The Band Wagon (1953)
Starring: Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Oscar Levant, Nanette Fabray, Jack Buchanan
Directed by: Vincente Minelly
Released by: MGM
Synopsis: Former musical star Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) is struggling in his career. He travels to New York to partake in a theatrical project by his friends Lester (Oscar Levant) and Lily Marton (Nanette Fabray). But when musical director Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan) decides to put his own twist on the play they realize that putting on a show will be harder than expected.
Review: While Gene Kelly's Singin' in the Rain will always be remembered as the best and most popular MGM musical it certainly wasn't the only one ever made. The Band Wagon starring Fred Astaire (who would define the film musical genre long before Gene Kelly's time) is one of them. While it doesn't quite surpass the achievements Singin' in the Rain accomplished it's no slouch when it comes to being a film musical.
The first thing you will notice is how the movie is more about telling the story than about putting on a show (a sweet irony considering that the film is about making a Broadway play), putting it on a different league than Singin' in the Rain. Fred Astaire may be best known for his singing and dancing, but he is also quite the actor. His portrayal of Tony Hunter is a well developed one, starting the film as a bitter actor and ending as a re-invigorated performer. It's his growth as a man and artist that fuels a great deal of the film's plot.
That's not to say that the music is lacking. It may take a slight backseat to the story but they are definitely the heart and soul of the film. Even if Astaire is slightly aged in the movie he can deliver a memorable performance like no other, especially in the number "Shine on your Shoes". The rest of his co-stars keep up with him very well. Most notably is Cyd Charisse as Gabrielle, a ballerina that challenges Tony in more ways than one. Their dance number, "Dancing in the Dark" is a beautifully choreographed scene and perhaps the best in the whole movie. Other notable dance numbers include the "Triplets" number and the crime mystery fantasy.
Unfortunately, as great as these sequences are, considering it came a few years after Singin' in the Rain they are quite tame in terms of energy. The numbers are definitely grand and at times very inspired, but some of them lack the enthusiasm seem in previous film musicals. The other issue I had with the film is that the storyline doesn't take enough risks. It's the basic "putting on a show" plot that was done to death by the time The Band Wagon was released. Granted, the character of Tony Hunter adds a lot to the plot, and several scenes go beyond what the plot demands. It's far from horrible. It just doesn't quite stick to you.
The Band Wagon, regardless of its flaws, is still a very enjoyable film with a classic storyline told very well. Fred Astaire and crew remind us that creating a show from the ground up isn't without its challenges, but it's all worth it once the curtain comes up and the audience is on their feet, applauding the great show they just witnessed. It's the foundation musicals, and films, are made on.
Rating: 4 filmstrips out of 5
This review is dedicated to Albert Gutierrez, part of the famous New Jersey trio and a great member of the WEDnesday Show and Ultimate Disney, who recommended me this film and brought an interesting analysis of the comparisons between this film and Singin' in the Rain. Thanks, Al!