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Warner Home Video presents
The Band Wagon (1953)

"A show that is really a show,
Sends you out with a kind of a glow,
And you say as you go on your way,
That's entertainment!"

- Jack Buchanan, Nanette Fabray, and Oscar Levant, performing the famous Arthur Schwartz-Howard Dietz song

Review By: David Krauss  
Published: March 23, 2005

Stars: Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Jack Buchanan, Nanette Fabray, Oscar Levant
Other Stars: James Mitchell, Ava Gardner
Director: Vincente Minnelli

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 01h:52m:08s
Release Date: March 15, 2005
UPC: 012569698420
Genre: musical


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A+ A-AA A

DVD Review

The last of the great original Hollywood musicals, The Band Wagon contains some of most artistic and exhilarating dance routines ever put on film. Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse supply the terpsichorean magic, and director Vincente Minnelli builds a memorable movie around them, infusing an old-fashioned backstage story with his trademark style and sophistication. Some might term The Band Wagon a darkly comic take-off on the Mickey-Judy let's-put-on-a-show musicals, as it chronicles the highs and lows of mounting a Broadway revue, and how creative differences, oversized egos, and petty bickering can sabotage a surefire hit. Yet however biting its satire may be, The Band Wagon earns its stripes through music, and perhaps the most famous song from the Arthur Schwartz-Howard Dietz score sums up this ebullient picture perfectly: That's Entertainment!

The slight story concerns faded Hollywood star Tony Hunter (Astaire), who returns to New York at the behest of his composer friends, Lily and Lester Marton (Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant), to star in their lighthearted new stage musical about a children's author who makes money on the side writing lurid murder mysteries. With Tony on board, the Martons hope to sell the idea to esteemed director Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan), who's known for his highbrow classical dramas, but has no experience with musical comedy. The project intrigues Cordova, but much to the Martons' chagrin, he latches onto an obscure Faustian angle in the story, and decides to build the show around it—with disastrous results. In the blink of an eye, the egomaniacal director tosses out all of the musical's humor and whimsy, and creates a somber morality play bloated with overblown special effects that in no way resembles the Martons' original. He also casts ballerina Gabrielle Gerard (Charisse) opposite Tony, and the two stars clash personally and stylistically, before their hellish experience in the theatrical trenches draws them together.

Plenty of films, from 42nd Street to Summer Stock, present a romanticized view of producing a Broadway musical. But with typical wit and insight, writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green take a more realistic tack, giving us an insider's perspective by cleverly integrating their personal experiences and those of the cast into the film. A running gag addresses Astaire's advanced age and "washed up" status as a leading man, as well as his concerns over the height of his partner and whether his hoofing abilities can measure up to her classical ballet training. Comden and Green also lampoon Oscar Levant's real-life hypochondria, and pattern Lily and Lester—and their rollercoaster creative relationship—after themselves. At times, their screenplay gets a bit talky and some of the humor seems forced, but The Band Wagon still charmingly conveys the frustrations, insecurities, joy, and heartache of theatrical production.

And, oh, those musical numbers! So many classic routines crammed into a single film. Astaire's two solos come early, but the reflective By Myself effectively nails Tony's mood, while Shine on My Shoes—set in a downtown penny arcade—oozes style, atmosphere, and energy. The well-known show business anthem, That's Entertainment! (which Schwartz and Dietz reportedly wrote in a mere 30 minutes!), allows Astaire, Buchanan, Fabray, and Levant ample opportunity to clown around, but the centerpiece of The Band Wagon is without question Dancing in the Dark. As Gene Kelly states in That's Entertainment, "This is the Astaire I love to watch. With a lovely partner like Cyd Charisse, a simple setting, a marvelous song by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz—these are the only ingredients Fred would need to create a classic moment." Enchantment is more like it, for rarely has grace and elegance been more exquisitely preserved on celluloid. Every move, turn, lift, and dip is sheer perfection, as Astaire and Charisse float across an empty clearing in Central Park, falling in love with each other as we fall in love with them. Astaire's work with Ginger Rogers is undeniably brilliant, but in my book, nothing they ever did can surpass Dancing in the Dark.

