Tag: Fred Astaire

The Band Wagon (1953)

The Band Wagon (1953)

The delights of putting on a show come to life in a hugely enjoyable Freed musical

Director: Vincente Minnelli

Cast: Fred Astaire (Tony Hunter), Cyd Charisse (Gabrielle Gerard), Oscar Levant (Lester Marton), Nanette Fabray (Lily Marton), Jack Buchanan (Jeffrey Cordova), James Mitchell (Paul Byrd), Robert Gist (Hal Benton), Ava Gardner (Herself)

Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) has a glorious career behind him. Famed for top-hat-and-tails dance numbers (hang on, this is ringing some bells…), he can now ride the train unknown and contemplates retirement. But he leaps at the chance to perform on Broadway with a new script by husband-and-wife writing team Lester (Oscar Levant) and Lily Marton (Nanette Fabray) – themselves self-parodies of non-married writing team Betty Comden and Adolph Green. He’ll co-star with ballet dancing sensation Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse) and the show will be produced, directed and co-star British impresario Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan). Problem is Jeffrey wants to turn their light musical into a heavy-handed, over-produced Faust drama. Will audiences say ‘That’s Entertainment’ or will they prefer the musical? And will Tony and Gabrielle’s mutual hostility turn to love?

If you have any doubt about the answer to either of those questions, then I have to ask “where have you been and have you never seen a movie before?” The Band Wagon is the Arthur Freed machine at its peak. You get the sense that, by this point, it really was as smooth as getting the guys back together and throwing on a show. It’s what lies behind the immense charm of the film: for the majority of its run-time it’s basically people who really know what they are talking about chronicling the backstage friendships and rivalries, technical hiccups and clashes of vision when passionate, talented people get together to put on a show.

In fact, everything in The Band Wagon wants you to relax and to make sure you don’t worry or be anxious that everything isn’t going to turn out okay. It’s kind, decent and zeroes in on the glorious camaraderie of theatre. For starters, Tony Hunter is a thoroughly good-egg. Played with glorious charm and a wonderful light-tough by Astaire, he’s patient, relaxed about his declining fame and a very willing collaborator. His (very gentle) arguments with Gabrielle are based around their mutual intimidation at each other. He always feels like a regular Joe who has become a star but would be just as happy in the chorus line.

Around Astaire, a bank of cool, calm talent is called on. Minnelli was already an absolute pro at pulling spectacles like this together and The Band Wagon mixes together the deceptive simplicity of his compositional eye with a host of wonderfully designed sets. The script is full of great gags and beautiful one-liners and, while the story is effectively a remix of elements from half-a-dozen Freed movies prior to this one, it demonstrates aptly that if ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The bright and breezy fun stretches over the good-natured kindness of the script. There are no real villains: Jeffrey is over-ambitious and a touch pretentious, but when push comes to shove he does what’s best for the show. Even Gabrielle’s choreographer boyfriend is an honest professional whose main offence (other than not being Fred Astaire) is being snobby rather than mean.

The Band Wagon gets a great deal of comic mileage out of the over-blown ideas of Jeffrey Cordova. Hilariously played by Jack Buchanan with a burst-out-of-the box enthusiasm, his conversation is full of grandiose bombast, spraying ideas around and re-shaping everything in the play to match his own impressions of high art. A gentle egotist – the poster for his Broadway production of Oedipus Rex credits him no less than four times (producer, director, adapter and star) and Sophocles not at all – he is the sort of force-of-nature who wins over backers for the production by acting out the entire play in a drawing room, playing all the parts and supplying the sound effects.

The production he shapes allows Minnelli to gently parody some of the excesses of his own productions. The set is a hydraulic nightmare, with multiple platforms rising up and down from scene to scene. Needless to say, at the tech rehearsal, this turns into an obstacle course that leaves Jeffrey dangling from the ceiling by a microphone cord. At one point in rehearsal, Tony and Gabrielle have to perform a ballet (he as Faust) while endless pyrotechnics explode around them, constantly forcing them to jump out of the way. Every inch of the dialogue is re-written and (in one hilarious rehearsal scene) Tony is pushed into performing a mundane scene with ridiculous over-emphasis.

