Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Band Wagon (1953)

 (This post is part of the MGM Musical Magic Blogathon hosted by Hometowns to Hollywood)

Of my five favourite musicals of all time, three of them come from between the years 1952 and 1954: Singin' in the Rain (1952), The Band Wagon (1953), and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954). It would seem that the Arthur Freed unit at MGM was on a roll in the early to mid-Fifties, rolling out one classic musical after another. Many of the musicals released by MGM during the period are counted among the greatest musicals of all time. Indeed, if someone does not count Singin' in the Rain, it is sometimes only because they are giving the title to The Band Wagon.

In the early Fifties MGM built movie musicals around the songs of noted composers. An American in Paris (1951) drew upon the songs of George and Ira Gershwin. Singin' in the Rain utilised songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed himself. In the case of The Band Wagon, it was built around the songs of Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz. The songwriting team was well known for their successful string of Broadway revues, including Flying Colours, Revenge with Music, At Home Abroad, and Between the Devil. In fact, a good number of the songs in the movie musical The Band Wagon were drawn from the earlier, 1931 Broadway revue also titled The Band Wagon. Other songs were were drawn from Between the Devil and Flying Colours, while "That's Entertainment!" was written specifically for the movie musical The Band Wagon.

The screenplay for The Band Wagon was written by the legendary team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Comden and Green had already written the screenplays for musicals for MGM, including Good News (1947), The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), On the Town (1949), and, most notably, Singin' in the Rain. The plot centred on Tony Hunter, a musical star whose career is in decline. He is desperately in need of a hit to revitalise his career. Fortunately, he meets his friends, writers Lester and Lily Marton, who had a new stage show that could provide him with the comeback he wants. Fred Astaire was cast in the lead role of Tony Hunter, something that initially made Betty Comden and Adolph Green nervous, as the character of Tony Hunter drew a bit upon the career of Mr. Astaire himself. While Fred Astaire's career was hardly in the dire straits that Tony Hunter's career was, his recent film, The Belle of New York (1952) with Vera-Ellen bombed both at the box office and with critics. Fortunately, Fred Astaire loved the role and had no objections whatsoever to sending up himself.

The roles of writers Lester and Lily Marton were loosely based on Comden and Green themselves. Oscar Levant was cast as Lester Marton. Mr. Levant was a successful concert pianist and composer who had already appeared in several movies over the years, including an American in Paris. Nanette Fabray was cast as Lily Marton. She was already a star on the Broadway stage, where she had seen a good deal of success. The role of Gabrielle Gerard, the prima ballerina who is cast alongside Tony Hunter in the Martons' stage musical, went to Cyd Charisse. Miss Charisse had already appeared in many films, most notably dancing opposite Gene Kelly in the "Broadway Melody" sequence of Singin' in the Rain. The Band Wagon gave Cyd Charisse her first leading role. For the pompous director Jeffrey Cordova, Arthur Freed had wanted Clifton Webb, but he turned it down thinking it was too minor. Mr. Webb recommended actor and dancer Jack Buchanan to  Mr. Freed. Jack Buchanan was a British musical star whose career went back to the Silent Era.

The Band Wagon was directed by Vincente Minnelli, who  may well have already been legendary for his musicals. By the time of The Band Wagon, he had already directed Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), Ziegfeld Follies (1945), The Pirate (1948), and An American in Paris (1951). He had been nominated for the Oscar for Best Director for An American in Paris.

Of course, with two dancers (Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse) in the lead roles, choreography was central to The Band Wagon. Michael Kidd had made his name on Broadway, providing choreography for such productions as Finian's Rainbow, Guys and Dolls, and Where's Charley. Prior to The Band Wagon Mr. Kidd had already provided the choreography for the 1952 film adaptation of Where's Charley?. It was Michael Kidd who choreographed the famous "Girl Hunt Ballet" in The Band Wagon. That having been said, he was nervous about choreographing Fred Astaire. The moves Mr. Kidd choreographed for the sequence were different from most of what Mr. Astaire had done in his career. Fortunately, Fred Astaire loved what Michael Kidd had planned, and he would later name "The Girl Hunt Ballet" one of his favourite dances from the movies.

