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Film Friday: «The Band Wagon» (1953)

This week on «Film Friday» I am honoring Cyd Charisse's 95th birthday, which was on Wednesday, by telling you a little bit about one of her best-known works. This is also widely regarded as one of the greatest musicals of all time. Since I did not have the time to write this article on time, this week's «Film Friday» comes on a Sunday.
Directed by Vincente Minnelli, The Band Wagon (1953) tells the story of stage and screen star Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire), a veteran of musical comedy, who is concerned that his career might be in decline. His good friends Lester and Lily Marton (Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray) have written a stage show that they believe is perfect for his comeback. Tony signs up, despite misgivings after the pretentious director, Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan), changes the light comedy into a dark reinterpretation of the Faust legend, with himself as the Devil and Tony as the Faust character. Tony also feels intimidated by the youth, beauty, and classical background of his female co-star, noted ballerina Gabrielle «Gaby» Gerard (Cyd Charisse). Unbeknownst to him, she is just as insecure in his presence, awed by his long stardom.
LEFT: Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. RIGHT: Fred Astaire, James Mitchell and Cyd Charisse.

Eventually, it all proves too much for Tony. He walks out, but Gaby speaks with him alone and they work out their differences. They also begin to fall in love, though she already has a commitment to the show's choreographer Paul Byrd (James Mitchell). When the first out-of-town tryout in New Haven proves to be a disaster, Tony persuades Jeffrey to let him convert the production back into what the Martons had originally envisioned. Tony takes charge of the production, taking the show on tour to perfect the new lighthearted musical numbers. Since the original backers have walked out, Tony finances it by selling his personal art collection. Byrd walks out, but Gaby remains. The revised show proves to be a hit on its Broadway opening. Afterwards, Gaby and Tony confess their love for each other.
TONY HUNTER [during the «Girl Hunt» ballet]: She came at me in sections — more curves than a scenic railway. She was bad. She was dangerous. I wouldn't trust her any farther than I could throw her. She was selling, but I wasn't buying.

After the critical and commercial success of An American in Paris (1951), built around the compositions of George Gershwin, MGM producer Arthur Freed set out to produce another song catalogue musical. This time he drew on the work of composer Arthur Schwartz and lyricist Howard Dietz, the latter head of publicity for MGM's parent company, Loew's Inc. 
Dietz made his Broadway debut in 1924, working with Jerome Kern in the short-lived musical Dear Sir. Schwartz was unknown at the time — a lawyer planning to quit his firm to focus on music. When he wrote Dietz saying he would like to work with him, the lyricist turned him down. However, after Dietz's two follow-up shows failed to garner an audience, he teamed up with Schwartz to wrote songs for The Little Show. Opening on Broadway in April 1929, the revue was so successful that the duo would go on to write over 400 songs together.
Lyricist Howard Dietz (left) and composer Arthur Schwartz (right).
To create a movie around the songs, Freed set up a team that included director Vincente Minnelli, writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green, composer/arranger Roger Edens and dancing star Fred Astaire. Minnelli had made his debut as a Broadway director with one of Dietz and Schwartz's shows, At Home Abroad, in 1935, while Astaire had co-starred with his sister Adele in the duo's 1931 hit The Band Wagon, which would lend its title to the new screen production.
Devising a plot to connect all the songs proved a problem because all of the Dietz and Schwartz compositions had been written for musical revues, which do not have a overarching storyline. After weeks of listening to the songs and the theatrical reminiscences of their colleagues, Comden and Green came up with a story about putting on a Broadway show. The leading man was a musical star in the middle of his career, conflicted about whether to continue working or retire much like Astaire at that point. Other similarities between the character and the star included a fear of dancing with a taller woman, concerns about age and a difficulty in working with ballet dancers. At first Comden and Green were concerned that Astaire would think it hit too close to home, but he loved the idea and signed on immediately.

Fred Astaire as Tony Hunter in The Band Wagon.

To carry the film's comedy, they created a married writing-performing team. Although Comden and Green were married to others, the roles were clearly modeled on themselves. Minnelli, however, thought the couple was based on Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, while Smith thought they were Oscar Levant and his wife, June. To play the married songwriters, Freed cast Levant, who had never played a married man on screen before, and Broadway star Nanette Fabray. Fabray had headlined Love Life and Arms and the Girl, two shows choreographed by Michael Kidd, who also staged the dance sequences in The Band Wagon.
The first actor approached to play pretentious musical director Jeffrey Cordova was Clifton Webb, who has starred in The Little Show. Having risen from the supporting ranks to leading man status, Webb refused to take the secondary role and suggested Freed talk to English song-and-dance man Jack Buchanan. Beginning his career as a music hall comedian, Buchanan appeared in several West End productions and became one of the most popular musical comedy actors in Britain in the 1930s, often named «the British Fred Astaire.»
LEFT: Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant as Lily and Lester Marton. RIGHT: Jack Buchanan, Fred Astaire, Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant.

The role of Astaire's leading lady was given to Cyd Charisse, who had been at MGM since 1944 without making the transition to stardom. She had been the original choice to play Astaire's first dancing partner in Easter Parade (1948), but a broken leg forced her to withdraw from the project. She was then offered the female lead in An American in Paris, but she became pregnant and the studio brought newcomer Leslie Caron as her replacement. Charisse finally scored a hit as Gene Kelly's sultry dancing partner in the «Broadway Rhythm Ballet» in Singin' in the Rain (1952), which lead Freed to cast her in The Band Wagon. Before shooting began, Astaire made sure Charisse was not taller than him, just like his character in the film.

Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse in publicity stills for The Band Wagon.

The Band Wagon was shot between early October 1951 and mid-January 1952. By all accounts, the film set was everything but happy. Astaire was dealing with his wife's terminal illness (she died from lung cancer in 1954), while Minnelli was concerned about his ex-wife, Judy Garland, whose increasingly erratic behavior was one of the biggest topics for gossip around town. In addition, Buchanan was undergoing dental surgery and Levant was recovering from a heart attack, which apparently made him more acerbic than ever.

The film featured 15 musical numbers, all of which were written by Dietz and Schwartz. One of the best-remembered is perhaps «Triplets», a song first introduced in the 1937 stage musical Between the Devil. The actors wore especially made baby shoes that fit over their knees, while their real feet and legs were covered with black velvet stockings that matched the black floor. They danced on their knees, which was so strenuous that they could only perform 20 minutes at a time. Originally, the sequence was to have featured Astaire, Buchanan and Levant, but the latter claimed ill health and Fabray ended up taking his place. Another well-known number is the «Girl Hunt Ballet», inspired by the crime novels of Mickey Spillane. In contrast to the tense atmosphere on the set during the rest of the film, this scene was a joy for everyone involved.
Fred Astaire, Nanette Fabray and Jack Buchanan in the «Triplets» musical number.
The Band Wagon premiered in New York on July 9, 1953 and went into general release on August 7. It was a massive critical and commercial hit, with Bosley Crowther of The New York Times calling it «one of the best musicals ever made.» The film was nominated for Oscars for Best Original Screenplay, Best Costume Design (Colour) and Best Original Music Score.


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