There is a maxim in Hollywood that seems to hold true: out of blind chaos and confusion, great art is forged. Indeed, in 1949’s The Third Man, Orson Welles eloquently summarized this conundrum thus: “In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed. But they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love…five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? …the cuckoo clock!”
The behind-the-scenes conflicts afflicting director, Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon (1953) could be argued, inadvertently, to be its salvation; a pedestrian premised musical (about a Hollywood has been heading back to Broadway to recoup a comeback) transformed into urbane and sophisticated cinema entertainment of the highest order. When The Band Wagon had its premiere, it was universally hailed as a masterpiece; Bosley Crowther calling it the best musical of the moment, the year and quite possibly, of all time. Minnelli brought his own literate style to bear upon the project, his phenomenal use of color to evoke mood, and finally, his sublime wit in realizing the vignettes as scripted by Adolph Green and Betty Comden’s acerbic and self-effacing verve for black comedy.
If, as Minnelli had suggested a year earlier, The Bad and the Beautiful was an exposé on the posers of picture-making, then The Band Wagon became symbolic of Minnelli’s brilliant debunking the mythologies when putting on a live show in the ‘legitimate’ theater. Possibly, Minnelli, Comden and Green had been influenced by Joseph L. Mankewicz’s All About Eve (1950); the Oscar-winning accolade to these presumably cultured thespians and their salacious backstabbing. Indeed, the machinations taking place behind the scenes to will The Band Wagon into existence were far more complex and bittersweet than anything seen on the screen. This was, after all, a big and splashy movie musical of such rarified ilk that only Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in its prime could produce with any degree of confidence; imbued with all the colorful panache a true artist like Minnelli could afford it. But even for MGM, whose motto had always been ‘do it big and give it class’, The Band Wagon acquired a distinct mantle of quality, placing it a decided cut above the rest.
Curiously, confidence seemed to be lacking in the film’s star, Fred Astaire, who, by 1950 was considered something of a quaint relic from another time. In fact, after Astaire’s split from Ginger Rogers in 1939, a series of uneven films followed. If not for Gene Kelly breaking his ankle, it is doubtful Astaire would have returned to movies, choosing instead to retire as early as 1948; his re-emergence in MGM’s Easter Parade reinvigorating his popularity with audiences. MGM’s excitement over Astaire’s ‘comeback’ was almost immediately quashed by his reunion picture with Rogers; 1949’s The Barkley’s of Broadway; a movie that attempted to advance the dancing duo’s on-camera relationship from sparring singles to feuding marrieds. Although yielding to several clever numbers, ‘Bouncing The Blues Away’, the novelty ‘Shoes With Wings On’ and a reprise of ‘They Can’t Take That Away from Me’ (first sung – but never danced - by Astaire to Rogers in 1937’s Shall We Dance) The Barkley’s Of Broadway reaffirmed the Astaire/Rogers magic distilled into formula, quaintly passé instead of cutting edge. Astaire had another reason to consider retirement. His wife, Phyllis Potter was badly ailing from cancer. In the midst of this personal crisis, Astaire chose to spend his free time at her side. In hindsight, Minnelli is extremely fortunate to have snagged him.
Meanwhile, in preparing their first draft of the screenplay for The Band Wagon, Comden and Green were well aware Astaire’s popularity – if not his reputation – had waned in Hollywood, basing their fictional character, Tony Hunter loosely on Astaire’s own predicament. It was a dicey gesture. But in fact, Astaire loved it and immediately agreed to partake in the project. The script gives Astaire ample opportunity to be self-effacing. At one point he expounds, “Step right this way, ladies and gentlemen, Egyptian mummies, extinct reptiles, and Tony Hunter, the grand old man of the dance!” Astaire, who on a good day could be counted upon to be a generally private person, proved something of a remote figure on the set in between takes. Co-star Nanette Fabray later recalled him as quite aloof. Possibly - although one should first consider by the time The Band Wagon went before the cameras, Phyllis was in the last stages of her illness. As such, Astaire’s lack of congeniality could definitely be overlooked, if not forgiven.
