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.