The Band Wagon – more — directed by Vincente Minnelli – a backstage musical in which a fading movie hoofer resumes his Broadway career, except with a director of Orson Wellesian pretension, except, as well, with a snooty ballerina! – 112 minutes 1953.
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The Greatest Musical Ever Made? Don’t answer. I’ve been watching it again in the DVD re-release, color restored and in stereo now. Two discs of background and outtakes, and three versions all of which I could not help watching in one day, the other two being a commentary by Liza Minnelli and Michael Feinstein and a monaural version, which I actually preferred, because that’s what I saw when it first came out in 1953 while I was in basic at Fort Dix. Those soldiers who appear in the Shine On My Shoes number were like me, headed for the Korean War. I went back to the post movie house and saw it all over again, just as I did yesterday. The Lisa Minnelli and Michael Feinstein version is worthwhile because Michael Feinstein is a gentleman and has useful information about the musical contributions of Adolf Deutsch, Roger Edens, and the arranger Conrad Salinger, while Liza Minnelli jackasses herself with moronic sentimentality punctuated with a coarse laugh. Her nostalgia is not even her own — she is nostalgic not for her father but for his work, which, however, is before us, and which speaks for itself. Vincente Minnelli was famous for his color sense, and the colors are not modest. He hired two newcomers, Michael Kidd, to do the choreography, and Mary Ann Nyberg to do the costumes. Nyberg does two unusual things with Cyd Charisse. The first is to put her in green twice, not a forgiving color for humans, except her. The second is to frame the film with her costumes, red and green at the start, then red and green at the end. In It’s Always Fair Weather, Charisse, in the boxing match dance, will wear two almost matching greens, and she has already proven she can carry the color in the great Louise Brooks finale of Singing In The Rain where she wears a green flapper dress with short flyaway skirt. Now, first seen in the en pointe ballet, Charisse is in bright red. Next when she enters to meet Astaire, she is in a black spangled lace dress over midnight green petticoats so dark you can hardly see the green, with bright green gloves. At the end, Nyberg puts Charisse in the red spangled dress for the Girl Hunt ballet and then for the That’s Entertainment finale she puts Charisse in green khaki satin. For the simple and justly famous Dancing In The Dark number in Central Park, Nyberg, in a tour de force choice, has Charisse and Astaire both in white, he in three tones of white, she in a $22 shirtwaist with a trillion pleats. White, the color of truce – for, having come to a truce in life, they are out to discover whether they can find a truce in dance. The unity of their performance is created in part by the unity of that color, to make “Dancing In The Dark” the most moving romantic dance ever filmed. (Watch: Charisse actually leads it; the focus is actually given to her.) The other newcomer is Michael Kidd. You will find what he starts out to do in the “Louisiana Hayride” number he will not long after complete in Seven Brides For Seven Brothers. But what he mainly does is remove Astaire from his usual tropes. So there are no great big tap dancing numbers and such. What we have is the amiable affair of the shoeshine dance and the jazz dance of “The Girl Hunt Ballet”. That is to say, Astaire’s dancing is technically simple, and this is rare for him, for it does not resemble even big splashy jazz numbers like “Stepping Out With My Baby” from Easter Parade. It’s a new Astaire, and it is possibly the most satisfying and relaxed he has ever been in dance. To make up for it, he sings a lot, and sings well. Watch also the chiaroscuro of Minnelli’s use of extras and bit players as they populate, move around, pass through, come forward, and then retreat into the background dark, as does Thurston Hall as the moneybags backer and the stagehands and manger. Compare “Girl Hunt” here with the similar but barely populated “Broadway Rhythm: Gotta Dance” finale of Singing In The Rain, to feel Minnelli’s genius as a colorist with chorus, with casts, with people, with extras, all of whom he instructed individually and personally as to their tasks and motivations. This makes it a musical of great warmth. Easy and essential. Singing In The Rain and The Band Wagon are the apogee of Hollywood musicals. Don’t miss them.