The Band Wagon (1953)
After venturing down the Primrose Path last week, it’s time for a big, bright musical by the people who did it best. So here is MGM’s Freed Unit and Vincente Minnelli putting on a show starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse!
Arthur Freed was a legendary musical producer behind films like Meet Me in St Louis, Good News, The Harvey Girls, and Kismet, and Minnelli, who directed Meet Me in St Louis, Gigi, and An American in Paris, was the guy you want in the director’s chair. You know that the movie is going to be visually stunning with all of MGM’s spectacular might on display when Minnelli is at the helm!
Fortunately, Minnelli and Freed had great material to work with, too, because The Band Wagon was written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, the screenwriters behind Singin’ in the Rain, Good News, and My Sister Eileen.
And of course it doesn’t get better than Fred Astaire dancing with Cyd Charisse. Add in Broadway star Nanette Fabray, funny man and pianist Oscar Levant, and British “Astaire” Jack Buchanan, and you’re guaranteed to have a good time.
In fact, this movie and Singin’ in the Rain (1952) are generally considered to be the best MGM musicals of the Golden Age, so get ready for some magic!
For Singin’ in the Rain, Comden and Green had taken Arthur Freed’s songs (the producer had started his career as a songwriter) and crafted a movie around them. They did the same thing for this film using Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz’ song catalog. These two had written many great Broadway revues in the 1930s, including a show called “The Band Wagon” in 1931.
Fun fact: Astaire had starred in that “Band Wagon” with his sister Adele. The show and the movie share little besides the title, Astaire, and a few songs, as Comden and Green wrote an entirely new script.
The Band Wagon concerns a famous song-and-dance man named Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) who started on the stage and was a popular movie star for many years. But now his style of entertainment seems old-fashioned and his star seems to be fading…sound familiar?
Astaire’s character in this film is very similar to Astaire. Both are song-and-dance men who became stars on stage before moving to movies and enjoying long, successful careers in Hollywood. Fun fact: Betty Comden remembers that she and Green were “very nervous in the beginning about Fred’s character because it was based in so many ways on his actual position in life.” But Astaire loved the part and apparently really enjoyed this semi-autobiographical role.
The movie begins at an auction of Hunter’s memorabilia, beginning with his top cat and cane.
The auctioneer explains that the hat was used in Hunter’s famous film Swingin’ Down to Panama, which is a not-so-subtle reference to Astaire’s film, Flying Down to Rio (1933). The auctioneer begins the bidding at $5, but his enthusiastic sales pitch meets unfeeling silence. He eventually drops the bidding to $2, then 50 cents, then a final, frantic plea of “Anything?” Things look bad for Tony Hunter, and we haven’t even met him yet!
Fortunately, we don’t have to watch that sad auction for much longer. Cut to a train nearing New York, and to three men, two chatting and one hidden behind a newspaper. Just so we get the point that Tony is no longer the movie star/box office draw that he once was, the two men discuss Tony’s career and agree that he is all washed up. What they don’t realize is that the man reading the paper is Tony Hunter! Awkward!
The nice thing about situating Astaire as an aging has-been from the very beginning of this movie is that his obvious age (he was 53) is announced and dealt with. Astaire and the audience don’t have to pretend that he is a young hoofer or that he and Charisse are the same age (she was 31), or even the same generation!
When the trains slides into the station, Hunter’s spirits rise when he sees reporters clustered at the platform. He assumes they are there to greet him, desperate for tidings of his next project and plans!
But they are really there for Ava Gardner, who pops in for a cameo. She is thrilled to see Tony, and complains good-naturedly about the reporters pleading for another picture and yelling questions at her. You get the feeling that Tony would love for the reporters to be crowding him!
Fun fact: Producer Arthur Freed always had Gardner in mind for this brief cameo, but MGM head Dore Schary wasn’t a big Gardner fan and instead wanted Esther Williams to play the “movie star.” He even told MGM publicists to announce Williams’ cameo in the film! But Freed won out, and so it is Gardner who glamorously and unknowingly upstages Tony.
