When they announced the Fred Astaire double-feature, I was instantly sold because of Easter Parade, not really having any idea what The Band Wagon was, but figuring—hey, Astaire and Cyd Charisse, who we saw not too long ago in Singin’ In The Rain (1951)—making me wonder if she couldn’t act, since she only danced in that film.
Well, yes, she can act. She sings okay, too. (She sings okay, as it turns out, because that’s not her singing but ghost singer India Adams.) And she’s byoooootiful. Every time she came on screen for a dance number, The Flower gasped. The gowns, by Mary Ann Nyberg lost to The Robe, which is a little hard to believe because these dresses (and Ms. Charisse in them) are amazing.
The story (as if it mattered) is that a washed-up movie hoofer Tony Hunter (Astaire) returns to his roots on Broadway because some old pals, a musical playwriting couple (composer/conducter Oscar Levant and the adorable Nanette Fabray, who just died at the age of 97) have written a boffo new musical they think he’d be perfect for. The premise is that a children’s book writer has to make ends meet by writing lurid crime novels—which, when you think about it, is all you need as a hook for some great musical numbers.
Things immediately go awry when they pull in serious drama director (Jack Buchanan) and he, in turn, gets serious dancer Gabrielle (Charisse) to join the shenanigans. Mr. Serious Director gets all the money people to sign on to this musical not as a light romp but as a re-imagining of Faust and after weeks of bloated and brutal rehearsal, the play flops on the first night.
Lamenting the failure, Astaire wanders into a tiny apartment where the supporting players are celebrating the show, and before you know it, songs and dances break out and Tony says, “Well, why can’t we put on the show we wanted to originally?” So he sells all his Degas and whatnot, and the troupe re-rehearses and takes the show out on the road.
Meanwhile—of course—Tony and Gabrielle are working out their professional (and personal) issues to be both a good team and (because audiences demanded this sort of thing, apparently) and romantic partners. Charisse was about 30 to Astaire’s 52, but it’s pretty well handled. Even young women tended to look like grown-ups back then, and they carried themselves in a way which seemed to say “She knows her mind.” But the romance isn’t over-played.
I don’t think I need to elaborate on the dancing. The vaudeville-style comic song and dance numbers are also terrific.
Shortly after seeing this I read a book on the Astaires (Fred and Adele) and learned the original Broadway play had been written for them, and was their swan song. Though there’s little connection between the 1931 play and this movie, the scene where Astaire gets off the bus and points across the street to say “I had one of my biggest hits there…” is cute when you realize he’s pointing at the theater where he and Adele originally starred in The Band Wagon.
A lot of this movie was written to reflect on Fred’s actual career, including his “retirement” and (briefly) diminishing star. Except, of course, his “retirement” was five years earlier, and it was immediately interrupted so he could take the place of Gene Kelly in our second feature of the night, Easter Parade.
Everyone loved this one. It would be hard for me to admit I liked it more than Easter Parade, but the two are very close in my heart.