Like Singin' in the Rain released the previous year, Vincente Minnelli's The Band Wagon is a musical that affectionately reflects upon the history of its genre – in order to pioneer a new, integrated style based on character and plot, and to simultaneously enjoy the unashamed benefits of the old, revue style.
It cleverly does so by making the Fred Astaire of Top Hat (1935) days a dinosaur in a modern, showbiz milieu – and giving him a trial wherein he must grapple with the overbearing vision of a pretentious, Orson Welles-like director (Jack Buchanan), and ultimately affirm his worth as an old-fashioned but adaptable hoofer in a dynamic, hit show.
Like most musicals, The Band Wagon is about compromise, the marriage of antagonistic tendencies. The characters symbolise the extremes of lowbrow and highbrow culture: Tony (Astaire) from movies, and his reluctant leading lady Gabrielle (Cyd Charisse) from ballet. But when push comes to shove, such cultural divisions break down easily: Tony turns out to be a fine art connoisseur (ready, nonetheless, to sell his treasures to finance the show), and Gaby will belt out "I See a New Sun" on stage like a song-and-dance trouper.
This aesthetic melding is also, of course, a literal romance, clinched by the immortal pas de deux in Central Park, "Dancing in the Dark".
Plot, theme and character aside, however, The Band Wagon is a delightfully colourful montage of attractions – starting with the high-energy comic contributions of Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant, presumably alter egos for writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green.
Minnelli gets to show off many kinds of mise en scène: playing on décor and architecture in the scene where Buchanan pitches his Faust while characters in three adjoining rooms separately eavesdrop; fluidly moving a group of performers through switches in mood and tempo in the indelible "That's Entertainment"; enjoying the purely theatrical novelty of the kooky number "Triplets".
But the ultimate spectacle is the extraordinary, eleven-and-a-half minute "Girl Hunt: A Murder Mystery in Jazz", a Mickey Spillane, film noir parody (in vibrant colour) in which Michael Kidd's dance choreography explodes in stylised arabesques of familiar gestures (shooting, smoking, fighting) and the stars turn on their glamour, whether in erotic display (Charisse) or the simple joy of walking (Astaire).
© Adrian Martin April 2003