The Band Wagon (1953)

The Band Wagon is a musical about putting on a musical. And of all the films I’ve seen about making a musical, this one feels like it’s the least about putting on a musical. It’s in there, but it more like window dressing than anything else. Cropping up and getting dropped as the film deems fit. Half of the film comes across as a relational drama that could fit into just about any comedy genre backdrop.

The film does have a delightful setup. A down and out performer named Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) gets another shot at putting on a big show when his friends Lester (Oscar Levant) and Lily Marton (Nanette Fabrey) write a lively new musical. But when they try to zest up their musical by bringing on famous opera producer Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan), their fun, light-hearted musical becomes a flamboyant reinterpretation of Faust.

This film sets up this compelling dichotomy of high art vs. vaudevillian entertainment and then fails to do anything interesting with it. Character tensions and plot points grow out of this conflict, but the film never has anything meaningful to say about the conflict. The conclusions is that it’s much easier and enjoyable to entertain, so screw it, just entertain. But this is without ever delving into any nuances of conflict.

The result is that the film lack focus. Is it about the creative tensions between the more high-brow minded producer and the song and dance simplicity of Tony Hunter? Is it the relational conflict between the female lead Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse) and Tony? The general woes of putting on any show? Or just a series of comedic pratfalls with some catchy tunes thrown in? In some sense, the film is about all of those things, but they never feel as related or interconnected as they could be.

Because the film lacks focus, the musical numbers are often unrelated to the story. While one number is related to putting on a show, the rest exist in a vacuum and come across as disjointed and not always within the tone of the film. A song about three triplets and another about a hay ride that appear late in the film might be the worst offenders as far as the disconnect between the plot of the film and the musical numbers.

The highlight of the film is a lengthy noir-inspired murder mystery number with this delightful jazzy vibe that oozes with atmosphere. However, it exist in its own space unrelated to any of the other threads of the film. There’s also a wonderful wordless musical interlude in the park that does a bit better at fitting into the story, but still feels disjointed.

If someone asked me what The Band Wagon was about, I’d look up at the ceiling for a moment and then say I don’t know. But I wouldn’t feel bad for not knowing because I’m not sure The Band Wagon knows what it’s about, either. From scene to scene, the movie is this ever changing amalgam of ideas, none of which solidifies into anything concrete. Some of those ideas are magnificent, but they never come together into a holistic work.

© 2014 James Blake Ewing