That and This Are Entertainment

Does the deus ex machina romance between Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse in 1953’s The Band Wagon feel unconvincingly tacked-on to anyone else?!

Granted, chemistry tends to reside in the eye of the beholder. But even by musicals’ “fall in love over a 3-minute song” standards, their coupling seems rushed.

Whenever a movie leaves me unconvinced like this, instead of chalking up my unease to faulty artistry, I consider why the story may be designed not to convince:

The Band Wagon’s central conflict revolves around a Broadway creative-team’s in-fighting over the right tone to strike in their new show; the writers and actors signed on for a fluffy song-and-dance evening of comic escapism, but the impresario-in-chief keeps trying to turn it into a deeply resonant tragedy of serious high art. 

Now, art about artists creating art is almost inherently meta, but just in case you’re not evaluating the movie on that wavelength (perhaps the cross-medium leap deters you), The Band Wagon provides ample indicators that the movie is as much about itself as it is about anything else.

First, there’s the title; The Band Wagon is the name of both the movie AND the Broadway show within the movie. And then there’s the all-but-screamed suggestion that Fred Astaire is playing basically a version of himself at that point in his career. AND, the writers of the show are a mixed-gender team, a rarity then (and always)…except for the fact that the movie is written by famed mixed-gender duo Comden and Green. As for the impresario, though the movie’s director Vincente Minnelli is famous for frivolous spectacle, he did go on to direct weightier material (The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse with Nazis anyone?).  

As such, the movie’s behind-the-scenes chronicling of how the Broadway sausage gets made can be seen as a reflection of what movie-making’s like as well, with the same concessions between artistry and commercialism. In this interpretive framework, the movie The Band Wagon opts for the same path as the show The Band Wagon; it wrestles with real themes, but it’s concerned with entertainment over enlightenment (which aren’t necessarily binary terms, even though they’re kind of treated as such here).

A giant sign that this is the case: how Astaire’s romance with Cyd feels forced! It’s basically the final note of the movie, and a screwy one to end on. If it were a realistic drama, perhaps we’d plumb the depths of their relationship. But there’s scant room for such burrowing in a feel-great musical!

Who needs reality when we can sing and dance our way to a happily ever after??

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