Bright Lights Film Journal

A Few Steps Shy of a Masterpiece: Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse Apply Themselves in The Band Wagon

“She came at me in sections . . . she was bad . . . she was dangerous . . . she was my kind of woman.”

The Band Wagon is the last Fred Astaire film to be a true classic — first-rate songs, first-rate performances, and, that rarity of rarities in an Astaire film, a humorous script that is actually funny. So why not quite a masterpiece?

The answer, in part, was Fred himself. The King had lost a step. Fred danced his ass off in A Royal Wedding (1951) and didn’t slow down much in Belle of New York (1952), but in 1953, well, what a difference a year can make. Though The Band Wagon is stuffed with musical numbers, and Fred is in most of them, only three feature “real” dancing — “When There’s a Shine on Your Shoes,” “Dancing in the Dark,” and “Girl Hunt.” All three are delights, the footwork as flawless as ever, but the tempo is a bit relaxed, and there’s more space, more breathing room in the choreography. We don’t have quite the sustained brilliance of Fred at his very best — that very best that he delivered with such consistency only two years before.

At least, that’s how it appears in the film today. Shockingly, it appears that two of Fred’s numbers were cut from the film, and, appallingly, neither is available today. Perhaps if we saw them, we’d agree with the decision to eliminate them, but, frankly, I find that hard to believe. I want it all, damn it! I want it all!

To make The Band Wagon, Fred combined with a director, Vincente Minnelli, and two writers, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who hadn’t served him well in the past. Minnelli had directed Fred in two of his biggest dogs, the ghastly Ziegfeld Follies and the execrable (perhaps that should be “inexorably execrable”) Yolanda and the Thief. Comden and Green had provided Fred with a mediocre script for his 1949 reunion with Ginger Rogers, The Barkleys of Broadway . But Minnelli managed to get a grip on his incessant penchant for excess, while Comden and Green, who turned out a lame “inside” script for Barkleys, here turned in a brilliant one.1

For his star, of course, Fred had the divinely sexy Cyd Charisse, just the sexiest thing on two legs. They’d appeared together, sort of, in Ziegfeld Follies and Cyd was just coming off her smash performance as the “bad girl”2 in the big “Gotta Dance” production number that concludes Singin’ in the Rain, where she teaches poor Gene Kelly what every chorus boy has to learn, that dames come and go, but dance goes on forever.

Shockingly, The Band Wagon is just a wee bit of a rip-off of Singin’ in the Rain. MGM producer Arthur Freed came up with the idea for Singin’ — “Say! Why don’t we pull together a bunch of those great old songs I used to write with Herb Brown, have Betty and Adolph put together some kind of backstage script, and make a big, glossy musical! Nothing but class!” Naturally, the huge success of Singin’ in the Rain gave Arthur another great idea — “Let’s do the whole damn thing all over again, this time with Fred, and, and some songs by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz!” Well, give Artie a cigar, because it worked.

The film as we have it today begins with a clever touch, a shot of a top hat that, except for being in color, mimics exactly the start of Fred’s most famous flick, Top Hat. When the credits stop rolling, the camera backs away to reveal that the hat, and accompanying walking stick, are the property of famous dancer Tony Hunter, star of “Swingin’ Down to Panama” (that is to say, Flying Down to Rio and other classic flicks, now being auctioned off as mementos of a bygone era. Unfortunately, Minnelli insists on running the joke into the ground, as the hapless auctioneer discovers that no one will spend a dime on these classic pieces.

We then switch to a speeding train, which audiences back in 1953 could easily identify as the Twentieth-Century Limited, the New York Central’s all-Pullman express that ran between Chicago and New York.3 Inside the club car, a couple of bourgeois bozos, catching a last snort before arriving at the Big Apple, are bad-mouthing poor Tony (Fred, of course), who is seated right there in the car beside them, concealing his blushing face with the thin cover of a magazine.

Fred retreats to his cozy Pullman suite for the last minutes of the ride into Grand Central for some peace and quiet, and, when the train finally halts, rather plaintively asks the porter if he just can’t spend the night on the car. It’s so nice and safe here! Of course, that won’t work, and Fred surrenders a single, elegant alligator suitcase to be taken to the Plaza.4

Once Fred ventures out of the train, he’s hit by a pleasant surprise: a red carpet! And friendly reporters! Hey, this is more like it! He starts to fill them in on his latest venture, a Broadway show! Just an idea, of course, he hasn’t been on the stage in years, but it’s worth a look. Unfortunately, the guys aren’t listening. They’re looking, at Ava Gardner, who of course is the real reason they’re there. Another burner on Tony!