Parallel to this, we have of course the romance. Rather sportingly, the age difference between Tony and Gabrielle is not only acknowledged, it becomes a focus of their initial discomfort. Comdon and Green script a particularly juicy exchange between the two, that riffs on the subject culminating in Gabrielle bluntly telling Tony he should audition her grandmother as co-lead because “She’d be just about right for you”. Astaire actually takes a great deal of good-natured ribbing here for being past it and over-the-hill (“times have changed and you have not changed with them” Jeffrey tells him in the height of misguided enthusiasm), but there is a charming decency as he declares himself not Nijinsky or Brando but “Mrs Hunter’s little boy, song and dance man”.

And that he is. Astaire and Charisse get several show-stopping numbers, the finest being a graceful, gorgeous balletic number in the park as they ice finally melts between them, a perfect, beautifully choreographed number that sees their bodies in perfect unison. The dancing is of course flawless throughout: Astaire early tap number on getting his shoes shined is charming and when we see snippets of their professional work on stage it’s deeply impressive.

If The Band Wagon has a flaw, it is that the last twenty minutes – which shows snippets of the final show being staged across the country – has a bitty, disjointed quality to it. It’s very hard not to notice that the plot has been completed and what we are left with are a series of non-too-catchy numbers and non-too-memorable set-pieces (except for the sight of Astaire, Fabray and Buchanan as adult babies which to be honest I wish I could forget). The final film-noir spoof ballet that ends the ‘show within the show’ (and God knows what that show, a bizarre, disjointed cabaret night as far as I can see is even about) is well-staged but lacks spark.

But The Band Wagon is still enjoyable, charming and above all fun – and if you can watch it without a smile breaking across your face (particularly if you love the theatre) then there is something wrong with you.

The Towering Inferno (1974)

Newman and McQueen tackle a huge blaze in The Towering Inferno

Director: John Guillermin, Irwin Allen

Cast: Steve McQueen (Fire Chief Michael O’Halloran), Paul Newman (Doug Roberts), William Holden (James Duncan), Faye Dunaway (Susan Franklin), Fred Astaire (Harlee Claiborne), Susan Blakely (Patty Duncan Simmons), Richard Chamberlain (Roger Simmons), Jennifer Jones (Lisolette Mueller), OJ Simpson (Harry Jernigan), Robert Vaughn (Senator Gary Parker), Robert Wagner (Dan Bigelow), Susan Flannery (Lorrie), Shelia Matthews Allen (Paula Ramsay), Jack Collins (Mayor Ramsay)

Architect Doug Roberts (Paul Newman) flies into San Francisco for the grand opening of The Glass Tower, the newly constructed tallest building in the world which he has designed for developer James Duncan (William Holden). A celebration with the rich and famous is planned – too bad Duncan’s rogueish son-in-law Roger Simmons (Richard Chamberlain, smarming like his life depends on it) has saved a few dollars by stuffing the building with sub-standard wiring. Surely the world’s largest building can’t catch fire? You bet it could – and only heroic Fire Chief Michael O’Halloran (Steve McQueen) has the expertise to put it out.

The Towering Inferno was the peak of the “all-star disaster” genre. It was bought to the screen by Producer (and “Master of Disaster”) Irwin Allen, and pretty much ticks all the boxes you expect from the genre. A star at every turn! A huge running time! Constant denials that anything could go wrong (of the “This building can’t burn down!” variety)! Kids in peril! Death-defying stunts! A brave pet! An elder statesman of Hollywood risking life and limb! A scoundrel we can boo! A tear-jerking death! The Towering Inferno pretty much has it all, and it plays every single beat with the sort of po-faced seriousness that was already starting to look a bit silly by 1974.

Films like this work because audiences – as we’ve seen time and time again – never lose their taste for watching things get trashed. In the 1970s every studio wanted its own mega-budget disaster film. The Towering Inferno’s real uniqueness is the story behind its making – two studios had competing “Skyscraper on Fire!” projects but, instead of competing, pooled their resources to make one mega hit. So, Warner Brothers The Tower and 20th Century Fox’s The Glass Inferno became this.