The film's blissful final half-hour almost totally abandons plot, as five terrific numbers transpire in rapid succession. Astaire and Buchanan's debonair soft-shoe to I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan and the hilarious Triplets, in which Astaire, Fabray, and Buchanan playfully snipe at each other while dressed in baby clothes, are high points, but the dazzlingly innovative Girl Hunt ballet is in a class of its own. A spoof of hard-boiled detective novels, the 12-minute "murder mystery in jazz" features an uncharacteristically macho Astaire as a tough-talking private eye who romances a wispy blonde and slinky brunette (both Charisse) while trying to solve a crime. (Astute viewers will also catch a quick glimpse of a young Julie Newmar as an alluring model.) Michael Kidd's athletic, sexy choreography and Minnelli's peerless sense of style and humor combine to create the most lively and engaging ballet MGM ever produced—and that includes An American in Paris.

Astaire files one of his most relaxed and dimensional portrayals, and his dancing—even at age 54—brims with newfound vigor and delight. Buchanan, Fabray, and especially Levant provide stellar comic support, but unfortunately, Charisse (in her first starring role after making a big splash as a seductive siren in the Broadway Ballet sequence in Singin' in the Rain) can't compete dramatically, and her stilted acting occasionally disrupts the film's flow. Yet all is forgiven the moment she begins swaying to the strains of Schwartz's music. With supreme poise and talent, Charisse instantly mesmerizes, and partners Astaire like no other dancer. Together (along with Minnelli's superior direction), they make The Band Wagon one of the all-time great musicals—a feast for the eyes, ears, and feet.

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A-

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: Another superb ultra-resolution effort from Warner, the Band Wagon transfer bursts with rich color and outstanding clarity. The vibrant Technicolor hues are well saturated, lending plenty of visual pop to the subtle costume and set details, and allowing viewers to totally lose themselves in the glorious musical numbers. Patterns and sequins resist shimmering, and excellent contrast gives the film a lively, luxurious look. Inky blacks add extra depth to nighttime scenes, and fleshtones remain natural and stable throughout. Although eagle eyes will be able to spot a few errant print defects, it's impossible to imagine The Band Wagon getting a spiffier makeover.

Image Transfer Grade: A

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglish, Frenchyes
Dolby Digital
5.1
Englishyes


Audio Transfer Review: Remastering Golden Age classics in DD 5.1 has always been a controversial issue. Yet if it's done right, the wider sound field and increased fidelity can make older films—and musicals in particular—seem much more contemporary, exciting, and involving. The best remasters are brand new tracks constructed from authentic multi-track elements, while the worst are simply enhanced mono tracks spread across five speakers. Thankfully, The Band Wagon, like all of Warner's remastered classics, falls in the first category, but the fascinating story behind the sound is unique to this picture, and Warner Home Video Senior Vice President George Feltenstein was nice enough to share it with me.

According to Feltenstein, The Band Wagon was originally recorded in three-track stereo (a new process at the time), but because the technology was still developing and theaters in 1953 were not equipped to handle such advanced audio, it was never released as a stereophonic film. The 35mm three-track masters were subsequently "folded down" to single channels on quarter-inch tape and then, shockingly, discarded. "When I looked at the mixing logs," Feltenstein remembers, "it broke my heart. I was devastated." A huge fan of The Band Wagon, Feltenstein produced the original soundtrack CD for Rhino in 1996 using the folded down mono tracks. But a few years later, while listening to Dancing in the Dark on his car stereo, he noticed certain instruments sounded more prevalent on the soundtrack CD than in the film itself. He then rushed to his home computer to try and mix the two tracks together, putting the magnetic composite track from the film in the left channel and the folded down CD audio in the right channel. Eight long hours later, he successfully synched them up, achieving rudimentary stereo.