Anyway, the train platform empties (shockingly quickly, actually) and Tony strolls along the gleaming train singing the melancholy but somehow happy song “By Myself.” It’s about how he’s going to make his way all by himself, alone, but he seems okay with it!
Of course, he isn’t totally alone. His friends Lily and Lester Marton ambush him just outside the station.
Fun fact: This scene was inspired by a real-life event. Adolph Green arrived in New York after an out-of-town failure, and Betty Comden was there to greet him with an “Adolph Green Fan Club” sign. Cute!
Lily (Nanette Fabray) and Lester (Oscar Levant) are a married writing team with a new show just perfect for Tony. They can’t wait to tell him about it! Fun fact: Comden and Green wrote Lily and Lester as caricatures of themselves, even though Comden and Green weren’t married or romantically linked.
Tony is thrilled to see his buddies, but less thrilled to see what has happened to 42nd Street.
He goes on a rant about the grand theatres, legendary shows, and larger-than-life performers who once graced this street, which is now full of movie houses, bars, and arcades. It certainly reinforces how old Tony is, and it’s a great time for inside jokes and references. For example, at the end of the scene, Tony goes off to find the New Amsterdam Theatre, which is where Astaire starred in “The Band Wagon” in 1931.
Tony gets sidetracked by a penny arcade, which provides the perfect place for one of Astaire’s masterful solo performances. It’s also a riot of color, lights, and oddities of the kind typically reserved for a fantastical dream ballet. It reminds me a little of the Fun House number in Hit the Deck (1955) when Russ Tamblyn and Debbie Reynolds go wild with trick mirrors and trampolines.
Tony tries out all the machines and eventually ends up at the shoe-shine stand, which provides the impetus for the song “Shine on My Shoes.”
Fun fact: As I mentioned before, all of the songs in this film were drawn from Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz’ catalog, and they had all appeared in shows before this movie. “Shine On My Shoes” premiered in their 1932 revue, “Flying Colors,” for instance.
Anyway, at first Tony does his own thing on the shoe shine stand, but eventually the bootblack jumps in there with him.
Fun fact: When he was planning this number, Astaire decided to include a section where he dances with the shoe shine guy, so the casting department sprang into action. They found Leroy Daniels, who was a dancer and an actual bootblack working in Los Angeles. Daniels would make a few more films and later have a recurring role on Sanford and Son.
Another fun fact: It may not have been too hard to find Daniels, as he was the inspiration for Red Foley’s 1950 song “Chattanooga Shoe Shine Boy.” Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, and Frank Sinatra, among others, also recorded the song.
You can watch the Arcade/“Shine on My Shoes” number here. I love Astaire’s romantic duets, but I also adore it when he goes perfectly wild like this.
There’s nothing like a bit of dancing to lift your spirits, so Tony rejoins Lily and Lester in a happier mood. They take him to see Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan), the man they want to direct their new show. Cordova directed two hit shows currently running on Broadway, and he’s starring in a third, “Oedipus Rex.”
Fun fact: The character of Cordova was based on José Ferrer, who had recently directed three shows in one season, “The Shrike,” “Stalag 17,” and “The Fourposter.” Arthur Freed hoped to have Clifton Webb play the part, but Webb said it was too minor and suggested that Freed talk to Jack Buchanan, an accomplished Scottish actor, singer, and director.
Lily and Lester are full of praise for this genius of the theater, and the poster for his show can hardly contain itself. But Tony is skeptical, and he grows more so as he watches the dark Greek tragedy unfold.
Lily and Lester assure Tony that Jeff can do anything, but if this British-accented artiste’s self-consciously important performance and show are true examples of his style, then he seems to be on the opposite end of the spectrum from Tony. And he definitely seems like the wrong man to direct a lighthearted musical romp!
Here are Levant, Buchanan, and Astaire between takes with Buchanan in all his Oedipus gore and hairpiece.
Fun fact: when Tony meets Jeff for the first time after watching the show, Jeff rushes to shake Tony’s hand and forgets that he is clutching his just-removed hairpiece in his right hand. So Tony gets a handful of fake hair instead of a handshake.