Ava’s gracious, like all movie stars, and rushes over to say hello to Tony, but of course she can’t stay, and Tony, poor Tony, is left all alone, left all alone to sing “By Myself,” one of the many classic “all alone” songs.

Fred does a very nice job with the tune, strolling along the train platform,5 but we also get a clue that old Fred is slowing down. For the first time in his career, his singing voice doesn’t quite match his speaking voice — he was probably recorded in some sort of echo chamber to give his voice more resonance and conceal any flaws.

Once he’s inside the station, he finally gets a welcome surprise — he’s greeted by the Tony Hunter Fan Club! — which consists of Lester and Lily Marton (Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray), a lovable Broadway pair who are, of course, scripting Tony’s new play, rather in the manner of , well, Comden and Green. The apple don’t fall far from the tree. Haven’t you heard?

Tony and the kids decide to hike from Grand Central down 42nd Street to Sardi’s, which turns out to be a bit of a downer for Tony. What did you do to 42nd Street? This place used to be “strictly carriage trade”! Now look at it! The home of the many-headed!

Les and Lily start to protest, but then one of the many-headed treads on Lester’s foot, sending him into paroxysms of pain — like so many blooms in Broadway’s hothouse, he has an aversion to the physical. Tony can’t handle both 42nd Street and Les at the same time — being from LA, he needs some space — so he packs both the kids in a cab and sends them off to Sardi’s while he stretches his legs, setting up the first dance number “When There’s a Shine on Your Shoes.”

Fred, obviously a dude, wanders into a seriously low-rent penny arcade. Seeking information, he’s served a hotdog he surely doesn’t want, which he eventually unloads on a surly kid who doesn’t bother to thank him. Fred turns away and catches the stern view of a gigantic woman in a two-dollar dress flailing away at some strange arcade machine. Fred tries his hand at a couple of them himself, but he can’t get the damn things to work. In a nice touch, as he wanders, Minnelli gives us casual glimpses of the shoeshine “boy,” Leroy Daniels,6 who will soon be his partner.

Fred spends a nickel on Madame Olga, the old gypsy fortune teller, and doesn’t like his fortune so he tries again. This time it’s better! He scores five aces on a primitive pinball machine! And a “love appeal” contraption tells him he’s gorgeous! Hey, things aren’t so terrible! Time to bootstrap this blue mood and get a new groove!

He stumbles over Daniels, seated on the floor by his chair, who gives him a sour look. Don’t be that way, buddy! You’ve got happiness in a can and don’t even know it! Break out the Shinola7) and start snappin’ that rag!

Fred’s pretty snappy himself, both in his vocal and with some serious sittin’ down struttin’ in the shoeshine chair. Once the polish has been applied, his feet can’t keep still, and he retraces his steps, the crowd following as he masters all the machines that previously defeated him.8 Once he’s done, he and Daniels join in a brief, exuberant duet that makes most of us forget all about the, well, the racist overtones involved in a black guy shining a white guy’s shoes.9

His mood restored, Tony is ready for anything, even Jeffrey Cordova, one of Comden and Green’s happiest conceits, a very funny parody of an Orson Welles-style Broadway egomaniac,10 played by English musical comedy star Jack Buchanan.11 Such larger-than-life characters are scarcely rare on the stage (for example, newspaper editor Arthur Burns in The Front Page), but rarely are they done so well. Comden and Green provide a constant flow of witty, extravagant bombast, and Buchanan throws himself into the role with such enthusiasm that we swallow the bit whole. Yes, he’s a charlatan, through and through, but you can trust him to deliver, because he can summon infinite enthusiasm for virtually any project whatsoever. If you want miracles, this is the guy you go to, because in this life it’s only the charlatans who can deliver a miracle.