As might be expected, Cyd Charisse received plenty of opportunities to show off her dance moves in The Band Wagon. That having been said, she did not get to sing in the film. Her voice was dubbed by India Adams. One musical number featuring Cyd Charisse and the voice of India Adams was filmed for The Band Wagon, but was ultimately cut from the film. The number "Two-Faced Woman" was cut from The Band Wagon, although the recording of India Adams's rendition of the song was later used in the movie Torch Song (1953) for Joan Crawford in what could be considered one of the worst moments of her career (Miss Crawford performed the song in blackface).

Although one would not know it from the finished product, the set on The Band Wagon was not a particularly happy one. Fred Astaire's wife was seriously ill while the movie was being shot. Jack Buchanan was undergoing some rather painful dental surgery. Oscar Levant, who was known for his hypochondria even on the best of days, had experienced a heart attack not long before The Band Wagon had started shooting. As to director Vincente Minnelli, his marriage to Judy Garland had seen happier days. Despite all of this, The Band Wagon would emerge as one of the best musicals MGM ever made.

The Band Wagon received overwhelmingly good notices from critics. It also received Oscar nominations for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay for Adolph Green and Betty Comden, Best Costume Design, Colour for Mary Ann Nyberg, and Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture for Adolph Deutsch. Despite the respect it received upon its release, The Band Wagon did not do well at the box office. It only made $3,502,000. To put things in perspective, the top grossing film of 1953, The Robe, made $17,500,000.

While The Band Wagon did poorly at the box office upon its initial release, its reputation would only grow through the years, as would its popularity. And there are some very good reasons why The Band Wagon is today counted among the greatest musicals ever made. Like Singin' in the Rain before it, The Band Wagon has a very strong script. If one removed the songs and dance sequences from The Band Wagon, he or she would still be left with an excellent comedy. Of course, the songs and dance sequences only make The Band Wagon even better. The movie features some of the best sequences in the history of musicals. The "Triplets" sequence is amazing, a remarkable feat given Fred Astaire, Jack Buchanan, and Nanette Fabray had to dance on their knees (Miss Fabray later described the shooting of "Triplets" as "...just a long day of pain, terror and anxiety"). The "Girl Hunt Ballet" stands as one of the best of the long musical sequences MGM ever made, perhaps surpassing the American in Paris ballet sequence and the "Broadway Melody" sequence of Singin' in the Rain. The Band Wagon featured several excellent musical sequences, including "The Beggars Waltz, "Dancing in the Dark", and "Louisiana Hayride".

It should be little wonder that The Band Wagon is often ranked on lists of the greatest musicals of all time. The American Film Institute ranked The Band Wagon no. 17 in its list of the 25 Greatest Musicals of All Time. In 2003 Channel 4 and The Mail did a survey of individuals in the United Kingdom of the greatest musicals of all time and The Band Wagon came in at no. 38. Earlier this year, when the British Film Institute ranked their 10 Great American Musicals of the Fifties, they excluded The Band Wagon, but it came in at no. 1 in suggestions of people from Faceboook and Twitter. While The Band Wagon may have done poorly at the box office, it has only grown in reputation and popularity since its initial release. Today it is widely regarded as one of the best musicals MGM ever made.


Caftan Woman said...

You are so right. With its combination of extraordinary musical numbers and strong script, and that cast to put it over, The Band Wagon deserves its enhanced reputation.

Vienna said...

It’s my favourite musical. Great cast, songs and dance numbers. And “Dancing in the Dark”, surely the most beautiful production number ever.

Unknown said...

Thanks so much for participating in the MGM Musical Magic Blogathon! The Band Wagon is such a fun show. I love all of the musical numbers, especially "That's Entertainment" and "Triplets." I'm still so sad that Nanette Fabray is no longer with us. Thanks again for your article!