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The Band Wagon

Directed by Vincent Minnelli with Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Jack Buchanan, Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant,  color, 1953, 112 minutes

What a Shine!

Cover of DVD

DVD box cover

By Carter B. Horsley

While some observers rate this higher than "Singing In The Rain," and "American in Paris," "The Band Wagon," unfortunately, is a bit slow-going in the middle.  It does have, however, several absolutely sensational numbers.  

It is a very good-natured spoof on the Broadway Theater and because it was written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green it is very much put on the mark by its fabulous stars, Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Jack Buchanan, Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant.

Its songs are incredible classics by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz and its superb dance sequences were choregraphed by Michael Kidd.  With Vincent Minnelli in the director's chair and Arthur Freed producing, this is the quintessential movie musical team.

It begins with two numbers by Astaire, who plays Tony Hunter, a fading movie star returning to New York for a musical on Broadway.  As he gets off the train and realizes that the papparazzi are there not for him but Ava Gardner, he wistfully sings "By Myself," a very lovely and determined hymn to nostalgia and fortitude "facing the unknown."  Before things get too serious, however, he is greeted with great whoop-de-doo by Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant who play writers of musicals.  He promises to join them shortly for dinner and takes a walk down 42nd Street where he wanders into a large and brightly lit arcade.  He wanders around it, taking fortune cards from a mechanical fortune lady, viewing himself in a funny mirror, taking pictures of himself in a picture booth, preparing to throw a ball at a stack of cans that fly off in all directions as he winds up and vigorously twisting two handles on a large mystery box.  Exhausted but not defeated, he trips over a shoe-shine man, played by Leroy Daniels, and his stand and gets right up on the chair and places his feet on the shoe stands and, da-dah!, instantly transports the viewers to his magic world.  He is excellently accompanied by the shoe-shine man with his wooden brushes and long rag and his great rhythm that keeps right up with Astaire.  

In one of the many interviews in the many special features in the 2005 two-disc DVD edition of this film, it was revealed that the shoe-shine man had been seen, and discovered, shining shoes on the street by Minnelli.  To say that he holds his own with Astaire is almost an understatement.  Like many of Astaire's greatest numbers, and this certainly is, about half way through the routine, Astaire markedly picks up its pace just when you think its over and want to start applauding.  By the time he "bumps" into the mystery box and sets off its phantasmogoria display, the viewers are pretty much speechless.

Fabray and Levant introduce Astaire to Jack Buchanan, who plays a very successful Broadway director, perhaps based on Jose Ferrer.  Buchanan is English and a very fine veteran hoofer and he and Astaire don top hat and tails and walking sticks to do a perfect version of "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan."  Again, Buchanan cedes no ground to Astaire, who, as always, is generous to a fault.  Fabray and Levant had earlier introduced Astaire to Charisse who is drop-dead gorgeous in this movie, not merely "simply irresistible."  They talk a stroll into Central Park and melt into an extremely romantic and lyrical version of "Dancing in the Dark," that many commentators have maintained is the highlight of the film and one of the most beautiful dance duets in film history.  It is very, very nice and Astaire, again, lets Charisse shine, but this is actually quite tame compared to the film's great sequences.

Nanette Fabray, a Broadway veteran who was appearing in her first film, has an incongruous number, Louisiana Hayride, that she bumps and grinds her way joyously to "country" heaven.  She is a great singer, a great comedian and a good dancer.

The film modulates itself with very good, conventional, numbers like "Louisiana Hayride," and "A Shine on Your Shoes," and once-in-a-generation glories like "Triplets" and "That's Entertainment."

"Triplets" is the film's masterpiece," a delightful ditty in which Astaire, Fabray and Buchanan are dressed in baby clothes and appear seated in high chairs singing of their affection and disafffection for one another.  They are charming and adorable and monstrous and when they jump off their high stools and start to dance and kick they are formidable.  Fabray explains in one of the special features that this was an agonizing number that took 18 takes and that each of the triplets had their legs tied back and wore fake legs and danced in fake legs with no computer graphics.  They all took turns, she said, falling very painfully, out of their high chairs.  The hilarious number will keep the viewers smiling and chuckling for days.

"That's Entertainment!" is the ultimate closing number: a smashing, memorable melody with great, sophisticated lyrics, a performer's thank you to the audience.

This film ranks 100th in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films


Click here to order the two-disc DVD from Amazon.com for 65 percent off its list price of $26.98 with two fine documentaries including important scenes from other Minnelli films such as Cabin in the Sky, An American in Paris, Meet Me in St. Louis and Gigi

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