The Band Wagon is a 1953 musical comedy film directed by Vincente Minnelli, starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. Fred Astaire was contemplating retirement just like his character. It tells the story of an aging musical star who hopes a Broadway show will restart his career. However, the play's director wants to make it a pretentious retelling of Faust, and brings in a prima ballerina who clashes with the star. Along with Singin' in the Rain, it is regarded as one of the finest of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer musicals, although it was only a modest box-office success on first release.
The songs were written by the team of composer Arthur Schwartz and lyricist Howard Dietz. (Schwartz was a prolific Hollywood composer who teamed with numerous lyricists over the years, while Dietz, a studio publicist, generally collaborated with Schwartz.) Some of the songs in the film had been created for the original 1931 Broadway musical by Schwartz and Dietz which was also called The Band Wagon, with a book by George S. Kaufman and starring Fred Astaire and his sister Adele. (Fred Astaire also stars in the movie.) The movie's dances and musical numbers were staged by Michael Kidd.
The song "That's Entertainment!", which Schwartz and Dietz wrote specifically for the film, was a hit and has become a standard. Another song orchestrated by Conrad Salinger, "Dancing in the Dark", is considered part of the Great American Songbook and was from the original Broadway production. Astaire's early number in the film, "A Shine On Your Shoes" was actually written for a 1932 Broadway revue with music and lyrics by Dietz and Schwartz called Flying Colors. It had originally been performed by the dancing team of Buddy and Vilma Ebsen. In the movie version of The Band Wagon, the song was reworked to show off Astaire's musical talents.
The film was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Costume Design, Color, Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture and Best Writing, Story and Screenplay. Screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who received the nomination for the screenplay, patterned the film's characters Lester and Lily Marton after themselves, although the fictional characters were a married couple and Comden and Green were not romantically involved.
In 1995, The Band Wagon was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". In 2006, this film ranked #17 on the American Film Institute's list of best musicals.
Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire), once a famous star of musical comedies on stage and later on screen, is largely forgotten after three years without a movie. He returns from Hollywood to New York. At Grand Central, he is recognized but almost ignored by reporters who are there to see Ava Gardner (in a cameo as herself). But he is greeted enthusiastically by his good friends Lester and Lily Marton (Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray), and they tell him they have written a stage show, a light musical comedy, that will be a perfect comeback for Tony. They will also act in it, and they have already caught the interest of Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan), who they say can do anything: currently he is starring in, as well as directing, a new adaptation of Oedipus Rex that he wrote himself based on the original Greek.
As soon as Jeffrey hears Lily outline the play, he declares it to be a brilliant reinterpretation of the Faust legend, which should star Tony and himself as the characters corresponding to Faust and the Devil. The Martons are delighted that he will be acting as well as directing, but Tony is dubious about the Faust idea. Jeffrey declares that the boundaries between genres in the theater are artificial, and "Bill Shakespeare" and Bill Robinson are all parts of the same whole—to prove his point, he leads the four in singing That's Entertainment! Tony signs on, and Jeffrey has the Martons rewrite the play as a dark, pretentious musical drama (when they also become dubious, Lily insists that one person must be in charge and Jeffrey can succeed at anything).
Jeffrey does succeed in arranging for the beautiful and talented ballerina Gabrielle "Gaby" Gerard (Cyd Charisse) to join the production, along with Paul Byrd (James Mitchell), who is her boyfriend, choreographer, and manager—even though he has always insisted that a musical play would be beneath her. When Tony and Gaby meet, they become sarcastic and hostile to each other, but this is actually because they are insecure: each of them feels much less talented than the other.
Eventually, it all proves too much for Tony, and he walks out. Gaby follows, to meet him privately. In his hotel room, she comments that the paintings by famous artists on the wall are better reproductions than usual in a hotel; he says they are his own property, and are originals. She recognizes a painting of ballerinas as an early Degas. Tony and Gaby put their troubles aside, go for a horse-drawn carriage ride, dance together, and realize they can work together after all. They also begin to fall in love.
When the first out-of-town tryout in New Haven proves disastrous, Tony demands that Jeffrey convert the production back into the light comedy that the Martons had originally envisioned. Jeffrey says that while they will have to find new backers since the original ones have walked out, he will be happy to appear in that show—if Tony is in charge of it. Tony accepts, financing the production himself by selling his art collection. Paul says the show is no longer suitable for Gaby and walks out, expecting her to follow, but she is now pleased to stay and work with Tony.
