Fred Astaire is best known for the films he made with dance partner Ginger Rogers in the 1930s. The Band Wagon was produced in 1953, after the duo had stopped working together, and paired Astaire with the svelte Cyd Charisse, an elegant dancer who is more than a match for Astaire’s talents. Astaire was starting to slow down by the time of The Band Wagon – he’d already attempted to retire once – but the film proved he still had what counts on the dance floor.
Like most musicals of the time, The Band Wagon has a bit of everything: humour, romance, drama and, of course, song and dance. The behind-the-scenes professionals – musicals maestro Vincente Minnelli, writing team Betty Comden and Adolph Green, famous for writing another beloved MGM musical, Singin’ in the Rain, and songwriters Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz – ensured that everything fits together perfectly. More than 60 years later, this is still a witty, entertaining watch.
The production was based on a 1931 Broadway musical that also starred Astaire, but only the title and three of the songs remain here, and the story has been changed completely.
Astaire plays Tony, a washed-up dance star who has a chance to make his comeback in a Broadway musical. The show is meant to be a dance comedy, but an overbearing director (played deliciously by Scottish actor Jack Buchanan) turns it into a pretentious update of the Faust tale.
To make matters worse, Tony’s co-star is prima ballerina Gabrielle (Charisse), who thinks he lacks the chops to keep up with her moves. Everything falls to pieces and Tony has to figure out how to make the show a success and win the heart of his leading lady. Girl Hunt Ballet, the final number, is regarded as the film’s classic scene, not least because of Charisse’s explosively sexy performance as a gangster’s moll.
Parts of the script are based on real-life situations and although Astaire’s career was far from over in 1953 – he was still to make hits such as 1957’s Funny Face, with Audrey Hepburn – there was genuine tension between Astaire and Charisse, and he was worried about performing with her, as she was taller than him. This is directly referenced in the film.
Writers Comden and Green modelled the on-screen writers on themselves, although they were not married in real life. The shoot was reportedly as problematic as the fictional story, in part because of director Minnelli’s problems with his ex-wife, Judy Garland.
The Band Wagon will be screened on January 1 and February 5 at the Hong Kong Film Archive, in Sai Wan Ho, as part of the Archival Gems programme.