We meet Jeff as he’s bringing down the house in the most highbrow of all roles, Oedipus Rex.12 When he comes off we’re hit with a barrage of well-worn backstage theatrical in-jokes — corned beef sandwiches13 and toupees figure prominently among them — but the variety and the velocity of the gags keep us — or at least me — laughing.14

Jeff’s just a bit wired after his performance, but once he gets his ascot tied on right he’s ready to listen and learn. Lily gives him their pitch — their script is a light, funny story about a guy who illustrates children’s books, but turns to writing lurid murder mysteries to earn some cash. He’d like to concentrate on the kids, but the mysteries are a smash, and his agent won’t let him quit! It’s like he’s sold his soul to the devil!

That line hits Jeff’s inherently perfervid brain like a spark lighting on dry straw. Sold his soul to the devil! Of course! You kids are brilliant! It’s the Faust legend all over again!

The kids try to turn Jeff around — Eternal Damnation? Isn’t that a lot like “Satire”? You know, “closes on Saturday night?” — but once Jeff starts cookin’ you can’t turn off the heat, because the dude’s self-igniting and self-incandescent, generating his own oxygen. Marlowe! Goethe! Gounod! Berlioz! And now, Cordova! And he’ll play the devil!15 Why, it’s the role of a lifetime! And for our leading lady, something new and unexpected! That new ballerina, Gabrielle Girard (Cyd, of course) — she’s the hottest ticket in town!

By now, everyone’s on fire — everyone except Tony. Ballerinas and the devil? Thanks, but no thanks. I’m Tony Hunter, and I do what I do, and this isn’t what I do.

Comden and Green switch gears on us here, engineering an almost brutal confrontation. You were big, Tony, Jeff tells him, but now in Hollywood you’re through. You’re here because you have to be, not because you want to be. You need us more than we need you. Turn us down and you’ll be left behind. But come with us now and you’ll be bigger than ever! And don’t be intimidated by all that Faust stuff or the ballet! Toe shoes or tap, it doesn’t matter, because it’s all entertainment!16

Unfortunately, this bit sets up the self-congratulatory blockbuster “That’s Entertainment,” the only tune especially written for the film. The number, full of second-rate, smart-ass lyrics and heavy mugging from the cast, is obviously intended to knock us in the aisles but leaves us hiding under our seats instead.17 But regardless of its effect on us, Tony’s pumped, and he girds up his loins like a man to journey with Lester and Lily and catch Gabrielle’s act in “The Beggar’s Waltz,” where she’s partnered by her manager Paul Byrd (James Mitchell). She’s fabulous, of course, but maybe just a little tall.

Will she take the part? Will Paul let her? Just leave it to Jeff. In a predictable, funny scene, Jeff sweet talks and double talks the fussy, prissy Paul18 into demanding that Gabby be allowed to audition for the part. “I’m not promising anything, Sweetie,” Jeff tells him as his pushes him out the door.

The next night, Tony, Les, Lily, Gabby, and Paul all show up at Jeff’s lavish suite at the same time that Jeff is hustling up a crowd of rich potential angels. Tony and Gabby salute each other warily, Tony in particular quick to react to any slights involving such perennial sore spots as age and height, and also cigarettes, but the real fun occurs as the five take turns stumbling into the show that Jeff is putting on for the moneybags, single-handedly acting out the whole plot, which leaves him writhing on the floor to simulate the pangs of eternal torment. Well, what chance have mere civilians got against the seductive wiles of Jeffrey Cordova? The suits buy it, and we’ve got a show!

The next scene opens with Jeff giving the kids a classic pep talk — “For the next three months these four walls will be our world, our home, our universe.” Rehearsals prove to be like real rehearsals — not much fun. Paul tries to correct Tony’s lifts and Jeff starts wondering if it wouldn’t be better for Paul to handle the lifts, so that when Tony enters for his big moment it will be all the more powerful. Tony’s not so sure. The more I’m off stage, the better, is that it? I’m tired of being a good sport, damn it! I’m the star! I’m the star!

Tony throws a full-fledged hissy and stalks off the stage. Worse, he leaves the theater and goes back to his rooms at the Plaza, where he can throw books at the wall in peace. Fortunately, Gabby comes over to calm him down, and the two eventually take a walk in Central Park to see if they can’t get to know each other better, setting up the famous duet “Dancing in the Dark.”

