Behind the Music

Vincente Minnelli, The Band Wagon, 1953, 35 mm, color, sound, 112 minutes. Tony Hunter and Gabrielle Gerard (Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse).

MGM’S BEST MUSICALS personified Show Business as bipolar cottage industry—miracles of scrambled, collaged, precision-tooled, toe-shoe equilibrium. Star-struck, self-aware, and ruthlessly efficient, these engines of chaste desire merged revels and reveries into the ever-present bottom line. Poised betwixt gee-whiz uncomplication and sophisticated manners, their escapades showcased hyperbolic performers, idealized characters, and dazzling shades of homogeneity. Yet the same storylines also incorporated a cheeky penchant for relaxed displacement and rib-poking irony into otherwise corny affirmations. These insanely orderly, happy-peppy-sappy vehicles were given an adventurous kick by dropping strategic hints of chaos and gloom into their midst.

Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) could have been a resilient, pick-yourself-up-by-the-corset-straps cousin to The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)—a tale of sublimated anxieties, fin de siècle dread, and familial upheaval averted in the nick of time. Singin’ in the Rain (1952) amounted to a chipper yet sardonic back-story to Sunset Boulevard (1950) (think of Jean Hagen’s silent star as the Before-image and Gloria Swanson’s mad recluse as the After). It’s Always Fair Weather (1955) had a salutary postwar/pre–Mad Men cynicism: The emotional messiness, tonal dead zones, and clashing sensibilities all contributed to its dyspeptic, strangely wistful energy.

And then there was Minnelli’s The Band Wagon (1953). Coming on the heels of backstage/backlot constructions like All About Eve (1950) and The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) (as well as the aforementioned blockbuster Singin’ in the Rain), its inside-Broadway satire was very much the flavor of the moment: Knowingness Parfait. There are enough layers in it to fuel a thousand postgrad theses; the wonder is that the Wooster Group hasn’t yet done a multimedia revamping. The Band Wagon was the Being John Malkovichcum-Birdman of MGM musicals. It can be described as the intersection of stifling high aspirations (“Shut up in our little sweatbox of the arts”) with beautifully disreputable commercial instincts (“That’s entertainment!”).

The film cast Fred Astaire as a has-been musical comedy star: In other words, essentially as himself again, only without the old dapper-playboy-hoofer façade. The movie opens on an auction of his personal memorabilia, where his fabled top hat and walking stick won’t even fetch fifty cents. Oh, the ignominy! He’s become as much of a magnificently obsolescent contraption as the seedy automatons he encounters in a Forty-Second Street arcade. (The regal theaters he once performed in have become carny-style tourist traps: Times Square is represented as a claustrophobic studio set that has the trappings of a stage musical and the alienation effect of The Lady from Shanghai’s hall of mirrors routine.) Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant play excitable versions of the movie’s authors, Betty Comden and Adolph Green—she as a wide-eyed bundle of irrational exuberance, he as a hypochondriacally inclined neurotic given to such classic Levantian laments as, “I can stand anything but pain.”

The duo have written a comeback musical called The Band Wagon for Astaire’s Tony Hunter, and they want Broadway’s biggest hotshot to direct. Rather old for a wunderkind, the British star Jack Buchanan nonetheless gives a grandly hammy recital as Jeffrey Cordova, an endearingly pretentious actor-director-impresario who wants to turn their fun, 1930s-style musical romp about a children’s author who churns out Spillane-type pulp fiction on the side into a heavy-breathing retelling of the Faust legend, replete with hellfire and flash-pot Brimstone. (You can see where this might be right in the Wooster Group’s wheelhouse.) Based on the then-celebrated Jose Ferrer (a discount-store Orson Welles probably best remembered now for his Cyrano), while incorporating a lot of Minnelli’s personal mannerisms (not to mention his furnishings), Cordova is a timeless archetype of artistic overreach and self-congratulatory hubris: “There’s nothing in the world as soothing as a smash hit.”