This joke could be a cute little reference to a “hank of hair” that comes up later in the film, but it might also be an inside joke about Astaire, who started to go bald in the early 1930s and wore a toupee for his entire film career.
Jeff can’t wait to discuss the Marton’s new show. So they all plop down on some Oedipus scenery and Lily and Lester present the basic plot of their show. It’s about a children’s book illustrator who turns to lurid murder mysteries to make some money on the side.
Soon he is raking in the cash in his secret career, and he’s caught between his respectable children’s illustrations and his sexy, gory, dime novel work. Lily says that there are plenty of comic opportunities and great musical numbers, and it is geared to showcase Tony. Tony is thrilled, but Jeff is silent.
The Martons wait, nervous for the great man’s reaction. He breaks his silence to somewhat inexplicably congratulate them on their brilliant version of Faust.
Then everyone stares at him as though he is crazy, and Lily says that maybe she didn’t tell it right…
But Jeff is certain that their lighthearted musical show is in fact a retelling of the classic legend, and he can’t wait to bring it to the stage.
Tony has no interest in doing Faust, and neither do the Martons, but Jeff is persuasive. He assures them that he only means to bring out the Faustian qualities of the story–it will still be the Martons’ show!
Tony still needs convincing. He wants to entertain, to delight, not to put on a dark Devil drama. Cue “That’s Entertainment!” Jeff begins the song about how anything, high or low, can be entertainment, and that he too sees himself as an entertainer.
Fun fact: I lied to you earlier about how all the songs in this film had already appeared in shows. The only exception is “That’s Entertainment,” which Freed commissioned Dietz and Schwartz to write for the film. Freed asked them for a “No Business Like Show Business” type celebration-song, and Dietz and Schwartz hammered out this now-classic song in only 45 minutes.
Soon they’re all dancing, full of showbiz passion, except for Oscar Levant, who’s a brilliant pianist and cynical comedian, but not much of a hoofer.
You can watch this famous number here. It’s delightful, and it lent its title and theme to the popular That’s Entertainment films featuring classic performances from the Golden Age. (I highly recommend these anthologies, especially for kids who haven’t seen many old films. It’s a great way to get a taste of Classic Hollywood!)
Anyway, now that Jeff is on board, they start talking casting. Jeff wants to play the Devil (a role that doesn’t actually exist in the Martons’ script), and he wants prima ballerina Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse) to play opposite Tony.
The Martons scoff–Gerard won’t do a musical! She’s the top ballerina in New York, plus her boyfriend and choreographer Paul Byrd (James Mitchell) won’t let her! He’s very controlling of her career. But Jeff is confident he can get Gabby, and that he can convince Paul to choreograph the show, too.
Jeff invites Paul to his apartment, and through a nice bit of reverse psychology and white lies, Jeff does indeed convince Paul to choreograph the musical numbers and to let Gabby star. It’s a fun scene because of Jeff’s machinations, but I really love it because of Minnelli and his set designers.
Look at all that beautifully coordinating yellow, ivory, and beige! The furniture, the telephone, the walls, the trim, the papers, and even Jeff’s ascot and Paul’s vest match and coordinate in a smooth swirl of lemon curd and cream. Ridiculous and magical.
Anyway, the Martons take Tony to the ballet to see Gabby. Which means we get to see Cyd Charisse in a tutu and toe shoes!
I love ballet, so it’s a treat whenever Vera-Ellen or Charisse put on their pointe shoes! What incredibly talented women! But it’s a little odd to watch “old-fashioned” ballet because Charisse doesn’t look like most modern ballerinas, and her style is very different. It’s more abrupt, faster, and less extreme in terms of acrobatic flexibility, I think. Plus, Charisse is such a powerful dancer that it seems she might just whir off of the stage like a helicopter when she spins!
How gorgeous is that backdrop? Charisse in sparkly coral-red pops like a firecracker against the periwinkle and emerald!
Minnelli gives us an interesting angle as we delight in Charisse’s twirls:
A final lift sends us on our way, too soon for my taste. You can watch the performance here.
