The Band Wagon (1953)
Passed. It's a very light musical that has a weird bit of racist stereotyping in it for one scene. But the movie would probably be rated G if the MPAA decided to come back to it. I mean, it has a really terrible sense of morality to it. I'm going to be talking ad nauseum about that. But there's really not too much to fight against. Oh, there's a song about drinking beer. Regardless, it's pretty innocent.
DIRECTOR: Vincente Minnelli
I almost didn't write about this movie because I couldn't find a photo in the correct aspect ratio with the black bars on the side. That's right. I'm very petty. I don't know if you knew this, but you probably suspected. It's just so nice to have the image the way it is supposed to be. But I suppose this blog isn't supposed to be about the availability of properly formatted images. Who knows? Maybe I'll find one down the line and have to delete this whole paragraph.
I'm 90% sure I've seen this movie before. It was in my 501 Must-See Movies Before You Die book so I could just check to see if it is highlighted. I don't really understand the appeal of The Band Wagon. It's on a whole bunch of really impressive lists and I just don't get it. I mean, I get Fred Astaire. Fred Astaire is kind of amazing always. If the reason that this movie gets any attention is because of Fred Astaire and that the movie is in color, I can kind of see it. But I know that the world normally isn't as petty as I am. So what about this movie garners so much attention? I'll tell you, it can't be because of the plot.
The Band Wagon takes Astaire's favorite character type, the performer, and has him take on a subject that I find absolutely abhorrent. At the end of the day, and I want to spell this out as clearly as I can, this movie is about high art versus low art. I'm a guy who is an advocate for both. I love me some fancy pants movies. But I also like watching completely entertaining trash. These different styles of tone allow for a level of complexity and personality that views art for what it is. But The Band Wagon says that all snobby movies are a waste of time and the only way to tell a compelling story is to be a song-and-dance act. I kind of understand that this is something that seems to be prevalent in the musicals of this era.
Give me some credit. I really am trying to contextualize this for this era. I know that cinema, especially in the United States, was almost exclusively commercial. (This can easily be debated considering that Citizen Kane exists.) But The Band Wagon almost seems to be a vapid war on the artistry of film. My theatre major is coming through, but we were always told that art was supposed to say something. I mean, I write this blog, for goodness sake. The reason that I write is that I want to peel away the layers of artifice to find a deeper meaning behind everything. I want to find that universal truth that exposes who we are as a people. But The Band Wagon almost spits in the face of that, in the nicest way possible. When Jerry Cordova finds a Faustian allegory within The Band Wagon (Why it is called that is beyond me), it is something that could be explored. But Jerry Cordova, despite the movie's insistence that he's one of Broadway's brightest and most brilliant stars, seems clueless to what makes high art actually work. Instead of placing Faust in the subtext, he has literal explosions all over stage.
So when Tony has this huge emotional vomit all over the stage, he's supposed to come across as the hero of the story. But in all reality, that behavior is completely toxic to what is going on with the rest of the cast. Why is it okay to stay in one's comfort zone as the primary moral of the story? Tony had a washed up career because he refused to change. He kept doing the thing that made him famous. I will watch a Fred Astaire film any day. His movies are charming and make me feel good about the world. But I also like to see someone try something new and step outside the bubble. For me, right now, typing this out, I have a hard time differentiating Fred Astaire and Tony Hunter. But Fred Astaire has kind of built that attitude into me. He keeps playing these parts of the aging dance man. There's only so many times I can be told that this is a character before I believe that it actually reflects Fred Astaire.
So, to fix the story, they put their faith into Tony Hunter who turns it around on a dime. This is where my plausible deniability completely skips town. It is with these moments that I really question why this musical is so highly regarded. Don't get me wrong. The songs presented, especially the baby one, are great. But they also have no place in this movie. The story that the two playwrights present are this tale of a writer of crime novels who gets lost in his own imagination. Okay, cool. That last song really reflects this. But those other songs, in no way, match the plot of the story. How do we get from sunrise, to baby, to Louisiana, to crime dream ballet? I know. It's a musical. It's a big flashy musical. But this is what always put me off to musicals before. It's the laziness in these moments. I'm not saying that we shouldn't have fun with that sequence involving fixing the play. After all, Singin' in the Rain does it as well. But not even pretending that the story has to matter is just frustrating to me.
And that's what The Band Wagon is to me. It's a frustrating mess. It's a perfectly well performed movie that looks absolutely stunning on Blu-ray. But the movie itself isn't that good. It fundamentally tries attacking a core belief of mine, that theater can be silly and inspiring. It takes a lot of shortcuts when it shouldn't. Even its argument is pretty weak. It tells me that great art isn't worth anyone's time, but doesn't explain why vaudeville is a better substitute. I don't get the love for this movie.
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Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.