The Band Wagon (1953) with Fred & Cyd

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Some may recall the opening titles of Top Hat (1935). They play over a man’s hat only for the head under it to move as the names subside, and we find Fred Astaire under its brim in his coat and tails. Now, well nigh 20 years later, the same imagery is being called upon.

There’s an auction going on, including the sale of, of all things, a top hat evoking the same Astaire and Rogers musicals of old. It’s not in much demand as the man who formerly wore it, to much acclaim, is now a has-been. In fact, the biographical aspects of the picture are striking even when we can’t quite discern the fiction from the half-truths. Maybe that’s the key.

Already Fred Astaire himself had announced retirement several times, though one could hardly concede his career had stalled. In another bit of fitting parallelism, Adolph Green and Betty Comden penned a husband and wife duo for the storyline much like them (sans marriage). The head maestro character had some inspiration in Jose Ferrer who at the time had at least three shows on Broadway and was starring in a fourth.

The dashes of authenticity are all but undeniable as is a minor cameo by fawned-over heartthrob Ava Gardner. Consequently, I always thought the actress shared some minor resemblance to Cyd Charisse who was promoted to leading lady in this movie.

Out of these details blooms a picture that’s a fascinating exercise in touched-up reality because we see the ins and outs of a production with a behind-the-scenes narrative akin to Singin in the Rain. It makes us feel like we’re a part of something on an intimate level.

The early “Shoeshine” number with Astaire checking out a penny arcade, shows the inherent allure of a Minnelli-Astaire partnership. Because it was Astaire who made film dancing what it is, intent on capturing as much of the action in full-bodied, undisrupted takes. The focus was on the dancers, and there was an examination of their skill announcing unequivocally that there was nothing phony about them.

But as technology began to change and more complex camera setups became possible, this newfound capability was seen as an aid to the art rather than a detraction. Gene Kelly was of this thought as well. With the combination of sashaying forms and a dynamic camera, there was a greater capacity to capture the true energy that came out of dance. One could argue reality was lost, but some other emotional life force was gained.

And we see that here with Astaire grooving around past fortune-tellers and shooting galleries with the world tapping along with him. He and the real-life singing shoeshiner, Leroy Daniels, build an indisputable cadence through a momentary collaboration. It proves infectious.  Minnelli who himself had a background in set design seems most fully in his element surrounded by extras, colors, and any amount of toys to move around and orchestrate.

When Jefferey Cordoba (Jack Buchanan) finally signs on to direct and joins this dream team, he brings an endearing brand of histrionics with him. At his most quotable, he says, “In my mind, there is no difference between the magic rhythms of Bill Shakespeare’s immortal verse and the magic rhythms of Bill Robinson’s immortal feet.”

“That’s Entertainment!” captures his pure enthusiasm for the industry, giving anyone free rein to tell a story, where the world and the stage overlap and as the Bard said, all the various individuals are merely players.

However, this show previously envisioned as a happy-go-lucky musical hit parade soon takes on a life of its own, morphing into a retelling of Faust. We see Tony Hunter stretching himself as an actor, something Astaire himself was probably uncomfortable with. Likewise, he’s equally nervous about starring with Gabrielle Gerard who is a rapidly rising talent, thanks to the controlling nature of her choreographer boyfriend (James Mitchell).

Aside from her skill, her height is also something that the veteran dancer is self-conscience about. He smokes incessantly. She never does. So they each bring their insecurities and nerves to the production, erupting in a series of miscommunications during their first encounter. Still, the show charges onward regardless.

Even as the production proves to be a trainwreck and opening night approaches, it is the joint realization that they’re both out of sorts helping Tony and Gaby right their relationship. They take a ride through the park and wind up in arguably their most integral dance together.

Because it says, with two bodies in motion, what every other picture that’s not a musical must do through romantic dialogue or meaningful action. And it’s like the Astaire and Rogers films of old. Similarly, dance is not simply a diversion — something pretty to look at —  but it becomes the building blocks for our characters’ chemistry.

I find their forms marvelous together, both equally long and graceful side-by-side and in each other’s arms. The movements are so measured, effortless, and attuned, leading them right back into their carriage from whence they came.