Comden and Green had based the collusions in their screenplay largely from their own experiences, even writing themselves in as secondary characters, Lester (Oscar Levant) and Lily Marton (Nanette Fabray); the playwriting team responsible for ‘the show’ within this show. It ought to have been joy galore, except Levant proved neurotically unmanageable; a self-professed hypochondriac who, having suffered one heart attack prior to committing to this film, was not about to do anything that could even remotely contribute to his having a second. Levant’s terms and conditions were often ridiculous, although he usually had his way. Fabray, the only star not to come from this Hollywood-ized bouillabaisse of creativity, found such conditions, odd to say the least. At one point, she and Levant had a parting of the ways, Fabray allowing her temper to get the better of her. The crew applauded her efforts, but Astaire and Minnelli, too absorbed in other aspects of the film-making process, barely noticed her volatile damage control.
Like so many truly outstanding musicals made at MGM, The Band Wagon was the brainchild of producer, Arthur Freed; a great connoisseur. Initially begun under the working title, ‘I Love Luisa’, Freed had elected to make a movie celebrating the collaborative efforts of song writers, Howard Dietz (who later became an MGM publicist and was responsible for the creation of its ‘Leo the Lion’ studio logo) and Arthur Schwartz (an exec at the studio). Freed’s similarly plotted song book revues had generally met with great critical and commercial success. So, he began to scour the Dietz/Schwartz catalog for songs to similarly fit in between a threadbare plot, some dating all the way back to 1923. He also made a demand for two new tunes to be written expressly for his movie. The first would be an ode to the mantras of showbiz, on par with Irving Berlin’s ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’; the second, a sublime parody of the film noir detective/thriller. Undaunted, Dietz and Schwartz departed for a working lunch across the street from the studio, returning a half hour later with ‘That’s Entertainment!’ – just about the greatest singular summation of all the edicts, precepts and plot devices in movie-land make-believe. Almost immediately, the Production Code objected to the line: ‘The plot can be hot, simply teeming with sex’; Arthur Freed, mildly amused, going to bat for his lyricists and winning his case to retain the line in the song.
The other monumental composition committed by Dietz and Schwartz eventually became ‘The Girl Hunt Ballet’; a delicious spoof on Mickey Spillane’s hardboiled detective thrillers with Astaire reinventing his image as the epitome of an impeccably manicured, rough-talking gumshoe on the trail of a femme fatale. ‘Girl Hunt’ is a splendid fantasia of disparate melodies, its ever-evolving mood and tempo wildly shifting from a romantic pas deux in the New York subway to an evocative apache inside ‘Dem Bone’s speakeasy, devolving into a climactic bar room brawl. The ‘plot’ to ‘Girl Hunt’ is convivial; Astaire playing Rod Riley, a stiff-mannered private dick in white suit and fedora, (the absolute antithesis of his trademarked, tuxedoed gentleman about town) who goes in search of a killer with only three clues; a puff of smoke, a hank of hair and a piece of fabric. He meets two woman along the way; a presumably naïve blonde and a heavily-mascaraed brunette; both affectingly played by Cyd Charisse. The real surprise is neither is what they first appear; the blonde, actually the killer; the brunette, destined to create havoc in Rod’s personal life for some time to follow. “She was bad,” Astaire’s cool gumshoe admits before walking off with the dark-haired vamp, “But she was my kind of woman.”
At a final cost of $314, 475, ‘Girl Hunt’ was a sizable investment on a picture to wind up costing MGM $2,169,120 to produce. And, at least in theory, it tread water too familiar to movie audiences; the insertion of a ‘ballet’ sequence having been pilfered from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s stage hit, Oklahoma!, already appeared on film, and to definitive effect, in Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948) before rising to even greater heights in Freed’s own An American in Paris (1951) and Singin’ In The Rain (1952). But Minnelli saw to it ‘Girl Hunt’ emerged as neither copycat nor competitor to these aforementioned contributions. Only in hindsight are the inspirations transparent: Bogart’s Philip Marlowe and the noir template effortlessly translated into musical terminology. In any event, ‘Girl Hunt’ would remain the only number to break the proscenium; Minnelli’s camera wading through its grime and crime-infested, smoke-filled underworld. Unlike the other numbers ‘staged’ for a supposed Broadway debut, Girl Hunt could never be achieved on an actual stage; a point of contention no one, least of all the critics reviewing The Band Wagon, seemed to notice.