Tony thinks that Gabby is terrific, enchanting, charming, and beautiful. But he doesn’t think that she’s right for the show. He’s not a ballet dancer, and he’s afraid that they won’t be able to dance together. Plus, he’s a whole lot older, and he thinks she might be too tall. So many obstacles!
It turns out that Gabby isn’t convinced about the show, either. She is worried about leaving the world of classical ballet, and she’s frankly intimidated to work with a “national treasure.”
As she says to Paul about Tony, “Dancing with him is like dancing with a statue of General Grant!” Plus, she has a hunch that she isn’t Tony’s first choice for a partner.
After the ballet, all of our characters head to Jeff’s very colorful apartment. Jeff is meeting with investors to raise money for the show, and the Martons, Paul, Gabby, and Tony wait in other rooms.
They each take a peek and are startled and a little concerned to hear Jeff’s presentation. There’s a lot of brimstone, hellfire, and damnation. Jeff is really emphasizing the Faust-stuff, not the actual show that the Martons have written!
When Tony closes the door on the disturbing presentation, he runs into Gabby coming down the stairs. They exchange the usual pleasantries, but things go downhill very quickly. For example, Gabby says, “I used to see all your pictures when I was a little girl. And I’m still a fan! I recently went to see a revival of them at the museum!” Accidental burn!
Meanwhile, Tony is busy trying to eyeball her height, and then he accidentally insults ballet, and compares her unfavorably to Pavlova. They’re off to a very bad start! You can watch the sparring here.
Here are Astaire and Charisse between takes of this scene:
Costume appreciation break: Gabby is resplendent in sparkling black lace with bottle-green gloves, shoes, and underskirt. Look at the scalloped back! And the way the green underskirt pops out in certain lighting! Splendid! Costume designer Mary Ann Nyberg does a terrific job, especially with Charisse’ dance costumes in this film.
Gabby is almost in tears and Tony is storming out of the apartment when Jeff calls everyone in to meet the investors. No one feels very good except for Jeff and his investors, though they wouldn’t feel so good if they knew that Jeff has just sold them a show that does not exist!
Despite everything, rehearsals begin as the Martons scramble to write the show that Jeff wants.
Tony’s part is slowly diminished as the lighthearted musical comedy morphs into a dark exploration of a soul’s temptation. Paul’s balletic choreography doesn’t suit Tony, either, so even his presence in the musical numbers gets smaller and smaller. His grandfather sweater, absurdly high-waisted trousers, and neckerchief don’t help him look younger or more sprightly, either.
After Gabby insults his dancing ability, and Paul and Jeff cut him out of a dance even further, Tony finally snaps and quits the show with a fiery speech: “I am not Nijinsky. I am not Marlon Brando– I’m just Mrs. Hunter’s little boy, Tony– a song-and-dance-man.”
Fun fact: In the original script, the speech was written like this: “I am not Nijinksy. I am not Marlon Brando– I’m just Mrs. Hunter’s little boy, Tony– an entertainer.” MGM’s lawyers went to Brando to get his okay to use his name, but Brando took offense at the term “entertainer” because it implied that he wasn’t one! So that’s why Tony says he is a “song-and-dance man” instead of an “entertainer.”
So Tony has quit the show…whatever are they going to do? Well, first they send Gabby after him to apologize and try to get him to come back. But things are very prickly between our two stars, and even Gabby’s sincere appreciation of Tony’s incredible art collection doesn’t heal things:
Eventually Gabby breaks down and cries into the bandanna strap on her adorable picnic-basket-purse (which incidentally matches her belt).
She tells Tony that she knows that he didn’t want her in the show, and that he has been mean to her. But she admits that she’s been horrible right back! She says, weepily, “I’m not used to behaving horribly! It’s a big strain!” How cute is she?
Tony feels badly, too, and he decides it is time they make a fresh start. He suggests they go out dancing somewhere and prove to each other that they can dance together, but she’s not dressed for a fancy club. So instead they hop in a horse-drawn carriage and go to the park. Amusingly, they bypass an outdoor dance floor packed with couples, which one would think would be perfect for their exercise. Instead, they find an empty space for a bit of “impromptu” magic to the song “Dancing in the Dark.”
