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3 September 2011

The Band Wagon (1953)

If I didn't know better, I would have sworn that Vincente Minnelli was on acid when he directed MGM's Band Wagon. It's fast, it's busy, confused, colourful, complicated, and completely neurotic. Some might say that these are all the ingredients of Genius. I'm erring on the side of Madness.

Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse and Count Buchanan in Band Wagon, MGM 1953

Band Wagon is one of the last big musicals and has Fred Astaire kicking life into the embers of a genre in decline. Unlike many films of this type, Band Wagon was very much set in the moment. Here we have 'old school' musical guys and gals sending themselves up. It's vaguely amusing, but to be honest I was left feeling a bit sad that it should have come to this.

Jack Buchanan, Fred Astaire, Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant 
'That's Entertainment' in Band Wagon, MGM 1953

Fred is cast as Tony Hunter, a washed-out hoofer trying to tap some life back into his flagging career. He's aided and abetted by script-writing couple: Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray; and along the way we pick up Cyd Charisse as Fred's partner and love interest. Then with the help of the brilliant Jack Buchanan as the larger-than-life director Jeffrey Cordova they try to get the show on the road. And this is where it all goes wrong...

Betty Comden and Adolph Green 
Screenwriters of Band Wagon, MGM 1953

Jeffrey Cordova insists on making a 'modern' musical. Gone are the old gimmicks. Instead we end up with a Faust-inspired opera... which bombs on the first night. Thankfully, the team rise like a phoenix out of the ashes and put on the show that they all envisaged in the first place. Is it the success they all hoped it would be?

Hooray for Hollywood!

In my tiny mind, I think that the film's biggest flaw was in the choice of music. Minnelli drafted in Arthur Freed to produce songs by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz, but for me, they just didn't have enough quality tunes up their collective sleeves. A lot of the songs were dredged up from 20 years earlier. The newest song, and signature tune, 'That's Entertainment' is probably the most memorable, but is it great? I'm not convinced.

Jack Buchanan and Fred Astaire 
'I'll Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan' in Band Wagon, MGM 1953

My favourites were the first time that we hear "By Myself" and "I'll Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan" which sees Fred and Jack Buchanan hot-tapping in top-hats. Did I like these numbers because they harked backed to a bygone era? Probably... Maybe... Definitely...

Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse 
'Girl Hunt' in Band Wagon, MGM 1953

I also felt that Fred's dancing wasn't up to his usual high standards. There wasn't the edge. The introduction of ballet into the plot was a curve-ball, but it's fair to say that Fred had been struggling for a number of years to come up with something new. While we get hints of the old Fred with "Dancing in the Dark" and "I'll Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan", Fred's mind is really on the new Jazz dancing he was cultivating at the time. Cue the vibrant 'Girl Hunt' ending which thrills in isolation, but for me doesn't fit with the flow of the rest of the film.

Fred Astaire, Nanette Fabray and Jack Buchanan 
'Triplets' in Band Wagon, MGM 1953

On that: This is very much a film of two halves... Almost two entirely different films. There comes a point in the film where I felt Minnelli realised that he was never going to get to the end of it without some drastic action. I really got the sense of him taking shears to the script, banging together a few random tunes (how on Earth did he manage to fit in "Louisiana Hayride" or "Triplets") and wrapping it all up as quickly as he could.

Right... What else can I tell you before I wrap up?

Well, the shoe-shine number ("Shine on Your Shoes") starred a real shoe-shine called Leroy Daniels. He was plucked off the street for his five minutes of fame... and dumped back again afterwards.

Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse
'Dancing in the Dark' in Band Wagon, MGM 1953

And the whole scene on the stairs with Fred worrying about Cyd being taller than him... It was true. This was a recurring theme with Fred and all of his leading ladies. Only this time Minnelli wove it into the story... and Fred let him.

Well, that's all folks. My review is as mixed and chaotic as the film itself. This is Fred, but not the Fred you're looking for. Like the cover art with Cyd's endless legs, everything is just a little bit bendy and surreal.

On the Triple-B I'm going to spit my dummy 4 times and remake the Triples scene... But get this... I'm going to use real babies! And I'll award a prize to anyone who can explain to me why Minnelli put that scene into the film in the first place. Come on! There must be a reason for it! It can't simply be a continuity error...

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