With few exceptions, Minnelli adheres, almost religiously, to maintain the proscenium during the rest of the proposed stage revue; using sunburst lighting effects to add dimensionality to the exercise. The last third of The Band Wagon is a cornucopia for memorable Dietz/Schwartz pop tunes; Cyd Charisse (dubbed by India Adams) belting out, ‘New Sun in the Sky’; Astaire, with an assist from British matinee idol, Jack Buchanan, casually strolling through ‘I Guess I’ll Have To Change My Plans’ and Nanette Fabray, igniting the screen with a rambunctious, ‘Louisiana Hayride’. Interestingly, Buchanan – a major star in his own right – was positively terrified of working with Astaire. Even more fascinating, there appears to be no hint of this trepidation in their numbers together; particularly during the aforementioned song that comes across as effortless soft-shoe with oodles of charm put over by this pair of suave sophisticates.
Perhaps the most joyous number of them all is ‘Triplets’; a hilarious spoof performed by Astaire, Fabray (a last minute substitute for Oscar Levant, who refused to partake) and Buchanan; the trio on their knees, fitted into leather saddles with prosthetic baby shoes attached to their fronts. Because of the considerable strain, the principles could only work for roughly twenty minutes at a time. Even so, it became rather obvious neither Astaire nor Buchanan relished the idea of being fitted into infant’s clothes, complete with doily bonnets. Fabray, on the other hand, is having herself a ball, squeezed between this reticent pair and playing the number to its fullest. She is the spark that makes this number click, Dietz changing one of the lyrics at the last minute to read “MGM has got a Leo, but mama has got a trio, she is proud confessed three is a crowd!”
The most elegant number is undeniably, the Astaire/Charisse pas deux; Dancing in the Dark, set against an ersatz Central Park ‘exterior’, photographed entirely on an MGM soundstage. Pairing Astaire with the leggy Charisse, professionally trained as a ballerina, Dancing in the Dark evolves into a fascinating fusion of contradictory dance esthetics. It is also the moment when Astaire and Charisse’s counterparts in the film – Astaire’s deflated Tony Hunter and Charisse’s uppity, Gabrielle Gerard, suddenly realize they can dance together. The dance itself is as much about this discovery as it morphs into an erotically charged symbiosis; the hoofer and the prima ballerina unexpectedly blending into a singular expression of fluid movement. Costume designer, Mary Ann Nyberg had already completed sketches for Charisse’s outfit for this number when Arthur Freed took an interest in Nyberg’s own simple-pleated ensemble, bought from an Arizona catalog retailer for $25. Urging Nyberg to recreate the outfit, with minor embellishments for the movie, the designer was fairly amused when her ‘off the rack’ purchase cost the studio a whopping $1,000 to reproduce.
The Band Wagon derives its namesake from a 1931 Broadway revue, not coincidentally, also having starred Fred Astaire with his sister Adele. The film, The Band Wagon bears no earthly resemblance to its predecessor, except, perhaps, in the way the musical numbers are collectively presented in the last third, meant to replicate the stage revue format. Initially, Freed did not consider using the hit show’s name for his movie, chiefly because 2oth Century-Fox owned the rights and were to part with its rental for a cool $10,000. However, as the story began to take shape in Comden and Green’s fertile imaginations, it became fairly obvious ‘I Love Luisa’ could not remain the working title for very long, despite Freed having retained the song for an amusing vignette in his movie. And so, Freed acquiesced, paid Fox its stipend and appropriated the title, ‘The Band Wagon’ for his feature.
