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The Band Wagon

A movie directed by Vincente Minnelli.

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Good natured, expert professionalism…plus great songs, Astaire and Jack Buchanan

  • Aug 22, 2011
  • by
The Band Wagon was one of the last, great MGM musicals and it shows just how assured and professional those MGM musicals could be. Most people that I know of rank it among the top musicals ever made, usually a half step behind Singin' in the Rain. It's an insider's valentine to show business and putting on a show, written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green as a funny, gentle satire on the professions' pretensions and foibles.
Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire), a fading Hollywood song and dance man, comes to New York at the request of his friends, Broadway musical writers Lily and Les Marton (Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant). They have a great idea for a show that Tony will star in, and they are aiming to get the biggest Broadway director to take in on, Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan). Cordova agrees to not only dirtect and produce but to appear as the devil. He gets famed ballet star Gabrielle Girard (Cyd Charisse) to co-star...and decides the Martons' lighthearted spoof, with some rewriting, of course, would be a pefect modern-day musical retelling…of the Faust legend. Thud. Besides all the things that can go wrong on an out-of-town tryout, Hunter and Gerard don't take to each other at first. She's a ballerina. He's a hoofer. And she's maybe a little tall for him. The show, pretentious and humorless, flops in New Haven. But then Tony takes over, the 'let's put on a show' theme kicks in, all the songs and dances that were kicked out go back in and Cordova recognizes his faults and wants to stay with the show under Tony's direction. It's a big hit, and Tony and Gabrielle have fallen in love.
The movie gently satirizes many of the show biz conventions. The Martons are based on Comden and Green; Cordova was based on Jose Ferrer, at that time a major Broadway actor-director; and Astaire had several of his idiosyncrasies pinned on the character of Tony Hunter (worrying about the height of his costars, for example), which he good-naturedly accepted.
The main element, however, is that this is a musical with great musical performers. The Band Wagon's backbone is the classic songs by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz. Astaire, Charisse, Fabray and Buchanan all have plenty of opportunities to do what they do best, sing and dance. Among the outstanding numbers are "By Myself" (Astaire), "A Shine on Your Shoes" (Astaire), "That's Entertainment" (everyone), "Dancing in the Dark" (Astaire, Charisse), "I Love Louisa" (Astaire), "A New Sun in the Sky" (Charisse), "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan" (Astaire, Buchanan), "Louisiana Hayride" (Fabray) and "Triplets" (Astaire, Buchanan, Fabray).
One of the highlights is "The Girl Hunt Ballet," a knowing spoof of the Micky Spillane hard boiled private eye tales. The ballet is choreographed by Michael Kidd, danced by Astaire and Charisse, with the narration spoken by Astaire and written by Alan Jay Lerner. It is head-and-shoulders better, in my view, than so many of the ballet pretensions then current in many musicals.
And here’s a tip of the hat to Jack Buchanan. He was a major British producer, director, and song and dance star, often billed as England’s Fred Astaire. When he accepted the part of Jeffrey Cordova he stepped in to replace Clifton Webb, who turned the part down, so the story goes, when he couldn’t have top billing over Astaire. (Webb in the Twenties and Thirties was an accomplished song and dance star on Broadway.) Buchanan by now was largely forgotten in the U.S. although still active in Britain. He looked his age, as Astaire was beginning to. He suffered from spinal arthritis, and he had to undergo painful dental surgery after shooting began. Watch the two of them dance “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan.” There’s a simple set and the two are in black tie and top hat. Talk about two debonaire smoothies. You can tell if you look for it that Buchanan might be uncomfortable at times. Astaire, as usual, is effortlessly precise. Astaire’s choreography is not complicated or athletic. He was quite aware of how painful the dancing was for Buchanan. They made a good team, no matter how briefly. 

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More The Band Wagon reviews
review by . April 07, 2005
posted in Movie Hype
This stunning new 2-disc edition of THE BAND WAGON - in my opinion the greatest musical ever made at MGM - is a must for all classic movie fans. The story is simple and effective. Washed-up Hollywood hoofer Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) goes to try his luck on the Broadway stage, in a musical written by husband-and-wife team Lester and Lily Marton (Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray). Bombastic `renaissance man' Jeffrey Kordova (Jack Buchanan) is assigned to direct and the simple sunny musical written …
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C. O. DeRiemer ()
Ranked #33
Since I retired in 1995 I have tried to hone skills in muttering to myself, writing and napping. At 75, I live in one of those places where one moves from independent living to hospice. I expect to begin … more
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About this movie


The Band Wagon
(1953) marked the culmination of a series of near-autobiographical pictures Fred Astaire made for MGM following his return from premature retirement in the late '40s. Astaire plays Tony Hunter, a fading film star (his big hit:Flying Down to Panama) who decides to return to his former glory, the Broadway stage.

(In 1931, Astaire had starred on Broadway with sister Adele in The Band Wagon, a revue that lent some of its songs to this film.) His playwright-songwriter friends (Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant) hook him up with Broadway's hottest director, Jeffrey Cordova (a nicely hammy Jack Buchanan), who proves that the "new" theater traditions can be an awkward fit with the old. Hunter also finds himself at odds with his prima ballerina leading lady (Cyd Charisse), one of his chief worries being that she seems a little tall.

Along the way, producer Arthur Freed, director Vincente Minnelli, choreographer Michael Kidd, and songwriters Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz treat us to some quintessential MGM numbers: Astaire's solo ode "By Myself," the flashy arcade romp "A Shine on Your Shoes," Astaire and Charisse's romantic duet "Dancing in the Dark," the faux-German drinking song "I Love Louisa," the manic trio "Triplets" (with Astaire, Fabray, and Buchanan in matching baby outfits), the Mickey Spillane-esque "Girl Hunt Ballet," and the classic show-biz anthem ...
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Director: Vincente Minnelli
Genre: Comedy, Family, Musical, Romance
Release Date: 7 August 1953 (USA)
Screen Writer: Betty Comden, Adolph Green
DVD Release Date: March 15, 2005
Runtime: 112 min
Studio: Warner Home Video
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