Program Notes: The Band Wagon (1953)

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The Band Wagon (1953) isn’t just a hugely enjoyable musical starring Fred Astaire.

It’s also a musical about Fred Astaire and the disconcerting circumstances in which he found himself in the early 1950s.

At the time The Band Wagon was being filmed in 1952, Astaire had been a major movie star for more than 20 years. In each of those years he had starred in at least one and often two movie musicals, most of which were substantial hits.

But in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s the world of musicals was changing.

Astaire’s movies were amusement heavy and plot thin. Their stories were of the guy-meets- girl, guy-and-girl-fall-out, guy-and-girl-get-back-together variety.

The screenplays were basically a framework on which to hang the glorious musical numbers. The characters were an afterthought. Astaire had played the same happy-go-lucky, charming, sort-of sophisticated fellow in all these productions.

Film Screening:
The Band Wagon (1953)
Saturday, May 12 at 1:30 p.m.
Central Library

But with the rise on Broadway of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, musical theater was shooting off in new directions. “Book” musicals like Oklahoma!, The King and I, Carousel, and South Pacific had strong plots, complex characters, and often seasoned the proceedings with extremely dark themes. (Virtually every Rodgers and Hammerstein hit kills off one or more of its major characters.)

And musicals were about to get even heavier. Within just a few years audiences would flock to musicals about switchblade-waving juvenile delinquents (West Side Story), Nazis (Cabaret), and even dime-a-dance prostitutes (Sweet Charity).

So where did that leave a squeaky-clean, old-fashioned song-and-dance man like Astaire?

The Band Wagon addresses that question directly. Astaire plays Tony Hunter, a star of movie musicals who has fallen out of favor with the critics and audiences. Now the fiftysomething Tony has come to the Big Apple, hoping to revive his moribund career by returning to the musical theater of his salad days.

Initially the idea is for Tony to star in a musical confection written by his friends Lester and Lily (Oscar Levant, Nanette Fabray). But when heavy-duty British actor/director Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan) joins the team, the planned lightweight musical diversion becomes something ponderous and heavy.

Cordova envisions a massive musical statement based on the legend of Faust. It’ll be about an artist selling his soul to the devil.

Screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green (who parody themselves in the characters of Lester and Lily) have a jolly time satirizing pretentious film and theater. And when the Faustian mega-production tanks, Astaire’s Tony saves the day by turning it into a lightweight charmer inspired by his movies.

Tony/Fred may have triumphed in this film. In the real world the clock was ticking on his kind of entertainment. Astaire made only four more big musicals: Daddy Long Legs (1955), Funny Face (’57), Silk Stockings (’57) and Finian’s Rainbow (’68). In the last two decades of his life he was active on TV and in the movies, but usually in straight drama and comedy. The era of the Fred Astaire musical was long past.

But if The Band Wagon is a farewell of sorts, it’s a glorious one. The film is funny and tuneful and astonishingly diverting.

Good thing, too, because in many ways this is a jerry-rigged affair.

It began with producer Arthur Freed’s desire to build a movie around the songs of Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz. Comden and Green were told to create a plot that could accommodate such Schwartz/Dietz classics as “Shine on Your Shoes,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “You and the Night and the Music,” and “Louisiana Hayride.”

Additionally, Schwartz and Dietz penned one brand new song for the movie. It was called “That’s Entertainment” and it almost overnight became a show-biz standard.

Director Vincente Minnelli was assigned to bring his special visual touch to the proceedings, and one of the film’s joys is his use of Technicolor. Everywhere you look here are ravishing images, from the four main rooms of Jeffrey Cordova’s swank apartment (one in yellow/gold, one in crimson, one in purple, and one in white) to the costumes. In a late scene the show’s chorus boys and girls are partying in a hotel room and Minnelli’s choice of colors for their wardrobes is simply dazzling – it’s almost like tossing a handful of colored confetti into the air.

The Band Wagon is noteworthy for other reasons, too. It made a full-fledged leading lady of Cyd Charisse after a decade as a backup dancer and supporting player. It introduced American audiences to Buchanan, who was widely known in Europe as the “English Fred Astaire” (sadly, he died just three years later).

But as is always the case with a Fred Astaire musical, it’s the dance routines (created by Astaire and Michael Kidd) that you remember. The Band Wagon is packed with great ones.

My favorite: “Shine on Your Shoes,” in which Astaire visits a Times Square amusement arcade and does a spectacular dance with a shoeshine boy played by Leroy Daniels, a real-life L.A. shoeshine professional.

And one cannot help succumbing to a romantic swoon in the “Dancing in the Dark” sequence, in which Astaire and Charisse walk through Central Park and quietly, effortlessly find themselves dancing one of the most graceful routines of his career.

Other films in the series “Vincente Minnelli: A Little Magic”

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:

 

Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:

 

Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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