Minnelli encountered repeated delays, both from Oscar Levant’s chronic refusal to do any work he alone regarded as ‘strenuous’ and therefore detrimental to his health, but also because of Jack Buchanan’s extensive and ongoing dental work; the star repeatedly ramped up on novocaine and unable to work. Meanwhile, Mary Ann Nyberg’s involvement was met with open hostility from MGM’s unionized cloth cutters, who deliberately sabotaged several of her designs until Freed intervened on Nyberg’s behalf. In tandem, scenic designer, Oliver Smith and choreographer, Michael Kidd – both new to the ‘Freed unit’ – were to realize an in-house nepotism that did not extend its welcoming embrace to their talents or suggestions. Kidd encountered grave reluctance from Astaire who, admittedly liked his work on previous movies but remained unconvinced that their respective – and very different – choreographic styles could mesh. To put Astaire’s mind at ease, Kidd rehearsed his routines after Astaire had already gone home for the day, only showing him the steps after they had been meticulously worked out. Lingering friction between Smith and musical arranger Roger Edens was quelled by Freed, who could be counted upon to implicitly back his handpicked talent; Edens, who perhaps bristled against Smith in private, could distinctly recognize his contributions nonetheless.
After a buoyant main title sequence, the credits set against a prominently displayed top hat, white gloves and walking stick, we pull back to the interior of an auction house selling off the personal effects of Tony Hunter; a has been Hollywood hoofer east bound for New York. Aboard the 20th Century Limited, Hunter overhears a pair of middle-aged businessmen discussing his fall from grace in movie land. He agrees with their assessment of his ‘career’, exiting the train at Grand Central and almost immediately confronted by a small army of gentlemen from the press, who momentarily ‘interview’ him before turning their ravenous attentions to the real star in their pursuit, Ava Gardner (playing herself). She is cordial and engaging, approaching Tony with warm affection for a brief moment. Now, alone on the platform, Tony is surprised to find Lily and Lester Marton singing his praises inside the station with banners raised as his fan club of two.
The duo has been very hard at work on a new play for Tony to star in. Better still, they know exactly the man to direct it: Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan) – a brilliant devotee of the theater with three simultaneous successes running on the Great White Way (a nod to Jose Ferrer, who, in fact, had three Broadway hits on his plate at one time). But first, the Martons want to introduce Tony to his leading lady; prima ballerina, Gabrielle Gerard, and her choreographer/boyfriend, Paul Byrd (James Mitchell). Gabby is as reticent to give up the ‘legitimate’ theater to dance with Tony as he is to think his hoofing will be best served by entering this ‘new phase’ in his career. “She’s wonderful,” Tony tells the Martons, “…but I can’t dance with her!” Next, the Martons and Tony attend Cordova’s production of King Lear, pitching their idea to the techy impresario. Cordova is captivated, but incredibly full of his own prestige, sideswiping the Marton’s premise as a modern-day version of Faust. The Martons are unconvinced and so is Tony; their anxieties put into higher gear still as Cordova pitches an entirely different project to his backers.
Reluctantly painted into a corner to accept, Tony, Gabby, Paul and the Martons embark upon the harrowing prospect of bringing Cordova’s vision of their play to light. But the New Haven tryouts are a disaster; Lester latching onto a buxom chorine, much to Lily’s jealous frustrations. Worse, Cordova has hijacked the show, putting existentially ridiculous lines like “Did you ever try spreading ideals on a cracker?” into their more straight forward script. Cordova’s inability to grasp the concept of an effervescent musical revue all but tanks everyone’s enthusiasm for the project. Although they continue to trudge onward, the cast has begun to suspect they have all stepped into some very deep artistic quicksand from which no reprieve is possible. At this intersection in the plot, Gabby and Paul’s personal relationship begins to unravel. Tony is a comfort to Gabby now, and the two realize that whatever the outcome, they can dance together.
Cordova is the last to come to this conclusion; despite a hilariously bad rehearsal. Minnelli spares us the indignation of having to see just how awful it could be, The Band Wagon’s out of town premiere is instead summarized by two still images; the first, a sketch of ominously hooded figures traveling across the River Styx, accompanied by a moaning chorus, immediately followed by a dissolve to a very large egg; the joke rather obvious – the show has already laid one. The after cast party is a washout. No one attends. But Tony later discovers a small troupe of revelers having their own intimate ‘good time’ in one of the hotel rooms. Reunited with Lester and Lily, also Gabby, Tony is imbued with renewed optimism. These are talented people. They just need to re-channel their efforts toward the Marton’s original concept. “We’re going to throw out all that junk,” Tony admits, before realizing Cordova is already in the room, ears perked and intently listening to his every word. Admitting he has been misguided in his efforts thus far, Cordova offers to support Tony in any way he can; the old warhorse ‘hey kids, let’s put on a show’ scenario (so much a part of the MGM musical) rearing its predictable head. Shortly thereafter the newly revised ‘Band Wagon’ has its second out of town preview.