“Dancing in the Dark” is one of Fred’s most widely admired late pieces — Cyd Charisse names it as her favorite of all her dances19 — but for me it’s not quite all I want. For one thing, there’s no vocal, which in all the classic black and whites with Ginger helped set the mood. For another, there isn’t much development in the dance. Once Fred and Cyd are dancing, well, they’re dancing, they’re in love, and that’s it. There’s no pursuit, and no surrender. This is true, in part, I suspect, because Fred was likely a bit intimidated by Charisse’s technique. As in a classical ballet, the focus is on her — she’s the flower, he’s the stem. Fred doesn’t try to lead her, because he knows he hasn’t got the pumps to stay ahead of her. His manner is respectful and a bit deferential. For her part, Cyd is stiff and overly “elegant.” This is a much better dance than any of the romantic dances Fred did with Vera Ellen in The Belle of New York — for one thing, the two look at each other a lot, which Fred didn’t do with Vera — but to my mind it doesn’t have the superb energy of Fred’s greatest dances.

With Gabby and Tony copacetic, there’s nothing now that can jinx the show — nothing but Jeff’s egomania. As rehearsals progress and the cast heads for New Haven for tryouts, it’s clear that they’re headed for catastrophe — the play will make it to perdition long before its protagonist ever does.

Like Hollywood, Broadway has its long list of famous flameouts, but they tend to be forgotten more quickly. It’s the old “out of sight, out of mind” thing.20 I suppose it’s possible to create a “so bad it’s funny” disaster, but Minnelli lacked the right mixture of irony and excess to pull it off. We can see the punchlines coming too far in advance, and in the actual performance poor Gabby gets frightened, which doesn’t quite work. We want to laugh, not to have to feel sorry for someone.

Sadly, once the show flops, Comden and Green simply run out of ideas, except for the oldest and lamest of them all. Hey, kids, let’s put on a show! Tony will hock his fabulous art collection,21 and Les and Lily will crank out some old-fashioned songs for some old-fashioned entertainment. And no one will go to Hell!

No one except Paul, of course, who refuses to let Gabby involve herself in such frivolity. Gabby gives Paul the air, and he goes gracelessly into the night, while the show goes on, and on, because from now on The Band Wagon simply throws one number after another at us, with virtually no plot. Of course, it’s understood that Tony and Gabby are together, but actually putting that on the screen, well, it’s a good guess that Comden and Green and Minnelli decided that neither old Fred nor young Cyd were up for “real romance.”

The four tryout numbers that we see as the gang rushes up and down the East Coast are a varied lot. “New Sun in the Sky,” featuring Cyd as dubbed by India Adams, is not a keeper. “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan,” a top hat, soft shoe duet featuring Fred and Jack, is rather low key, but slides under the wire.22 Best of the four, easily, is “Louisiana Hayride,” featuring Nanette Fabray with a collection of brightly dressed and grammatically challenged chorus boys and girls. The number itself, an exercise in Broadway hillbilly, isn’t much, but Fabray, who didn’t often get the stage all to herself, is determined to make the most of it and she does, propelling herself across the stage with quick jerks of her pelvis and belting out the predictable lyrics with an energy that we (or, again, I) can’t resist.

Worst of the four, easily, is “Triplets,” a farcical bit featuring Fred, Jack, and Nanette as babies. To shorten themselves, the three had their lower legs strapped back against their thighs, with fake, fat, baby legs fitted over them. Half way through the number they’re required to jump out of their high chairs and land on their feet/knees, not a terribly easy thing to do. Buchanan was 62, undergoing dental surgery and, in all probability, nursing a bad back, while Fabray was nursing an injured leg, gashed when a prop collapsed beneath her weight during the “Louisiana Hayride” sequence. And all for a number that makes us feel embarrassed for the performers. That’s show business!

If you’re watching on DVD, you’ve skipped right over this nonsense, to get to last bit of The Band Wagon worth watching, the famous, wonderful “Girl Hunt” number, which not everyone likes. “The Girl Hunt,” which plays off the famously gory Mike Hammer23 thrillers written by Mickey Spillane, is the one shred of Lily and Lester’s original plot to make it through the New Haven wreckage.

