The Band Wagon (Two-Disc Special Edition) Review
There are many important directors whose work has been under-represented on DVD but few who are quite so important as Vincente Minnelli. He is not only one of the most significant figures in the development of the Hollywood musical and the artist who, in films like The Pirate, Lust For Life and Some Came Running, took the pictorial and emotional use of film colour to new heights, but also a huge influence on other significant directors ranging from Martin Scorsese to Dario Argento. Although his work declined during the 1960s, Minnelli at his peak - from Meet Me In St Louis in 1944 to Two Weeks In Another Town in 1962 - was a force to be reckoned with and, in the estimation of this writer, one of the greatest directors of the 20th Century. His own favourite films were his most artistically daring ones - An American In Paris in particular - but I think his best work was a lot looser and fresher than that film, and there are few better examples of this than The Band Wagon. I should put my cards on the table and state upfront that, much as I love Singin' In The Rain, I'd choose The Band Wagon as my all-time favourite Hollywood musical and a perfect example of the MGM style at its very best.
One of the surprising things about the film is how loosely it's structured. If you look at Singin' In The Rain, the narrative is tightly wound with a precise farcical structure. The Band Wagon is different. It's built around a series of popular songs, largely written in the 1930s by composter Arthur Schwartz and lyricist Howard Deitz. Although it has a definite beginning, middle and end, it drifts from one fantastic set-piece to another with casual insouciance yet it never seems remotely incoherent. Rather, it's the work of brilliant craftsmen who know that the trick is to make it all look very easy. Since there were few Hollywood stars better at making it look easy than Fred Astaire, it seems entirely appropriate that this was his 'comeback' vehicle after a few slightly disappointing films. He plays Tony Hunter, a washed-up movie star who makes a return to the Broadway stage in a project to be directed by Jeffrey Cordova (Buchanan) and written by two seasoned writers Lily (Comden) and Lester (Levant). Things begin to go awry when Jeffrey has some decidedly outlandish ideas, changing their outline musical comedy into a hopelessly silly version of 'Faust' - "That'll leave 'em laughing in the aisles" observes Lester - and the female star (Charisse) doesn't get on at all well with Tony. The show opens, is a disaster and all concerned have to find a way to get back on top.
Some musicals make you wait so long for the first great number that you begin to lose patience with them. Occasionally, the disappointment is compounded when the song and dance numbers turn out to be so mediocre that they weren't worth waiting for - The Barkleys Of Broadway springs immediately to mind here. There are no such problems with The Band Wagon. Within five minutes, Fred Astaire is crooning, with his customary elegance, 'By Myself' and then we're into the marvellous extended number in an amusement arcade which includes 'A Shine On Your Shoes'.
The invention and variety of Astaire's work in this sequence is astounding and the result of days of painfully wrought work by choreographer Michael Kidd who would have to combat Astaire's scepticism about his own ability to do anything new. Once he had the confidence, of course, Astaire loved trying anything new and we see this throughout the film, notably in 'Shine On Your Shoes' and the 'Girl Hunt Ballet' at the end. Although he dismissed himself as a 'hoofer', Astaire was one of the finest dancers of the 20th Century. The secret lies in his casual style which comes across as if he's merely throwing off the first moves which come to mind - something which hid the days of hard work which went into each number. Although he's not as good a singer as he is a dancer (a number of pop music stars of the past twenty years share this tendency), the truth is that he doesn't even really have to move his mouth - he sings with his feet. In a number like 'Dancing In The Dark', which he shares with Cyd Charisse, the sensuality and eroticism of the sequence doesn't come from the singing, it's inherent in the heat created during the dance; a love-play between two fine dancers who have enough respect for each other to work together without too much obvious competition.