Ecstatic over his achievement, Feltenstein couldn't wait to expand the stereo track even further for The Band Wagon's DVD release. (As long as at least two channels exist, technicians can then manipulate the sound further to create 5.1 audio.) He received financial approval from Warner Home Video to upgrade the sound to 5.1, and sent his homemade sample CD over to Chase Audio, the outfit Warner employs for most of its musical remixes, as a springboard for the new track. Although no changes could be made to the vocals, the instrumentals benefit greatly, lending a true surround feel to the entire score. "The 5.1 track is amazingly different from the mono," Feltenstein said. "And I'm just thrilled with the results. It's like bringing something back from the dead."

And now The Band Wagon sounds more alive than ever. The musical numbers explode with marvelously rich, dynamic tones that immerse us in the artistry of Astaire and Charisse, and spotlight the lush arrangements of Conrad Salinger, Skip Martin, and Alexander Courage. Dialogue is always clear and comprehendible, and no hiss, pops, crackles, or distortion break the film's spell. This is a wonderfully satisfying track, made all the more enjoyable when one realizes how much care went into its production, and how lucky we are to have it at all.

Audio Transfer Grade: A

 

Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 29 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
7 Other Trailer(s) featuring Broadway Melody of 1940, Ziegfeld Follies, Easter Parade, The Barkleys of Broadway, Three Little Words, Silk Stockings, Finian's Rainbow
1 Deleted Scenes
2 Documentaries
1 Feature/Episode commentary by entertainer Liza Minnelli and musician Michael Feinstein
Packaging: generic plastic two-disc keepc
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual
Layers Switch: 52m:45s

Extra Extras:
  1. Musical short, Jack Buchanan with The Glee Quartet
Extras Review: Another jam-packed special edition from Warner, The Band Wagon DVD includes a host of enticing supplements, beginning with a lively, chummy commentary by Liza Minnelli and her good friend, musician Michael Feinstein. Both agree this Vincente Minnelli musical is their all-time favorite, and recall watching it together countless times. Feinstein loves the score, while Liza appreciates her father's fluid, colorful direction. She also remembers visiting the set as a six-year-old and watching with wide-eyed wonder as numbers such as Dancing in the Dark and Shine on My Shoes were being shot. (In fact, The Band Wagon so enraptured young Liza, her dad surprised her with child-sized copies of a couple of gowns Cyd Charisse wore in the film.) Liza says her father possessed many of the same artistic qualities as the fictional Jeffrey Cordova, and gravitated toward the theater because "he loved light and color and getting an emotion across." She cites the dramatic tension that's so prevalent in Minnelli musical sequences, and how The Band Wagon uniquely celebrates the roles of Broadway chorus players, technicians, and stagehands. Feinstein handles the track's informational chores (noting, among other things, that lyricist Dietz was also an MGM publicist, and devised the studio's iconic Leo the Lion logo in the 1920s), but Minnelli provides the flair, exuding infectious enthusiasm and personality, accented by bursts of her inimitable cackling laughter. Liza is true Hollywood royalty (for those who reside on another planet, she's also the daughter of the late, great Judy Garland), so she understandably drops a few names. At one point, when Feinstein mentions vocal arranger Kay Thompson (of Eloise fame), Minnelli joyously interjects, "My godmother!" She and Feinstein also share a couple of marvelous stories about Oscar Levant, yet they spend the bulk of the track analyzing the Minnelli style, and their insights are well worth hearing.

Also on Disc 1, an Astaire trailer gallery features eight restored previews for such noteworthy musicals as Broadway Melody of 1940, Easter Parade, The Barkleys of Broadway, Three Little Words (which includes a clip of Astaire receiving his honorary Oscar in 1950) and Silk Stockings (in anamorphic widescreen).

