As a kid, I remember being fascinated by the video for Michael Jackson’s ”Smooth Criminal”, released in 1988. Set in a dark and smoky bar, it has the star dressed in a white suit with a blue shirt and white tie squaring off with bad guys and dangerous dames; carefully choreographed, the video is a musical interpretation of old gangster movies.
I had no idea then that Jackson was clearly inspired by Fred Astaire and one of his movies in particular. Near the end of The Band Wagon (1953), there’s an elaborate dancing sequence called ”Girl Hunt Ballet” that was inspired by Mickey Spillane novels and has Astaire’s Broadway star appearing in virtually the same outfit as Michael Jackson would don 35 years later. Someone clearly learned from the best.
Tony Hunter (Astaire) used to be big, but perhaps the pictures got small. The movie star has hit a dry spell and leaves California for New York. After all, that’s where Broadway is and Tony started out as a star of stage musicals. He’s welcomed by Lester and Lily Marton (Oscar Levant, Nanette Fabray) who tell him that they have written a new show that might be perfect for him. As they try to get the project off the ground, they get in touch with Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan), one of Broadway’s major dramatic talents. Wouldn’t it be a guaranteed box-office success to have both Tony Hunter and Jeffrey Cordova in the same show? Cordova is enthusiastic, but doesn’t really seem to be on the same page as the Martons – in their view, the show is a light musical, but Cordova sees a potential to turn it into a retelling of the Faust legend, with much sound and fury. It’s obvious that there will be a clash of egos…
A bit of a patchwork
This classic film is a bit of a patchwork, but in the most positive sense. It was based on a stage musical that premiered in 1931 and starred Astaire and his sister Adele. But the plot for the movie and most of the songs have nothing to do with the original ”Band Wagon”, which was a typical Broadway revue with songs and sketches. The movie has a freshly written story about the chaotic creation of a successful musical and the comeback of an aging movie star (which reflected Astaire’s real-life situation in 1953 a little bit).
The song score for this movie has a few tunes from the revue (notably ”Dancing in the Dark”), but one of the best performances in the film, the infectious ”A Shine on Your Shoes”, was lifted from another 1930s Broadway show. Then there’s ”That’s Entertainment!”, the unforgettable song that was written for the movie and has become the ultimate Broadway symbol. Even though so many ingredients came from different places, it all hangs together beautifully and most of the songs have one thing in common – they were written by the same people, Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz. The script came courtesy of Adolph Green and Betty Comden, the marvelous duo behind Singin’ in the Rain the previous year, another masterful musical portraying hilarious complications behind the scenes of a show; the duo reportedly based Levant and Fabray’s characters on themselves.
Astaire is amazing in one of his best movies; having Ava Gardner play herself in a brief cameo as the more popular star of the two is a nice, generous touch. I also got a kick out of Buchanan as the pompous Cordova who eventually finds his place in the musical.
From the design of the amusing ”Triplets” number to the stylish ”Girl Hunt Ballet” – The Band Wagon is a colorful feast for our eyes and ears, made by people at the top of their game. Patchwork? More like Greatest Hits.
The Band Wagon 1953-U.S. 112 min. Color. Produced by Arthur Freed. Directed by Vincente Minnelli. Screenplay: Betty Comden, Adolph Green. Music: Adolph Deutsch. Song: Arthur Schwartz, Howard Dietz (”That’s Entertainment!”). Costume Design: Mary Ann Nyberg. Cast: Fred Astaire (Tony Hunter), Cyd Charisse (Gabrielle Gerard), Oscar Levant (Lester Marton), Nanette Fabray, Jack Buchanan. Cameo: Ava Gardner.
Trivia: Later adapted as stage shows, known as ”Dancing in the Dark” and ”The Band Wagon”.
Last word: “[Jeffrey Cordova] was obviously Orson Welles and the kind of people who do the things he does – Shakespeare one night, ‘Oedipus Rex’ the next, then a farce by Oscar Wilde. We had a hard time deciding on who to do it, and thank God we got Jack Buchanan because he was marvelous. […] I know Welles but I never talked to him about it.” (Minnelli, interview with Henry Sheehan)