One of my favorite movie musicals is The Band Wagon from 1953, with Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Jack Buchanan, Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant. It is one of those marvelous backstage dramas where the cast must overcome a variety of difficulties to put on their musical.
It shows you how narcissistic Hollywood is that their two greatest musicals are about entertainment: Singing In the Rain is about the transition from silent films to talkies and The Band Wagon is about the travails of putting on a musical play, as well as being a bit of a satire about entertainment folks. I suppose there’s nothing like doing what you know best and musicals are particularly suited to plots about entertainment, anyway.
The songs in the movie are a collection of songs written in the 1920s and ’30s by the songwriting team Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz, who also wrote the songs for the 1931 revue “The Band Wagon” that starred Fred Astaire and his sister, Adele. Some of the songs in the revue were recycled for the movie, though the movie has nothing to do with the original revue.
Fred Astaire did so many excellent movies, it’s hard to pick out a favorite, but this is definitely one of them. It’s a little different – he does less actual tap dancing in this one then he does in his earlier films, especially those done at RKO with Ginger Rogers during the 30s. There is more ballet in The Band Wagon and Astaire said he was uncomfortable with ballet, but he is still nothing short of elegant, a supreme dancer unlike anyone else. There is one beautiful scene, in the middle of the movie, where he and Cyd Charisse dance in the moonlight. The characters are trying to find out if the two of them can work together and dance together (her character was a ballerina and his was a hoofer, which sounds like art imitating life), blending her style with his. The song is called “Dancing in the Dark” and is one of the most lovely, romantic, elegant dances seen in the movies.
“Dancing in the Dark” is an easily accessible dance – there’s nothing to do but watch and enjoy. The last dance in the movie is a little different, because it’s actually a parody as well as a dance and I didn’t get it the first time I saw it. I wasn’t well aware of the source material they were parodying.
The dance is called “Girl Hunt Ballet.” It is around 12 minutes long and is a mini-mystery dance. Fred Astaire plays Rod Reilly, a private detective and he is narrating his story, which is unfolding in the dance, with Cyd Charisse playing both the innocent blonde and the brunette siren.
When I went back, however, and watched movies like The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon and read some hard-boiled detective fiction, suddenly it clicked and I got it. From then on, it’s been my favorite part in the movie. It’s crazy. It makes no sense. It’s hilarious and I love it – a highly stylish parody.
I could now see all the little clichés of the genre that the dance was playing on. For example, the plot. “Girl Hunt Ballet” makes no sense; things happen in the most random way, but that’s no problem because books and movies like The Big Sleep are known for making no sense. It’s about atmosphere, something Girl Hunt Ballet has in abundance. I do not, to this day, understand what is going on. There’s something about a trumpet, an emerald, some random clues like a bone, and various women dancing about, trying to get the emerald.
Cyd Charisse is the femme fatale, slinking around trying to seduce the hero. Actually, she is two femme fatales, managing to cover both variations that are found in detective stories: the innocent who is not really innocent but plays on the hero’s desire to protect her and the siren who merely plays to lower desires. Fred Astaire is the cool, cynical, hard-bitten detective who saunters around, getting into punch fights, following his instincts and looking cool and in control no matter what.
The voice-over that he provides is likewise hilarious. He gets to say stuff like “She came at me in sections. More curves than a scenic highway. She was bad, she was dangerous. I wouldn’t trust her any farther than I could throw her. She was selling hard, but I wasn’t buying.” It’s exactly the kind of stuff they say in those movies – the kind of picturesque dialogue that film noirs are known for; the kind of dialogue that always sounds so good but unlike anything real people say.
I just about expire with laughter during the moment when he is having his romantic dance with the innocent femme fatale Charisse while gunman are fighting each other in the background, their guns going off, and falling down dead while Astaire and Charisse share a kiss.
Apparently it was meant to be a spoof of Mickey Spillane, a popular and slightly pulpy detective writer. There seems to be some confusion about who actually wrote the story for the ballet. Vincente Minnelli, the director, took credit, but so also did Alan Jay Lerner (of eventual My Fair Lady fame), without credit, as a favor. Even Betty Comden and Adolph Green, the screenwriters for the whole movie, are given some credit.
Whoever it was, it’s absolutely brilliant. Not only is it a great dance, but it is very funny. I’ve known some people who didn’t care for it because it seemed just a little odd, but it has to be approached with tongue definitely in cheek.
I cannot show “Girl Hunt Ballet” on this site, but click here to see the entire dance on youtube. Below is the trailer for the entire movie.