The Band Wagon (1953)

Vincente Minnelli | 1hr 52min

A couple of decades before Vincente Minnelli took to The Band Wagon with his excitable camera and lavish colour palettes, it was a musical revue on Broadway, playing through comedic sketches and musical numbers with no great connective thread other than a consistent dedication to entertaining its audience. Fred Astaire headlined the show, though this would be one of the last theatrical productions he would perform in before becoming a major movie star at RKO Radio Pictures. When he returned to it again in 1953, it took a very different form – not as a revue, but rather a full-fledged movie-musical, with a story that plays out a fictionalised account of its creation and triumphant acclaim. Much like Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon’s boisterous examination of the thin line that divides failure and success in the entertainment industry rolls along with grace and zeal, marking it as one of the finest musicals of Golden Age Hollywood.

A top hat and cane to open the film, emblematic of Fred Astaire.

Even before Astaire appears onscreen, his presence is already announced from the very first shot of the iconic top hat and cane held through the opening credits. Then without so much as a cut, we pan to the left and discover the significance of such items within the film – nothing more than relics of a washed-up actor who can barely make a dime off his old props and costumes. The ever-churning Hollywood dream machine has effectively written Tom Hunter out of its story in favour of younger actors, though one last shot at reviving his career arrives in the form of his good friends Lester and Lily, whose musical comedy script could set the stage for his comeback. The only obstacle is the vision of one Jeffrey Cordova, the chosen director whose background in traditional theatre barely masks his camp, tasteless sensibilities, leading him to interpret their creation as a retelling of Faust.

Given the theatre sets that form the basis of many scenes through The Band Wagon, it is no surprised that those stage performances make for some gorgeously expressionistic set pieces. Minnelli indulges in a deep red lighting setup early on when we first meet Jeffrey in a production of Oedipus Rex, complete with ancient Greek robes and Doric columns to fill out the mise-en-scène, and later Cyd Charisse’s young starlet Gab Gerard bursts forth from the frame as she sings ‘New Sun in the Sky’, matching the bright yellow set with a sparkling dress. The camera glides and swirls around these performances, rushing up to meet the actors in elaborate entrances and quietly following them around as they tap dance across the screen.

We don’t spend a long time in this set, but every frame of this Oedipus Rex production could be a painting in its matte texture and colours.
A bright sunburst in ‘New Sun in the Sky’, marked by an explosion of red in this marvellous costume.

This is a level of cinematic energy that Minnelli maintains all throughout the film, not just in those musical numbers that the characters self-consciously perform for audiences on stages. The film starts off steady with Astaire’s solo number ‘Be Myself’ and a set of long tracking shots that capture his jazzy, prancing dance around an arcade in ‘Shine on Your Shoes’. ‘That’s Entertainment’ might as well be this film’s version of ‘Make ‘em Laugh’ in its vaudevillian comedy that continues to show off the talents of the broader cast, but it is when The Band Wagon finally reaches the instrumental piece ‘Dancing in the Dark’ that the bravado of Minnelli’s full spectacular vision is unleashed.

‘That’s Entertainment’ is one of the most energetic numbers, showing off the dancing, singing, and vaudevillian talents of our main cast.

As Tony and Gaby stroll through a city park at night, the camera sweeps in a majestic crane shot over a garden of couples dancing in close embraces, accompanied by a small chamber ensemble off to the side. As the only pair still holding their inhibitions between them, they independently make their way through the crowd, until they reach a hidden courtyard shrouded by trees imprinted against a matte backdrop of tiny city lights off in the distance. Their dance movements start slow with matching footsteps and a twirl, before they both strike a pose. From there, the entire story of their relationship unfolds in their unified movements. It also calls to mind ‘A Lovely Night’ from La La Land which was almost certainly influenced by Minnelli’s narrative setup and elegant visual execution here, but ‘Dancing in the Dark’ even more significantly evokes Astaire’s traditional 1930s movie-musicals with those long, sweeping camera movements that seem to dance with him in synchronisation.

The camera swoops over this crowd of dancing couples in one long tracking shot, anticipating the romance about to unfold.
Elegant choreography to make you swoon, and not a single sung lyric – ‘Dancing in the Dark’ is an easy highlight to pick out with both Astaire and Charisse moving in harmony.

Even outside his musical numbers, Minnelli’s attention to detail in his exquisite production design continues to astound, surrounding characters with deeply sensual and highly curated colour palettes. It is a fortunate thing too that he possesses such a keen eye for spectacle given that the revue The Band Wagon as it exists within the story opens as a major flop. Unlike its theatrical source material, there is narrative tension driving this piece forward, and much of it comes down to the chaotic direction of the production itself. One could imagine a young Mel Brooks watching this and conceptualising The Producers in all its zany ambition, with flamboyant characters taking charge of a disastrous show destined for failure, and Minnelli too fully manifests a catastrophe of grand proportions. On the night before opening, he simply sets his camera back in long shots to watch the chaos comically unfold, with wired actors flying across the stage, the cast breaking down in confusion, set pieces moving up where they should move down, and down where they should move up.

No stage or musical number in sight, and yet Minnelli can’t help colouring in his shots with deep reds and golds – then adding a gorgeous splash of green in the middle of it all.
Masterfully blocked visual comedy, staged to look like pure chaos as everything that could go wrong on this stage does go wrong.

After audiences leave in disturbed confusion from whatever they just watched, the cast and crew party, revelling in what they describe as a “good old-fashioned wake” as if celebrating the death of something they couldn’t get out of their lives sooner. Upon being offered some ham and devilled egg, Tony responds with a sardonic “I think I’ve had enough of both for one night,” trying to keep the tone light, though it doesn’t take long for sobering artistic integrity to kick in. To give up on this show would be to compromise their commitment to entertainment. All it might need is a makeover and back-to-basics revision, without any pretensions of heavy thematic material.

It is with the thirty remaining minutes of The Band Wagon that Minnelli delivers what is essentially the closest thing to a direct depiction of the original revue that the film gets. A medley of musical numbers cascade across the screen, taking the cast from city to city on a wave of success. Astaire finally gets the tap performance with a top hat and cane that is so characteristic of his style, but he also becomes a pulpy detective hero in ‘Girl Hunt Ballet’, a twelve-minute episode that could very well mark the high point of Minnelli’s career. Fight choreography blends seamlessly with dance as the set expands beyond the stage and becomes its own boundless world much like the ballet sequence from The Red Shoes, offering him the opportunity to vivaciously spin and twirl his camera in conversation with this heightened mini-story.

The ‘Girl Hunt Ballet’ is a visual treat, with Astaire taking the role of a hardboiled detective and finding himself in a heightened world of deception and reflections that Minnelli relishes staging.

Needless to say, both versions of The Band Wagon end up a resounding success, though it is far easier to speak to the artistic accomplishment of the film over the revue. The process of creation organically melds into its very narrative construction, and with a director like Minnelli taking charge of the difficult task to render it in cinematic form, it flourishes in becoming far more than just a string of disconnected songs and dances. The Band Wagon lands as one of Hollywood’s most exceptional movie-musicals, fully realising the potential of movements behind the camera to bring exhilarating, propulsive dimensions to that which unfolds onstage.

There is simply no understating the power of Minelli’s colour palettes – a master at work.

The Band Wagon is currently streaming on Binge, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Prime Video.

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