Band Wagon, The (1953)

“Whatever I am — whether it’s a new me or an old me — remember, I’m still just an entertainer.”

Synopsis:
An aging performer (Fred Astaire) is invited by his songwriting friends (Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant) to stage a comeback in a new musical they’ve written, to be directed by a pretentious new auteur (Jack Buchanan). Tensions soon arise, however, when Buchanan’s vision for the show saps it of any humor, and Astaire clashes with his balletic co-star (Cyd Charisse).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that this “extravagant MGM musical, directed with much flair by Vincente Minnelli”, co-written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and featuring “impressive set design[s] for [the] musical numbers”, “starts out slowly but keeps getting better and better as great musical numbers keep piling up.” He notes that “musical highlights include ‘Dancing in the Dark’, ‘That’s Entertainment’, ‘Triplets’… and the lavish, episodic ‘Girl Hunt’ dance sequence, spoofing Mickey Spillane”. In his short review, Peary doesn’t provide much critique of either the film’s occasionally hokey “let’s put on a show!” storyline or the central performances, which perhaps speaks to how dominant the musical numbers really are; with that said, the narrative is guaranteed to tickle both fans of Astaire (who gamely pokes fun at his own waning popularity as an aging star) and theater insiders, who will surely appreciate its merciless skewering of artistic pretentiousness run amok.

In terms of the performances, I’m a big fan of Nanette Fabray’s turn as a character loosely based on Comden herself. She’s relentlessly cheerful, yet in a way that comes across as infectious rather than annoying (and film fanatics will be glad to have seen this big-name musical actress in at least one movie). Her musical number with Astaire and Buchanan (“Triplets”) remains my personal favorite in the film — though it’s a bit sad to know how painful it was for Fabray to film it. Equally memorable — in a film filled with memorable sequences — is Astaire’s early shoeshine number, danced with real-life shoe shiner Leroy Daniels. And naturally, all film fanatics will want to see the film where the infinitely hummable “That’s Entertainment!” was first showcased; it’s performed here with plenty of flair and creative choreography.

The Band Wagon is frequently compared with its predecessor, Singin’ In the Rain (also co-written by Comden and Green, and produced by Arthur Freed), with fans endlessly debating the merits of one versus the other, and many taking a decisive “side”. In truth, while I’ll admit to being a more devoted fan of SITR, both films remain vibrantly colorful, cheerily escapist, masterfully danced musicals in their own right. My primary complaint with The Band Wagon lies with the lackluster romantic subplot between Astaire and Charisse, whose “rivalry” never really poses much of a narrative threat — then again, when those two dance together, all such concerns melt away, and we remember why we’re sitting down to watch a film like this in the first place.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Many enjoyable, creatively choreographed, wonderfully danced musical numbers




  • Fine use of Technicolor
  • Nanette Fabray as Lily
  • A clever skewering of artistic pretensions in the theatrical world

Must See?
Yes, as a classic mid-century musical. Voted into the National Film Registry in 1995.

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(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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One Response to “Band Wagon, The (1953)”

  1. Must-see – and must-see again!

    Somehow (or, rather, in countless ways) Minnelli – not one of my favorite directors – managed here to serve up my all-time favorite musical. I have watched this movie more times than any other musical ever made (more than likely).

    It has always seemed to me that, as a director, Minnelli tended to be only as good as the script he was working with. With a top-notch script at his disposal, he could more easily step up to the plate and bring out his best. (Of course, that’s true of many directors.) Without it, however, he seems to either concentrate on the set decoration/color schemes or any way he can give focus to sentimental value.

    Although ‘The Band Wagon’ does have its set decoration/color schemes highlighted (superbly), those elements here are only pieces of one magnificent whole.

    The ‘debate’ over which is the better movie – ‘The Band Wagon’ or ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ – is understandable. Both are marvelous but they don’t need to compete with each other. As I see it, the difference is this: ‘SITR’ appeals to more general audiences; ‘TBW’ is more of a niche movie (even though it was very successful in its initial release). First and foremost, ‘TBW’ is very much a valentine to the theater and its inhabitants. (It’s a bit like ‘All About Eve’ that way – although ‘AAE’ puts the theater in a darker light.) So, in a way, it’s kind of an in-joke and those in the theater are probably going to embrace it more closely than general audiences.

    As a love letter to theater people (as well as a film, in general), I don’t think there’s a minute in the movie that doesn’t work; it’s simply a feast of a musical, with a very strong Comden and Green script (one of their best), wonderfully entertaining performances by a nifty cast, and not a bad musical number in the batch (in fact, the whole final portion of the film is just about non-stop musical treats).

    The DVD I have of this film is a 2-disc set. On disc 2, there is a fascinating ‘Making of…’ feature (which includes interviews with some of the performers, etc.). It seems a number of people involved with the film were going through personal struggles while making it. But watch the movie and you would never think for a second that such could be the case. Of course, that’s what acting is all about – but, knowing what was going on behind-the-scenes for some of the participants, you can only imagine how grateful they were to be working with such terrific material.

    ‘Triplets’ is a personal favorite as well (I once had the opportunity to perform the number with two friends in a club show). But, even though I love every single number in ‘The Band Wagon’, my favorite is ‘Dancing in the Dark’ – performed without lyrics, and danced divinely and so intricately by Astaire and Charisse. To me, it is simply the sexiest and most romantic dance routine I’ve ever witnessed.

    I just watched ‘TBW’ again last night. It is always as fresh as the first time I saw it.

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