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Widely considered one of the greatest movie musicals of all time, Vincent Minnelli’s “The Band Wagon” connects a jumble of comedic backstage Broadway shenanigans with mix-matched show tunes via Fred Astaire’s impeccable dance routines.
Cyd Charisse compliments Astaire’s flashy footwork with her own inimitable dance moves, some involving ballet since her character Gabrielle Gerard is a prima ballerina called upon to slum it in a kitchen-sink Broadway production based on the Faust legend. Yes, really.
The fleet footed Astaire was 53 when he made “The Band Wagon.” He had already lived several lifetimes as a song-and-dance-man, having performed for over 30 years in Vaudeville and on Broadway in a duo dance-act with his sister Adele. For most of the ‘30s Fred Astaire became a household name through his RKO contract with Ginger Rogers that produced 10 musical pictures, including “The Gay Divorcee (1935) and “Swing Time” (1936). Forever doomed to be half of a dance couple, Astaire shared billing with talented dancers such as Eleanor Powell, and Lucille Bremer when he came out of an early retirement to make a string of musical movies under MGM’s production banner.
Arriving after the dust from World War II had begun to settle, and the American Dream was coming into focus, “The Band Wagon” takes an early stab at deconstructionist postmodernism. Astaire’s actor/dancer character Tony Hunter is an aging veteran of musical comedy whose star is fading. He’s been in Hollywood making movies for the past few years but the spark has gone out of his career. He arrives in Manhattan to read a script written by his husband-and-wife-team pals Lester (Oscar Lavant) and Lily Marton (Nanette Fabray), a couple of swinging kids who know the ins and outs of Broadway.
The Martons take Tony to meet theatre renaissance man Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan), a producer/actor/director capable of putting up the show with his connections to “angel” backers. The irrepressible Cordova has ideas of his own (most of them bizarre) about how to rework the Marton’s script into a wildly dramatized piece of musical entertainment. Zany rehearsal sequences give way to beautifully choreographed set pieces build on tunes from the (Arthur) Freed and (Nacio Herb) Brown songbook.
One such sequence, entitled “Girl Hunt Ballet,” unforgettably mixes noir movie tropes with Harry Jackson’s slick choreography; see Cyd Charisse as a red-sequined femme fatale to Astaire’s fedora-wearing private dick. Astaire throws jazzy kicks and punches as a Mickey Spillane-knock-off in a bar filled with killers and black-clad dames. Here is a glimpse into the future of jazz dance that Bob Fosse helped create in the years that followed. Coincidentally, Fosse choreographed his first Broadway musical “The Pajama Game” a year after “The Band Wagon” came out.
“That’s Entertainment” (written for the film by Schwartz and Dietz) became a hit and a standard. Director Vincente Minnelli went on to a prolific career that included “Lust for Life” (starring Kirk Douglas as Vincent van Gogh). Fred Astaire would only make three more musicals after “The Band Wagon,” before turning to a film and television career as a dramatic actor. Clearly, when he made this movie, he still had plenty of gas left in the tank.
Not Rated. 112 mins.