The Band Wagon (1953)

2010 #91
Vincente Minnelli | 108 mins | TV (HD) | U

The Band WagonIn this behind-the-scenes musical, Fred Astaire plays Tony Hunter, a slightly washed-up star of stage and screen. One can’t help but wonder if his performance has an autobiographical edge. It’s of no concern to the viewer though, because he’s as wonderful as ever.

The plot sees respected musical writers the Martons (Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant) penning a new production for Hunter to star in. They hire famed Theatre director Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan), who slowly turns the production into a rather serious version of Faust, starring ballet star Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse). She doesn’t get on with Hunter (thanks, of course, to a series of silly misunderstandings), while his role is slowly squeezed away. No one is happy. On the bright side, hilarity ensues. Everything turns out OK in the end, naturally, but along the way we get plenty of comedy and plenty of song & dance.

There are several great numbers: Astaire dancing his way around an amusement arcade; That’s Entertainment, written for the film and easily demonstrating why it quickly became a standard; a bizarre number with Astaire, Fabray and Buchanan dressed up as babies, dancing around on their knees (memorable, if nothing else); and a big closing dance routine… that I actually liked! It’s a hard-boiled crime thriller told through the medium of dance (obviously; plus voiceover). It’s different to the norm — the voiceover adds a discernible story, and rather than showcase ballet it reinterprets noir-ish tropes — and it works marvellously.

Minnelli shoots the dances in wide shots with long takes, using few if any cuts mid-sequence, which is of course the perfect way to watch Astaire in action. Every frame shows everything he’s doing, which is frequently essential, and there are no cuts to spoil his natural rhythm or shatter the illusion of a seamless routine.

I always feel like a four-star review should justify why there’s no fifth star — there must be something at fault, otherwise why not full marks? Perhaps this is a simplistic philosophy though, because I’ve not got a bad word to say about The Band Wagon, but it’s still:

4 out of 5

Brigadoon (1954)

2010 #93
Vincente Minnelli | 104 mins | TV (HD) | U / G

“Oh dear,” is surely the initial reaction to Brigadoon. The Scottish accents are appalling, the costumes and setting gratingly twee, the Highlands recreated entirely on a soundstage. I wonder if many Americans visited Scotland in the wake of this film expecting to find such things? If they did, I imagine they were sorely disappointed.

But, importantly — and thankfully — it does grow on you as it goes on. The ill-conceived cast, costumes and studio-bound setting begin to pale under the charm of Gene Kelly and the machinations of the plot. Even the Scottish accents, though consistently dreadful, eventually become less irritating. The casting of Kelly and Cyd Charisse resulted in several musical numbers being dropped and a greater emphasis placed on dance. As I think has become apparent in some previous reviews, I’m not the biggest dance fan, but luckily Brigadoon contains no extended sequence to rival those I dislike in An American in Paris or Oklahoma!. Instead, the routines remain at the kind of length where I can still afford them some appreciation, and they are worthy of that.

The reveal that Brigadoon is a village stuck in time, only emerging from the fog for a single day every hundred years, is saved for the halfway point. It’s one of those occasions where, as a modern viewer, you know the twist and almost wonder why it takes so long to be revealed; equally, it doesn’t hamper proceedings in any meaningful way. In fact, the shock when (spoiler!) the film suddenly cuts to a busy, noisy New York for the final ten minutes is a bigger one. There’s a neat conclusion though, working its way around the film’s self-established rules without destroying them.

If you go doon to the woods today...I think it’s fair to say this isn’t the greatest of musicals (though I know some might disagree). The poor realisation of Scotland takes some getting used to — and remains either irritating or amusing, depending on your mileage for such things — and generally there’s a dearth of particularly memorable songs or dances. But it’s not bad either, once things get underway.

My ultimate verdict is stuck somewhere between a 3 and a 4. I’ve erred on the generous side, again, because I liked it more than An American in Paris (which I also gave a 4) and I’m soft. I really need to stop giving every film I sort-of-quite-like a 4 though — a better scale/spread of ratings is needed on here, I feel.

4 out of 5