Friday, August 13, 2010

Film Review: The Band Wagon (1953)

Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, Dancing in the Dark from
The Band Wagon, their first of two films together.
MGM had a successful string of musical films in the '50s with a slightly different formula than what they used in the past. Most movie musicals until that point were either screen adaptations of stages shows or original ideas with new tunes written just for them (see most of the Astaire and Rogers musicals). Occasionally you would get a tribute movie where the best works of a certain composer would be worked into the plot of a musical, often fictional biopics about the composer, but these were few and far between.

Beginning in 1950, however, MGM started a string of tribute musicals to great critical and popular acclaim. The first of these was Three Little Words with Fred Astaire and Red Skelton. It was a fun little biopic about composers Burt Kelmar and Harry Ruby, a fun little movie, and financially successful, but not terribly memorable. The next year someone at MGM had the bright idea to do a musical tribute to Gershwin, and thus An American in Paris was born, and would go on to win the Oscar for Best Picture in 1951, mostly for the brilliance of the ballet sequence and the fact that everybody loves Gershwin because apart from those two things, I don't think it was a very good picture. Spurred by the unprecedented success, the next year MGM did a musical tribute to Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown set in the Roaring '20s. That film, of course, was the greatest movie musical of all time, Singin' in the Rain.

So this begs the question: once you make Singin' in the Rain, what can you do for an encore? The answer is 1953's The Band Wagon. While not as iconic as its predecessor, The Band Wagon is still a top-notch musical with a stellar cast, a wonderful score, and a clever plot. In fact, to use a baseball metaphor, if those four movies were MGM hitting for the cycle, Three Little Words would be the single, An American in Paris would be the double, Singin' in the Rain would obviously be the home run, and The Band Wagon would be a solid triple, one of those balls that bounces off the outfield wall and rolls into a corner so that it takes the fielder forever to chase it down, and if the 3rd base coach had just waved his hand at the right time, it could have been an in-the-park home run.

The unspoken theme of this movie is art imitating life. Fred Astaire plays a fictional version of himself, a middle-aged Hollywood dancer whose best years are behind him, Cyd Charisse plays a ballerina who is too tall for her dance partner, just as Cyd was too tall for Fred in real life, Jack Buchanan plays a thinly veiled parody of Jose Ferrer, and Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant are knock-offs of the writing team of Betty Comden and Adolf Green, who did the screenplay for this movie as well as Singin' in the Rain.

The story starts off as a typical let's-do-a-Broadway-show plot, but things go horribly and hilariously wrong when the pretentious director (Jack Buchanan) decides to turn their unassuming little musical comedy into a modern version of Faust. In the end they conclude that it's better to do something simple and do it well than to fail at trying to be deep, which is something films in the '50s seemed to forget.

Some of the great musical numbers in this show include "That's Entertainment", "Shine on Your Shoes", "Dancing in the Dark", "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan", and "By Myself". They also throw in a musical sequence called "Girl Hunt," with a voice-over by Fred Astaire who narrates a parody of a film-noir detective story while he and Cyd Charisse dance it out. That scene along with the beautiful and quietly sensual "Dancing in the Dark" number are my favorite examples of Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse dancing together. Fred's "Shine on Your Shoes" number is also extremely fun and memorable, as his horrible luck makes a complete 180 just by stopping to have his shoes shined.

I give this movie an 8.7 out of 10, easily the 2nd best musical of the decade behind Singin' in the Rain.

Buy on DVD:
The Band Wagon (Two-Disc Special Edition)Three Little WordsSingin' in the Rain (Two-Disc Special Edition)An American in Paris (Two-Disc Special Edition)

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