Cordoba gets progressively carried away with his vision in what feels like tinges of The Red Shoes. Pyrotechnics and an excessive amount of props mask the core assets of the show, which are the performers themselves. What was purported to be a surefire success, just as easily becomes a monumental flop as the social elites walk out of the preview like zombies leaving a wake. Even if the image is laughable, it also acts as a reminder that all great forms of entertainment start with human beings.

“I Love Louisa” is a kind of musical reprieve as the whole gang, from the stars to the bit performers, try to shake the shell shock. The fun is put back into the players, their art, and this whole movie as Tony resolves to take their production in a new direction — as a musical revue.

I couldn’t help watching Cyd Charisse, for some reason, during the song. No, she’s not the focal point, but there she is prancing about and having a merry old time with all the extras in the background. They’re all a community of people enjoying their failure together. Bonding over it. It’s bigger than one individual. It’s easy to acknowledge The Band Wagon might be thoroughly enjoyable for these periphery elements alone.

There are a couple, dare I say, throwaway placeholders to follow. Certainly, not the best of musical team Schwartz and Dietz. But “Girl Hunt — A Murder Mystery in Jazz,” is a labyrinthian sequence capturing the essence of the dark genre through voiceover and stylized visuals being interpreted through muscular dance. There are dual roles for Charisse as the deadly female. The action culminating in a seedy, smoke-filled cafe complete with a final showdown with a femme fatale in drop-dead red.

In this redressed form, they’re a stirring success. We are reminded sentimentally that the cast has become a family and Tony is their unlikely head. There’s one rousing reprise of “That’s Entertainment!” and Fred and Cyd (not Ginger, sorry folks) share a kiss.

The Band Wagon is a testament that Astaire was far from washed up and Charisse proves herself ably by his side as one of his best co-stars.  What imprints itself, when the curtains have fallen on this backstage musical, is just how congenial it is. There are few better offerings from MGM, capable of both exuberance and something even more difficult to find these days: bona fide poise. Singin in the Rain is beloved by many and yet The Band Wagon is deserving of much the same repute, whether it’s won it already or not.

Just watch Astaire and Charisse together. Her beauty is surpassed only by her presence as a dancer. He might be 20 years older and yet never seems to break a sweat, pulling off each routine with astounding ease. Look at his elasticity in the shoeshine chair as living proof. And when they strut, extending their legs with concerted purpose, it’s immaculate. We call them routines but they are not, imbued instead with a gliding elegance that looks almost foreign to us today. There’s nothing else to be said. It’s pure class personified and they make it deeply enchanting.

4.5/5 Stars

On The Beach (1959): Peck, Gardner, Astaire, Perkins, and Apocalypse

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I recall my dad sharing a recollection about On The Beach. Back when it came out he went to the drive-in with his family, and they took in the movie. He fell asleep part of the way through only to wake up and the movie was still going. While not necessarily a profound observation, the film is unequivocally long. For some, it will verge on the doldrums, especially for a story about the end of the world.

However, I am tempted to like it for some of the creative decisions it chooses (and in my father’s defense, he never said he outright disliked the movie). It acts as one of the first prominent films detailing the aftermath of a nuclear war. Also, unlike many of its contemporaries, it leads with a cold open closeup on Gregory Peck’s face as he commands a submarine. The camera is quick to maneuver through the space showing us all the levers and nobs with shipmen scurrying around carrying out their various duties.

It’s already a different feel than something like Run Silent, Run Deep (1958). We can actually breathe because there is no suffocating atmosphere to speak of. That’s what makes the emptiness of the space on the outside so startling. It’s almost too open; it’s all but void of meaningful life except for small envoys existing far enough away from the disaster zones.

Conceptually, the apocalyptic near-future is an intriguing world to come to terms with, just as it is frightening. Because it’s a hybrid society still existing in the world and only time will tell if it can subsist.

We familiarize ourselves with a segment of humanity now living in Australia, and America seems to be decimated. Everyone refers continually to “These Days” — it implies the allowances made in such extreme circumstances. People cannot go on living the way they always did, and things formerly unheard can happen without so much as a bat of an eye.

Shortage leads to a random assemblage of old and new technology to get by. For transportation, electric trains and horse-drawn carriages have a function. And yet for amusement, folks still have beach days soaking in the sun as if nothing is awry. It seems like small consolation for the 5-month expiration date being put on the world.

