Of all the many musicals Fred Astaire was in, the very best for my money is one of his last; he appeared in only four others afterward. And it’s among the most delightful, witty and charming in the genre’s history---Vincente Minnelli’s comic 1953 ode to show biz, THE BAND WAGON (available on DVD). The title is a tip of the hat to one of Astaire’s first successes, the 1931 Broadway show he did with his sister Adele; but only the name was borrowed since the movie is a totally new creation conceived and written by that hip and unpretentious, brilliantly inventive team of musical comedy wizards, Betty Comden and Adolph Green (Singin’ in the Rain, On the Town, Bells Are Ringing, etc.).
The premise alone played so cleverly into Astaire’s image at the time: A movie-star hoofer is washed up in pictures and thus comes to New York to give Broadway a shot at revitalizing his career. The purposely exaggerated biographical context continues by having Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant play (with great verve) a most likable pair of musical book-writers modeled, naturally, on Ms. Comden and Mr. Green themselves.
All this gives the film a persuasive sense of reality that reverberates throughout and makes everything feel true: The snob rivalry between Hollywood star and Broadway dance diva (Cyd Charisse at her long-legged best) inevitably developing into romance through an intoxicating pas de deux in Central Park at night (yes, at night, this being nearly 60 years ago) to the lush strains of the original “Dancing in the Dark” (not the Bruce Springsteen rock hit).
Or there’s the good-humored parody of an Orson Wellesian genius director-producer-star of classical drama condescending to take a portentous (and hilariously pretentious) stab at doing a musical. This role is played by one of the most popular stars of British stage and screen musicals, Jack Buchanan, who unfortunately was little seen in American movies, with the one glorious earlier exception of Ernst Lubitsch’s innovative 1930 musical comedy masterwork, Monte Carlo, co-starring Jeanette MacDonald (also available on DVD). Since Buchanan died only four years after The Band Wagon, it serves as his memorably ingratiating swan’s song.
The picture gets off to a quick start (and never really flags for a moment) with two fabulous Astaire solo numbers: First, he arrives at Grand Central, where the press is waiting to welcome not him, as it turns out, but Ava Gardner (who does a cameo as herself, looking incredible), and so Fred walks sadly along the deserted platform singing, “I’ll go my way/ By Myself,” just one of a dozen warmly familiar standards by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz; next, he’s strolling along 42nd Street and decides to cheer himself up by getting a shoeshine, which leads to a smashing song-and-dance routine because, “When there’s A Shine on Your Shoes/ There’s a melody in your heart.” If you’re not hooked by then, just forget musicals.
The dances are all choreographed by the sublimely boisterous Michael Kidd, with a climactic satirical “Girl Hunt” ballet that both imitates and kids the Gene Kelly musicals of the period and at the same time spoofs the then-popular raunchy Mickey Spillane detective sagas, with Fred’s voice narrating in mock tough-guy style. Along the way, there are such show-stoppers as Astaire, Buchanan and Fabray dressed as terrible infants singing “Triplets”; Astaire cheering up a depressed cast party with “I Love Luisa”; and, of course, Fred, Jack, Oscar and Nanette doing the rollicking, inspired show-biz anthem, “That’s Entertainment!” Minnelli keeps it all going with infectious energy and grace in what is, I think, along with An American in Paris (1951 Oscar-winner for Best Picture), his finest musical, and therefore certainly high among the best and most entertaining ever made.