#205) The Band Wagon (1953)

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#205) The Band Wagon (1953)

OR “Cyd and Fancy”

Directed by Vincente Minnelli

Written by Betty Comden & Adolph Green. Score by Arthur Schwartz & Howard Dietz.

Class of 1995

The Plot: Musical movie star Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) has hit a dry spell and heads to New York to make his return to Broadway. His composer friends Lily & Lester Marton (Nanette Fabray & Oscar Levant) create a fun musical revue for him to star in, but director Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan) turns it into an extravagant Faustian spectacle. Tony also takes issue with his leading lady, ballet dancer Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse), but it’s a ‘50s MGM musical so I think you see where they’re going with this.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls it a “sophisticated backstage toe-tapper” and “one of the greatest movie musicals of all time”.

But Does It Really?: This one gets a “minor classic” designation from me. It’s not the best Fred Astaire movie, nor the best MGM “Freed Unit” musical, but it is still very entertaining. The film seems to be going for a balance between character development and solid production numbers, and partially succeeds on both fronts. Some numbers are more memorable than others, as are some characters. But this is the film that gave us “That’s Entertainment!” so who am I to say no?

Shout Outs: Quick allusions to Fred’s earlier films “Top Hat” and “Swing Time”, plus be on the lookout for a poster for “The Proud Land”, the film featured in “The Bad and the Beautiful” directed by…Vincente Minnelli!

Everybody Gets One: Arthur Schwartz & Howard Dietz don’t have a lot of songs on their resume that are remembered today, but the one they wrote specifically for this film is the one that counts: “That’s Entertainment!” Also along for the ride in this film are supporting players Nanette Fabray and Jack Buchanan.

Wow, That’s Dated: “The New Tony Hunter 1953!” is your first clue. This film is also from that time when a musical revue could succeed on Broadway.

Take a Shot: No one says the title, but “The Band Wagon” is the name of the show within the film.

Seriously, Oscars?: Not as popular as the other MGM musicals of the era, “The Band Wagon” still managed three Oscar nominations: Scoring of a Musical Picture, Costume Design, and Screenplay for Comden & Green. The film lost to, respectively, “Call Me Madam”, “The Robe” and “Titanic” (no, not that one). For those of you keeping score, “That’s Entertainment!” did not receive a Best Song nomination.

Other notes

  • Despite the title, this is not a movie about my friends who became huge Golden State Warriors fans overnight.
  • Quick side note: This film is related to the 1931 stage version of “The Band Wagon” in name only. The only other holdovers are some of the songs, and Fred Astaire.
  • Surprise Guest Star Ava Gardner! She is doing what appears to be the ‘50s version of the “Weird Al’s on the plane” joke from “Naked Gun”.
  • Lily & Lester Marton are based on the film’s screenwriters: Betty Comden & Adolph Green (who in real life were not a married couple). Jeffrey Cordova appears to be based on actor-director-producer Jose Ferrer who, in the spring of 1952, did have four shows running on Broadway at the same time.
  • I was introduced to “Shine on My Shoes” by its appearance in “That’s Dancing!”. I’ve always found it a delightfully infectious number.
  • There’s some lovely, subtle cinematography happening throughout the film by Harry Jackson. Coincidentally, he was the DP for “Dancing in the Dark”, the other film based on “The Band Wagon”.
  • Hans Conried must have been pissed that he wasn’t cast as Cordova. This seems right up his alley.
  • My favorite part of “That’s Entertainment!” is when Oscar Levant simply walks off-screen as the others start to tap dance. He knows his limitations.
  • Fred has a lovely low-key charm about him throughout this film, but it’s easy for him to get overshadowed by the more, well, theatrical characters he’s surrounded by.
  • Fun Fact: Cyd Charisse was coincidentally married to a guy named Tony during all of this: singer Tony Martin.
  • For a brief moment the production montage turns into the opening of “All That Jazz”.
  • You gotta love a time when people got dressed up for a rehearsal. Not a single pair of sweatpants in sight.
  • The scene of Tony trashing his hotel room is notable for breaking all kinds of records. Thank you!
  • The best line in the film: “Leave it to the horse.”
  • “Dancing in the Dark”. What can I say? It’s damn beautiful.
  • So many production setbacks. “Band Wagon” was the “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” of its day.
  • This is pretty much how most theater parties go down.
  • Today on the Michael Douglas Scale: Fred Astaire is 23 years older than Cyd Charisse.
  • And now the “Best of the Rest” montage for all the Schwartz/Dietz songs they couldn’t shoehorn into the plot.
  • Is Louisiana known for its hayrides?
  • “Triplets” is by far the weirdest number. There’s even the super-meta lyric “MGM has got a Leo”.
  • Shoutout to The Vampire by Rudyard Kipling.
  • I stand corrected: This is one of two appearances on the NFR for Julie Newmar. She’s one of the dancers in the “Girl Hunt” ballet. Next stop, “Seven Brides”!
  • Unless I missed something, the Martons never patch up their quarrel. So much for happy endings.

Legacy

  • Two words: “That’s Entertainment!”
  • Fred Astaire and Cyd Charrise reunited for 1957’s “Silk Stockings”, aka “Ninotchka: The Musical!”
  • The original stage version of “The Band Wagon” is only tangentially connected to this film, but a more faithful stage adaptation of the film played New York in 2014.
  • Michael Jackson referenced this film in a few of his music videos, most notably “Smooth Criminal”.
  • The film’s best homage/spoof came in 1978 when Steve Martin and Gilda Radner did their own rendition of “Dancing in the Dark” on “Saturday Night Live”.

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