Manic Minnelli, which isn’t always for me.
Like An American in Paris, which Vincente Minnelli directed two years earlier, The Band Wagon will either strike you as ebullient and exhilarating or aggressive and overwhelming—in both technique and theme. Fred Astaire stars as Tony Hunter, a fading Hollywood musical-comedy star who visits his New York writer friends (Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray) hoping their new Broadway revue will serve as his comeback. Unfortunately they’ve also teamed up with classical theater director Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan), who wants to rework the script as a serious variation on Faust—but with dancing.
And so a Sullivan’s Travels-like lesson will be learned, as Cordova’s high-brow ambitions result in disaster, requiring Tony and his friends to save the day by returning to their vaudeville roots. (Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz’s “That’s Entertainment!,” written for the film, serves as its insistent, jazz-hands thesis statement.) Along the way, Tony even helps the stuffy ballet dancer (Cyd Charisse) who has been cast alongside him to loosen up (as well as unbelievably, romantically fall for him).
Astaire and Charisse were better paired a few years later in Silk Stockings, where she not only danced, but also got to play some nice comedy notes as a Soviet official on assignment in Cold War Paris. Here, her Gabrielle Gerard is given little to do outside of her handful of dance numbers. Granted, one of these—in which she and Tony, unable to get in sync in rehearsals, sneak off to Central Park to see if they can dance together at all—is wondrous. Set to Schwartz’s “Dancing in the Dark,” the two slip from a slow stroll into a hesitant, mirror routine. That slides into a more partnered performance, full of twirls and dips, as Minnelli’s camera gently moves in and out depending on the space they need. It’s gorgeous.
It’s also quiet (there are no lyrics). This stands in stark contrast to the climax of the film, which—like that of An American in Paris—gives way to an extended, elaborate, conceptual production number, here called “The Girl Hunt.” The conceit is that Tony enacts a hard-boiled detective story in dance form, which serves as the climactic number of the Band Wagon stage show. Minnelli’s camera zooms from one elaborately constructed, Technicolor set to another as Tony tries to solve a vague mystery involving a blond and a brunette (both embodied by Charisse). If anything, the noir formula restricts the performers—their movements are limited in order to fit the needs of this “plot”—until we get to a standout sequence in the Dem Bones Cafe. Here Astaire and Charisse get the space they need and she (as a brunette) gets to display a newfound brazenness and confidence. She almost stomps him off the stage.
Nothing else in the “Girl Hunt” sequence has that sort of allure. Nor do the other, odd numbers that are part of the Band Wagon revue (a bit where Astaire, Fabray, and Buchanan are dressed like triplet infants will give you nightmares). If I were to point to another highlight from the film, I’d go back to the very beginning, where Tony and Leroy Daniels partner on “A Shine on Your Shoes.” The number has energy and enthusiasm, but also an effortlessness and spontaneity. (I love when Daniels joyously shuffles around the shoe-shine station, as if he’s taking a moment to bust out of his cameo and extend it a little longer.) Unlike so much of The Band Wagon, “A Shine on Your Shoes” isn’t trying too hard—working overtime to “put on a show.” That’s more my kind of entertainment.