The Band Wagon (1953)
The Band Wagon (1953)

Genre: Musical and Romantic Comedy Running Time: 1 hr. 52 min.

Release Date: August 7th, 1953 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Vincente Minnelli Actors: Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Oscar Levant, Nanette Fabray, Jack Buchanan, James Mitchell, Robert Gist

 


 

I

n Los Angeles, an auction gets underway for many of the personal effects of famous movie star Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire), who headlined countless pictures. But despite a sizable gathering, it’s evident that no one is interested in the washed-up has-been. “Well, he was good 12, 15 years ago …”

Meanwhile, Tony himself takes a train to New York, overjoyed when a hint of press waits outside the doors – but they’re not there for him. Instead, they’re ready to pounce on Ava Gardner as she disembarks. And so, poor Tony is left to sing something of a dirge to himself as he strolls alone through the station – until his longtime pals, script writers Lily (Nanette Fabray) and Lester Marton (Oscar Levant) ambush him with fanfare, excited to present a new project that has celebrated producer/director/actor Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan) already attached – with room for Tony as well. Regardless of his friends’ successes and the potential of those connections, however, Tony can’t quite shake the feeling that he’ll never get another chance to break back into showbiz.

Still, his mood is irrepressibly cheerful, as he sings and dances about trivial things, such as a shoeshine, a story pitch, and beer, though Tony eventually behaves like a child, unconvinced that he’s right for the part. Interestingly, the premise here allows for musical sequences to arrive in line with the plot, so it’s less intrusive when roles are introduced with, say, a ballet with Cyd Charisse as Gabrielle Gerard, or when choreography and rehearsals take place. The total fantasy of some musical scenarios is lesser in the context of singers and dancers portraying singers and dancers (performing in a production that also has the title “The Band Wagon,” making it a show within a show).

But though the sets and locales for the first few numbers are engaging, the songs themselves are largely minimal and forgettable. Even the more popular “That’s Entertainment!” doesn’t leave much of a mark. It isn’t until halfway through the film that a significant scene occurs – a beautiful, serene, brief dance in a secluded, moonlit park – and it doesn’t include vocals at all. Additionally, though directed by the adept Vincente Minnelli, the pacing is off; a dearth of big, showy song-and-dance sequences persists, instead relying on smaller moments that can’t mimic the grandeur of “An American in Paris.” Fortunately, a film noir arrangement toward the end is incredibly creative and complex, making superb use of sets and costumes and interpretations of murder and mystery (as well as editing and scene transitions that couldn’t be duplicated anywhere but on film), at last creating a piece that stands out.

Ultimately, it’s mostly comical, with airy conflicts, such as when the Martons’ lighthearted musical develops into a heavier Faustian tale to attract financial backers; when Gabby and Tony don’t see eye-to-eye for the upcoming collaboration; and when stage directions go haywire, with props and lights tumbling down around the actors. It also features a bit of a romance, though it’s emphasized on multiple occasions just how extreme the age gap is between Tony and Gabrielle, which is molded into a plot point itself to suggest that they’ll have a difficult time dancing together due to their physical years, right alongside their disparate training backgrounds. Love, of course, wins out; it may be moderately ambiguous, but it all concludes on a resoundingly happy note.

– Mike Massie

  • 5/10