I have been burnt by Vincente Minnelli films three times before. The first time (Meet Me in St. Louis) left me thoroughly bored and frustrated with the exception of Judy Garland’s rendition of ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’. That bit alone saved me from turning off the rest of the movie. Then there was An American In Paris which caused me to fall asleep because, as it turns out, I don’t get Gene Kelly. Finally, I tried out Gigi and I began to despair over the Academy Award for Best Picture.
The Band Wagon is the only Vincente Minnelli film that Ebert included on his list of Great Movies which speaks to how much better it is than that other three that I saw previously. It also stars Fred Astaire, who won me over a year ago when I saw him in Swing Time with Ginger Rogers.
The thing is that, unlike the other Minnelli films I have seen, I could really get my teeth into the story of a faded star (Astaire) taking on a new role in a musical destined for failure due to the pretensions of the director (played by a fantastically over-the-top Jack Buchanan who was, unbelievably, in his sixties). Then again, how a fun musical could be made about Faust is beyond me (but also the point of the film).
In terms of musical numbers the key, as with all things Astaire, is the dancing. I mean, there was never really someone quite like him and his natural timing and it shows most of all in two numbers. Firstly, there is ‘Shine On Your Shoes’ where he is dancing around an arcade with all the machines with an incredible joie de vivre considering it’s a about being happy with shiny shoes. Then there is ‘That’s Entertainment’ which, again, is a lot of fun with great lyrics.
In all this film there is someone whose appearances cause you to gravitate your attention towards them and that’s Nanette Fabray, who plays a supporting role as a playwright of the doomed play. She has an easy chemistry with pretty much everyone she appears with and also has important roles in some of the better musical numbers (‘Louisiana Hayride’ and ‘I Love Louisa’) as well as the most disturbing (‘Triplets’).
The film does run out of a bit of steam towards the end when they reach the ‘Girl Hunt Ballet’ but, on the whole, the film is a joyful romp that has restored some of my recently broken faith in film musicals.