Thursday 26 March 2015

The Band Wagon (1953)

Let På Tå
Vincente Minnelli is back with another musical and readers of this blog will know that that cocktail is not a favorite of mine. True to form “The Band Wagon” is not my cup of tea, but there are things to enjoy as well.

This is, for the n’th time, a musical about setting up a show. What a novel and unique idea! So refreshing when you see something new like this. Ahem… The show is the comeback of former dancing superstar Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) and this is supposed to be a great fireworks of a show. To that end the stage wizard Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan) is hired, the man who produce, direct and act blockbusters on the stage.

For an hour we get the usual fare and yes, there is a comical slant, but no, it is not really funny. The music is so-so, some dancing here and there and I am just about to slaughter this musical when something happens. This great Faustian musical with drama, devils, explosions and big elaborate sets turns out to be a huge disaster. It is so funny it is like a jolt of electricity. I sit up straight and for ten minutes I am cracking up. The empty reception at release night is the single most spectacular scene of the entire movie. The cliché is broken and the movie goes a different way, hurrah!

Well, it was not meant to last. The crew decides to change the show and take away all the Faustian elements to produce, well, a conventional show instead. This turn out to be a success and everybody is happy. Back in the rut, but for ten minutes things were great.

I fail to see the point of the conventional show. We are shown a performance from each act and they are all so different from each other that nothing ties it together. What is this show? Random song parade? Individually the acts are fine I suppose, but they leave me unimpressed. I would much rather have watched Cordova’s’ Faustian version. A musical in hell with explosions, there is something you do not see every day.

All is not bleak however. Besides the ten minutes that woke me up “The Band Wagon” offers a number of isolated interesting elements.

It is nice to finally see Fred Astaire in color. I enjoyed him both as an actor and a performer in his earlier movies and he still shines. He may not be as agile as Gene Kelly, but as an actor I much prefer Astaire.

Then there is the fact that “The Band Wagon” is contemporary. That means we get a lot of color images of life in 53. Great trains and cars, cloth and phones and all those things that are fascinating to look at. I really loved those trains. If trains were still like that I would ride them all the time. Except for the inescapable smoke.

I have mentioned the songs being so-so and by that I mean that there are quite forgettable ones and then some that are truly outstanding. There is no way around it, “That’s Entertainment!” is a monster hit and this is the musical that introduced it.

The leading lady of the musical, the one to dance with Astaire and be his romantic interest (of course) is Cyd Charisse. She had a smaller, but memorable part in “Singin’ in the Rain”, but is here upgraded to feature in almost all the dancing acts. I am not a fan of dancing, I have said that countless times. Watching dance is just a bore, but Charisse brings a dark sensuality into it that makes it worthwhile. That may be just a testosteronic interest, but it does help me though the dancing acts.

Talking of dancing acts, Minnelli just could not help it but had to end the movie with an overly long modern dancing act. Okay, it is a take on film noir and yeah, the jazz music is kinda cool, but this is just a friggin’ dance. Get on with the movie, damn it! Minnelli did this in “An American in Paris” and was rewarded with a Best picture award and that I suppose is all the encouragement he needed to repeat that travesty.

All in all this is a musical with some good songs, small segments that are actually funny, nice pictures throughout and clichés queuing up only to be broken by a few surprises near the middle. Is it enough to make it worthwhile watching? It might be. Is it enough to make it great? Nope.


  1. I first saw The Band Wagon twenty years ago and I was so blown away by the good stuff - Triplets, Cyd Charisse's numbers, a few other nice moments - that I considered this one of my favorite musicals for a long long time.

    I saw it again last year and I was struck by how stupid a lot of it is. The good stuff is as great as ever, but some of it is dumber than hell.

    I still like it, but it's not nearly as good as Singin' in the Rain or The Harvey Girls.

    1. That is the thing with this movie. The good parts are really good, but there are long stretches and elements of it that just falls flat. At least for me.

  2. I saw this movie on the big screen at a revival theater early in my love affair with classic movies. I laughed so hard at the Faust scenes that I embarrassed myself. When it was over I felt like writing Jack Buchanan fan mail. I also love the part where Buchanan is describing his play and the different characters keep opening the door and hearing parts of it. Any way, it may not be as good as I remember but I am inordinately fond of it and enjoy it every time I watch it.

    1. The part about the Faust theme is extraordinarily funny. That was the musical I would have loved to see and not what they put up instead. Buchanan makes a huge difference in this musical.
      I am biased against musicals in the first place and Minnelli's style in particular so my review may have a more negative slant than most other reviews.

    2. I am very picky about musicals in general and I'm very careful in my choices when I'm evaluating whether or not to watch a particular musical. Some of the early to mid-1930s musicals - Shall We Dance, 42nd Street, Footlight Parade - are among my favorite movies ever. And there's some late 1940s to 1950s musicals I like a lot - Singin' in the Rain, Harvey Girls, Annie Get Your Gun.

      But sometimes, I start watching something that's supposed to be good - Broadway Melody of 1940 and Good News are some fairly recent bad choices - and my mind wanders and I get bored and there's some bad songs and I wished I hadn't watched it.

      And, yes, some of the Faust-related material in Band Wagon is hilarious.

    3. Well, I used to say that musicals are not for me and I mention a number of musicals that trigger some gagging reflexes, but then I saw some of the wonderful musicals of the thirties: Love me Tonight, Footlight Parade, Top Hat, and I had to revise my general opinion on musicals. Now at least I am not dismissing them on default

    4. Have you seen The Harvey Girls? I've been a little curious about it for years, mostly because I saw the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe number and thought it was great and I wondered if the rest of the movie could possibly be as good.

      I finally watched it a few months ago and I was really blown away by it. All the musical numbers are highly entertaining and it has a cast that you can hardly believe was ever in the same movie. (Part of the fun for me was being surprised by the opening credits so I won't list the cast.)

      I really enjoyed it and gave it a 10 on IMDB and I'm recommending it to other film fans who, like me, are kind of picky about musicals.

    5. I have not seen that one. It is not on the list and not in the compilations I got. Sounds like something I should look up.

  3. Yeah, there's no way that any musical could encompass all of the different kinds of song and dance numbers we saw into any kind of a coherent story. Other than that, though, I liked this movie.

    I would have thought this would mostly get a pass from you, though, since the musical numbers are explained as being practice for the stage show and not people spontaneously bursting into song and dance for no reason. It doesn't bother me, but it's my understanding that's some people's biggest objection to musicals - the unrealistic nature of them.

    1. Hmmm... I think that part does not bother me so much anymore. I kind of like the singing. The dancing on the other hand... it very easily becomes boring.
      This one has a lot of good elements, but also some fundamental problems so I am on the fence, really.

  4. I'm with Chip on this--that was my major complaint. There's no way that a musical stage production could have those numbers in it.

    That said, this is one that shines in the musical production department. The song and dance numbers really are good.

    1. I think your advantage is that you are more tolerant to the dancing elements. I am 50/50 on this one. Had I truly appreciated the dancing I might have been more in favour of it.