It is a (deceptively) casual and simple dance that is absolutely breathtaking. Perfection in motion by two masters.
They don’t sing, which somehow makes the number less fantastical and more “this could happen!”, and also allows us to focus solely on the dancing. “Dancing in the Dark” is a wonderful contrast to the flashing lights of the arcade, the frantic lifts and spins of the ballet, and the sparkles and flash of the coming dances.
Obviously “Dancing in the Dark” is just as constructed, choreographed, and rehearsed as all the other dances in the film. I know this, rationally. But I also have an irrational certainty that if Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse met one night in the park, and spontaneously started dancing, this is what it would be like. You can watch it here.
The newly minted partners dance until the moment they relax into the carriage, then ride silently into the night, holding hands. It’s beautiful.
Also, I love sequins as much as the next girl, but Charisse’s white pleated dress might be my favorite costume of the film. Fun fact: That dress was a copy of a frock that costume designer Nyberg had bought in Arizona. But it wasn’t being produced anymore, so Nyberg couldn’t just get one for Charisse. Instead, she brought it to the MGM costume department, and they copied it. The original Arizona dress cost $25, the MGM copy cost $1,000. I do not know why…
Fun fact: Gilda Radner and Steve Martin performed a spoof/homage to this dance on SNL in 1978–you can watch it here.
Anyway, Tony comes back to the show. He and Gabby are friends now, so they’re having a better time together, but the show still stinks.
It is huge, unwieldy, complicated, pretentious, and confusing. It bears no resemblance to the show the Martons wrote, but everyone grits their teeth and trusts in the genius of Jeff, who has gone mad for pyrotechnics and special effects.
Poor Gabby and Tony gamely try to rehearse, but they can barely dance through all those explosions and smoke!
Even though the show is in terrible shape, Jeff holds to their schedule and the whole company heads to Connecticut for out-of-town previews.
Everyone but Jeff can see that the show is a disaster, and maybe he sees it, too, but he doesn’t let on. The dress rehearsal ends with Jeff’s flying-wires tangled to the rigging as the wrong moving staircase moves inexorably towards the ceiling. The Devil is hooked like a fish as the show dissolves into chaos around him.
What bums me out is that we don’t get to see Gabby’s musical number! She’s dressed and ready to go in that black and purple costume, but we only see her wear it in the background of that one shot.
Here is Charisse getting a wardrobe fix between takes. This costume wasn’t supposed to be just for that one shot. It turns out that Charisse wore it for a musical number called “Two-Faced Woman” that was filmed but cut from the final film.
Fortunately, the scene survives. Fun fact: The same recording of “Two-Faced Woman” sung by voice double India Adams (whose voice was used instead of Charisse’s in this film) was used in Torch Song (1953) by Joan Crawford. You can watch Charisse’s version and Crawford’s side-by-side here, in a clip from That’s Entertainment! III (1994).
I agree with the narrator–they cut the wrong version! But Charisse’s performance is too good for what is supposed to be an entirely disastrous show, I suppose.
“Two-Faced Woman” wasn’t the only victim in The Band Wagon. Three other musical numbers landed on the editing room floor in order to get the film’s running time down. A section of the “Girl Hunt Ballet” where Charisse and Astaire dance during a telephone conversation, a duet between Fabray and Levant called “Sweet Music,” and Astaire’s “Got a Brand New Suit” were all ultimately cut from the film.
“Got a Brand New Suit” followed the song from its writing and rehearsal to Tony being told that it has been cut from the show. It sounds like a cool number, and it would have helped motivate Tony’s temper tantrum when he quits the show. Bummer.
Before anyone wants it to, opening night arrives. Gabby puts on her most scarlet dressing gown, Jeff gives his pep talk, and the investors wait exuberantly to see what they are sure will be a hit!
Here is Levant, Charisse, and Astaire between takes. In the movie it’s difficult to tell that Charisse’s robe is polka dot, or that Astaire’s yellow robe has a huge monogram on the pocket. I wonder if Minnelli asked costume designer Nyberg to buy up as much lemony fabric as she could for this film…that color keeps cropping up!
