé.
Ah, everything goes pretty much as you’d expect. The show is a massive overblown flop, and rather than fold the show, the gang gets together and goes back to the original script and the original songs written by Lily and Lester. They even bring Jeff back into the fold, as he proves to be a far better person than his ego would suggest at first. Further, this is the break Gaby needs with Paul Byrd; she stays with the show and he leaves it, and the implication is there that this spells the end of their relationship as well, which opens the door for the happy dancing ending with Gaby and Tony pirouetting off into the sunset.
I’d be hard pressed to say I like this as a film. It’s dippy and broadly acted in a way that bothers me because it strays so far from reality. But again, I can’t dislike it completely because of just how damn good the dancing is, and it’s really good. Vincente Minnelli isn’t my favorite director by any stretch, but I can’t deny that he had a real talent for putting together one hell of a great musical number. Most of the musical numbers are wild and raucous and beautifully staged and filmed. They are a true pleasure to watch.
But here’s the other thing—when they take the show on the road, we naturally get a lot of the numbers that they’re putting back into the film. The film is smart enough to not show us all of the Faust stuff, but we do get all of the new stuff. While these numbers are good (including the show-stopping “Triplets”), they don’t at all seem to have anything to do with the show they’re putting on. I mean, it’s a show about a writer going through a crisis of conscience, so why is there a hoedown? Why is the Triplets number there at all? I know I’m overthinking this, but dammit, it just doesn’t fit.
So, it feels disjointed. There’s no way around the fact that this show (which is naturally a smash hit) doesn’t make a damn bit of sense. And that’s ultimately where I am with this as a film. I can’t admit to liking it or even being able to parse what they’re trying to do in anything like a real-world situation, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t enjoy watching it. Even the numbers that I didn’t like much, like Fred Astaire singing about his shoe shine, are undeniably worth seeing. And the number with Cyd Charisse in the gangster club is probably top-10 all-time great musical scenes.
So, while it’s not a great movie, it’s undeniably a spectacle worth watching, and you’ll walk away with a smile.
Why to watch The Band Wagon: Because Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse spend a good portion of this film dancing, dammit.
Why not to watch: It’s not nearly as good when the cast isn’t on stage.
Of all of the musicals in the book, I think I like this the least. Yes, the dancing is good, but everything else is bothersome. I just couldn't look past how much Astaire and Charisse's characters were mismatched. I suspect it's the age difference--the main thing that miffed me about Funny Face.ReplyDelete
There is that, but damn--they look great on the dance floor together.Delete
I liked this far more than I did Guys and Dolls and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, which I think are both sexist to the point of misogyny.
Perhaps. Yet, I absolutely adore Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. My feminist friends would be so disappointed. LOL!Delete
I call it Stockholm Syndrome: The Musical. I'm immediately repelled when duplicating something called "The Rape of the Sabine Women" is seen as a model for proper behavior.Delete
It is one of my fellow blogger's fave musical and I haven't seen it yet,now it looks like that it's not everyone's slice of pie.ReplyDelete
The picture here is the same as in the book,looks very silly I have to say.
It's a good number (it's the "Triplets" song mentioned above). The problem is that it doesn't seem to have a connection with anything else going on in the film or in the play within the film.Delete
I saw this only a couple weeks ago when I happened on TCM just a couple minutes before it started. I remembered it was in the book, so I watched the first broadcast movie I had seen for many months.ReplyDelete
Your paragraph about how the various musical acts can't possibly fit together was my biggest problem with the movie. It's not a big problem, but it was one I had to consider before deciding to ignore it.
The movie is also "meta" in that originally Astaire's character is an aging dancer who's signature appearance is in top hat and tails - which is of course Astaire himself. Astaire's character wants to break out of that mold and this new show will allow him to do it. Of course, this movie allows Astaire to do it. Astaire's character learns that maybe reinvention isn't all it's cracked up to be - and one of the numbers has him in top hat and tails - which at the time also served to give the older Astaire fans what they want to see, too.
Overall, I would say I liked this movie. Again, like you said, mostly for the musical performances.
I really do like the performances here, and the long number at the end is really a great one. I like many of the other numbers, but like I said, they just don't fit with anything. It's like someone created them and they needed a film to stick them in, so they went here.Delete
I think I'd rather watch the movie they're making in The Stunt Man than the show they're putting together in The Band Wagon.ReplyDelete
Of course, Midsummer Madness trumps everything.
I agree--one of my minor problems with The Band Wagon is that the show they're putting on seems to be just a collection of unrelated numbers. It comes off as weird regardless of how much fun they are to watch individually.Delete
Well, this is more or less how I feel about it, except that I do not care much for dancing in general. The good parts are good, some of the laughs are really funny and the scenery is beautiful thoughout. But man, I would have loved to see the Faust show!ReplyDelete
Watch enough of these, and eventually you learn to appreciate the musical numbers for what they are. Admittedly, that can take some time.Delete