Astaire rarely had a female dancing partner who was his true equal. Ginger Rogers was a fine comedienne and a competent dancer but she wasn't in the Astaire class. Rita Hayworth in You Were Never Lovelier was closer. But Charisse, a classical trained ballet dancer, is almost as suffused with born terpsichorean verve as Astaire and the two make a gorgeous couple. Admittedly, Cyd Charisse isn't much of an actress and her line delivery has little comic spin, but when she dances, this doesn't matter.
The film is basically a series of extraordinary musical numbers connected by a slight plot but it's also distinguished by a very funny script from Betty Comden and Adolph Green - who also wrote a number of other MGM musicals, notably the great On The Town and Singin' In The Rain. They have a great facility for comic dialogue, giving some of their best moments to Lily and Lester, characters based on themselves. Equally funny is Jeffrey Cordova, a character inspired by Jose Ferrer who once had three shows at once playing on Broadway. As incarnated by Jack Buchanan, a legend of the British musical comedy during the 1930s and 1940s, he's a delicious caricature of the overreaching director full of pomp and arrogance - berating a stage hand for moving an amber spot, he says "I must have more light on me there. We mustn't keep it a secret I'm in the show." Buchanan's decidedly arch delivery would be irksome in any other context when watched fifty years later but here it's entirely appropriate. Needless to say, Buchanan's singing and dancing is immaculate and nowhere is it better than in the musical number he shares with Astaire, 'I Guess I'll Have To Change My Plan'. It's one of the most debonair popular songs ever written and the two men are at their most dapper, done up in top hat, tie and tails and obviously delighting in the chance to work together. Astaire only did three dance numbers with other men - this, one in Broadway Melody Of 1940 and one with Gene Kelly in Ziegfeld Follies - and this has none of the slight strain exhibited in the number with Kelly where there's a slight niggling feeling that the two men are trying to outdo each other. The sheer sophistication of their dance here is funny in its complete self-awareness.
Funny in a different way is the wonderful 'That's Entertainment' scene. The only new song written by Dietz and Schwartz for the film, it's gifted with one of the wittiest lyrics ever written and the staging is full of a wild slapstick comedy that can make you dizzy with joy. Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray are at their best here and the lingering memory of them in this scene disguises the fact that their roles fade as the film goes on.
By 1952 when this film was made, Vincente Minnelli had perfected his ability to use colour in order to heighten the emotional impact of a scene and there are some set-ups here which are breathtakingly beautiful. The full possibilities of three strip Technicolor are exploited here with each musical number given a different base colour which is then either complemented by different shades and hues or deliberately contrasted with another bright primary colour - the blue of Charisse's first number, for example, broken by the vivid scarlet of her ballet dress. The second half of the film, which is virtually all musical numbers, is intoxicating to witness and the culminating 'Girl Hunt Ballet' is a frenzy of colour and movement which is so vivid that it bursts out of the frame of the plot to become a small film of its own. Even in a number which is relatively muted in photographic terms, like 'Dancing In The Dark' , the use of light and shade is exquisite and the blue of the sky breaking through the top of the trees is dazzling. The overall effect is one which very few other directors of the period achieved - we respond intuitively to the scenes, the colours beating their way into our heads before we have fully processed the dramatic content and the staging. The other examples from the period I can immediately think of are Rouben Mamoulien in Silk Stockings; from Britain, Powell and Pressburger in Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes; and from Italy, Visconti in Senso. In more recent times, Martin Scorsese achieved something comparable in The Age Of Innocence and, at the other end of the generic spectrum, Dario Argento used an identical technique in Suspiria.
