March 3, 2015
Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse stroll through Central Park together without saying a word. Their silence continues past a bustling outdoor dance floor, but their steps begin to sync in rhythm. Then there is an orchestral swell on the soundtrack, and they twirl individually. It is test of compatibility, a flirtatious movement to see if their bodies can work in unison. Astaire scratches his lip, gauging their chances. Once the melody of “Dancing in the Dark” eases onto the score, though, they move as one organism in a dance of light, joyful communion. It is an expression of love by other means, and, as choreographed by Michael Kidd, is one of the glories of the Hollywood musical. The Band Wagon (1953) is an overwhelming sensorium of movement and color, and one of the more convincing arguments in justifying Hollywood’s existence. It is finally out on Blu-ray today from Warner Brothers (bundled with KISS ME KATE 3D, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN and CALAMITY JANE in a desert island Blu-ray “Musicals Collection”) and the result is a near-flawless transfer of the three-strip Technicolor.
The Band Wagon was originally a 1931 stage show put on at the New Amsterdam Theater starring Fred Astaire and his sister Adele, with music by Arthur Schwartz and lyrics by Howard Dietz. In 1952 MGM was looking for a new project to assign Vincente Minnelli after he had put nearly a year of pre-production into a musical version of Huckleberry Finn that had just fallen apart (it was to star Dean Stockwell, Danny Kaye and Gene Kelly). So they tried to conjure that old Singin’ in the Rain magic by assigning Betty Comden and Adolph Green to whip together another screenplay around a revue. This time, instead of Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown, they were to create a narrative around the songs of Schwarz and Dietz. And just as Freed was a producer for MGM while Singin’ in the Rain was made, so Howard Dietz was the studio’s publicity manager when The Band Wagon went into production. They liked to keep things in house.
Comden recalled that the original Band Wagon, “was a revue in the real sense of the word. There was no plot. There were just some wonderful performers and charming numbers, but it was not a musical that had any kind of linear story that you could base anything on. It was just a revue. Needless to say, we had our work cut out for us.” What they did, in collaboration with Minnelli, was to incorporate the real-life personalities behind the scenes into a boilerplate backstage musical. As Minnelli writes in his autobiography, I Remember it Well, he thought “It would be delicious to base the characters on actual people. Why not base his [Astaire’s] part on the Astaire of a few years back, who’d been in voluntary retirement? Why not develop the situation further by suggesting that fame had passed him by?”
Astaire plays Tony Hunter, introduced with his trademark top hat and tails going for pennies on the dollar at an auction house. With his career permanently “between movies”, he takes a train back east to New York to hear a pitch from his old friends Lester and Lily Marton (Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray, respectively), who promise him the lead in a light musical comedy on Broadway. The idea is he would play a children’s writer who makes money cranking out Mickey Spillane-esque pulp on the side. Lester and Lily are thinly veiled stand ins for Comden and Green – the only difference being that Comden and Green were never married. But Lester and Lily are seduced by the theatrical wunderkind of the moment, Jeffrey Cordova (British music hall star Jack Buchanan), who instead tries to turn their comedy into a portentous, inflated version of the Faust legend. Minnelli name drops Orson Welles and George S. Kaufman as the model for Cordova, while Comden and Green place him as a Jose Ferrer clone. In any case, this exaggerated amalgam is a pompous whirling dervish with loads of talent but no common sense. Hunter is an old-school entertainer put off by Cordova’s airs, and Hunter is equally intimidated by his co-star, the ballet-trained Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse). He’s scared by her pedigree as well as her height. As a hoofer on the silver screen, Hunter never had the time or interest to court highbrow respectability, but now he’s working for it. But when Cordova’s ambitious gambit goes bust, the whole production crew decides to put on Lester and Lily’s original toe-tappin’ revue, in which the performers don’t have to worry about meaning but can just entertain.
Film theorist Jane Feuer, in her essay “The Self-Reflective Musical and the Myth of Entertainment”, calls this “the myth of spontaneity”. She writes that “the primary positive quality associated with musical performance is its spontaneous emergence out of a joyous and responsive attitude toward life.” In The Band Wagon, the Cordova production is depicted as stiff and overdetermined. If fact, we never see a full number from that show – they are always cut short by mechanical malfunction or actor temper tantrums. High art is restrictive and stifling. It is only when Hunter is alone that he can dance naturally, whether coming off the train (“By Myself”), or exploring a Times Square arcade (“A Shine on Your Shoes”) . And it’s only after the “Faust” Band Wagon flops, and Hunter parties with the young cast and crew afterward in a joyous bacchanal of old popular songs, that the pretentious can be overthrown for what the people really want. Which in this case are the phantasmagoric collection of sets and tunes connected with “Triplets”, “New Sun in the Sky”, “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan”, “Louisiana Hayride” and the angular, knifing Spillane parody “Girl Hunt Ballet.” I don’t know if the people want it, but it’s certainly what I desire. Feuer again: “The myth of spontaneity operates to make musical performance, which is actually part of culture, appear to be part of nature.”
Though Feuer intends this as a critique of the conservatism of the Hollywood musical, this is exactly what I value from these extraordinary films. They make the magical look natural, prying open the possibilities of the visible. What is even more remarkable about The Band Wagon is how troubled the production was, in comparison to the ease and joy on-screen. Minnelli was in the process of divorcing Judy Garland. MGM fired director of photography George Folsey halfway through production because of his slow working speed. Oscar Levant had just been released from a mental hospital. Fred Astaire’s wife Phyllis was dying of cancer. Nanette Fabray remembered, “It was a very cold atmosphere.” Dancer James Mitchell recalled, “It wasn’t a pleasant experience, Minnelli kind of trod on Cyd.” Everyone seemed to be taking their annoyances out on everyone else, and yet the end product is near seamless, in which, as the closing number exclaims, “The world is a stage, the stage is a world of entertainment!” It is a lie, but a lie to aspire to.