In the layering of musical numbers that follows, we see all the elements of a colorful and tune-filled extravaganza come to light. Momentum continues to build right up to the ground-breaking Broadway debut and the premiere of a brand new musical number, ‘The Girl Hunt Ballet’. Afterward, Tony can seemingly find no one from the cast still lingering backstage to partake in his elation. On the contrary, upon leaving his dressing room, he finds the entire cast assembled on stage, singing ‘For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow’. Gabby, who has decided to leave Paul, offers her gratitude and her love; the implication being their lives together will endure long after The Band Wagon has performed its last show.
Three weeks into shooting The Band Wagon in standard 1.33:1 Academy aspect ratio, Vincente Minnelli was informed the picture would be cropped to accommodate Hollywood’s burgeoning fascination with ‘widescreen’ pictures. Appalled, Minnelli and Arthur Freed went to bat against the New York front offices, explaining that if the image was cropped it would cut off both the tops of the actor’s heads as well as their feet, thereby ruining the esthetics in Minnelli’s carefully composed visuals. Reluctantly, Loewe’s Incorporated allowed Minnelli’s original to stand. But The Band Wagon would mark the last ‘full screen’ movie musical made at MGM, and, in 3-strip Technicolor; another process soon to be abandoned for the cheaper Eastman monopack. Given all the unpleasantness between its often warring creative factions, The Band Wagon emerges as a featherweight confection: remarkable, amusing and imbued with some of the finest song and dance routines ever committed to film. A colossal hit with the public and critics alike, it illustrated Minnelli’s escalating concept for the movie musical as a genuine art form. Better still, it reinvigorated Fred Astaire’s movie career. Within the year, Astaire’s wife, Phyllis Potter died. But Astaire would go on to star in many more films throughout the 50’s, 60’s and even early 70’s; diversifying his portfolio to include dramatic performances as well. In years to come, both Arthur Freed and Vincente Minnelli would regard The Band Wagon with warm affection. Despite its arduous collaborations, their blood, sweat and tears had yielded a masterful confection all could take pride in and recall with a faint glimmer of wide-eyed relief.
Ah, here’s the real deal! All aboard, folks, because Warner Home Video has delivered the goods on this classy entertainment. . What was a fairly impressive offering on DVD, given Warner’s patented Ultra-Resolution’ restoration process has been given sincere consideration and a mostly miraculous upgrade to hi-def. Flesh tones remain still a little too pinkish for my tastes. But this is a minor quibbling. Better still, Warner has gone back to the drawing board on this one; removing the minor water damage that had persisted during Fred and Cyd’s pas deux to ‘Dancing in the Dark’. Lurid colors abound, particularly reds and navy blues. There’s still a queer residue of softness here and there, but nothing like the overall lack of sharpness on the DVD. You’re going to love this sincerely. The DTS 5.1 is a minor revelation, exhibiting a hearty robustness I didn’t expect, the score sounding absolutely spectacular. Extras have all been directly ported over from the old 2-disc DVD from 2003. We get an informative and light-hearted commentary featuring Liza Minnelli and singer, Michael Feinstein; ‘Get Aboard!: The Making of the Band Wagon; the vintage ‘Men Who Made The Movies’; a treasure trove of Minnelli’s best work with archival interviews featuring the master himself intimately discussing his work and an old Vitaphone short starring Jack Buchanan and the Glee Quartet.
Parting thoughts: The Band Wagon is a drop of pure California Sunkist heaven, made at a time when Hollywood viewed itself as the custodians of sweetness and light – particularly, in their stellar commitment to musicals. There is a rewarding naiveté at work here, one that burrows deep to wash away our contemporary cynicism. You can wait around and hope, but they don’t come any finer than this; the film, like its stars, seared into our collective memory. Once seen, it can and will likely be treasured forever. Bottom line: very highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)