Minnelli made his share of bad films, although items like The Sandpiper are still highly amusing, but he rarely lost his eye for colour and lighting. At his best, working with talents such as the reliable DP Harry Jackson, art directors Cedric Gibbons and Preston Ames, and the brilliant costumier Mary Ann Nyberg, Minnelli created films which were, and still are, pure magic. Much credit should also go to producer Arthur Freed, head of the MGM Musicals Unit from the 1940s to the early 1960s; he was a man who must have had the patience to pick up mercury with his bare hands, capable of taking brilliant but instinctively extravagent talents like those of Minnelli and Gene Kelly, and giving them the sound base of paternal control from which to spin off into their delightfully wayward fantasies. Compare The Band Wagon to a later Minnelli musical such as On A Clear Day You Can See Forever and it's plain to see how much a remarkably talented director needs a firm producer. Together, however, Freed and Minnelli were just about unbeatable and The Band Wagon is, in my humble opinion, the finest epitaph of both men.
Warner's Ultra-Resolution process for their three-strip Techicolor films is one of the best things ever to happen to DVD. Although The Band Wagon isn't quite as eye-poppingly gorgeous as The Adventures of Robin Hood or Gone With The Wind, it's still one of the best transfers I've seen for quite some time.
The film is transferred in its original full-frame Academy ratio. It's generally a remarkable achievement for Warners with stunningly vivid colours (particularly vital for this film), plenty of detail and a nice filmic level of fine grain which is never excessive. If I had to carp, there's a certain softness evident throughout. The Band Wagon is still better than most other transfers I've seen recently but in view of the softness and in comparison to Warner's best, it doesn't quite deserve full marks.
Three soundtracks are offered. There is a Dolby Digital 5.1 remix included which I didn't much like - so what's new. I felt the orchestrations had been fiddled about with and the dialogue and music didn't always seem to be in balance. The occasional directional effects are also distracting if you know and love the film. Thankfully, Warners have included a restored mono track which is excellent and does wonders with the score, especially during the more subtle string moments in 'Dancing In The Dark'. There's also a French language mono track included.
There aren't as many extras as you sometimes find on two-disc special editions but the quality of what is included is exquisite. The first disc contains a commentary track from Liza Minnelli (daughter of Vincente) and the singer Michael Feinstein, something of an expert on the popular standards which make up the song score of the film. This is a highly informative, good-natured track and Liza's enthusiasm for everyone and everything is as endearing as it is camp. Feinstein is also a little camp at times but he's a mine of information and even fans of the film should learn a new thing or two. Also on the first disc is an Astaire trailer gallery containing previews for Broadway Melody of 1940, Ziegfeld Follies, Easter Parade, The Barkleys Of Broadway, Three Little Words, The Band Wagon, Silk Stockings and Finian's Rainbow. All of these are treats, in one way or another.
On the second disc are two substantial documentaries and a very enjoyable short feature. The latter is a Vitaphone musical short featuring Jack Buchanan and the Glee Quartet which dates from the very early days of sound . This is nostalgically amusing and demonstrates Buchanan's fame at the time, something which had faded somewhat by 1953. The print used is very scratchy but it's something of a miracle that it still exists at all. The first documentary, "Get Aboard!!! The Band Wagon" is a 35 minute look at the making of the film, demonstrating the difficult conditions under which it was made and concentrating on the musical numbers more than anything else. It emphasises the painstaking attention to detail of Minnelli and the combative but productive relationship of Fred Astaire and Michael Kidd. The second is a delightful 50 minute feature about Vincente Minnelli from the TV series "The Men Who Made The Movies". This dates from the early 1970s and contains lots of archive interview footage with Minnelli along with some well chosen clips. It's far from exhaustive but it's nice to see the man allowed to speak for himself. The battles in his personal life are alluded to but not allowed to dominate the artistic discussion. I was left wanting desperately to see a restored DVD version of his undervalued Madame Bovary.
The film has optional English, French or Spanish subtitles. Sadly, none of the extra features is subtitled.
The Band Wagon is a dose of pure joy. If you haven't seen it, order this DVD immediately. If you have, you'll know why I love it so much. It hasn't dated a day since it was made and it stands up to repeated viewings like few other films. The DVD looks and sounds wonderful and the extra features, though few in number, are all well worth savouring. Highly recommended.
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Last updated: 19/04/2018 09:36:52