THE BAND WAGON (Vincente Minnelli, 1953)

Vincente Minnelli’s glorious The Band Wagon is about preparations for a Broadway show. At least four of its characters refer to actual celebrities: Tony Hunter, a dancer back onstage following a long hiatus in Hollywood, suggests the actor who plays him brilliantly, Fred Astaire; Lily and Les Marton, who have written for Hunter a musical-comedy play, suggest the (unmarried) team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who wrote the script of The Band Wagon; Jeffrey Cordova, the egotistical director who transforms the play’s light material (for us, hilariously) into a melodramatic modern-day rendering of the Faust legend, is a merciless parody of José Ferrer, who also had three plays running simultaneously on Broadway, with himself starring in one. (One of the musical numbers, “Triplets,” with Hunter, Lily and Cordova appearing as homicidal infants, required the actors to have artificial legs strapped to their knees—as had Ferrer, as Toulouse-Lautrec in John Huston’s 1952 Moulin Rouge.)
     To their songbook, which the film summarizes, Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz added a new song for the occasion, “That’s Entertainment!” Minnelli has made it and their old song “By Myself” the film’s competing emotional coordinates. Will Hunter end up, as he began, solitudinous or part of a relationship and a community?
     Cyd Charisse plays Gabrielle, the ballerina who selfconsciously stars opposite a selfconscious Hunter. Their walk-that-gradually-becomes-a-dance in Central Park, to the tune “Dancing in the Dark,” is pure romance; it is imbued with both timelessness and a touch of melancholy transience. Their other magical number together, the Mickey Spillane spoof, with Hunter as a gumshoe and Gabrielle, in a flaming red dress, as the femme fatale out to ensnare him, is darker magic—a mini-film noir with Astaire bending to Michael Kidd’s muscular, sharp-angled choreography like a breeze.

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