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Saturday, December 26, 2015

THE BAND WAGON -- Movie Review by Porfle

With THE BAND WAGON (1953) we get a taste of casual elegance and class a la Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, but with plenty of lowbrow comedy to even things out. This seemed to be Astaire's specialty--impossibly suave and debonair one moment, comically self-effacing the next, but always just plain cool without even trying. 

Cyd Charisse, although often seen as a slinky seductress (as in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN and THE BAND WAGON'S own elaborate finale), was also a graceful ballet dancer at heart and could put those long, willowy limbs of hers to use in the most elegant fashion.  She was, to me, rivaled only by Esther Williams as the most beautiful of musical stars.

Here, the emphasis is on pure song-and-dance numbers and big-production indulgence splashed in vivid Technicolor--"musical porn", one might say--with a slender plot to hang it all on.  Astaire plays washed-up Hollywood actor Tony Hunter, who has returned to New York in hopes of getting work on Broadway. 

His writer friends, married couple Lily and Lester Marton (an ebullient Nanette Fabray and endearingly grumpy Oscar Levant acting as surrogates for writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green), introduce him to eccentric producer Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan), who plunges Tony into the lead role of his grievously ill-conceived musical version of "Faust." 

The play is a disaster, but while still on the road all the participants decide to totally overhaul it into a splashy, fun romp with all-new songs and dance numbers which they'll try out on the road before taking it back to New York.  And aside from the requisite love story, with Astaire falling for the initially aloof primadonna Charisse while she still carries a fading torch for someone else, that's the extent of the plot--just a dazzling succession of unrestrained musical exuberance that lives up to the film's signature theme song, "That's Entertainment."

With Vincente Minelli (MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, AN AMERICAN IN PARIS) at the helm and a gaggle of delightful songs by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz, watching THE BAND WAGON is like savoring a slice of seven-layer cake washed down with bubbling champagne.  It's the classic backstage musical, with even the "real-life" settings coming off like stylized stage backdrops and a story that never takes itself too seriously--at least after Cyd's glum would-be boyfriend Paul (James Mitchell) makes an early exit.

Astaire's melancholy opening number "By Myself" (look for actor Steve Forrest as an extra) gives way to a colorfully idealized Times Square setting for the breezy "Shine On Your Shoes", a delightful romp in which the downcast Tony Hunter lifts his own spirits with the help of his fellow New Yorkers.  Tony and Gaby (Cyd Charisse) overcome their initial stylistic and personality conflicts with a sleek, romantic dance interlude in Central Park to "Dancing in the Dark." 

Cordova's "Faust" debacle yields some fun moments, but it's when the troup decide to bounce back with a newer, better show under Tony's direction that the fun really starts.  The always dynamic Charisse performs "New Sun in the Sky", Fabray's talents are showcased in "Louisiana Hayride", and Astaire and Buchanan duet on the simple but sweet soft-shoe ditty "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan."  For pure hilarity, nothing beats the sight of Astaire, Fabray, and Buchanan as babies with adult heads and infant bodies (a wonderful illusion), bounding out of their high chairs to pound out the supremely silly "Triplets." 

The extended stage-show-within-the-movie ends with a lengthy Mickey Spillane-style segment entitled "Girl Hunt", with Astaire as a private detective named Rod Riley dancing his way through the shadowy criminal underworld in search of mystery woman Charisse.  (Look for a young Julie Newmar in a bit part.)  The whole thing's way too complicated and cinematic to be a stage number, but we don't really care since, aside from being just plain nutty, it's a thrilling performance by the leads with some of their most jazzy and sophisticatedly sexy dancing yet. 

Naturally, everything turns out okay in the end, with all romantic and showbiz-related complications settled just in time for the cast to reprise "That's Entertainment!" with renewed vigor.  As a story, the whole thing's paper thin and loaded with all the old "let's put on a show!" cliche's that could be stuffed into it.  But neither Vincent Minelli, Fred Astaire, nor anyone else involved let any of that stop them from turning THE BAND WAGON into a non-stop celebration of music and dance that has become one of the most beloved musicals of all time. 


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