There’s a Western musical number in one of Fred Astaire’s least-known films, Let’s Dance (1950), where a TV set is seen on the wall, showing a cowboy film. Astaire eyes it disbelievingly for a second – then whips out a gun and shoots the screen. A slightly less drastic method of getting rid of the competition is used at the start of another Fifties film musical, Young at Heart (1954.) Here, an elderly Ethel Barrymore is sitting watching a boxing match on television, but the commentary is deliberately drowned out by her musician brother (Robert Keith), until she switches off – and the message is driven home by a wry comment that he “won the fight”.
In real life, however, the fight wasn’t so easy to win.The audience was falling away to television, and the writing was on the wall for big-budget Technicolor musical extravaganzas. When The Band Wagon was released in 1953, MGM’s Arthur Freed unit, which had made so many great films, was facing a struggle for funding, and Astaire’s contract with the studio was coming to an end. It’s hardly surprising that, despite its lavish musical sequences, including Astaire and Cyd Charisse’s romantic Dancing in the Dark, the film at times has a sad, wistful feeling about it compared to the high spirits of Singin’ In The Rain the previous year.
These two movies are often compared, as both are backstage stories featuring great songbooks of musical standards. (The songs for The Band Wagon are all by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz, and some had featured in Astaire’s 1931 Broadway musical with the same title, though the story is completely different). Also, both The Band Wagon and Singin’ in the Rain had scripts written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, loaded with many satirical references . However, as David Parkinson points out in The Rough Guide to Film Musicals: “Whereas Gene Kelly’s confident classic was an optimistic paean to talking pictures, Fred Astaire’s underrated homage to the stage was shrouded in a pessimism that implied that the days of old-time show business were numbered.”
At least it’s an amusing brand of pessimism. You get the flavour right at the start of the film, where Astaire’s character, song and dance man Tony Hunter, has to listen to people on the train discussing how out-of-date he is – and then, adding insult to injury, his top hat fails to draw any bidders at auction. “He wore it in his classic film Swinging Down to Panama – fifty cents, anyone?” (According to Liza Minnelli in the DVD commentary, director Vincente Minnelli persuaded Astaire to allow these in-jokes.) The mood cheers briefly when the press turns up to meet the train, but it turns out they want to see Ava Gardner , in an uncredited cameo, rather than Tony.
The veteran dancer is signed up to star in a new stage production, written by his old friends Lily and Lester (Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant, playing versions of Comden and Green), which sounds right up his street – a humorous musical about a bestselling writer. However, things start to go wrong when theatrical man of the moment Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan in pompous overdrive) is brought in to direct the play. He decides to make sweeping changes, turning the comedy into a pretentious reworking of the Faust legend.
Lily and Lester soon realise they are the ones selling their souls, or at least their show – and on opening night they quickly descend into a hell of bad reviews. Then Tony steps in to save the day, in the best spirit of “the show must go on” – and The Band Wagon is turned back into a song and dance spectacular, wowing audiences on a tour around the country. Meanwhile, a tentative romance is developing between Tony and ballerina Gaby (Charisse), but she is already involved with choreographer Paul (James Mitchell).
The rehearsal scenes show plenty of tensions between the characters, not all of which were invented. There were various personal problems in real life. Fred Astaire’s wife was dying, so he was obviously under great strain, although his daughter says in the DVD featurette that it helped him to keep working. Jack Buchanan had a lot of problems with his teeth and some scenes had to be arranged around his dentists’ appointments. Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant were only barely on speaking terms some of the time – and dancer James Mitchell said he was made to feel so unwelcome on set he decided never to see the finished film.
Astaire (who had very little self-confidence, according to an interview with Vincente Minnelli) was nervous about whether Charisse was too tall to dance with him, and whether their styles would meld . This is something the writers picked up on with a funny scene where he stands next to her on the stairs, trying to work out their respective heights. He was also genuinely nervous about working with choreographer Michael Kidd – just as his character worries about some of the dance numbers within the film. Kidd tells in the featurette how he found it very hard to work out the dances for the film, because, every time he suggested something, Astaire would reply “Oh, Mike, I don’t know if I’ll be able to do that.”
The great dancer was more than able to do everything Kidd dreamed up for him, of course. The film is full of stunning song and dance numbers from Astaire, with my own favourite probably being the By Myself/Shine on Your Shoes sequence near the start of the movie, a breathtakingly inventive number at an amusement arcade bringing in assorted machines and attractions, while the crowd mills around. Leroy Daniels, the dancer who joins Astaire in the Shine on Your Shoes sequence, really was a shoeshine man who used to dance while he worked – Liza tells in the DVD commentary how she and dad Vincente spotted him at work and he was then included in the number. I also like I Love Louisa, a catchy song where we get a chance to hear Fred Astaire singing with an Austrian accent and including a string of German phrases. (His family was Austrian.)
At the end of the film there is a series of great numbers featured in the fictional show, including Girl Hunt, a brilliant ballet spoofing Mickey Spillane type hardboiled mysteries, Louisiana Hayride, sung by Nanette Fabray, which sounds like a number from Oklahoma!, and I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan, a wonderful soft-shoe dance for Astaire and Buchanan together. The only song I don’t like much is Triplets, a gimmicky number with Astaire, Buchanan and Fabray playing babies – apparently the three of them all had to take painkilling drugs so they could dance on their knees for this number. Nowadays it would probably be done with trick photography or CGI.
Probably the most famous song, though, is That’s Entertainment, the only newly-written number for the film – Schwartz and Dietz were asked to write something with a similar flavour to There’s No Business Like Showbusiness, which sounds like quite a daunting task, but they did just that, and wrote the song in just half an hour. It perfectly captures the spirit of the film, by celebrating entertainment in all its rich variety – the song mentions everything from Oedipus Rex to the early Astaire and Rogers musical The Gay Divorcee.
This musical gives Astaire one of his best roles, and Charisse’s dancing is wonderful even if her acting is occasionally a bit dodgy, as in the scene where she has to cry. Buchanan is also brilliantly funny as Cordova and very nearly steals the show – he had briefly been to Hollywood much earlier in his career to star in Lubitsch’s fine early musical Monte Carlo (1930), and he also had a highly successful long career in the UK, but this film, made just four years before he died, is the one he is best remembered for.
Really, I suppose, Buchanan dancing and acting with such panache almost at the end of his career sums up the feeling of the movie. The MGM musical era was nearly over, but the star-studded cast was driving the bandwagon right to the end of the road – and doing it in glamorous, colourful, over-the-top style.
This piece first appeared during the musicals countdown at the Wonders in the Dark website.