Judge Bryan Pope urges you to jump onto this bandwagon.
Say what you will, but they really don't make movies like this anymore. While today's blockbusters are fueled mostly by whiplash editing and pulse-pounding soundtracks, old-school musical comedies like The Band Wagon got their juice from genuine star power and good, old-fashioned, showbiz know-how. The only special effect on display here is the white-hot talent of its performers.
Facts of the Case
Has-been hoofer Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) says buh-bye to Hollywood and heads east at the request of his friends, Broadway writing partners Lester and Lily Marton (Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray). The Martons have written the musical comedy "The Band Wagon" especially for Hunter. The show is a guaranteed smash until "artistic" director Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan) re-envisions the story as a modern-day Faust and sucks out any semblance of fun. To make matters worse, he casts celebrated ballerina Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse) opposite Hunter, and the two stars immediately clash. Will the show come together in time for opening night? Will it be a hit or arrive dead in the water? Will Hunter and Gerard fall in love?
Don't sweat it, folks. Like the opening statement says, this is musical comedy.
Like Singin' in the Rain, another great musical comedy churned out by MGM's Arthur Freed unit during the 1950s, The Band Wagon draws its story from the world of show, only this time Broadway. Broadway will undoubtedly be an outdated setting for most young film lovers, but that's irrelevant. Thanks to the slam-bang production numbers and "let's-put-on-a-show" enthusiasm, this musical could be set in a 17th-century Turkish monastery and still be thrilling. Okay, perhaps that's a bit of an exaggeration (although I think the idea has a certain amount of camp appeal), but the point is The Band Wagon still generates enough razzle dazzle to bulldoze over any obstacle it faces.
Doubting Thomases need only check out Astaire's penny arcade dance number to see what I mean. The moment Astaire sits to have his shoes shined, something wonderful and unexplainable happens. True, the choreography is intricate, and, yes, the performances are energetic and fluid, but there's something else. Something that doesn't come from—that can't come from—hours of rehearsals, and that's spontaneity. The number feels so off the cuff, so of the moment, I'd almost bet my bottom dollar that it wasn't in the original script. It's as if Astaire suddenly felt the urge to tap dance through an otherwise throwaway scene, and in the process enlisted the talent of real-life L.A. shoe shiner Leroy Daniels to provide percussion. The result is lightning caught in a bottle.
Of course, the number was written into the screenplay and meticulously rehearsed (the infamously precise Astaire would have had it no other way), but you get what I'm saying. "Shine On Your Shoes" reverberates with electricity and effortless joy long after the number is over, and the same goes for the rest of the movie.
As bold and memorable as Astaire is doing the kind of moves usually reserved for Gene Kelly, The Band Wagon is director Vincente Minnelli's baby from top to bottom. From songs neatly woven into the story's fabric to the dances that are performed with athletic ferocity, Minnelli's name is stamped all over it. Even the intricate sets are splashed with what has come to be known as "Minnelli red." His greatest contribution, though, is the fun and urgency he brings to an admittedly stale plot. He succeeds in making the material fresh again.
He shares much credit for that with his sparkling ensemble. Levant and Fabray are a fine match as the husband-and-wife writing partners (not so loosely based on The Band Wagon scribes Adolph Green and Betty Comden). Levant's Lester has a goofy, sardonic edge, while Fabray's Lily is filled to bursting with wide-eyed zeal. Buchanan's Jeffrey Cordova is the hilariously over-the-top benefactor of some of the film's biggest laughs, often without uttering a line of dialogue. When these three join forces for the showbiz anthem "That's Entertainment" (the film's only original song), they're unstoppable.
In stark contrast is Astaire, who provides the calm, cool center of the show, although even he has some fun ridiculing his own real-life quirks and insecurities. Take, for instance, the opening moments, when his old movie props aren't fetching even 25 cents at a Hollywood auction. Or when he steps off a train and into a crowd of photographers only to watch them scurry away when Ava Gardner emerges from an adjacent car. Or when he discreetly checks his height against that of his potential female costar.
This brings us to Charisse. Although she does not do her own singing (those pipes belong to India Adams), she brings a strong physical presence to The Band Wagon. She is graceful, funny and, when gliding with Astaire during the silent and sensual "Dancing in the Dark" number, simply magical. This movie features some of her finest work.
If The Band Wagon's wisp of a story doesn't capture an important era of entertainment in the same way as its obvious companion piece, Singin' in the Rain, it does at least provide a solid foundation for standards like "By Myself," "New Sun in the Sky," "I Love Louisa," "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan," "Louisiana Hayride" and the bizarre "Triplets." It also showcases Michael Kidd's physics-defying choreography, particularly in the extended dance finale, "Girl Hunt." From start to finish, The Band Wagon is solid-gold, grade-A entertainment.
To celebrate its DVD debut, Warner Bros. has lavished attention on The Band Wagon with a two-disc set. The film is presented in its original full-screen format (it seems tailor-made for widescreen, but it was filmed before widescreen became the standard). I can't imagine The Band Wagon looked this marvelous even when it premiered back in 1953. The image is so polished that the colors pop off the screen, and I didn't detect any scratches, specks or other signs of age. The package provides two sound options: the film's original 1.0 mono and a new Dolby Digital 5.1 surround. The 5.1 is fine, but makes little use of the rear speakers. However, dialogue is very clear and strong, and the music sounds as lively as you'd expect it to. English, Spanish and French subtitles are included.
Warner Bros. blesses Band Wagon fans with a multitude of extras. First up is an unexpectedly engaging running commentary by Vincente's daughter Liza and her buddy, musician Michael Feinstein. Liza, of course, is a force of nature, and she does her share of grandstanding, but her affection for The Band Wagon is obvious and sincere, and she is clearly having a ball sharing anecdotes from the days she spent on the set watching her father work. Feinstein is yin to her yang, taking a more subdued approach and offering notes on the more technical aspects of the production. These two go way back together, and they have a good rapport. The documentary "Get Aboard! The Band Wagon" provides a fascinating and frank look at the making of the film. Featuring old and new interviews with many key players (including Fabray, Charisse, Comden, Green and Kidd), "Get Aboard!" contains quite a few tasty nuggets (on-set clashes between Fabray and Levant, the physical pain involved in filming the "Triplets" number). Also included is the vintage documentary "The Men Who Made the Movies: Vincente Minnelli." The documentary shows its age, but it provides a fairly comprehensive overview of the legendary director. We also get an outtake for the number "Two Faced Woman," a rather rough short featuring Jack Buchanan and the Glee Quartet, and a gallery of trailers for Astaire musicals.
Long regarded as one of the crown jewels of the Arthur Freed unit, The Band Wagon is a colorful catalogue of memorable songs and production numbers anchored by a fun, if slight, story and vibrant performances. As it has done recently with its other classic titles, Warner Bros. treats this film reverently and makes it a necessary addition to any film enthusiast's library. This is a set you must own.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Liza Minnelli and Michael Feinstein
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