film feature: the band wagon

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The Band Wagon (1953)

BAMcinématek The Complete Vincente Minnelli
September 30, 2011 [festival September 23-November 2, 2011]
BAM Rose Cinemas, 30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn
event web site

  • “I am not Nijinsky, I am not Marlon Brando. I am Mrs. Hunter’s little boy Tony — song and dance man.” [Tony has had enough in rehearsal]
  • “We’re not quarreling, we’re in complete agreement. We hate each other.” [Lily Marton to Lestor Marton in the heat of rehearsal stresses]
  • “Gosh with all the raw talent around why don’t we kids get together and put on a show?  Maybe we can find a barn or something.” [Lestor Marton snarky remark that plants a seed during an out-of-town show post mortem]
  • “She came at me in sections.  She had more curves than a scenic railway.” [Tony in show within a show within a show potboiler murder mystery]

The Band Wagon is hokum and enchantment, show biz personalities, witty repartee, entertainment old school meets new school (circa 1953), the thrill of a work light in a theatre, and simple smooth romantic dance movements in a romantic version of Central Park. And as much as my mind can wander during certain segments of the plot exposition, I am riveted by enough of the dance numbers to watch this movie often.”By Myself” along an empty station platform after the rest of the 20th Century Limited passengers have disembarked, “Triplets” and “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan” as segments of the show within a show vaudeville, and the ever entrancing, endlessly uplifting “Dancing in the Dark.”  Minnelli so clearly loved his actors, the city of New York, the smell of grease paint, the details of a bare stage in the waiting theatre — in this movie and in others of his capturing these kinds of characters and these settings we feel the love, feel the knowledge, know the enchantment, feel it in kind. On the big screen at BAM during the current Vincente Minnelli film festival, I feel all this magnified.

Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) was a big star in movies and before that in theatre and times have changed when we meet him in our 1953 story. He travels to New York on the 20th Century Limited to see some shows and meet up with his book and songwriting team pals Lily and Lester Marton (Nanette Fabrey and Oscar Levant). The Martons have written a show and want to engage the then current wunderkind of Broadway Jeff Cordova (Jack Buchanan) as director. Jeff convinces the Martons that their simple musical conception is a Faustian adventure, and brings in the current ballet star of the moment Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse) to play the romantic lead. By the time this plot travels its route on the tracks, extra baggage in show plot and romantic partners is discarded, and the show-in-a-show, also called “The Band Wagon,” is a big hit. And we’re all again entranced by a simple dance in the dark, a bit of soft shoe, an amble down a train station platform, a shoe shine in a 42nd street fun parlor.

I can’t always feel this sometimes creaky plot in my gut. Yet some of the moments, especially a quiet dance (with surging M-G-M orchestra of course) in a clearing in a fantasy image of Central Park at night make me a little bit breathless, a little bit hopeful, and one big gushy romantic. The Band Wagon moments like this will always be felt in the heart.

‘The Band Wagon’ stage in New York theatre, prior to rehearsals beginning and New Haven tryout.

We thrill to the quiet primordial possibility of a show in early rehearsal. Director Cordova addresses the assembled creative team before chorus auditions and the rehearsal period begins. Minnelli knows this world. You can taste it. “Well there it is folks. The work light. Only an electric bulb perhaps, but for the next four weeks that will be our sun our moon our stars. These four walls will be our universe, our private world. We enter with nothing but a dream … when we leave we’ll have a show.”

Connie Gilchrist as Frankie and Judy Garland as Lily in “Presenting Lily Mars” (1943).

The romance of the creative process about to commence, the quiet of a stage before or after the rehearsals have transpired — think the “Every Little Moment” sequence from Presenting Lily Mars, if you’re so inclined, with a young aspiring actress played by Judy Garland singing and dancing with a char woman late at night on an empty stage, sharing stage-struck thoughts.

Lily, Lester, chorus kids, and a cool sign. In New Haven.

The married book and song writing team the Martons spar with each other, have a long and unelaborated history with Tony, and have their own performance skills. Well, at least Fabray certainly is a song and dance gal. Levant is a quipster, and pianist in real life — not a light-hearted song and dance man, though it’s fun to watch him try. They portray the interpersonal stresses that can play out during tense creative periods. Lily even screams to make a point (for humor more than anything) in the alley portrayed here. In Minnelli’s hands, even alleys are romantic.

Before the first preview performance, the cast is jittery, the elaborate set designs hadn’t been thought through for the differently sized New Haven theatre, the costumes and performances and lines and characterizations all have to face their first audiences. We hear the backers in front of house championing their expectations for the show in which they have invested. We don’t hear much from the actors talking with one another expressing frustrations or fears. We do hear from stage hands (again, the Minnelli deep knowledge of this world) who are pictured high above the action — almost like the high aerial shots in Alfred Hitchcock‘s The Birds of birds in flight hundreds of feet off the ground while fires and explosions and human chaos reign down below. The stage hands are playing cards and smoking high above the stage, calmly, on this important and eventually calamitous opening night. One remarks that the show should be starting soon. Another calmly indicates that there hasn’t been a speech yet — and he is right. We then return to the action on the stage floor below to hear the rallying of the troops speech, perspective deftly established.

Tony, Lily, and Jeff as “The Triplets” in the show in the show. Adult actors dancing on their knees (in black slacks with false baby feet).

Tony and Gabrielle know that it is their chemistry and their instincts (established in the quietly and consistently heart stopping “Dancing in the Dark” sequence below, in the pre-New Haven portion of the plot development) that will save the show. When all seemed lost on the road, the troupe bands together and returns to first principles. We lose Faust and gain comedy and dance routines including a delightful bit of business involving three triplets who “hate each other very much / we hate our folks.”

Jeff and Tony show us how it’s done,  In “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan” Minnelli captures spotlight and shadows and the easy charm of it all.

A charming bit of song and dance man history reaching across decades and over the Atlantic, from famous vaudevillians Jack Buchanan as Jeff and Fred Astaire as Tony do a number which is almost talk sung, deftly soft-shoed, demonstrating stage presence and history and charm and extraordinary ability to play with top hats and canes.

Other moments deserve mention that are inherently theatrical, yet fall outside of this “putting on a show” theme. In “When There’s a Shine on My Shoes (There’s A Melody in My Heart)” the small community of New York characters in a Times Square fun house Minnelli captures reflect the humanity of the city in much the same way he manages in a non musical late night diner scene in The Clock (1945). A soulful solo (yet resigned) Tony ambles down the train platform crooning “By Myself” to masterful effect, musing on whether he’ll ever find his stride professionally or personally again.

Charm, beauty, informed theatrical love, are all captured in this cinematic ode to the business and pleasure of putting on a show. And with all that, for my money, the sequence that sells this movie for all time, independent of any part of the story, is the sequence often referenced by me here and often referenced by others in decades since this was filmed. In silence, with initially quiet then soaring M-G-M orchestrations our main characters and ultimately we are, indeed, dancing in the dark.

© Martha Wade Steketee (October 5, 2011)

[Most resonant moments: since my first introduction to “Dancing in the Dark” decades ago, the moments deep into the dance when Gabrielle sits on the bench, Tony steps up and over and helps her up and over, accompanied by soaring orchestration — well, my heart pounds a little just thinking about it. Let’s watch.]

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