Song-and-dance man Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) is caught between his fading film career and an uncertain future when his friends Lester and Lily Marton (Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray) offer him the chance for a Broadway comeback. Their show about a children's book author who moonlights as a writer of detective stories spirals out of control when Broadway wunderkind Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan) signs on as director and co-star. While Tony struggles with this stressful comeback vehicle that could end his career forever, he also finds himself falling in love with dancer Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse), a partnership that might sustain him for life. But first, the show must go on!
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Producer: Arthur Freed
Screenplay: Betty Comden, Adolph Green
Cinematography: Harry Jackson
Editing: Albert Akst
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Preston Ames
Music: Adolph Deutsch
Cast: Fred Astaire (Tony Hunter), Cyd Charisse (Gaby Gerard), Oscar Levant (Lester Marton), Nanette Fabray (Lily Marton), Jack Buchanan (Jeffrey Cordova), James Mitchell (Paul Byrd), Thurston Hall (Col. Tripp), Robert Gist (Hal Benton), Ava Gardner (The Movie Star), Leroy Daniels (Shoeshine Boy)
C-113m. Closed captioning.
Why THE BAND WAGON is Essential
After the success of musicals built around the songs of George and Ira Gershwin (An American in Paris
, 1951) and his own songs written with Nacio Herb Brown (Singin' in the Rain
, 1952), producer Arthur Freed next turned to the songs of Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz as the basis for a new musical. The pair were famous for writing some of Broadway's greatest revues of the early 1930's, including 1931's The Band Wagon
that would lend its title and many of its songs to Freed's new concoction.
Both the theater and film versions of The Band Wagon
would share the same star, Fred Astaire, but in much different roles. For the movie, screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green (On The Town
, 1949 and Singin' in the Rain
) created a character not far removed from the real Fred Astaire in Tony Hunter, a former Broadway hoofer who has found his fame declining after years in Hollywood. "We were very nervous in the beginning about Fred's character," said Comden, "because it was based in so many ways on his actual position in life." Astaire, however, found the part delightfully written and agreed to lampoon his own image. The Band Wagon
also mined a more serious side to Astaire's image that proved to be beneficial when he made the transition to character parts in 1959 with On the Beach
Reality provided the inspiration for other roles. Comden and Green inserted caricatures of themselves into the story as the bickering playwrights portrayed by Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray. José Ferrer, who had recently staged several Broadway shows simultaneously, was the basis for pretentious director Jeffrey Cordova. Freed's first choice to play Cordova was Clifton Webb who turned down the role as too minor but suggested instead Jack Buchanan, considered Britain's answer to Fred Astaire. Cyd Charisse, a sensation in the Broadway Melody number in Singin' in the Rain
, graduated here to leading actress to complete the cast. Although she would make only one other film with him, Silk Stockings
(1957), Cyd Charisse would become one of Fred Astaire's most popular dancing partners.
In many ways, The Band Wagon
was the summation of director Vincente Minnelli's love of musicals. Where most of his other musicals (Meet Me in St. Louis
, 1944; An American in Paris
, 1951; Gigi
, 1958) forged new ground for the genre, this film embraced the best that could be accomplished within its limitations. More than any other backstage musical, it celebrated the accomplishments of performers at their best.
Eighteen Dietz/Schwartz tunes from their past productions were chosen for The Band Wagon
but Freed felt something was missing and went to the songwriters for a new addition. "In the script this director, Buchanan, is saying that practically anything you can do will work if it's entertaining. I want a 'There's No Business Like Show Business,'" Freed told the pair. Forty-five minutes later they returned with The Band Wagon
's most famous number, "That's Entertainment."
"The show must go on" would have been a more appropriate motto for the shoot. Astaire's wife was seriously ill during the film's production, Jack Buchanan had to work his scenes around painful dental operations and Oscar Levant had his usual hypochondria increased by having an actual heart attack shortly before filming. One particularly difficult number was "Triplets." It required Astaire, Fabray and Buchanan to dance on their knees. Fabray later said, "it was just a long day of pain, terror and anxiety."
The musical's biggest number was, thankfully, much easier on the dancers. Associate producer Roger Edens saw a Life
magazine article on hard-boiled detective writer Mickey Spillane and decided to spoof it with "The Girl Hunt" ballet. Michael Kidd, star choreographer of Broadway's Guys and Dolls
, was brought in to bring some of that show's lowlife flair to the piece. Kidd was scared to show Astaire the muscular moves he had planned for the ballet, knowing it was so alien to the elegant Astaire style. To his surprise, Astaire loved it and later called it one of his favorite film dances.
The Band Wagon
is the most frequent rival of Singin' in the Rain
for honors as producer Arthur Freed's best musical. In some ways, the pictures are mirror images of each other. Both are about song-and-dance men whose careers are jeopardized. Both feature a production that starts out as a disaster and becomes a hit. And in both films, saving the production and the leading character's career parallels the personal salvation he finds through love. The Band Wagon
, however, is the darker of the two films, set on a fading Broadway with a focus on old age and retirement to add to the leading character's professional and personal problems.
The Band Wagon
was the last musical from both producer Arthur Freed and director Vincente Minnelli to be shot and released in the conventional screen ratio of 1:33:1. All of their later musicals would be shot in wide-screen process.
The Band Wagon
provides musical theatre buffs with their only opportunity to see Nanette Fabray in a musical, the genre that made her a star on Broadway in such '40s and '50s shows as High Button Shoes
and Love Life
by Brian Cady and Frank Miller