For all that’s been said about Fred Astaire’s determination not to repeat himself,24 here he’s happy to repeat not himself but Gene Kelly, because “The Girl Hunt” is (very) heavily indebted to the finale of Singin’ in the Rain, Cyd in particular playing the same femme fatale all over again.

Beyond the lack of originality is the lack of coherence, and, to some extent, the lack of dancing. We’re supposed to be watching a murder mystery, of some sort, but what’s the deal with the emerald ring? Did the blonde steal it? From whom? Why do the bad guys keep taking it from Fred, and then somehow losing it? And what about Fred? He seems to spend more time running through doorways, down staircases, and up fire escapes than he does dancing. Is this a dream ballet? A parody of a dream ballet? Is it great because Minnelli knew what he was doing,25 or great because he didn’t know what he was doing? Or is it great at all?26

Well, them that wants to complain can do so. For me, most of the weight here is carried on the broad, beautiful shoulders of Cyd Charisse, and that gal never breaks a sweat. In her “serious” dances, like “Dancing in the Dark,” Cyd had a tendency to hold herself stiffly, nobly, as if to let us know that we were watching “art.” But when she’s playing a bad girl, she loosens up. She really isn’t bad, of course. It’s all in fun, so she can have some fun, and be as bad as she wants to be, and as bad as we want her to be, and it’s all make believe. Totally innocent, dude! Totally!

Fred kicks off the show with a tough-guy Rod Riley, his hard-bitten voice-over echoing the rap of a thousand private dicks. Cyd enters stage right as a desperate blonde in a trench and a baby blue negligee that really isn’t all that, but does have a tendency to ride up above her thighs. While Cyd is hurling herself at Fred, a random passerby is dispatched via an explosion that leaves behind naught but a hank of hair, a rag, and a bone.

The rag takes Fred to a fancy schmancy fashion show, where the walls are adorned by Minnelliesque bejeweled candelabras, sprouting out of alabaster heads like antlers, which turned up earlier in the “This Heart of Mine” number from Ziegfeld Follies. Fortunately, Cyd’s there too, bad Cyd this time, a brunette in a drop-dead black sequined gown that clings to her lush curves like a coat of varnish, as the saying goes.27 Cyd lures Fred into the backroom, where he has a few misadventures with mannequins, mistaking their body parts for Cyd’s. He’s then set upon by hoods who relieve him of the emerald ring that keeps turning up throughout the dream, more or less at random. Which leads to a chase down the subway, where the blonde Cyd catches up with him and they engage in another brief, torrid dance before someone else gets murdered. The hank of hair somehow leads Fred up a fire escape where a masked chick (Cyd, I guess) is taking a bath with the emerald on her finger. The chick disappears, more or less, leaving Fred with the ring, which he’s relieved of again by some more hoods.

Fred, of course, doesn’t quit. He still has the bone, which leads him to the raucous “Dem Bones Café,” where just about anything goes. Bad Cyd’s there too, unwrapping herself for Fred in a demi-striptease guaranteed to send endless frissons of passion cascading down the weariest of spines, and rousing Fred, who has been keeping some awfully late hours, into a rousing dance of desire.28 Half-naked in a brilliant red dress, with her magnificent body, insolent sexuality, and splayed legs, Charisse all but shoves her crotch in the audience’s face: Here it is, big boy! Hope you’re man enough! God help you if you aren’t!

Fred’s game for the dame, of course, but also game for the hunt. There’s a killer out there, after all, and killers, well, killers have to die. Another high note on the trumpet warns him that death is near. The nitroglycerine! Of course! In the glass! Death averted, Fred draws his revolver and closes in for the kill. A half dozen slugs in all the right places will settle this matter once and for all.

It’s the dame, of course. It’s always the dame — the blonde one, this time. She throws herself in Fred’s arms for one last kiss and then expires, leaving him all alone. Well, not entirely. Now that blonde Cyd’s dead, brunette Cyd can take over. “She was bad. She was dangerous. But she was my kind of woman.”29

Afterwords

Fred and Cyd would be reunited in Silk Stockings, one of the very last of the old-fashioned Hollywood musicals. Cyd’s career is examined in excellent detail at the site “Legs”.