Irwin Allen was handed the keys – because no-one did it better – and each studio contributed a star. McQueen and Newman spent almost as much time negotiating equal terms as acting in the movie. Both were paid 10% of the gross and agreed they would have exactly the same number of lines (many of Newman’s final scenes sees him perform stunts wordlessly, as he burned through his allotted lines during the 40 minutes he spends on screen before McQueen turns up). The billing was negotiated carefully: their names would appear on screen together with Newman slightly higher, but McQueen’s name to the left (both could therefore claim they were “first billed”).

Their interest in the film pretty much ended there. Newman was famously disparaging of what he called “a piece of shit” and the only time he did something purely for the money. He coasts through on those blue eyes and twinkly grin. Eager that his character be absolved of responsibility (he has designed a tower that will claim 200 lives!) Newman’s architect is continuously absolved of any responsibility by the rest of the cast and leads on saving lives. McQueen grabbed the better role as the all-action fire-chief, riding in after 45 minutes (thus wisely missing out the tedious build-up of the soapy plot lines), takes charge and does nothing but manly action, but he also looks like someone going through the motions.

But then they know the things that will be remembered are the set-pieces. As flames stretch up the building, our star names dodging explosions, climbing up shattered staircases, dodging collapsing ceilings and taking on vertigo-inducing heights, it’s hard not to be excited. As in all disaster films, the disaster takes a strong moral stance. Of all the characters who die only one ‘doesn’t deserve it’. Aside from that, the actors playing philanderers, swindlers and bastards inevitably bite the dust, while the upstanding and noble pretty much see their way to the end.

The disaster sequences are impressive – and the fire-effects are really well done. Allen directed the ‘action sequences’ – aka the only bits of the film you really remember – while Guillermin handled ‘the acting’ (the dull, soapy, badly written bits you forget). The cardboard characters (no wonder they catch fire so easily!) could have had their personalities scribbled on the back of a stamp, and are pretty much dependent on the charms of the actors playing them. Fred Astaire’s gentle conman (the sweetest grifter you’ll ever meet) is a ludicrous character, but works because of Astaire’s twinkle-toed charm (Astaire grabbed a wave of affectionate awards nominations). Jennifer Jones plays off him rather well in the film’s ‘heroic elder statesman of Hollywood’ role, as a woman who puts herself at huge risk to save two kids (and their deaf mum) from immolation.

But pretty much all the character-based stuff in Towering Inferno is ludicrously silly, with some strikingly bored actors (Faye Dunaway looks like she wants to be anywhere else) but it hardly matters as we are there to watch the world burn. Which it does to spectacular effect, and the reassuringly, camp predictability of the film’s events is endearing – and raises a few good-natured laughs (you have to laugh at something like this, even though it wants to take itself so seriously). The Towering Infernowas the largest of all the disaster flicks of the 1970s. Allen shoehorns in a few points about fire safety in tall buildings for the ‘serious bits’, but his heart is in consigning most of the second tier of his all-star cast to dramatic, firey deaths. Overlong, very silly but rather sweet.

Top Hat (1935)

Astaire and Rogers dance Cheek to Cheek in Top Hat

Director: Mark Sandrich

Cast: Fred Astaire (Jerry Travers), Ginger Rogers (Dale Tremont), Edward Everett Horton (Horace Hardwick), Erik Rhodes (Alberto Beddini), Helen Broderick (Madge Hardwick), Eric Blore (Bates)

It’s got the sort of plot PG Wodehouse would consider a bit far-fetched. Due to a series of misunderstandings and mistaken identities (that the script executes quite a few linguistic gymnastics to keep in place, since a few words from someone would sort it all out in seconds), Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers) falls in love with Broadway star Jerry Travers (Fred Astaire) but believes that he is in fact West End producer Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton) who is married to her best friend Madge Hardwick (Helen Broderick). So, thinking Jerry is a cad, she decides to run away to Venice with her boyfriend, Italian dress designer Alberto Beddini (Erik Rhodes) – only for a confused and infatuated Jerry to follow.