At first glance, On The Beach doesn’t seem to be about much. It’s really about one major event scattered with the residuals of human relationships. One of our main players is Commander Dwight Towers (Gregory Peck), a widower who lost his family to the catastrophe while he was on duty. Currently, he has come to Melbourne to receive a briefing from Admiral Bridie (John Tate) on what they might possibly do next.

Struggling with survivor’s guilt, Towers strikes up an intimate relationship with one Moira Davidson (Ava Gardner). A radio signal originating in San Diego calls him back to the sea, and he heads out, unsure if he will ever see her again — yet another person he must reluctantly say au revoir to.

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Anthony Perkins fits into the story as a younger version of Towers, Lieutenant Peter Holmes. He still clings onto his young family while worrying about what might happen to their slice of marital bliss. Because she is less-remembered, I am apt to especially be interested in Donna Anderson who gives a sincere performance as his wife (though it starts to unravel as the clock ticks). Mary cannot bear the implications of their society, as they have a newborn and with her husband away, there will be no telling what will happen to them. It unhinges her.

The most ominous shot during the voyage is an eerily empty Golden Gate Bridge, indicative of the entire West Coast. It’s literally dead. When they finally arrive in San Diego, it proves to be a near ludicrous dead-end involving a window shade and a coke bottle. Even Yankee know-how wasn’t able to avoid utter destruction.

It occurs to me On The Beach is not trying to exploit the situation, but it is using the backdrop to say something as Stanley Kramer always tried to do with his pictures. While he’s not the most virtuoso of filmmakers, his intentions are always upfront, which is admirable.

The director always aligned himself with fine acting talent even affording a trio of former musical stars shots at dramatic parts to reshape their prospective images. That in itself takes unwavering vision. In this one, Fred Astaire gets his chance as the hard-drinking, chain-smoking, acerbic scientist Julian Osborn. You’ve rarely seen him this way before. Whether it entirely suits him is relatively beside the point. Gene Kelly and Judy Garland would follow in a pair of uncharacteristic departures in Inherit the Wind (1960) and Judgment at Nuremberg (1961).

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Whereas the source novel apparently laid out who was to blame, the film develops a level of senselessness because no one — even those holding the highest clearance levels — seems to know how the tripwire was set off. They can only speak to their current reality. It makes an already disturbing situation a little more unsettling since there is a sense of universal ambiguity.

The questions linger. Might it have been an accidental mistake leading to the annihilation of our entire world, people all but expunged from the surface of the earth? It’s a chilling thing to begin admitting. Julian (Fred Astaire) is forced to acknowledge he doesn’t know.

It could have been some bloke who thought he saw something on a radar screen knowing if he hesitated his people would be obliterated. If this were the case, he would have only succeeded in setting off the dominoes. In fact, this nearly happened in real life one fateful day on September 6, 1983, to Stanislav Petrov, though he chose to wait, and it proved to be a faulty signal from his equipment.

It’s evident mutually assured destruction is a horrible system to wager on. And once you are past the point of no return, the apocalypse is a horrifying entity if there is no sense of hope. Most films must choose between inevitable doom versus some kind of hope.

In the waning days, we are antsy for finality, and it makes you realize just what the circumstances bring out. Waiting around for the end of the world sounds awful. And yet On The Beach manages to land the dismount even if the interim is slow-moving. True, there aren’t a flurry of events and there are a few asides — like Astaire winning the Grand Prix — which feel slightly superfluous to an impartial observer.

However, again, some kind of statement is being put to the fore, more nuanced than we might initially give it credit for, if not altogether succinct. It’s not simply an alarmist diatribe but there is a sobering urgency to it. The film foregoes the austere religiosity of the street preachers for something perceived to be much warmer.

Ava Garner standing on the shore, kerchief waving in the breeze, watching the receding figure of Gregory Peck on the deck of his sub is the movie’s indelible image. We need people around us to love and be loved by. Of course, some ill-advised individuals (myself included) live their everyday lives just waiting around for something. Hopefully, it doesn’t take nuclear devastation to kick our lives into overdrive.

3.5/5 Stars