If I could make one change in a movie and knew that it would improve it ten-fold it would be this: switching out Cyd Charisse with a different actress in the role. Someone who could stand-up to Fred Astaire, challenge his role as THE star of his films, and provide a better sparring partner. Ginger Rogers, Judy Garland and Rita Hayworth are three women who spring to mind as actresses who could keep up with Astaire in performing every step of the way, matching his skills or giving his persona a new ripple by their presence. Charisse is lovely to look at, magnetic when dancing, but a lead balloon when it comes to emoting and carrying a dramatic scene. And this one element is the one thing that I can point towards as what kept me from enjoying The Band Wagon more, because aside from this lone element this movie is a near-masterpiece.
When you’ve got Vincente Minnelli directing a backstage musical one shouldn’t expect anything less, if I am to be completely honest. And Minnelli working with Astaire, one of the greats even if he’s never been much of a personal favorite, is a dream combination. Minnelli could get career highs out of musical performers like Gene Kelly, Lena Horne and Frank Sinatra. The same is true here.
Astaire has always been something of an asexual performer and very selfish with his talents. He liked to perform for himself and didn’t care much for sharing the glory, and the only time he radiate any kind of sexual desire was when Ginger Rogers’ chorus-girl-made-good persona grafted it onto him. That doesn’t change in The Band Wagon, but it allows him to create technically gorgeous and complicated numbers like “By Myself” and “Shine On Your Shoes,” the latter possibly one of the best choreographed and greatest numbers to come out of the Arthur Freed unit. Astaire’s sad-sack washed-up movie star (complete with cutesy cameo by Ava Gardner for a punchline about who the paps are hounding) gives him one of his greatest roles, and he does very good work with it. The only time he seems to give a bit of generosity is with Oscar Levant and Nannette Fabray, as an in-joke Comden & Green, in a few surreal and high-energy numbers.
What The Band Wagon lacks in storytelling originality – it’s another “putting on a show” musical – it more than makes up for with Minnelli’s lush colors and virtuoso camera-work. “The Girl Hunt” could be a prime example of explaining the lasting influence and love for Minnelli’s art as it combines bright colors, an ever-moving camera, skilled dancers and brilliant pantomime. But perhaps the film is best known for introducing the world to the song “That’s Entertainment,” in which four performers practically show you their bruised, bloodied and exhaustively rehearsed bodies and demand for our applause and love. They get them, oh boy do they get them.