Band Wagon, The: Making of Minnelli’s Musical Masterpiece Starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse

Revisiting the Making of Minnelli’s 1953 Musical

the_band_wagon_posterAs the shooting of The Bad and the Beautiful was coming to an end, Minnelli was already preparing Freed’s first film since Singin’ in the Rain. The new work was to be a backstage musical with songs by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz. Freed liked to create musicals around anthologies of composers’ works, and the Dietz- Schwartz catalog held particular appeal. A man of many talents, along with being a famous lyricist, Dietz was also M-G-M’s vice president of publicity. However, Dietz and Schwartz had never written a successful book musical—their specialty was the revue, a format that had lost its appeal in Hollywood.



One of their songs from At Home Abroad, the first Broadway show that Minnelli staged, had originally been written for The Band Wagon, but it didn’t make the final cut. Dietz and Schwartz set the era’s standard for escapism, their shows serving as showcases for such stars as Clifton Webb, Libby Holman, and Fred and Adele Astaire, who had made their fi nal joint appearance in The Band Wagon, in 1931. In 1949, Twentieth Century-Fox had produced Dancing in the Dark, a fi lm that used some of the Band Wagon score, with the nonsinging stars William Powell and Betsy Drake.

Just as the Gershwins’ jazzy exuberance suggested Gene Kelly in An American in Paris, the moody sophistication of the Dietz- Schwartz score called for Fred Astaire, for whom the project was planned as star vehicle.

As much as Minnelli liked Kelly, he secretly favored Astaire, not only for his bravura skills and natural elegance, but also for his Europe an demeanor and expressive philosophy. Astaire’s ability to escape mundane reality into the perfect fantasy world of dance, stood in contrast to Kelly, who, energetic as he was, tries to accommodate and adjust to this world by making it slightly more magical through dance.

the_band_wagon_5Minnelli’s big challenge was to find a semblance of a plot, even a slender one, which could effectively contain the gloriously melodic score and accommodate the star. Writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green concocted a backstage yarn about—what else?—the making of a Broadway musical. The premise was formulaic, even banal, but the witty dialogue and inside jokes lifted the text several notches above the routine.

Like Minnelli’s Hollywood movie à clef, The Bad and the Beautiful, The Band Wagon was sparked by its allusions to actual showbiz personalities. The protagonist, Tony Hunter, was a heightened portrait of Fred Astaire, whose own career was in decline in the 1950s. Astaire played an aloof, middle- aged hoofer out of sync with the times.

In Minnelli’s opinion, Astaire was to the American fi lm musical what Chaplin was to silent comedy. Like Chaplin, Astaire used a trademark, the top hat and cane that identifi ed him immediately and effectively.

As a tribute, in the film’s opening image, Minnelli uses a close-up of a top hat and cane. There was no doubt in Minnelli’s mind that Astaire should fl aunt his trademark in the film’s very first scene.

Jose Ferrer as Negative Inspiration?

The inspiration for the character of Jeffrey Cordova was partly Orson Welles, partly playwright George S. Kaufman, and especially the pretentious actor José Ferrer, who had directed and starred on Broadway in The Shrike and had won (some think undeservedly) the Best Actor Oscar for Cyrano de Bergerac.

The real- life model for Hunter’s costar Gabrielle Gerard was the French ballerina Zizi Jeanmaire, who made her American screen debut in the Danny Kaye vehicle Hans Christian Andersen.

Under pressure from Minnelli, Freed agreed to discard his working title for the musical. Instead, Freed chose The Band Wagon, which summoned up the memory of Astaire’s 1931 stage triumph of the same name, and deepened the movie’s resonance as a valentine to the legendary dancer. Minnelli consciously set out to direct a backstage musical that would capture the bygone magic of Shubert Alley.

The Younger Cast

A young, novel cast was selected by Minnelli for the musical. The only familiar face was Oscar Levant, whose malingering off-screen personality meshed with the role of the comic- neurotic Lester Martin. As Levant’s partner, Minnelli cast vivacious Broadway leading lady Nanette Fabray.

Cyd Charisse

the_band_wagon_3Charisee is considered to be Astaire’s most sensuous and technically expert partner, and indeed, The Band Wagon is almost inconceivable without Charisse. However, obtaining the okay to cast Charisse was not easy for Minnelli. For years, she had only decorated M-G-M musicals, and had never been entrusted with a starring role. While The Band Wagon exposed her lack of acting abilities, it also showed what a great dance personality she was. Minnelli later insisted on casting Cyd Charisse as Kirk Douglas’s seductress flame in Two Weeks in Another Town. This time, however, Minnelli fell flat on his face as the reviews panned the per for mance of Charisse who really was no match for an actor of Douglas’s caliber.

