The Band Wagon (1953)



(director: Vincente Minnelli; screenwriters: Betty Comden/Adolph Green; cinematographer: Harry Jackson; editor: Albert Akst; cast: Fred Astaire (Tony Hunter), Nanette Fabray (Lily Marton), Oscar Levant (Lester Marton), Jack Buchanan (Jeffrey Cordova ), Cyd Charisse (Gaby Gerard), James Mitchell (Paul Byrd), Robert Gist (Hal Benton), Ava Gardner (Herself); Runtime: 111; MGM; 1953)

“If you like an old-fashioned Broadway musical, you can’t go wrong with this one.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An MGM dazzler. A striking musical, satirizing the staging of a Broadway play. It’s a technically superior work, making up for a thin plot with plenty of lively musical scores and dance numbers and a constant barrage of witty dialogue. Many critics consider it to be the best musical of all time. The musical becomes the stage for the battle between pop culture versus high art, with the film favoring the lowbrow art form.

The British musical star Jack Buchanan plays a flamboyant, self-absorbed producer/director Jeffrey Cordova, supposedly imitating Jose Ferrer. The married scenarists, a sometimes bickering couple consisting of Lily Marton (Nanette Fabray) and Lester (Oscar Levant), supposedly are autobiographical of the film’s scenarists Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Fred Astaire plays Tony Hunter, a has-been Hollywood musical star, who comes to New York to try and revive his dying career which is close enough in reality to what was happening to Astaire at this time in his career. His career had gone downhill from his peak days, not having made a successful film in the past three years. Clifton Webb was first-choice for the Buchanan part, but he turned it down because it wasn’t a starring role. However, he did recommend Buchanan to the studio for the part, and the studio was rewarded in its choice by getting an outstanding performance from him.

This is a film dominated by its magnificent musical numbers scored by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz. The songs include the following: ‘A Shine on your Shoes,’ ‘Dancing in the Dark,’ ‘That’s Entertainment,’ ‘By Myself,’ (my favorite number about triplets who do not like each other) ‘Triplets,’ ‘New Sun in the Sky,’ ‘I guess I’ll Have to Change My Plans- the highlight of this number is a soft-shoe by Astaire and Buchanan,’ ‘Louisiana Hayride,’ ‘I love Louisa,’ and an eight-minute dream number that is the climax of the film– a jazz-dance spoof on Mickey Spillane’s ‘Girl Hunt,’ with Cyd showing off her long dancing legs as a femme fatale in a smoky barroom and delivering a very sexy routine in a sequined red dress and black mesh tights. Astaire is the noirlike detective, wearing a cream-colored suit, a black shirt and yellow tie, and is dancing a sexually choreographed number. This Technicolor dance routine didn’t seem to fit into the rest of the film except it seemed to point out what the film was trying to say about mixing together both art forms, as the dance was both derived from pop culture and from the high arts.

The Marton scenarists write a Broadway show for Tony Hunter and get the pretentious Jeffrey Cordova to direct it. Cordova changes their lighthearted pop musical into a serious play about a modern Faust and gets backers immediately for the show because of his recent hits on Broadway. Hunter also gets Paul Byrd (Mitchell) to choreograph the show with the idea that he can get his star ballerina girlfriend, Gaby Gerard (Cyd), to do his Broadway show. Gaby is a hot commodity, but has turned down all offers of Broadway, preferring the aesthetics of the more serious medium. Cordova is an excellent manipulator of people and is thereby able to get the cast he wants.

But there is no smooth sailing ahead as Hunter feels he is being frozen out of the show realizing that he can’t do serious dancing on a par with Gaby, while Gaby feels she can’t do his hoofer style of dancing. They both feel inferior when not doing the role they feel comfortable in. Hunter is also vainly worried that Gaby is too tall for him.

The Martons are disappointed that the director has ignored their script — Lester wants his original script to be the play, while Lily swears by Cordova’s track record for success until she realizes that the play is not working.

Warning: spoiler to follow in the next paragraph.

At a tryout in New Haven, before going to Broadway, the backers find that it’s a bomb and withdraw their financial support. But Hunter by this time is nice and cozy with Gaby and decides to back the show by selling his original Degas painting and other classical paintings from his collection, cavalierly stating: “Those painters loved thetheater.” He converts the play back to the Marton’s fluffy original script. Gaby, thereby, leaves her domineering boyfriend and finds love with Hunter. Cordova graciously accepts Hunter as the director of the show, after apologizing for his mistake. It all ends on a happily banal note as they sing ‘That’s Entertainment,’ signifying that whether it’s a play by Shakespeare or Bojangles dancing you still have to entertain an audience.

The Arthur Freed production team true to the film’s theme, have created a most entertaining film.

Vincent Minnelli’s direction was accomplished with much style and panache. If you like an old-fashioned Broadway musical, you can’t go wrong with this one.