Much as I love Singin’ in the Rain, I’ve always had a soft spot for The Band Wagon. The pics feel like musical bookends: Released just a year apart, they shared a Tony-winning writing team (Betty Comden and Adolph Green); they both featured a putting-on-a-show premise (Singin’ was set in Hollywood, Wagon on Broadway); they were both produced by MGM’s famed “Freed Unit” (which created the studio’s most successful musicals in the ‘40s and ‘50s); and they showcased the two greatest dancers in screen history (Gene Kelly in Rain, Fred Astaire in The Band Wagon).
The Wagon plot is simple: Veteran song-and-dance man Tony Hunter hopes to make a comeback by teaming with Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan), a flamboyant star/producer/director, who turns a lightweight musical by Tony’s pals Lily and Lester (Nanette Fabray, Oscar Levant) into a Faustian nightmare. Sources say Cordova was a riff on Jose Ferrer, who was then starring in one Broadway show while producing three or four others, though director Vincente Minnelli claims Cordova was a composite of Orson Welles and playwright George S. Kaufman.
As film critic Roger Ebert explains: “Singin' in the Rain is a comedy, but The Band Wagon has a note of melancholy along with its smiles, a sadness always present among Broadway veterans, who have seen more failure than success, who know the show always closes and that the backstage family breaks up and returns to the limbo of auditions and out-of-town tryouts...The movie takes a would-be musical through all the stages of writing, casting, production, choreography, rehearsals, failure on the road and eventual triumph on Broadway.” (A trajectory that’s probably not too far off the mark in real life.)
At the time cameras rolled, Fred Astaire was – like the character he plays – seriously thinking about hanging up his dance shoes. Fred was 54, still driving himself relentlessly as only a perfectionist can. It didn’t help matters that his wife Phyllis was battling cancer during the shoot, and that Fred didn’t have much “heat” with his 30-year-old leading lady Cyd Charisse (Singin’ in the Rain). Maybe that’s why, though they re-teamed in Silk Stockings (1957), the chemistry deficit between Fred & Cyd meant they would never catch fire like Fred & Ginger Rogers did.
Reportedly, the Wagon set had its share of drama – in fairness, the same was said of Singin’ in the Rain. Oscar Levant blamed Nanette Fabray for his goofs until she barked back (to the delight of the fed-up crew who were also tired of Levant’s bullying). Vincente Minnelli was dealing with the fallout of his divorce from Judy Garland. Jack Buchanan had multiple root canals. Yet like the troupers in the fictional musical they presented on screen, everyone pulled together to make an Oscar-nominated gem.
Look for classic scenes, like the hilarious “Triplets” bit with Fred, Nanette and Jack; the elegant “Dancing in the Dark” number in Central Park; Fred’s duo, “Shine On Your Shoes,” with real-life dancer/bootblack Leroy Daniels; plus Fred’s wistful rendition of “By Myself”; and “That’s Entertainment,” a song Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz reportedly wrote in 45 minutes, and which later became MGM’s unofficial anthem.
(P.S. Don’t blink or you’ll miss this cameo by Ava Gardner at the train station.)