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The working titles of this film were Strategy of Love and I Love Louisa. According to information in the Arthur Freed Collection at the USC Cinema-Television Library, M-G-M originally purchased a short story by Peter Viertel called "Strategy of Love" and gave it to screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green to adapt. Viertel's story was discarded, however, in favor of an original story by Comden and Green. A December 4, 1951 item in Hollywood Reporter's "Rambling Reporter" column named dancer Vera-Ellen as Astaire's co-star. According to a July 25, 1952 Hollywood Reporter item, M-G-M sought to borrow Clifton Webb from Twentieth Century-Fox for the production. Modern sources confirm that Webb was to portray director "Jeffrey Cordova," adding that Edward G. Robinson and Vincent Price were also considered for the role. Although cinematographer George Folsey is included in all Hollywood Reporter production charts, he was replaced by Harry Jackson after the start of production. In his memoir, director Vincente Minnelli wrote that Folsey was fired because the production department felt he was working too slowly. Information in the Freed Collection indicates that Jackson was borrowed from Twentieth Century-Fox for the production. Portions of the film were shot on location in New York City.
The film was inspired by the 1931 musical revue The Band Wagon, a collection of sketches by George S. Kaufman and Howard Dietz, with songs by Dietz and Arthur Schwartz. The Broadway revue starred Fred Astaire and his sister Adele in their last professional appearance together. At the time the film was made, Dietz was an M-G-M vice-president and the head of publicity for the studio. Minnelli wrote in his memoir that in order to adapt the show for the screen, "a plot would have to be concocted around the title." Minnelli added that Astaire's involvement inspired the film's plot: "It would be delicious to base the characters on actual people. Why not base his part on the Astaire of a few years back, who'd been in voluntary retirement? Why not develop the situation further by suggesting that fame had passed him by?" A letter in the Freed Collection from Comden's agent, Irving Lazar, stated that because their story for the film was original, Comden and Green did not want the onscreen credits to say the film was "based on" the stage revue. Various modern sources assert that the voice-over narration spoken by Astaire in "The Girl Hunt Ballet" was written anonymously by Alan Jay Lerner. In his memoir, however, Minnelli took credit for the narration, which was inspired by the work of popular detective novelist Mickey Spillane.
According to Minnelli, the role of the Cordova was patterned on "such flamboyant types as Orson Welles and George S. Kaufman," and writers "Lester and Lily Marton" were based on the film's actual screenwriters, Comden and Green (who, unlike their screen counterparts, were not a married couple). A modern source claims that the part of Cordova was based loosely on Jos Ferrer. According to information in the Freed Collection, the studio's legal department requested the elimination of a line that described Cordova as a genius who had directed two hit shows and was starring in a third, as "they feel this would point to Jos Ferrer." Correspondence in the Freed Collection also reveals that Marlon Brando gave permission for his name to be used in a line of dialogue spoken by Astaire's character: "I am not Nijinsky, I am not Marlon Brando-I'm Mrs. Hunter's little boy, Tony-an entertainer." However, Brando required that "entertainer" be changed to "a song-and-dance man." According to a memo from studio executive Rudi Monta, Brando objected to the original dialogue because "he and his agent feel this would imply Mr. Brando is not an entertainer."
About half of the songs in the film were written for the stage revue. "By Myself" and "Triplets" were written for the 1937 Broadway show Between the Devil; "A Shine on Your Shoes" and "Louisiana Hayride" came from the 1932 musical revue Flying Colors; "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan" came from the 1929 Broadway revue The Little Show, which was Dietz and Schwartz's first collaboration. "The Girl Hunt Ballet" and "That's Entertainment" were written for the film. The latter became M-G-M's signature song with the release of the film That's Entertainment! in 1974. According to modern sources, the "Triplets" number was originally to be performed by Astaire, Jack Buchanan and Oscar Levant, but when Levant (who was recovering from a heart attack) backed out because of health concerns, Nanette Fabray took his place. The song "Two-Faced Woman" was recorded by singer India Adams and shot as a dance number for Cyd Charisse, but not used in the final film; instead, Adams' recording of the song was used in the 1953 film Torch Song . The 1994 film That's Entertainment! III features a segment in which the omitted footage of Charisse is shown on a split screen with the Joan Crawford production number from Torch Song.
The Band Wagon received Academy Award nominations for Best Story and Screenplay, Best Costume Design (Color) and Best Scoring of a Musical Picture. Among the more famous musical numbers are "Dancing in the Dark," in which Astaire and Charisse alight from a hansom cab and dance in Central Park; "Triplets," in which the stars, portraying querulous babies, sing and dance on their knees (to which shoes were affixed); and "The Girl Hunt Ballet," a dance homage to the hard-boiled detective story.
The Band Wagon marked the first of two films in which Astraire and Charisse co-starred. Their second co-starring was in the 1957 musical Silk Stockings (see below). Although Astaire and Charisse also appeared in the 1946 M-G-M production of The Ziegfeld Follies (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1941-50), they appeared in different sequences. The stage version of The Band Wagon was also the basis for the 1949 Twentieth Century-Fox film Dancing in the Dark (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1941-50), which was directed by Irving Reis and starred William Powell and Betsy Drake. Although Dancing in the Dark featured several of the same songs, and is set in the world of show business, it has no connection with the film The Band Wagon. According to modern sources, M-G-M was required to pay Twentieth Century-Fox for the use of the title. The Band Wagon was British actor Jack Buchanan's first American-made film since the 1930 Paramount film Monte Carlo (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1921-30). A modern source adds dancer Paul Bradley to the cast.