What I'm Watching: The Band Wagon
The Band Wagon is often described as “Fred Astaire’s Singin’ in the Rain”, which really doesn’t do it any favors. The fact is, there is no other movie comparable to Singin’ in the Rain, which might well the most joyous film ever made. That said, The Band Wagon is probably the closest Astaire came to that Gene Kelly classic, and it is indeed a pip of a musical.
On the other hand, The Band Wagon might well have been intended to be Astaire’s Singin’, given that it came out the year following that film. It’s also difficult not to notice how Astaire’s film apes Singin’s (admittedly generic) plot. In Kelly’s movie, an attempt to make an early talkie results in a disastrous flop. The film (within the film) is saved when it’s decided to make it a musical.
The Band Wagon features a musical Broadway production that, due to its intellectual pretensions, results in a disastrous flop. The musical within the film is save when it’s decided to make it a more light-hearted affair. Even the showstopper dance routines are similar, with both Band Wagon and Singin’ boasting gangster-themed set pieces featuring balletic dancing with dancer/sex goddess Cyd Charisse as a gangster moll.
Astaire is Tony Hunter, basically a version of himself but one on the skids. A legendary song and dance man, he hasn’t made a film in three years and is desperately seeking a comeback vehicle. Luckily, two buddies of his, Lily and Lester Marton, are husband and wife playwrights, and they’ve just finished the book for a new Broadway musical that they believe is a sure fire hit.
In fact, they are so sure of its potency that they hope to involve the toast of Broadway, artistic powerhouse director/actor Jeffrey Cordova. (I assume Cordova is a jape on Orson Welles, who similarly stormed the dramatic world before turning to films. Even is this is true, however, Cordova isn’t an actual impersonation of Welles or anything.) Cordova, who has three hit shows running at the moment—and who is starring in one of them, an impressionistic take on Oedipus Rex—has never done a musical before, and instantly agrees to the idea.
Success seems assured when Cordova manages to snag the much-sought ballet star Gabrielle Gerard to star opposite Hunter. However, the two are secretly so frightened of each other—Hunter because she’s a classical trained dancer, Gabrielle because he’s a legend—that their insecurities result in mutual hostility. (This again apes the early dynamic of Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynold’s relationship in Singin’ in the Rain, since she initially tells Kelly that she’s a “serious stage actress,” and expresses disdain for his movie work. Kelly reacts cavalierly, but is actually fears that he’s the hack she accuses him to be. Eventually, though, he learns that she’s actually a wannabe film actress herself.)
Cordova keeps the show together, but ultimately his attempts to fashion the Martons' lightweight song and dance review into an ominous take on the Faust legend nearly sinks the endeavor. In the end, with only weeks to spare before they take the Broadway stage, Hunter assumes control of the show and attempts to reorient it back to what it was supposed to be.
Of course, the plot doesn’t matter in a show like this. The movie features a full eleven song and/or dance numbers, many of them classics. Astaire’s “Shine on My Shoes” number is a marvelous thing, especially in that he spends a good hunk of it dancing while sitting in an immobile chair. “Triplets,” with three of the cast dancing on their knees as they portray grouchy infants, is hilarious. Astaire’s classic “Dancing in the Dark” routine with Cyd Charisse reminds you how incredibly sexy movies can be when nothing overtly sexual is going on. When the number ends, they both look like they could use a cigarette. (And Cyd Charisse—Wow! That lady was something.) And, of course, there’s the immortal “That’s Entertainment.”
Personally, and although I’m hardly a dancing buff, I’m more of a Kelly man than an Astaire one. Astaire was more graceful, but Kelly was more masculine and just vibrantly, irrepressibly American somehow. Kelly was also the more ambitious of the two, which is why Astaire never managed to match either Singin’ in the Rain or Kelly’s more artistic triumph An American in Paris, in which Oscar Levant played the same comic sidekick role he did for Astaire here.
Still, Astaire is amazing to watch, even for the non-aficionado. His control, grace and economy of movement are hypnotic, in the same way that a great athlete or martial artist can be. Astaire was a good twenty years to the north of Charisse, and certainly looks it here, but when they’re dancing he’s entirely believable as her romantic partner.
The Band Wagon just came out on a special edition DVD and looks eyesmackingly gorgeous. The film is saturated with color in that way that modern, more naturalistic films almost never are. The set features a commentary by Liza Minnelli (daughter of the film’s director, Vincent Minnelli) and Michael Feinstein, a couple of documentaries and an outtake musical number. The discs are also available in box set of musicals, including Easter Parade (Astaire and Judy Garland, another great film), Finian’s Rainbow (Astaire), Bells are Ringing and Brigadoon (Kelly and Charisse). The Band Wagon is the pick of the litter, though.