I wish I had a gun, a widdle gun…
As a trio of middle-aged sisters went on about “growing up” with the Rodgers & Hammerstein extravaganzas of the 50’s and early 60’s, musicals became a topic for mindless discussion as “what’s your favorite” went from person to person. I didn’t expect anyone to share in my adoration of Rouben Mamoulian’s splendid Silk Stockings, just as I didn’t expect myself to question some of the wretched titles I was hearing. Admittedly no great fan of Rodgers & Hammerstein, I see most of their film adaptations as mildly entertaining diversions—except South Pacific, a terrible waste of Mitzi Gaynor and otherwise appallingly cast, yet a title regarded by my surrounding cognoscenti as “classic.” When someone mentioned Yankee Doodle Dandy, I refrained from pointing out the obvious, that when Cagney’s not dancing the picture falls to thumpingly bad melodrama, as wretched as Night and Day (both were directed by Michael Curtiz), though the latter picture is habitually slammed while Cagney’s is not. Go figure.
A niece in her twenties let it be known that Moulin Rouge (Baz Luhrmann, not John Huston) is “the greatest musical of all time,” an obvious indication of . . . Well, let’s not go there. Suffice it to say, she doesn’t know of Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly, nor does she believe it’s worth the time to find out.
Too bad for her, because right now she’s missing out on the beauty and splendor of The Band Wagon, in a sharp new DVD release. It was directed by Vincente Minnelli, written by Comden & Green (with Alan Jay Lerner), and choreographed by Michael Kidd. Made some years after Fred Astaire’s heyday, he plays a passé hoofer joining a white elephant Broadway production, a musical comedy mutation of Faust. Subtext abounds—remember, Minnelli molded a frilly celebration out of Gigi, a tale concocted in the pit of depression—but the comedy works and the numbers are often magnificent.
Astaire and Kelly winced when paired with Cyd Charisse, because they knew who the audience would be watching. A mediocre dramatic talent (“Her acting is like the songs in Marx Brothers films,” quipped David Thomson), Charisse may be the finest female dancer in the history of film. (To these eyes, she steals Singin’ in the Rain, even though sixth-billed and onscreen for a few sultry minutes.) She was perfect for Astaire, glorious when photographed from head to toe, graced with innate poise and charm, the antithesis of Ginger Rogers who labored over such things.
Astaire and Charisse create an exotic dreamscape of Central Park in The Band Wagon’s “Dancing in the Dark” number, and manage to overcome the hyperactivity of “The Girl Hunt Ballet,” an homage to Mickey Spillane that tries too hard to be a showstopper. But Astaire is golden in “A Shine on Your Shoes” and “By Myself,” two of his best solo numbers. And then there’s “Triplets,” bizarre and funny with a visual gimmick that still works. I’m sure my niece would find it all very inferior to Moulin Rouge, but, hey, what do I know?