Disc 2 begins with the all-new documentary, Get Aboard! The Band Wagon, a fascinating look inside the musical. Produced with Warner's customary flair, the 37-minute film explores all facets of The Band Wagon from inception to premiere, and includes candid reminiscences by Cyd Charisse, Nanette Fabray, James Mitchell, Liza Minnelli, choreographer Michael Kidd, writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Jonathan Schwartz (son of composer Arthur Schwartz) and Ava Astaire McKenzie (daughter of Fred Astaire). Minnelli describes her father's "impeccable eye" and uncanny ability to integrate music into real life, as well as how he plucked Leroy Daniels, an honest-to-goodness shoe-shiner, off the street to dance with Astaire in Shine on Your Shoes. Charisse recalls Astaire's admirable work ethic, and terms Dancing in the Dark her favorite number of all time, while Kidd addresses Astaire's insecurities about working with Charisse, and how the writers cleverly incorporated those issues into the film. Some of the most amusing comments come from Fabray, who divulges the secrets of the Triplets number, and talks about her frustrations working with the cantankerous Levant. Although McKenzie notes The Band Wagon was "plagued with problems," the documentary only briefly touches upon them, but still offers a full-bodied portrait of a classic and beloved movie.

The Vincente Minnelli installment of the excellent 1973 PBS documentary, The Men Who Made the Movies, focuses mostly on the director's musical achievements, but also touches upon his melodramas and comedies. The main attraction of this highly acclaimed series (written and directed by critic Richard Schickel) is hearing the directors speak about and analyze their own work, and express their views about filmmaking. Minnelli believes "a picture that stays with you is made up of a hundred or more hidden things," and that the same amount of "thought, sweat, and intelligence" must go into a musical as a straight dramatic film. Lengthy clips from such classics as Cabin in the Sky, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Pirate, An American in Paris, The Band Wagon, Madame Bovary, and Gigi illustrate Minnelli's sophisticated artistry and allow us to witness how he expanded the film musical by adding realism to a fantasy-based art form. Briefer excerpts from the non-musical Some Came Running, Lust for Life, The Clock, and Father of the Bride are also included in the 58-minute documentary, narrated by Cliff Robertson. Warner once again lavishes meticulous care on this program, substituting recently remastered film clips for the poor quality 16mm dupes originally used. As a result, The Men Who Made the Movies looks like it's three months old, rather than three decades old. No other studio would go to such effort and expense to painstakingly restore an old documentary on a special features disc, but it's this type of commitment that makes Warner the leader in classic film releases.

A deleted musical number, Two-Faced Woman (originally seen in That's Entertainment! III), can't quite match the quality of the film's other routines, but it's still a fun rarity. Part of the problem is India Adams, who dubs Charisse's vocals; her chesty alto seems at odds with Cyd's breathy, higher pitched speaking voice, producing a jarring dichotomy. Lackluster staging also drags down the sequence, so it's easy to see why Minnelli cut it. As an added bonus, however, Warner includes several minutes of dailies from the number, so we can see Charisse performing in piecemeal—a nice touch that provides a welcome window into the filmmaking process.

Finally, a rather silly Vitaphone short, Jack Buchanan with The Glee Quartet provides a glimpse of a much younger and more dashing Buchanan (circa 1930), who fills in for a missing member of The Glee Quartet with predictably comic results. Pitifully unprepared, Buchanan flubs lyrics and muffs choreography while trying to preserve his all-important British decorum. The six-minute routine may have seemed fresh and innovative 75 years ago, but now it's little more than a tired cliché.

Extras Grade: A

 

Final Comments

As the tagline says, "Get aboard!" The Band Wagon bowls us over with one show-stopping number after another, along with plenty of color, style, and old-fashioned fun. The sublime pairing of Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse makes this classic musical float on air, and Warner's magnificent restoration, lively 5.1 audio, and substantive extras earn this lavish two-disc set our top recommendation.

 


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