Un/fortunately, we don’t get to see any of the disastrous show. This is all we get, the very optimistic and very wrong sign, those spooky images, and the big fat egg finishing off the show:
Now the investors know that the show is a complete wreck, and even Jeff must face it. The big, fancy party at the hotel is empty, but the cast gathers with some beer to toast their effort and say goodbye. They definitely won’t be working together anymore!
Tony wanders in, then Gabby and the Martons arrive, and soon it’s a big, raucous party. They sing “I Love Louisa” and forget their troubles. You can watch it here.
And a funny thing happens. When they all get together to sing a good old-fashioned song and dance good old-fashioned dances, it’s wonderful! Tony has a flash of inspiration! He gives Jeff a call to say that the whole cast is going to put on the original show that the Martons wrote–no Faust and no pretensions to serious art, just a grand entertainment. In a cute gag, Tony realizes at the end of his speech that he’s actually talking to the maid cleaning Jeff’s room, but Jeff heard it all anyway since he is sitting, unnoticed, in the party room.
Jeff tells Tony that it is a splendid idea and that he wants to be a part of it. Everyone is onboard except for Paul. It won’t be “his kind of show” anymore since Tony will be choreographing, and he wants Gabby out. She refuses…rift!
Tony sells his collection of paintings to finance the new show, and the company gets to work. They crisscross the Northeast performing the show before taking it to New York. Images of a train speeding down the tracks are intercut with performances, and that’s how we see most of the new “Band Wagon.”
But there’s also a love triangle, naturally. Gabby is torn between Paul and Tony, and Tony is all in for Gabby, but he knows that she is too young for him and he thinks she is still in love with Paul. Moments like this, when he sees that she is still writing to Paul, don’t help:
Anyway, to the fun stuff! A high energy number called “New Sun in the Sky” very aptly starts out our preview of the new “Band Wagon.” Fun fact: the dances in this film, with the exception of Astaire’s (he usually choreographed his own dances), were staged by Michael Kidd, who choreographed Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954). This one stars Cyd Charisse, with a little help from her voice double, India Adams.
It reminds me of “Get Happy” in Summer Stock (1950) with its flat, stylized-sky backdrop, one solo woman singing an optimistic tune, and a bunch of male dancers. But instead of that classic tux-no-pants and coolly restrained dancing that Garland pulls off so wonderfully, this number has Charisse in the most stunning “sun” dress and red wrist pouf, dancing her heart out!
Charisse twirls and runs and is lifted high into the air:
You can watch this sunny number here.
That dress! What a concoction of yellow and light! Here is Charisse with Minnelli between takes. You can really see the sparkling detail on the dress in this photo:
Besides Gabby in yellow-gold, we also get Jeff and Tony in the traditional white tie and tails performing “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan.” Remember how the movie opens on the auction of Tony’s hat and cane? This is a nice resurrection of that style of entertainment and a “Ha! It’s still relevant and great” to those in the movie, and perhaps outside of it, who said that this type of performance was too old-fashioned.
Fun fact: the backdrop of this number was inspired by painter Paul Klee’s work. It is not unusual for a Minnelli film to include inspiration and references to painting. An American in Paris is chock full of it, and as I mentioned in my review of Meet Me in St Louis, Minnelli wanted that movie to resemble a Thomas Eakins’ painting.
Here are the two song-and-dance men between takes. Fun fact: Buchanan was undergoing dental surgery throughout this shoot, so they had to schedule his scenes around that. He was in a great deal of pain, but the show must go on!
Buchanan and Astaire’s leisurely performance of “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan” reminds me of a bland but pleasant palate-cleansing sorbet course served between two exceedingly rich and flavorful dishes. In this case, the rich courses are “New Sun” and “Louisiana Hayride,” coming up next.
“Louisiana Hayride” is Lily’s big solo. It’s colorful and exuberant and self-consciously folksy in a fun way. You can watch the gingham-happy number here.
