The Bandwagon

  • Title: The Bandwagon
  • Director: Vincente Minnelli
  • Date: 1953
  • Studio: MGM
  • Genre: Musical
  • Cast: Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Oscar Levant, Nanette Fabray, Jack Buchanan
  • Format: Standard, Technicolor
  • DVD Format: R1, NTSC, 2-disc Special Edition

“We enter with nothing but a dream – but when we leave we’ll have a show! In between there will be enthusiasms, frustrations, hot tempers, cold coffee, some of us will fight, some will fall in love but all of us will work… The night that curtain goes up it will go up on a smash hit! And believe me kids, there’s nothing in the world so soothing as a smash hit.” — Jeffrey Cordova

“Gosh, with all this raw talent around, why can’t us kids get together and put on ourselves a show!” — Lester Martin

The Bandwagon is, in many ways, a parody of the standard WB/MGM musical. It certainly has a light-hearted twist on many of the conventions of a musical. Astaire is Tony a “song and dance man”, “a hoofer”, who left Broadway and went to Hollywood, making his fame in a string of musical films, such as “Swinging Down to Panama” (a reference to the classic Astaire / Rogers film Swing Time and Astaire’s first film with Ginger Rogers – Flying Down to Rio). But, that was ages ago, and in the opening scene he sells his top hat, gloves, and dance cane to raise enough money to buy himself a ticket back to New York, where some old friends have promised him a role in a new stage play to be directed by the famous Jeffrey Cordova. Tony hasn’t heard of Cordova, but any job is a job, so he agrees to see him. Tony’s first sight of Cordova is on stage – playing Oedipus Rex, Tony scoffs – “This is the man that’s going to direct a musical?” But his friends, Lily and Lester Martin (Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant) assure him Cordova can do anything.

The next issue Tony has is his co-star — Lily, Lester, and Jeffrey have choosen, Gabrielle – a ballerina (Cyd Charisse). Tony, besides thinking she’s too tall, is intimidated by the cool dancer. Gabby also has her own doubts – not only intimidated by Tony but worried she won’t be able to handle the pressures of a Broadway show.

And what a show – Jeffrey takes Lily and Lester’s light-hearted musical comedy and turns it into a dark, gloomy, musical version of Faust. And yes, it does turn into the disaster you’d expect. In fact, the first half-hour of the film involves the pulling together of the musical, and their first out-of-town show, which is a complete flop. That the show is a flop instead of a rousing success is the exact opposite of many musicals about the pulling together of a Broadway show.  The shocked faces of the audience and backers as they exit the theatre are amusing, but the cast of the show is in trouble.

At the after-show cast “wake” Tony takes the reins, and with the help of Lily and Lester decides to take the show back to it’s roots – testing in each city on the road until they are ready to go back to New York. Even Jeffrey agrees.

What follows is a quick montage of numbers, then the show returns to New York. In New York, we see the play book, heard the numbers we’ve seen on the road, and the finale number is “Girl Hunt” — film noir done as a musical ballet with Fred as the Detective (complete with a deliberately corny monologue) and Cyd Charisse as the sweet blonde victim and the dark-haired Femme Fatale. It’s a pure jazzy ballet — music and dance telling the story, in between Tony’s monologue. It’s a brilliant number and one of my favorites ever, especially in a MGM musical. And again, it’s an example of the very clever nature of the movie to have a musical Film Noir piece as the center-piece conclusion of the film.

What sets The Bandwagon apart from similar MGM musicals is it’s nod-nod-wink-wink cleverness that acknowledges the audience knows exactly what they are poking fun at. “Tony” selling his top hat, gloves, and stick – the uniform of Fred Astaire’s traditional b/w Art Deco films which had gone out of style by the 1950s. The very traditional back stage musical that runs up to a big premiere – only to have that premiere be a complete flop. Lester’s comment, “Gosh, with all this raw talent around, why can’t us kids get together and put on ourselves a show!” even delivered to sound like Mickey Rooney – is a dead-on reference/parody of the WB backyard musicals (think young Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney) that wouldn’t go over the heads of a 1950s audience at all. As I said – clever. The second half, or even last third of the film is more the traditional MGM musical, with as many songs by the same composer jammed in as possible. But, at least it makes sense, plot wise, since each is performed in a different city as the troupe is testing the waters. And “Girl Hunt” is pure brilliance that works on many levels — it’s a brilliant dance, the colors are incredible, the explosions and special effects look like stage effects – as they should, and the whole number itself takes a film-noir story and condenses it into about 10-15 minutes of wordless performance of jazzy music and dance (wordless except Tony’s monologue).

List of Musical Numbers

  • I’ll Go My Way by Myself
  • Shine on your Shoes
  • That’s Entertainment!
  • Dancing in the Dark (music only)
  • More Beer/I Love Louisa
  • New Sun in a New Sky
  • I Lost the One Girl I Found
  • Louisiana Hayride
  • Triplets
  • Girl Hunt
  • Reprise – I’ll Go My Way by Myself
  • Reprise – That’s Entertainment

Other music in the film that’s particularly enjoyable: “Shine on your Shoes” – Fred tears up a old-fashioned street arcade, while a shoe-shine guy dances to the rhythm as well. It’s great fun, and well filmed – though there’s a noticeable edit in the middle of the scene, unusual in any of Fred’s dance numbers. “Dancing in the Dark” – performed without lyrics, is a beautiful ballroom dance piece with Charisse and Fred dancing together. It’s shot full-frame, that is, we can see the dancers from the tips of their toes to the tops of their heads for every beat of the dance – and the entire dance is one shot – no edits to spoil the rhythm of the movement of the dancers. It’s a beautiful, beautiful piece. “Louisiana Hayride” with Nanette Fabray belting out the vocals is pure fun, tho’ it also includes some of the worst grammar ever in the lyrics, yet it’s still energetic and fun. “Triplets” includes some clever costume effects to make Fred, Nanette, and Jack Buchanan all look like infants. And then there’s “Girl Hunt” discussed above. Overall, fun, light, enjoyable, — a film to cheer one up, and leave the theater singing. A joy to watch.

Recommendation: See it!
Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
Next Film: The Barkleys of Broadway