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The Band Wagon

Posted : 4 years, 5 months ago on 13 January 2014 10:23

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.

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Fred Astaire 1953!

Posted : 6 years, 4 months ago on 11 February 2012 01:34

The Band Wagon is the film Fred Astaire’s career was culminating to: his best film in my view. Like Ninotchka with Greta Garbo or A Star Is Born with Judy Garland, this was the role he was born to play; one catered to his on screen persona. Fred Astaire is Tony Hunter! An ageing hoofer who no longer is the star he once was. The Band Wagon contains little references to Astaire’s past: from Bill Bojangles Robinson to the opening credits feature an image of a top hat and cane, to the mentioning of a fictional movie “Swinging Down to Panama” perhaps a reference to Swing Time and Flying Down to Rio (although I do wish there could have been a little reference to Ginger Rogers herself in there).

The Band Wagon provides Astaire with some of the best musical numbers of his career. However the film also allows him to showcase other avenues of his talent, such as his outburst scene over his dissatisfaction over rehearsals - a fine example of the acting prowess he possessed. While Ginger Rogers is obviously Astaire’s greatest partner Cyd Charisse is his most accomplished; could there be a more graceful figure? 

Was I gullible that when I first watched The Band Wagon that the movie manipulated me into thinking the pretentious and egotistical stage director Jeffrey Cordova’s (Jack Buchanan) idea of a musical inspired by the Faust legend was a good idea? This isn’t the same old backstage musical plot; The Band Wagon is a thinking person’s musical. Likewise Charisse’s Gabrielle Gerard has a mature sub plot of her own involving her trying to deal with her dominating boyfriend and her feeling towards Tony; giving the film that extra mature edge.

Not only is there a great story, there is also great comedy with a cast gels so well together. Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray as a bickering couple and their hysterical fanboy reactions to meting Tony Hunter, to Jack Bunchanan’s over the top histrionics and his terrible ideas for a stage musical. My favourite moment in comedy in The Bandwagon is the scene in which Jeffrey Cordova manipulates Gabrielle’s boyfriend from being dead set against allowing her to being cast in his stage production to then begging him to allow her to be in the show. It’s like a Bugs Bunny-Yosemite Sam type moment but on a much more subtle level and made even more impressive by occurring in an uncut shot. Likewise the sets in The Band Wagon have an astounding level of detail that scenes near the beginning of the film taking place on the street had me wondering where they sets or real world locations.

Up until The Band Wagon it was uncommon for a film musical to have a soundtrack entirely composed for it rather than having songs and compositions taken from other sources; which makes it all the more impressive that the entire soundtrack to The Bandwagon is superb. If I was to choose my three favourite musical numbers of all time, in terms of epic scope they would be The Broadway Melody Ballet from Singin’ In the Rain, The Lullaby of Broadway from Gold Diggers of 1935 and The Girl Hunt Ballet from The Band Wagon in all its 13 minute glory. Here noir meets musical, with Astaire at his most badass. His line delivery could be in an actual crime film itself, plus it inspired the music video for Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal. There’s also the Shine on Your Shoes number, one which I could watch again and again just to look at all those gizmos in the background and the genuine reactions on people’s faces at seeing Fred Astaire dance; while That’s Entertainment has become a semi-official anthem for Hollywood. Oh and there’s the Triplets number; one of the weirdest musical numbers ever filmed and they’re actually dancing on their knees! 

The early to mid-1950’s where a phenomenal period for the musical genre. Hollywood produced some of its finest musicals in these years before television brought this era of film musicals to an end. Films like The Band Wagon elevated the genre to new heights. A Fred Astaire musical which has everything and more!

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