The Band Wagon (1953)

Directed by Vincente Minnelli

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I know nothing about Fred Astaire.  I didn’t even know what he looked like until watching this film.  He’s kind of scrawny, like a Ned Flanders with thinning blond hair type of guy.  It’s not at all what I expected, just look at this side by side with Astaire and Gene Kelly:

That could be a buddy cop type of movie or something where Astaire is the accountant, and Kelly is the handsome leading man whose expenditures are out of control.  I don’t know, I’m just spitballing here.

The point is that Astaire is kind of geeky, and yet he moves with a strange grace that somehow betrays my initial thoughts about his character.  In The Band Wagon he plays Tony Hunter, an aging former Broadway star who has been all but forgotten by the world around him.  Apparently this is pretty close to the truth as Astaire was considering retirement before the film.

The plot concerns the struggles to put on a play, and the personality clashes that go on behind the scenes.  The story is very much about the creative process and the less than glamorous side of constructing a fine performance.  We see the poor reception to the show’s inaugural performance, the gossiping behind backs of the background performers, the restructuring of the play, the delicate balance of actor egos and the roadshow performances which help fine tune the show for its Broadway run.

The story is less about the glamour of a hit show and more about the painstaking process of getting it right.  In the end, Hunter finds some redemption in the play’s success, but we only feel that victory because we’ve seen just how hard it is to get it right.

The film was written by writing team Betty Comden and Adolph Green whose surrogate characters (like Astaire) show up in the film as Lester and Lily Marten (Oscar Levant, Nanette Fabray).  Together they wrote the previous year’s Singin’ in the Rain, a Gene Kelly musical which chronicles the process of putting together a film, much as this one does about putting together a Broadway play.

Each film is about the creative process presented through a different medium, and though following similar, familiar plot movements, The Band Wagon feels much less sentimental than does Singin’ in the Rain.  I’m borrowing from Roger Ebert here when he suggests that this tone comes straight from the different directors.

The 1952 film was made by a younger man, Stanley Donen, while The Band Wagon was made by Vincente Minnelli, a man whose previous film, The Bad and the Beautiful was a more grim story about one man’s fall from grace.  That fall from grace might as well have been what just happened to Fred Astaire’s Tony Hunter.

So The Band Wagon bears a close resemblance to reality, and the production of the play within the film appears to have closely followed the production of the film itself.  It’s a story about the creative process that deglamorizes much of that process.  Though some of the musical numbers occur within the film’s reality (out in public streets), many of the performances come straight from the musical within the film, the one we’re watching be carefully constructed.  Maybe that makes the story feel a little less magical and a little more practical.  Characters aren’t breaking from the narrative to since and dance and celebrate the moment.  Instead the performances are mostly shown to be constructed performances, and in this way the film breaks them down.

We watch the actors’ rehearsals, and we sometimes watch them fail.  The film strips the magic out of these moments, making it clear just how much work goes into what would otherwise feel so effortless onscreen.  Putting together this kind of show isn’t so beautiful, it’s a struggle, but it’s a worthwhile struggle.

There appears to be some cynicism underneath the surface here, like it’s been made by a team of people who have already made enough musicals to lose some interest in the genre.  Now it becomes about deconstructing that genre even while following its conventions.

Up Next: Going the Distance (2010), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

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