#249. The Band Wagon (1953)

It’s been a while since Fred Astaire popped up on the List and so, being my typical myopic self who jumps to conclusions, I just assumed that he’d fallen outta favor with the studios or something. That he’d aged out of his prime and wasn’t getting roles anymore. But he was 54 at the time of The Band Wagon and he seems to be as athletic and graceful as ever. Seeing him look so much older than when I last saw him on the List, with the one-two punch of Swing Time and Top Hat back in the 1930s (neither of which, in memory, can I parse from the other), was a bit jarring  (similar to, but more pleasant than, seeing the decrepit Gary Cooper turn up again in High Noon) but also refreshing.

Probably the movie’s most famous image. An unsettling little number with three adults performing as triplets.

Mike Stoklasa, Jay Bauman, and Rich Evans – the main personalities in the production company Red Letter Media – have made a catchy joke on their YouTube channel about how Star Wars fans are kinda programmed to clap during screenings and to go nuts simply because something is familiar. They see the Millennium Falcon, for instance, and start applauding wildly and screaming, “I know that! I remember that!” They’re not really celebrating the film, it’s just nostalgia.

And that’s how I kinda felt when I flipped on the movie – about which I knew nothing – and saw an older, still-lithe, slightly jaded-looking Fred Astaire in the opening. I’m at this point with the List where, having written all of the titles in a separate document, I don’t really crack the book that often to have an idea of what I’m getting into before I turn the movie on. I had no idea this was a musical. And since it’s been over a year since I’ve seen him on the List, it was a blast from the past. I felt weirdly tender about him already. Remembered watching his Ginger Rogers musicals late at night, with my ankles swollen and a burrito in my lap, fresh from a twelve-hour shift at Cheesecake Factory.

Interesting to see where Michael Jackson got the idea.

Astair, like his character, looks a bit world-wearied. He carries himself well, he’s graceful and fun and moves like a younger man, but there’s something on his face that looks like an understanding of how a person’s career rises and falls. Roger Ebert mentions in his review of Band Wagon that there’s something inherently sad about stories of the stage. That immediately after the run of this production for which every performer has worked themselves to a bloody pulp, everybody goes their separate ways, and lots of them peak at a young age and spend the rest of their lives picking up small roles if, indeed, they can get any roles at all.

            The last musicals I saw on the List were vehicles for Gene Kelly: On the Town, An American in Paris, and Singin in the Rain. In reading up on Kelly I saw that people often compared him to Fred Astaire, named Kelly the rightful successor when in fact they seemed more like…contemporaries, alternatives (Gene Kelly masculine and playful while Astaire was flamboyant and dapper), and so I was wondering, here, if Astaire had maybe participated in this massive production as a kind of response to Gene Kelly’s recent and hugely successful works. Like he was trying to flaunt that he still had it in him, was yet to be replaced by the younger generation.

Gene Kelly being the only thing he knows how to be: extra.

            I haven’t read anything to corroborate that interpretation, but that’s not to say it wasn’t on Astaire’s mind. And, thinking about one performer in relation to the other, I definitely enjoy Fred Astaire’s work more than Gene Kelly’s. One of the most famous songs in Band Wagon, which is about a group of older stage masters putting on a massive production of like a modern Faust, is called “That’s Entertainment” and it features all these seasoned pros talking about how every kind of story, high- and lowbrow, is a form of entertainment.

It might be a fight like you see on the screen

A swain getting slain for the lot of a queen

Some great Shakespearean scene

Where a ghost and a prince meet

And everyone ends in mincemeats

The gag may be waving the flag

That began with a mystical hand

Hip hooray, the American way

The world is a stage,

The stage is a world of entertainment!

            I love the philosophy behind that.

            I see what Ebert’s saying about the inherent sadness to these movies, if you’ve got some perspective about where the characters are going afterward (I’ve been thinking since Ninotchka that romantic comedies are sad when they stop just shy of the nuptials because, kinda like the final shot of Rocky, it’s the highpoint of their joy; everything is downhill from this frame) but this movie really lifted me up. I mentioned in the last essay, about Pickup on South Street, that this was the concluding title in a triple-feature I watched with my little cousin Devon. Started with Bergman, went on to Sam Fuller with noir-ish intrigue, and concluded in something light and dapper. I’m a little bristly, to be honest, about the two-hour runtime; kinda like comedies, I have this blanket impression that musicals should only be about 90 minutes (if that) and that exceptison to the rule really oughta be exceptional.

            But the runtime also leads me to think that Band Wagon is a response to the uninhibited artsy sprawl of An American in Paris and Singin in the Rain. I’m sure there’ve been manifestations earlier in the List of major film artists rivaling one another, matching each other’s achievements year by year. This is the first one that’s really standing out to me, though, and it might be an imaginary rivalry (maybe it’s just that Kelly inspired Astaire to try this out) but, either way, I like thinking about it.


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