  1. Write what you know, eh? Well, Comden and Green knew show business, and that was what they wrote. []
  2. Actually, Cyd was just coming off her pretty much forgotten performance in Sombrero, which starred Ricardo Montalban as “Pepe Gonzales” (really), along with Pier Angeli as “Eufemia Calderon” and Yvonne de Carlo as “Maria of the River Road” (not too slutty, right?). Cyd’s performances in Singin’ in the Rain and The Band Wagon, among others, have made her a legend in retrospect, but during the early days of her film career she was definitely scrambling for parts. Apparently, the suits had a low opinion of her acting ability. The Band Wagon was billed as her first acting job, but in fact she’d appeared earlier as an “Adjidaumo, an “Indian girl” in the non-singing, non-dancing Wild North. []
  3. Chicago’s LaSalle Street Station used to have a special Twentieth-Century Limited mail slot for people who wanted their letters to travel in style. []
  4. Fred’s fancy bag is a dead ringer for the one he took off to war in You’ll Never Get Rich, the first of two films he made with Rita Hayworth in the early forties. []
  5. As he walks, he passes a streamlined car bearing the Santa Fe logo, a tipoff that the shot was filmed in the LA train station rather than Grand Central, because the Santa Fe didn’t run east of Chicago. Stars like Fred and Ava took the Santa Fe’s Super Chief to Chicago and the Twentieth-Century Limited to New York. []
  6. Daniels really did shine shoes for a living, but appears to have been a “celebrity” shoeshine dude, giving customers a performance as well as a shine. He supposedly inspired country singer Red Foley’s “Chattanooga Shoe-Shine Boy” in 1950. In the seventies, Red Foxx, or someone, gave Daniels a series of gigs on the TV show Sanford and Son. []
  7. Surprisingly, to me at least, Word doesn’t know how to spell Shinola, a defunct shoe polish more or less immortalized by the phrase “you don’t know shit from Shinola.” Is Bill Gates as big a tight-ass as Steve Jobs? (For examples of Steve’s tight-assiness, go here and here []
  8. This bit is quite similar to the “Sunday Jumps” number in A Royal Wedding, in which Fred first struggles with and then masters a series of exercise machines. []
  9. Fred rarely danced with guys. The only number at all similar to this one is “Let’s Begin,” from Roberta, a comic dance involving Fred with comic performers Candy Candido and Gene Shelton, both of whom, curiously enough, would go on to do a lot of work with Walt Disney. Shelton may be remembered by older Boomers as Zorro’s silent sidekick, Bernardo. []
  10. Jeff’s Spanish surname was apparently a salute to the now not too well known despite winning both an Oscar and a Tony for his performance as Cyrano de Bergerac José Ferrer, who in the early fifties was producing four shows on Broadway while starring in a fifth. The fact that he was played by Scot Jack Buchanan somehow didn’t bother anyone. []
  11. Buchanan had the lead in the early Lubitsch musical Monte Carlo, opposite Jeanette McDonald, but thereafter appeared in few American films, and was known to Americans almost entirely through his appearances on Broadway. Today, he’s known entirely through his performance in The Band Wagon. []
  12. Frediphile John Mueller objects to the lowbrow scorn that Comden and Green shower on “art,” an attitude that was of course rife on Broadway during its golden years. I don’t find it offensive here. The number of people dissuaded from seeing Oedipus Rex on the basis of this film surely approaches zero. []
  13. Very lean, of course, with a pickle and a cream soda. Orson Welles was Jewish. Who knew? []
  14. Lester, Lily, and Tony catch up with Jeff (Buchanan, right, with Fabray) just as he’s doffing his costume, and the glimpse we get of Jack’s scrawny shoulders and pipestem arms is far more hideous than even the bleeding sockets of Oedipus. []
  15. Rather surprisingly, Mephistopheles’ name never comes up. I can’t imagine that many American moviegoers would recognize Gounod but not Mephistopheles, but apparently the suits disagreed. []
  16. “Whether it’s the magic rhythms of Bill Shakespeare’s immortal poetry or the magic rhythms of Bill Robinson’s shoes, why, it’s all entertainment,” Jeff tells Tony, in a very witty send-up of the pretentious, pseudo-populist Progressive babble of which Welles was a master. Perhaps he even said it himself. It sure sounds like him. []