Fun fact: During the filming of this number, Fabray was supposed to step up onto a barrel. Well, no one reinforced the barrel, and when she hopped onto it, she fell right through it and hurt her leg. She had to film the “Triplets” number the next day, though, and she performed that physically demanding number on Novocain.
Why was the “Triplets” number so demanding? Well, Michael Kidd decided to choreograph it with his three performers on their knees with black stockings covering their lower legs. Specially made baby shoes were then attached to the front of their knees, and against the set’s black floor, it really looks as though Astaire, Fabray, and Buchanan are triplet toddlers. I like their matching forelock curls.
It’s a really weird number where the triplets sing about getting a “wittle gun” and shooting their siblings so that they can be “only one” instead of always three. Fun fact: The original plan was for Levant to perform in this number, not Fabray. But Levant, a famous hypochondriac, said he was too sick, so Fabray substituted for him despite her injured leg. Dancing on your knees is not easy, and the performers could only do it for about twenty minutes at a time before needing a break. You can watch the adults pretend to be babies here. Fabray later said that filming “Triplets” “was just a long day of pain, terror and anxiety.”
Well, after all of these out-of-town performances, it’s finally opening night in New York.
We get a glimpse at the program; the only number we haven’t seen is “Girl Hunt: a Murder Mystery in Jazz,” which is also the only number that has any relation to the original Marton show about the illustrator who turns to crime novels. Are you excited? You should be!
The “Girl Hunt Ballet” is a thirteen-minute extravaganza lovingly spoofing film noir and lurid hardboiled fiction. The idea for the ballet was born when Roger Edens, an associate producer on this film, read a Life magazine piece on Mickey Spillane, whose crime novels featured a hardboiled detective named Mike Hammer. Hammer’s escapades were exceedingly violent and packed with sex–a sort of gritty, vernacular James Bond written in that fabulous midcentury hardboiled style. Edens thought a spoof of Spillane’s world would be great as a musical number. And he was right!
The number opens on a backdrop of crime novels which is “shot” in half and parts to reveal a very noir urban night scene. Tony plays Rod Riley, a private eye who just finished a big case. Rod narrates the whole ballet in voiceover, which is very noir!, and says that somewhere in a “furnished room,” someone is playing a melancholy tune on a trumpet. Already they’ve hit a lot of noir/hardboiled tropes! This whole thing reminds me of Steve Martin’s amazing noir spoof, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982). (You can find more on that in my Notorious, Out of the Past, and Double Indemnity reviews.)
Riley is minding his own business on the deserted street, noting that “The rats and hoods and killers were in their holes”). Suddenly, a beautiful blonde in a lemony coat dress and matching flats (more lemon!) dances, terrified, towards him. She is running from something, but they have time for a frantic duet.
Fun fact: Kidd was nervous to show Astaire his choreography for the “Girl Hunt Ballet” because it was slouchy, jazzy, and muscular, and definitely not in Astaire’s typically elegant style. No top hat and canes, that’s for sure! But Astaire loved Kidd’s choreography and later said that this was one of his very favorite movie dances.
Another fun fact: Among the posters on the wall behind Charisse and Astaire are ads for The Proud Land, which was the movie that destroyed Kirk Douglas’ career in Minnelli’s previous movie, The Bad and the Beautiful (1952). How’s that for intertextual references!
While Charisse and Astaire are dancing, a man in a trench coat explodes in a flash of light, leaving behind a rag, a bone, and a hank of hair. Meanwhile, the blonde disappears into the night and Rod gets beaten up.
Fun fact: The clues left by the exploding man were inspired by “The Vampire,” an 1897 Rudyard Kipling poem: “A fool there was, and he gave his share/For a rag, a bone and a hank of hair.”
Rod goes off to investigate these strange happenings. The rag leads him to a fancy dress shop. He gets the eye from several lovely ladies. Does the redhead look familiar? It’s Julie Newmar, who played Dorcas in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and who later became famous as Catwoman in the 196os Batman TV show.
Eventually a brunette Charisse slinks into the room by way of a three-way mirror. It’s a gloriously glamorous, high-impact entrance in that black and red gown. Rod describes the brunette’s approach: “She came at me in sections, more curves than a scenic railway.”
