Dancing, at least as practiced by the very best, is really a young person's game. Fred Astaire knew that when he announced his retirement in 1946. He was 47 years old then and, though still an astonishing talent, he wanted to go out on top. So he did...for two years.
When Gene Kelly, his successor as Hollywood's top musical star, broke his ankle and was unable to appear in 1948's "Easter Parade," Astaire was enticed to take over his role. When the film became an enormous hit, his retirement was officially over. He would make 10 more musicals, including one (1968's "Finian's Rainbow") when he was nearly 70 and after a decade away from the form. Though it was released with several years and a couple of hit films left in his "comeback" period, 1953's "The Band Wagon" is really the elegant curtain call Astaire deserved for his remarkable career.
Funny and mainly lightweight, there is a sweetly sad quality to "The Band Wagon" that makes it a very different film than "Singin' in the Rain" (1952), despite the similarities of the projects. Both are about the process of putting on a show (Hollywood movies in "Singin' in the Rain," a Broadway musical in "The Band Wagon"), both have screenplays written by the famed duo of Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and both are "patchwork" musicals using many older songs drawn from stage and screen musicals past, rather than all new tunes created specifically for the films.
But where "Singin' in the Rain" is consistently buoyant, "The Band Wagon" has a mature, sometimes even melancholy mood that, despite its continued popularity and critical acclaim, has kept it an arm's length away from the public's embrace as a beloved classic, which the former enjoys to this day.
Thankfully, the film's belated release on DVD last month gives it proper respect with a two-disc, extras-laden set and, most importantly, a pristine image transfer. Though widescreen formats were starting to take over as the norm in the early '50s, purists can take comfort that the full-frame picture on this disc is the same version theatrical audiences saw in 1953.
Fred Astaire was never seen as the has-been that his character Tony Hunter is described as in the opening scenes of "The Band Wagon," but there is no mistaking the autobiographical elements. The famous top hat and cane an auctioneer can't sell for fifty cents at the start of the film are said to come from Hunter's hit film "Swinging Down to Singapore." Astaire's breakthrough to stardom was "Flying Down to Rio" (1933), with his longtime partner, Ginger Rogers.
Comden and Green wrote the film with Astaire in mind and the star was clearly ready to acknowledge his age in the storyline while still defying it in the dance numbers. After the gentle "By Myself" establishes the film's reflective nature, Astaire gets to cut loose with "A Shine on Your Shoes," an incredible number set in an arcade, with the 54-year-old star doing things 54-year-old bodies aren't supposed to be able to do.
From there the film follows Tony Hunter's attempted comeback in a bright, bubbly musical concocted by his writer pals Lester and Lily Marton (Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray playing stand-ins for Comden and Green). When the hilariously bombastic director-producer-actor Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan) gets involved, the project mutates into a pretentious modern updating of "Faust." Hunter's pairing with famed ballerina Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse) further complicates matters for the old school song and dance man.
Astaire's nervousness about working with the tall and classically trained Charisse was also worked into the story, but they certainly could dance together. The famed sequence in which the pair walks through Central Park (a set much more beautiful than the real thing) and wordlessly begin to dance is simply one of the loveliest any musical has to offer.
The "Faust" version of the show flops but the camaraderie among the company grows and a romance between Hunter and Gerard blooms. They go back to the original idea for the show and take it on the road, allowing the movie to end with an extended series of production numbers, including the funny "Triplets" (with Astaire, Fabray and Buchanan as warped infants) and the show-stopper finale, "The Girl Hunt," a Mickey Spillane-styled detective story done as ballet.
As much as the film is about Astaire and aging gracefully, it's equally about smashing the line between high art and popular culture. The film's most famous song (and the only one written specifically for the movie by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz) is "That's Entertainment," a witty celebration of all things art, from sexy melodrama to Shakespeare. Director Vincente Minnelli, one of the great perfectionists in the history of cinema, knew the precision, creative struggle and intense labor that went into making a simple "entertainment" as well as anyone and he wasn't about to concede those efforts to more "serious" works.
Astaire is rightfully front and center, but his supporting players all get their moments. A brilliant dancer with only an average voice (her singing in the movie is dubbed by India Adams), Charisse was sometimes restricted to one or two dance numbers (albeit scene-stealing ones) in her early career, but she proved herself a strong leading lady in this film. Indeed, her lines in the final scene are the most emotional in the entire movie. Fabray and Levant are delightful and Levant (an acclaimed pianist-composer as well as onscreen comic curmudgeon) even gets to share some awkward dance steps with his co-stars. Buchanan, a faded British star, made the most of his return to the spotlight. His pitch to prospective investors in the show is just the funniest of his many amusing scenes.
Warner Brothers' DVD includes an audio commentary by Vincente's daughter Liza Minnelli and pianist-singer Michael Feinstein. Liza gets a little goofy here and there but she shares some nice anecdotes about her father and being on the set of the film as a little girl. Feinstein proves to be a solid musical historian, offering interesting tidbits about nearly every major talent involved with the film. A deleted musical number, a behind-the-scenes documentary, an episode of "The Men Who Made the Movies" on Minnelli, a rare musical short starring Buchanan, and trailers for several Astaire films round out a quality release of what can be called, without hyperbole, one of the greatest musicals of all time. Films featured in DVDetours™ may be difficult to find at many video stores but are widely available from some of the online rental services, such as Netflix, Green Cine, QwikFliks and Blockbuster Online. Inventories vary from company to company and DVDetours has no connection to any of these services.
© 2005 Joel Wicklund