Fred Astaire is an astounding performer, versatile and seemingly unprompted in his footwork. The Band Wagon highlights his technical genius, particularly in numbers where he’s dancing alone. But was ever a song more appropriate for him than “By Myself”? It’s a lovely little tune about a formerly great movie star whose glory has faded. Astaire’s sad-sack gestures evoke a vain nostalgia. They encapsulate Astaire’s greatness but also his limitation: here was a movie star performing entirely for himself. He is easily one of the least generous dance partners of all the movie musicals, and curiously sexless. But he had great comic timing and a winning “everyday fella” confidence.
Playing the role of faded silver screen idol Tony Hunter, who’s appearing in a Broadway show as a favor for his musical theater friends Lily and Les Martin (Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray, mildly charming as a thinly veiled Comden & Green), Astaire never really connects to the plot in any serious way. Nor should he. This “let’s put on a show” MGM musical is really just a series of fabulous set pieces strung together, allowing Astaire to dance his way through a dazzling penny arcade (“A Shine On Your Shoes”) and join Lily, Les, and tyrannical actor-director Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan) on an empty soundstage for that enjoyable scenery munching, theater loving ditty, “That’s Entertainment”.
Accompanied by Vincente Minnelli’s restless, ever roving camera, these select numbers are visually splendid, and make for catchy music videos. But The Band Wagon relies heavily on its skimpy narrative thread: a train wreck of a Broadway show they’re putting on. The backstage intrigue involving Jeffrey’s artistic vision running pretentiously amok and the ballerina, Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse, who moves divine but can’t carry a scene), who fall for Tony runs out of steam by the midpoint. No amount of flashy camerawork and fancy dancing can make up for the lack of heat between a gleefully self-involved Astaire and a gorgeous but antiseptic Charisse. Things pick up for a moment during a bizarre musical number with Gabrielle, Jeffrey, and Tony dressed as infant triplets that want to murder one another, marking a strange detour into the grotesque. But only musical theater people will plug into this love-fest, breaking their arms patting themselves on the back. That’s entertainment?