The Band Wagon
Betty Comden, Adolph Green
Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Oscar Levant, Nanette Fabray, Jack Buchanan, James Mitchell, Robert Gist
Passed (National Board of Review); Approved (PCA)
Buy on DVD
What has made Vincente Minnelli one of the most successful directors of big screen musicals? It certainly isn't his ability to tell a strong story or develop strong characters. His success relies entirely on his ability to direct dancers and dress a set. In The Band Wagon, Minnelli's talents are most on display when he's backed away from the plot or the characters and stuck entirely within the frame of the choreography.
Fred Astaire stars as Tony Hunter, a washed up song and dance film personality hoping to revive his flagging career on the New York stage. When he arrives in the city, he's greeted by his pals playwrights Lester and Lily Marton (Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray). They have a great idea for a singing and dancing production. Their choice for director is Broadway legend Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan), a eccentric, excitable, energetic writer, director, producer and actor who knows just what the show needs. And through his exuberance, he shifts the production from his happy-go-lucky roots into a challenging musical based on the dark and desperate work Faust. As you might expect, the show's a bust and it's up to Tony and the cast to revive the original intent of the production and take their show on the road until they can perfect it and bring it back to be the toast of Broadway.
Convoluting matters, Tony's leading lady is famed ballerina Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse) whose manager and paramour Paul Byrd (James Mitchell) choreographs the original production but leaves when his services are no longer needed and when he feels that Gaby may be falling for Tony. It's a love story that seems like only a tangential association with the show for when we're in the musical numbers, the entire production stops and the plot is put on hold. Although some of the production numbers manage to further the plot (at least in terms of the three re-worked musical numbers we are shown while on the road), they are mostly just there for show and while some of them are absolutely gorgeous to watch: "New Sun in the Sky", "Louisiana Hayride" and most exceptionally "The Girl Hunt", a small number are laborious and threaten to keep the film from moving forward ("A Shine on Your Shoes") at an early stage.
Astaire and Charisse are perfectly partnered in the dancing department, but Astaire, as expected, shows her up in the acting department. Sadly, Astaire is the only actor in the show to give his character any actual soul and down-to-earth quality. The others are so overly expressive and exaggerated that it's nearly impossible to really like any of them. And this is Minnelli's biggest flaw. It's evident in his films An American in Paris and Gigi. These are films that rely on extravagance to tell parts of the story, but which fall apart when left to the details. It's as if the musical performance is more important than any other aspect of the film, which is much to my frustration. And rather surprising considering the overall quality of Meet Me in St. Louis and the compelling story that accompanies The Bad and the Beautiful. Matter of fact, I might go so far as to say that when he gets into the intimate without the showmanship, he has tremendous talent.
The Band Wagon isn't a bad film, the production numbers more than make up for the film's grandest shortcomings.
November 15, 2010