Sunday, 12 March 2017

Film Friday: "The Band Wagon" (1953)

This week on "Film Friday" I am honoring Cyd Charisse's 95th birthday by telling you a little bit about one of her best-known works. This is also widely regarded as one of the best 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.

Theatrical release poster
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, 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.

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.


After the success of An American in Paris (1951), built around the songs of George Gershwin, and Singin' in the Rain (1952), which used several of his own songs, 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. Initially, Dietz had turned down the chance to work with Schwartz. The lyricist had made his Broadway debut in 1924 working with the great Jerome Kern on 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 try working with him, Dietz told him he did not want to work with an unknown. The lyricist's next two shows were flops, however, so he was lucky to get a job writing songs with Schwartz for The Little Show in 1929. Their collaboration was so successful they would go on to write over 400 songs together. 

To create a movie around the songs, Freed set up a team including director Vincente Minnelli, writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green, composer/arranger Roger Edens and dancing star Fred Astaire. Minnelli and Astaire were no strangers to Dietz and Schwartz's songs. The last show in which he had co-starred with his sister, Adele, was the songwriters' 1931 hit The Band Wagon, which would lend its title to the new screen production. As for Minnelli, he had made his debut as a Broadway director with one of their shows, At Home Abroad in 1935. The Band Wagon was the first musical for Minnelli since An American in Paris, eighteen months earlier. Much of his time between the two pictures was spent on a musical version of Huckleberry Finn that ended up being canceled. He also directed one of his biggest dramatic hits, the Hollywood tell-all The Bad and the Beautiful (1952).

Oscar Levant, Cyd Charisse, Jack Buchanan,
Fred Astaire and Nanette Fabray
Creating a plot to connect all the songs proved a special problem because all of the Dietz and Schwartz songs had been written for musical revues. After weeks of listening to the songs and the theatrical reminiscences of their colleagues, Comden and Green came up with what seemed like the only logical choice, a movie about putting on a Broadway musical. Like Astaire, the leading man was a musical star in the middle of his career, conflicted about whether to continue working or retire. Other reflections of the star were his fear of dancing with a woman taller than him, his concern about his age and his problems working with ballet dancers. They even referred to the character's trademark costume as "perhaps the most famous top hat and stick of our generation." At first they were concerned that Astaire would think it hit too close to home -- to raise the stakes they had made the character a has-been -- but he loved the idea.

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.

Cyd Charisse and Vincente Minnelli on the set
The first actor approached to play Jeffrey Cordova was Clifton Webb, who had starred in The Little Show. Having risen from the supporting ranks to leading man status despite his advanced years and lack of sex appeal, Webb refused to take the secondary role. He suggested they talk to Jack Buchanan, an English song and dance man often dubbed "the British Fred Astaire." Before testing him, Freed also considered Vincent Price and Edward G. Robinson. 

Cyd Charisse 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 ended that and brought Ann Miller to the studio as her replacement. Then pregnancy had cost her the female lead in An American in Paris, a role that made Leslie Caron a star. In 1952, however, she scored a hit as Gene Kelly's sultry dancing partner in the "Broadway Rhythm Ballet" in Singin' in the Rain. As a result, Freed cast her as Astaire's dancing partner in their new film. Before accepting her, Astaire, like his character in the film, checked to make sure she was not taller than he. 

The Band Wagon was shot between early October 1951 and mid-January 1952. The film's set was anything but happy. Astaire was dealing with his wife's terminal illness and Minnelli was concerned about his ex-wife, Judy Garland. Her increasingly erratic behavior on the set of A Star Is Born (1954) at Warner Bros. was the talk of the town. Buchanan was undergoing dental surgery. Smith and Mary Ann Nyberg, both newcomers to MGM, were at war with the art and costume departments, respectively. And Oscar Levant was recovering from a heart attack, which made him more acerbic than ever. 

Fred Astaire, Nanette Fabray and Jack Buchanan
performing "Triplets"
During rehearsals of "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan," Astaire and Buchanan were supposed to perform a series of tricks with their hats and walking sticks. They kept dropping them, however, which inspired the joke that ends the number, in which they fail to catch their hats, throw away their sticks and walk off arm in arm. On Broadway, "Triplets" had been performed by three very different looking actors and had failed. For the film, Kidd made the three performers look exactly the same size by having specially made baby shoes fit over the performers' knees. Their real feet and legs were covered with black velvet stockings, and the set's floor was black. The actors then danced on their knees. It was so strenuous they could only perform 20 minutes at a time. Originally, the number was to have featured Astaire, Buchanan and Levant, but the latter claimed ill health and Nanette Fabray took his place. The day before it was filmed, Fabray had an accident shooting "Louisiana Hayride." She jumped onto a barrel that had not been properly reinforced and fell through, tearing up her leg. She was on Novocain while filming the trio number.

"The Girl Hunt" ballet was the last number filmed. In contrast to the tense atmosphere on the set during the rest of the film, this sequence was a joy for all involved. Astaire was happy to be developing a new dancing character as the hard-boiled detective, and everyone seemed energized. Minnelli had promised producer Arthur Freed that he would shoot the ballet in three days, to keep costs down. Instead he finished it in seven at a cost of $314,475. The sequence ran 13 minutes. 


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 Academy Awards for Best Original Screenplay, Best Costume Design (Color) and Best Original Music Score.

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