The Band Wagon (1953)
Now That's Entertainment
She came at me in sections... more curves than a scenic railway - Tony
"The Band Wagon" is what has become to be known as a back stage musical where we have a storyline about performers putting on a production, a scenario often used in the musical genre and one which occasionally annoys me as many of the musical numbers are to do with the production in the story rather than telling the story of the movie. That is not a criticism I have of "The Band Wagon" as it is top entertainment from start to finish which is little surprise considering the calibre of talent involved be it Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse in front of the camera or Vincente Minnelli, Michael Kidd, Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz behind the scenes. But it is also the storyline which sees Fred Astaire playing an old style song and dance man who is seen as a thing of the past in the entertainment biz, a storyline which in some ways mirrored real life and in particular Astaire's who by the 1950s could have been considered an old style hoofer, a damn fine one at that.
Once a famous song & dance man Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire - The Barkleys of Broadway) is now seen as an old hoofer whose movie career is all but over. It's because of this that he pays his old friends, writers Lester (Oscar Levant - An American in Paris) and Lily Martin (Nanette Fabray) want him to star in their new Broadway show. They've even got plans to get Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan), the famous classical actor, to produce their musical and in turn he plans to hire ballerina Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse) to star alongside Tony and have Gabrielle's boyfriend and manager to choreograph the musical. But Cordova's plans turn this little fun musical into some big dramatic production causing stress levels to rise especially between Tony and Gabrielle who initially don't get on. But as they get to know each other and Cordova proves to be a disaster Tony and Gabrielle manage to bring everyone together to put on a show.
To be honest there is little complexity to the storyline to "The Band Wagon" and is not what you could call solid but it is entertaining and the simple reason why it is so entertaining is that its foundations are in the real world. From Tony Hunter seen as an old fashioned song and dance man who can't cut it in the modern world through to the director being this great actor of the classics it generally takes the real world of showbiz to create a story. The director in "The Band Wagon" is Jeffrey Cordova but it is wildly speculated that the character was based on José Ferrer who at one point was producing numerous plays whilst acting in another. Then there are the husband and wife writing team of Lester & Lily Marton who are based on the musicals actual writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green. And it goes on because many of the characters are based in some way on real people and that simple fact makes it feel more real.
But it's not just the characters which make this storyline feel more than it is because it has some real situations. Take the scene where Tony asks Gabrielle how tall she is and whether she is wearing heels, Cyd Charisse was most certainly not short and Fred Astaire was obviously concerned of being towered over by her as scenes they share she is always wearing flat shoes. It's this and other situations such as Tony wondering what ever happened to 42nd Street as it had changed a lot since the last time he was there which really gives "The Band Wagon" a solid grounding.
But of course whilst you have this entertaining storyline which unsurprisingly has a touch of romance thrown in for good measure "The Band Wagon" is first and foremost a musical and an enjoyable one at that. Usually I find back stage musicals to be a bit annoying as you get too many musical scenes from the show within the movie but here whilst there are a lot there are just as many which tell the story and there are a huge pick of great ones which are unforgettable. The first time we see Cyd Charisse dance in a ballet is spellbinding almost as spellbinding as "Dancing in the Dark" as Fred & Cyd dance together for the first time. And I could go on because when you add not only the enjoyable performance of Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray into the mix and such unforgettable songs as "That's Entertainment", "I Love Louisa" and the comical "Triplets" there is rarely a dull moment, in fact there isn't a dull moment.
With the characters being very much founded on real life people it is little surprise that Fred Astaire is basically playing himself but he is so much fun, especially when he finally makes it known he is not some relic from the song and dance days that you can't but not enjoy watching him. And whilst the dancing is certainly different to what he use to do with Ginger Rogers watching him dance with Cyd Charisse is a treat. In fact watching Cyd Charisse is a treat full stop be it when it comes to her as Gabrielle not getting on with Tony through to the less than surprisingly romantic element of the storyline as the frost clears and a fondness manifests itself. And although Astaire and Charisse are the stars Jack Buchanan, Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray just add to the overall enjoyment especially Fabray who alongside Astaire and Buchanan deliver the almost surreal "Triplets" dressed as babies and performing on their knees to look smaller.
What this all boils down to is that "The Band Wagon" is not only a first rate musical but also a first rate example of how to the back stage musical scenario right. It does help that the storyline is very much grounded in the real world but it is also the wonderful balance of storytelling and song & dance which makes it more than just one big musical scene after another. Plus what is there not to love about watching Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse dancing to "Dancing in the Dark".
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