The human anchor of the film is, oddly, Cyd Charisse, in her first starring role at thirty-one: Imposing and impossibly lithe, she’s pop-Cubism in motion (“She came at me in sections” declares Astaire in the “Girl Hunt” production number) yet remarkably down-to-earth. Pauline Kael thought her acting wooden, but playing the ballerina protégé of a Balanchine/Jerome Robbins–type choreographer, her unpolished delivery seems right for a wary, diffident outsider who masks her vulnerabilities by presenting an aura of inscrutability. Charisse was the most abstract figure in musicals, but her movements mesh with Astaire’s conversational patter and dancing in a way that blurs artifice and naturalism. For them, maybe, artifice was second nature, as routine as a smoker gesticulating or a tennis player serving.

Technicolor’s palette never looked wilder or more robust than it does on this Blu-ray transfer, where Minnelli’s extras move through cagey spaces like drill teams dressed up as regular folks on display, herds of Hawaiian shirts, gabardine suits, khaki soldiers, poodle skirts, and yellow turtlenecks moving in casual background formations that would be the envy of General Rommel or Vince Lombardi. The package is skimpy on extras and while it has a perfunctory making-of short and an old PBS documentary on Minnelli, it doesn’t even include the “Two Faced Woman” outtake from the previous edition. And nothing new has been dug up, though sizable chunks were excised prior to the film’s premier to get the running time down under two hours (hence the last third of the movie is basically a string of foreshortened numbers culminating in the epic dance set-piece of “Girl Hunt”).

What it retains though is the commentary track with Liza Minnelli and her friend Michael Feinstein, which turns the movie into a jubilant family scrapbook. That is, if you grew up on movie sets, and Liza seems to have been present for much of The Band Wagon shoot and demonstrates considerable powers of recall for someone who was six at the time: “My dad thought up a lot of that [technical] stuff. My dad invented the crab dolly…. He said I want a camera to be able to move like a person who’s trying to see what’s happening.” (Okay, he didn’t actually invent it, but give the kid a break—and I wouldn’t be surprised if Minnelli refined or tinkered with its design.) I’ve never heard a more infectious commentary track—when she blurts, “I love a director directing a director,” she could be a character in the movie itself, and it’s touching to realize on how many levels this movie affected her.

The first time I heard this supplied a different sort of epiphany. My mother was on her deathbed and I was taking care of her at home; it was just the two of us, in hospice-mode. She had slipped into a coma a few days earlier and nothing more could be done but wait for the end. So to break the silence and maybe ease her passage, or my sorrow, I read to her a bit (Dave Hickey’s “The Little Church of Perry Mason” being apposite somehow) and then put on the DVD of The Band Wagon a friend had given us.

Watching it again, I remembered that at some point mom had worn her hair in the same style Charisse has in the film. Since the movie was in the player anyway, I decided to listen to Liza M.’s commentary. I was quickly hooked by each delighted memory or private joke the film triggered for her, as though her childhood itself had been directed by Vincente after the manner of Meet Me in St. Louis, fact and artistic fancy melding the way Astaire and Charisse did in “Dancing in the Dark.” That dance looked different now: I saw it through her eyes and then realized that Charisse incarnated the way my mother looked to me when I was six (and partly how she always appeared to my father in his vivid imagination). As the number eloquently winds down and the dancers return to their normal selves, the enraptured daughter waxes almost evangelical: “The way this number ends is pure Minnelli. Because music, which is in everybody’s life, and movement, which is in everybody’s life, just goes back—to life.”

My mother died that afternoon. It wasn’t like a movie or anything cinema had prepared me for. Except for an uncanny tranquility that came over me: A feeling that maybe everything that’s lost is simultaneously previewed/reincarnated in the movies. Or in our secret spiritual restorations of them.

Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon is now available on Blu-ray from Warner Bros.