For Jeffrey Cordova, the musical’s most colorful part, Minnelli’s fi rst choice was Clifton Webb, a comedian who began his career as a dancer. Webb declined the role because of its small size, but he recommended the British actor Jack Buchanan, who was then virtually unknown to American viewers. Buchanan’s wit, energy, and stature made him an ideal foil for Astaire.

The film’s backstage setting was flexible enough to contain a wide range of Dietz- Schwartz songs. When production began, in September 1952, there were about twenty songs, out of which a dozen made it into the final cut. Freed asked the team to write a new number, a rousing anthem à la Irving Berlin’s “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”

That’s Entertainment

the_band_wagon_4The duo came up with the boisterously melodic “That’s Entertainment,” a song that epitomized the spirit of the M-G- M musical and was used as the title of a series of nostalgic musical- anthology fi lms that included footage from many Minnelli movies.

Due to their overlapping duties as art directors, Oliver Smith and studio veteran Preston Ames clashed severely on the set. On more than one occasion, Minnelli had to mediate between the bickering artists in front of the cast and crew.

The studio felt that cinematographer George Folsey succumbed too readily to Minnelli’s time- consuming attention to detail, and decided to replace him with Harry Jackson halfway through the shoot to speed up the production.

To grant greater authenticity, Minnelli imported two Broadway artists with no prior movie experience: choreographer Michael Kidd (of Guys and Dolls fame) and designer Oliver Smith (On the Town). Kidd, who favored working with Stanley Donen over Minnelli, later recalled: “Stanley Donen had the imagination to understand what I was talking about. Many directors wouldn’t have had the slightest idea, because they’re not trained dancers. There’d be no point in telling them anything. From my point of view, I’d rather work with Stanley than Vincente.”

the_band_wagon_2According to Kidd: “Vincente was a difficult person to communicate with. He was not very articulate, he would leave sentences unfi nished. He had a great love of the visual aspects of moviemaking. He was originally a set designer, and people used to complain all the time, ‘He shoots the scenery.’ ”

Unfortunately for Kidd, “Vincente was not one to engage in collaborative work.” While choreographing The Band Wagon, said Kidd, “If I came up to Vincente with an idea, he would say, ‘Just a minute, just a minute, just a minute. Let me think about it.’ He wouldn’t engage in conversation about it. I don’t mean to detract from Vincente’s creativity in any way. Vincente was very artistic. But when it came to a dance number, his thinking and mine were not always the same.”

In contrast, Kidd appreciated Donen’s process of give-and-take. “Vincente would not welcome disagreement or reveal what was on his mind, whereas Stanley would always say what he was thinking, and was very clear and methodical. Vincente may have had an idea of what he wanted, he kept art books and cutouts from magazines as examples of what visuals he had in mind, but when it came to talking, Vincente kept pretty much to himself.”

Other problems involved Buchanan, who was ill much of the time, and Levant, who exasperated Minnelli with his constant complaining, on screen and off. In retaliation, Minnelli would cast Levant as a psychotic in his 1955 mental- asylum melodrama, The Cobweb.

the_band_wagon_1Quite uncharacteristically, Astaire proved to be problematic too. Astaire was known for his pessimistic outlook on life. As a youngster, Astaire had been dubbed by his sister Adele “Moaning Minnie.” A perpetual worrier, Astaire was concerned about Kidd’s unconventional choreography as well as about Cyd Charisse’s height, which was inserted into the script as an inside joke. Even more disturbing to Astaire were the obvious parallels between himself and the fi ctitious Tony Hunter. How could he not be, in a movie about a performer’s advancing age, dour temperament, and fear of growing stale and overextending his welcome?

Things got worse, when Minnelli became too absorbed in his work to pay sufficient attention to his leading man. One day, just like in the story, in a rare burst of temper, Astaire stormed off the set, while Minnelli was rehearsing “I Love Louisa,” though he scarcely noticed that Astaire was absent. Hours later, Astaire returned and apologized profusely for his unusual conduct, to which Minnelli just said, “Oh, that’s perfectly all right, Fred, I am used to it. I drive everybody crazy.”