Of course the entire thing revolves around Dale having never met Madge’s husband, and Madge never for a minute questioning the description of her husband (despite the resemblance he clearly bares to Jerry in how Dale talks to him) – or when Madge later “introduces” Dale to Jerry, not saying a word that could suggest they’re not married. But that’s classic farce here, and the light comedy works an absolute charm with mistakes, confusion and jealous clashes occurring at every moment. Top Hat is a superb piece of witty light froth, with some cracking lines and some great comic set pieces. 

And of course, its main attraction is some superb dancing from Astaire and Rogers in probably the highlight of their long collaboration with each other. The grace and skill of these two has to be seen to be believed – as does the natural synchronicity with which they move together. With Sandrich’s camera calmly and carefully tracing the lines of Astaire and Rogers’ movements, the viewer is invited to sit back and enjoy some of the finest dancing you are ever going to see. With music from Irving Berlin – and the songs are endlessly catchy – it makes for a perfect combination.

This is the film where Astaire first used top hat (of course!) and cane as part of a dance number. The play-within-a-film musical number “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails” is perhaps one of the finest displays of tap dancing in the movies, in which Astaire moves from moments of stillness into explosions of energy, mixing cane taps with foot taps, ending in a superbly funny sequence where Astaire uses his cane as a “tap powered machine gun” to playfully shoot out the chorus line behind him. It’s a set-piece that makes you believe that Hardwick’s West End show really is the smash hit you keep hearing it is.

That’s then followed by a parade of no-less than three superb dances that chart the progress of Dale’s and Jerry’s relationship – from flirtation in “Isn’t it a Lovely Day”, full of side-by-side steps that lead into a growing physical looseness, to the grand ballroom “Cheek to Cheek” which uses every inch of a huge Venice hotel set to see the two lovers come back together again after confusions (and which ends with the famous slap of Astaire by Rogers for making her fall in love with him, with Astaire’s dreamingly happy “She loves me!” after she departs). Finally the two come together for a final duet dance – after of course all the confusion has been cleared up – which is yet another triumph of two dancers working in perfect partnership. You can’t help be swept up in the excitement of watching these two masterful performers push themselves to the limits.

That’s not to overlook that the film also operates because of the charm of the two leads. Astaire is a dreamy, compulsive, slightly naïve man, passionate about the things he cares about. Rogers is a bit harder-edged, but increasingly find herself both drawn to Jerry and appalled at the guilt in believing she is falling for her friend’s husband, her shame mixed with her strong emotional attachment.

But then she also interprets some of Helen’s seeming ease with the idea of her husband flirting with another woman as a (surprisingly modern) go-ahead for all the flirting that follows. Certainly Helen doesn’t seem fussed at the idea of her husband contemplating playing away (for all that she later punches Horace for not telling her truth). Perhaps that’s because she recognises her husband is as camp as Christmas, with Edward Everett Horton living in like a bickering old married couple with Erik Blore as his equally camp butler Bates. These two bicker cattily comment on everything from each other’s clothes to their manners. 

Mind you Dale’s other love interest is an equally preening – and malapropism-prone Italian dress maker (Determined that “Woman shall wear my dresses no more!” after one particular moment of stress) played with wit by Erik Rhodes. It’s possible that with a lead as un-traditionally masculine as Astaire, it was thought best to make every other man in the film even less masculine than him. Either way, the film has a surprisingly modern air of sexual freedom in it, where husband swopping seems not entirely out of the question, and the Hardwick marriage (seemingly a marriage of convenience) might as well be an open one. Don’t often get that from a 1930s musical.

Astaire was critical of the script itself at first – it’s basically an exact rewrite of The Gay Divorcee, the Astaire and Rogers film from the previous year – but everything settles into one of the most triumphantly enjoyable and funny films the pair worked on, with Astaire at his most graceful and Rogers at her most dynamic. And the dancing is a joy that will last forever.