  17. As he delivers his “It’s all entertainment” pitch, Jeff’s wild enthusiasm causes him to topple backwards off the stage he’s standing on. The bit was probably inspired by a famous story involving Orson Welles. While directing rehearsals of a play that required the cast to “ignore” a trap door hidden from the audience, Welles naturally insisted that the cast was letting themselves be inhibited by the hidden door. Naturally, he took to the stage to demonstrate how it should be done and, naturally, fell down the trap door. []
  18. Mitchell, who was, of course, a trained ballet dancer, did not much appreciate being cast as a fussy, prissy, sissy dick who loses the beautiful Cyd Charisse to a man twice his age. In the “Making of The Band Wagon” documentary, an aged Mitchell tells us sourly that somehow he never got around to seeing the film. Gee, Jim, did you think the flick was going to be all about you? []
  19. Well, that’s what she says in the Making of The Band Wagon documentary. []
  20. A search on the web could turn up mentions of only two, both from the eighties — a misbegotten musical version of the horror film Carrie, which apparently featured dancing tampons, and The Moose Murders, which sounds like the theatrical equivalent of direct to disc, but apparently cost its hapless backers a cool nine million clams. “In the future,” chortled Frank Rich, gagging on the schadenfreude, “the world will be divided into two classes of people. Those who have seen The Moose Murders and those who haven’t.” Many, many years ago, friends of my parents saw a musical based on the life of WWI spy Mata Hari, whose DC tryout was so disastrous that the show never made it to Broadway. Among other things, the dancers were so poorly rehearsed that they kept bumping into each other. Some of the performers wore body mics, and the audience could hear them cursing under their breath. One scene ended with a character standing on a sort of scaffold that was supposed to descend to stage level. But when the stage went dark the scaffold got stuck, and the audience could hear the actor jumping up and down to get the damn thing to move. []
  21. The centerpiece of Tony’s collection is Degas’ Dancers at the Barre, which is actually three blocks from my apartment, part of the Phillips Collection. []
  22. Buchanan was 62 when The Band Wagon was filmed, and was undergoing extensive dental surgery throughout the shoot. He would die of spinal arthritis four years later. I guess he was a trouper. The number would work better for me if Jack hadn’t been substantially taller and bulkier than Fred. For some reason, it always freaks me out to see two people dressed exactly alike when they aren’t the same size physically. The number ends with Jeff and Tony tossing their hats to the floor and then not catching them on the toe of their shoes, apparently because they kept missing them. But, as I’ve said before, an anti-climax is not a climax. []
  23. My take on the classic Mike Hammer film Kiss Me Deadly is here. []
  24. In the Making of documentary, choreographer Michael Kidd recalls an instant from the “Dancing in the Dark” number when Fred wanted to move himself from Charisse’s left side to her right. Kidd suggested an appropriate maneuver, but Fred said “No, I used that with Ginger in Flying Down to Rio.” Kidd may be embellishing the legend a bit here — surely he knew that Flying Down to Rio was Fred and Ginger’s first film together — but what the hell, what the hell. []
  25. Four words that I generally do not want to see in a sentence together are “Vincente Minnelli” and “dream ballet.” Both The Zeigfeld Follies (right) and Yolanda and the Thief had dream ballets that can only be described as “Minnellisian.” []
  26. John Mueller, blaming Minnelli, sourly finds it “incomprehensible,” and asks for “less silliness and more art.” But aren’t dreams incomprehensible, full of “themes” that come out of nowhere and then disappear, without resolution? Which is to say that one man’s mystery is another man’s bore. Either you like it or you don’t, and I do, definitely, and I’m definitely not a Minnelli guy. []
  27. “More curves than a scenic railway,” as Fred puts it. Writers can seldom control their delight in the overripe similes that have always been the special province of hard-boiled noir. My personal favorite (which probably started as a gag) is “The man was fat! He had more chins than a Hong Kong phonebook,” but perhaps the ripest of all occurs in The Sun Also Rises, when Jake Barnes tells us that Lady Brett’s figure had “more curves than a racing yacht’s hull.” Sublimely pretentious! Sublimely fatuous! Sublimely Ernesto! []
  28. John Mueller sniffs at the “ersatz sexiness” of this number. I guess I’m easily pleased. []
  29. Fred’s voice-over turned up forty years later in Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous” routine for the 1995 MTV Video Awards. My take on Jackson is here. []