The Band Wagon was made back- to- back with Singin’ in the Rain, co- directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, the rising director who presented a threat to Minnelli’s dominance as Freed’s most brilliant director of musicals. As the crowned genius of the Freed Unit, Minnelli was generally handed the high- profi le projects—with bud gets to match.

band wagon

band wagon

Stanley Donen, on the other hand, was relegated to the category of the brash young kid. Producer Joseph Pasternak held Donen in higher esteem than Arthur Freed did. Interestingly, except for Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), Donen didn’t like Minnelli’s musicals, because of their “sloppy” stories. Which, ironically, was Minnelli’s complaint about other directors’ works! Vocal about his opinions, Donen claimed that most of Minnelli’s musicals had no sting or energy. He much preferred the Disney animated musicals. In Donen’s films, the characters are more realistic and recognizable, life’s livers and enjoyers rather than beholders and survivors, which allows for action, movement, and energy. Unlike Minnelli’s characters, Donen’s don’t have to retreat into memory, dream, or hallucination to stabilize or enhance their dreary reality. In fact, there are few Donen musicals that contain daydreams or visions.

Given the emphasis Metro placed on musical numbers, Donen’s advisory role was considered pivotal to the studio’s operations, whether the problem with a film required shooting a quick take on the spur of the moment or conceiving an elaborate production number. Donen’s anonymous assists continued even after he began getting director’s credit on his own pictures. A scene of Donen’s might show up in a movie credited with direction by Minnelli, George Sidney, or Charles Walters. This was Donen’s reason for refuting the auteur theory, claiming “You can never be too sure when you read a movie’s credits who really should get credit for what.”

As manifest in the contrast between Singin’ in the Rain and The Band Wagon, there were major differences in visual strategy between Minnelli and Donen. Some critics prefer Donen’s bold, no- nonsense, more “realistic”style to Minnelli’s impressionist visual mode. For camera technique, Donen proved his agility with horizontal tracking and crane shots, as opposed to Minnelli’s tendency to track forward or back. Donen’s camera tries to always keep up and promote the story and its per for mances, whereas Minnelli doesn’t mind pausing and arresting the story flow if a spectacular sequence or grand performer is involved.

After the first preview of The Band Wagon, Minnelli was elated. He immediately sent a handwritten note to Oliver Smith, who was out of town: “The preview last night was the most exciting I’ve ever been connected with. Your work has dazzled everyone. Couldn’t have been produced without you. Come back immediately.” This was followed by a tele gram to choreographer Michael Kidd: “You were the hit of the eve ning last night. I couldn’t be prouder of you. Congrats. Vincente.”

As expected, The Band Wagon opened on July 10, 1953, at Radio City Music Hall to rave reviews. Bosley Crowther wrote in The New York Times: “That wonderful talent for satire which Betty Comden and Adolph Green possess, and which was gleefully turned upon the movies in their script for last year’s Singin’ in the Rain, is even more gleefully let loose upon the present- day musical stage in their book for The Band Wagon.” Praising all the talents involved, in front and behind the camera, he went on to enthuse: “This literate and witty combination herein delivers a show that respectfully bids for recognition as one of the best musical films ever made.”

Two days later, Minnelli received a tele gram from M-G-M’s offices in New York that read: “The Band Wagon did $23,332 on opening day, the best business of any M-G- M picture except for Ivanhoe, which grossed $24,000. However, it bested Showboat ($22,001), The Great Caruso ($20,400), and King Solomon’s Mines ($17,000).” A telegram in the same spirit was sent from Howard Dietz: “Dear Vincente. Clean sweep of notices and smash business at Music Hall. Everybody acclaiming your ‘Girl Hunt’ ballet. Love and kisses, Howard.”

Three weeks later, Howard Strickling reported enthusiastically from New York: “Music Hall wound up gross of third week was $156,742, for a 21- day cumulative total of $483,245.” By comparison, the other hit musical, Singin’ in the Rain, grossed $178,405 and $462,172, respectively. Figures were also provided for An American in Paris ($148,937–$471,050), Show Boat ($157,774–$486,962), and Ivanhoe ($170,516–$520,773).

In the end, the triumphant result and overall impact of The Band Wagon justified the long, arduous, and expensive production. Most historians consider the film to be one of Minnelli’s two or three masterpieces. It is my second-favorite musical of his, after Meet Me in St. Louis.