Though it’s patently true that the film musical reached its highest point of achievement in America, that three of its most talented pioneers were from France, Germany and the Caucasus. They were Rene Clair, who never made a film in Hollywood, and Ernst Lubitsch and Rouben Mamoulian, who did. Each of these three could lay claim to early masterpieces of the genre. They, and especially Mamoulian, deserve to join Busby Berkeley, Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen as the most consistently brilliant directors of musicals.
I had a hard time deciding upon my choice from the work of this glorious six, but came down in favour of Minnelli’s 1953 The Band Wagon for three reasons. The first was that it starred Fred Astaire, certainly one of the greatest dancers of the century in whatever medium, a very handy singer and an actor who somehow glided through his lines as if he was created to speak them.
The second was that it was produced, like most Minnelli musicals, by Arthur Freed, whose record at MGM was second to none in liberating the genre from the backlot and collecting an astonishing array of talent with which to widen its appeal. Besides, he wrote the lyrics for the title number of Singin’ in the Rain!.
The third was that I happen to prefer my musicals inconsequential rather than serious or mock-serious. In other words, Mamoulian’s underrated The Gay Desperado or Silk Stockings (which Sight and Sound had the temerity to call a “vulgar and only rarely comic anti-Soviet tirade” to Carmen Jones or West Side Story.
The plot of The Band Wagon is totally inconsequential, though scenarists Betty Comden and Adolph Green have claimed The Band Wagon as a film a clef. Astaire, by then in his fifties, is an ageing star trying to make a comeback in a show written by his friends. A daftly portentous director (Britain’s Jack Buchanan) teams him with a well-known and haughty ballerina (Cyd Charisse) and the show is an unmitigated disaster.But as Astaire and Charisse move from dislike to attraction, they somehow turn it into a hit.
Comden and Green say that Buchanan, trying to turn Goethe’s Faust into a Broadway hit, is a spoof of Minnelli himself, sometimes inclined to pretention. There will continue to be endless argument as to who was Astaire’s best partner – Charisse, who could almost match him as a dancer or Ginger Rogers, of whom it is rightly said that she gave him sex appeal.One is perhaps fonder of Rogers, whose shoes were said to be sometimes full of blood after rehearsing with the meticulous Astaire, and who was certainly the better actress.
But Charisse, with the most elegant and eloquent legs in the business, was the same sort of total dancer as Astaire and you have only to look at Party Girl to see the sensuousness behind the perhaps rather chilly if beautiful mask. In The Band Wagon she did pretty well, and danced like an angel, thanks at least partly to choreography from Michael Kidd that, of its particular kind, has never been surpassed. While Astaire’s easy style and British star Jack Buchanan’s ironic panache were a pretty good match.
Veteran composers Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz also produced a score that vies with the best, though it’s scarcely believable that That’s Entertainment was written for the film in less than an hour.
But the whole point about The Band Wagon, and one which sometimes makes people underrate it, was the way everything seems to mesh so seamlessly–almost effortlessly, in fact. That was due to Minnelli, whose flair and imagination, admittedly aided by the huge array of MGM talent both behind and in front of the cameras, was matched by his almost perfect control.
Watching the best Minnelli films now, we are inclined to take this control for granted, as if he just had to throw the whole thing together with the appropriate craftsmanship and energy to keep us amused. But Minnelli’s work was as precise as Astaire’s, and that’s what made him a great director. “If you want to do a musical, it requires as much preparation as Hamlet”, he once said.
The Band Wagon was scarcely that, being more like one of Shakespeare’s comedies, pushed up to date and set to music and dance. But the more you look at it, the more perfect it seems. Hollywood doesn’t make films like this now because public taste has changed. But it’s doubtful if they could anyway.
Not everybody knows, by the way, that the idea for the film was taken from the British radio show by Arthur Askey and Richard Murdoch. That seemed pretty good too in its day.