After some weeks on tour to perfect the new lighthearted musical numbers, the revised show proves to be a hit on its Broadway opening. Afterwards, Gaby and Tony kiss in front of the entire cast and crew, and the finale is a reprise of That's Entertainment!Fred Astaire as Tony Hunter
Cyd Charisse as Gabrielle Gerard
Oscar Levant as Lester Marton
Nanette Fabray as Lily Marton
Jack Buchanan as Jeffrey Cordova
James Mitchell as Paul Byrd
Ava Gardner as herself (cameo)
in order of appearance
- "By Myself" — Tony (introduced in the stage musical Between the Devil)
- "Shine on Your Shoes" — Tony and a shoeshine man (Leroy Daniels) (introduced in the stage musical Flying Colors)
- "That's Entertainment!" — Jeffrey, with Tony, Lester and Lily
- "The Beggars Waltz" — danced by Cyd Charisse, James Mitchell, and corps de ballet
- "Dancing in the Dark" — danced by Tony and Gabrielle
- "You and the Night and the Music" — Chorus, danced by Tony and Gabrielle
- "Something to Remember You By" — Chorus
- "High and Low" — Chorus
- "I Love Louisa" — Tony, Lester, and Lily
- "New Sun in the Sky" — Gabrielle
- "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan" — Tony and Jeffrey
- "Louisiana Hayride" — Lily and Chorus (introduced in the stage musical Flying Colors)
- "Triplets" — Tony, Jeffrey, and Lily (the performers dance on their knees, costumed in baby attire) (introduced in the stage musical Between the Devil)
- "Girl Hunt Ballet" (inspired by the novels of Mickey Spillane) — danced by Tony and Gabrielle
One musical number shot for the film, but dropped from the final release, was a seductive dance routine featuring Charisse performing "Two-Faced Woman". As with the other Charisse songs, her singing was dubbed by India Adams. Adams' recording of the song was reused for Torch Song for a musical number featuring Joan Crawford. The retrospective That's Entertainment! III released the Charisse version to the public for the first time. This footage was also included with the most recent DVD release of The Band Wagon itself.
According to MGM records the film earned $2.3 million in the US and Canada and $1,202,000 in other countries, resulting in a loss of $1,185,000.
A musical stage adaptation, titled Dancing in the Dark, premiered at The Old Globe Theatre (San Diego) March 4 – April 20, 2008, with plans to bring the show to Broadway. Gary Griffin directed, with a book by Douglas Carter Beane and choreography by Warren Carlyle. The cast included Patrick Page as the "deliciously pretentious" director-actor-producer Jeffrey Cordova, Mara Davi playing Gabrielle Gerard and Scott Bakula as "song-and-dance man" Tony Hunter.
In the Variety review of the musical, Bob Verini wrote: "There's no reason this reconstituted "Band Wagon" can't soar once it jettisons its extraneous and self-contradictory elements. But "Dancing" is some distance from finding its footing, despite finale's admonition to "Admit we're a hit and we'll go on from there." Not yet."
A revised version of the stage adaptation under the name The Band Wagon was presented in a staged concert in November 2014 as part of a New York City Center Encores! special event. The cast starred Brian Stokes Mitchell, Tracey Ullman, Michael McKean, Tony Sheldon and Laura Osnes, with direction and choreography by Kathleen Marshall.
In Michael Jackson's music videos for "Smooth Criminal" and "You Rock My World", he pays tribute to the Fred Astaire film in his dance sequence in the 1930s or 1940s style lounge as in the Astaire film where the bar fight takes place. Dancers can be seen doing similar moves as female dancers wear similar designed outfits in Jackson's videos. Jackson wears a white suit with a blue collar shirt underneath and a white hat with a black stripe on it, paying tribute to what Astaire was wearing in The Band Wagon's finale in "Smooth Criminal". For "You Rock My World", he imitates Astaire's choreography and confidence. "Billie Jean's" music video also features similar elements as those of the same number: The storefront scenery through which the paparazzo conducts his manhunt and the animal print cloth he finds for a clue are two very distinct allusions. Using the line "she came at me in sections" for the titular song of his album Dangerous, Jackson notably pays homage to the film on at least three successive albums.
Steve Martin and Gilda Radner perform a seriocomic parody homage to the "dancing in the dark" dance segment on an episode of Saturday Night Live, originally broadcast on April 22, 1978.