Fun fact: you may recognize the white, gold, and pink dress on Julie Newmar from the fashion show sequence in Lovely To Look At (1952).
Anyway, Charisse lures Rod into a back room, which is a terrifying mannequin storage space. There are body parts everywhere, including two real men who mean Rod deadly harm!
Rod escapes and ends up in a subway station. The blonde is back! She wears a very sheer pale blue dress this time and faux pointe shoes for their underground rendezvous.
It’s not your typical duet; men vault into the station and shoot at each other in an athletic, stylized dance of gunfire. You can watch the “Girl Hunt Ballet” up to this dance here.
Costume appreciation break. Although it appears to be a simple skirt and top, the blue dress has some ruffles and inexplicable butterflies adorning the bodice:
The hank of hair clue leads him to a wig shop where there is more weirdness and fights and a huge emerald ring.
Finally, the bone clue. (It would be a waste of time to try to explain the plot of this ballet, as it is purposefully confusing and illogical like so many film noirs!) Rod arrives at Dem Bones Cafe where people do weird shuffling dances.
The brunette watches him from the bar, an olive coat covering her red spangly dress. She slinkily slides it off and sidles over to Rod. She looks quite like the green-dressed gangster’s moll in the “Broadway Melody” ballet from Singin’ in the Rain, eh?
Astaire and Charisse do their thing and it’s fantastic; an athletic, powerful, stylized hardboiled duet. You can watch it here. Astaire called Charisse “beautiful dynamite,” and you can see why!
Then a trumpet begins its plaintive solo, men in citrus shirts flip their switchblades, and understanding dawns for our private eye!
None of it makes much sense, but the blonde appears again, and she’s got the emerald!
The case is solved, and Rod and his favorite dangerous ladylove walk off into the misty city, arm in black-gloved and diamond-encircled arm.
The whole thing is an awesomely enjoyable masterwork bringing together the immense talents of Vincente Minnelli, Michael Kidd, Fred Astaire, and Cyd Charisse, not to mention the incredible set and costume designers at MGM!
This is the climax of the film, and now all that is left is for us to learn that “The Band Wagon” is a big hit! Tony is confused why no one has come back to his dressing room, but when he steps outside he learns why. The whole cast is assembled to congratulate and thank him for saving the show:
Gabby and her huge ear clips steps up to tell Tony that the cast wanted to thank and honor him for his work as an entertainer, but he’s more thrilled when she tells him that she loves him.
She says, “We have nothing to give you but our gratitude, our admiration, and our love. The show’s a hit, but we all feel no matter what might have happened to it, it was wonderful knowing you, working with you…We’ve come to love you, Tony. We belong together. The show is going to run a long time, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s going to run forever.”
Fun fact: In 1981, Fred Astaire was given the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award. At the ceremony, Cyd Charisse delivered her speech from the end of this film. It makes this scene even more poignant, though it already works on an extra-diegetic level–it’s hard not to conflate Tony Hunter with Fred Astaire!
The movie ends with a rousing reprise of “That’s Entertainment” sung by our five stars. You can watch Gabby’s speech and the final song here.
The Band Wagon was nominated for three Oscars: Comden and Green for Best Screenplay, Adolph Deutsch for Best Score, and Mary Ann Nyberg for Best Costume Design. But it lost all three; Screenplay went to Titanic, Score to Call Me Madam, and Costumes to The Robe.
One last fun fact: Apparently, Michael Jackson really liked this film and the “Girl Hunt Ballet,” in particular. He referenced the “Girl Hunt Ballet’s” cafe and choreography in his video for “Smooth Criminal,” and even dressed like Astaire’s character Rod. Jackson also referenced the “Girl Hunt Ballet’s” scenery and the rag in the video for “Billie Jean,” and his song “Dangerous” includes the line “she came at me in sections!”
The Band Wagon is one of the greatest backstage musicals ever made, and one of the greatest movie musicals, period. It’s a wildly entertaining, inside look at the world of musicals and movies told by some of the greatest ever.