The Band Wagon - Vincente Minnelli
Credit: MGM/Letterboxd
by Brad Hanford Featured Film Kicking the Canon Kicking the Canon

The Band Wagon — Vincente Minnelli

August 2, 2023

“Only Minnelli believes implicitly in the power of his camera to transform trash into art, and corn into caviar. Minnelli believes more in beauty than in art.” – Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema, 1969

Sarris wasn’t being entirely kind when he offered this assessment of the virtues and limitations of Vincente Minnelli’s artistry, citing the beliefs he ascribes to the director as “naïve” and positing him as “more of a stylist than an auteur.” Minnelli had made The Band Wagon, the greatest of his many renowned musical comedies, 16 years before Sarris’ critical study, but the film could just as easily function as a feature-length rebuke to Sarris’ claims. Like all of Minnelli’s best work, it seamlessly combines the sensual and the analytical — its explosions of color and movement, furnished by MGM’s legendary Freed unit at the height of its powers, work in perfect concert with its deeply considered ruminations on the intersection of “high” and “low” culture. Trash and art, in other words. 

The MGM musical may have been at an apex in 1953, coming off the twin successes of Minnelli’s An American in Paris in 1951 and Singin’ in the Rain in 1952, but the same can’t be said for Fred Astaire. Though the star’s career had revived somewhat since returning from a short-lived retirement in 1948, he was a long way from his 1930s peak in the public consciousness. In the first of its many real-world parallels, The Band Wagon casts Astaire as Tony Hunter, a washed-up musical star so desperate for attention he chats up the disinterested paparazzi that Ava Gardner (appearing in a short cameo) would rather avoid. Like Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon is film industry satire as a gleaming hall of mirrors, a celebration of a system operating at a level of freedom, efficiency, and public influence it would never again achieve. But where Singin’ in the Rain, masterpiece though it is, remains an industry-approved monument to, in André Bazin’s words, “the genius of the system,” The Band Wagon is after something altogether more personal and complex. By shifting the action from Hollywood to Broadway and from film to theater, Minnelli expands the scope of the material and offers a more wide-ranging treatise on the production and perception of popular art.

The plot finds Tony Hunter returning to New York by train, hoping to rejuvenate his career by playing the lead in a new production written by his friends Lily and Lester Martin (Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant), clearly modeled on the film’s own screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green. More importantly, the project has piqued the interest of Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan, in a thunderously charismatic performance), a producer-director-star and the toast of Broadway, who Tony and the Martins visit following a performance of his epic rendition of Oedipus Rex. Tony is skeptical that Cordova’s lofty artistic aspirations are a fit for The Band Wagon (also the name of the show within the movie), which proves sensible when Cordova interprets the Martins’ intentionally light comedy as a portentous retelling of the Faust myth. 

There’s hardly anything in our cultural landscape today that needs defending less than the validity of “low” art, as a half-century’s worth of anti-intellectualism, corporation-mandated infantilization, and “let people enjoy things”-style apathy has squeezed out almost everything it once existed in opposition to. But in the 1950s, when staggering artistic genius could be found in supposedly unserious projects ranging from Looney Tunes to Douglas Sirk melodramas, the point was understandably more salient. The battle over the show’s direction between Cordova and Tony is the battle between high and low culture, which in turn parallels the dichotomy between theater and film that defines the movie. The points of conflict include not only the overblown sturm und drang with which Cordova stages the show, but also the casting of highly trained prima ballerina Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse) as Tony’s love interest. 

The clashes between Tony and his director and leading lady dramatize the theme, but Minnelli’s inspired direction and total command of mise-en-scène take it a step further, perfectly synthesizing the movie’s ideas with its aesthetics. He brings the same vivid colors, fluid camerawork, and wildly imaginative set design to the Times Square set where Astaire performs the film’s first number as he does to Cordova’s Oedipus as he does to The Band Wagon’s rehearsal space, bearing out his belief in personal vision superseding the boundaries of genre and taste. The most famous and representative number here, “That’s Entertainment!”, is performed on the dormant Oedipus set, an environment that becomes just as expressive in its repurposed context as it was in its polar-opposite original use. 

Some of Minnelli’s critics have used his background as a window dresser, costume designer, and painter against him, as evidence that he was more decorator than director. These critics would likely at least concede the point that such a background informs the film’s profound visual beauty and invention. Who else could conjure the brilliant cubist staging of the scene where Cordova sells the show to investors, which Tony, the Martins, and Gabrielle all view from different angles through doorways of different color-coded rooms? The point they may not concede, however, is Minnelli’s ability to imbue that visual style with substance of its own, and the way it unites the movie’s many vectors of artistic creation on a level beyond the prosaics of narrative and theme. When Tony throws a tantrum in his room after quitting the show, he destroys tabloid magazines and records — low culture — while surrounded by his personal collection of paintings by masters like Modigliani and Degas — high culture. When Cordova’s Faustian version of The Band Wagon flops in previews and loses all its backing, Tony agrees to finance the new Band Wagon — an unpretentious, story-free musical revue — by selling the paintings. Art fosters art, no matter its associations.

The triumph of the show in its more lowbrow form can be seen as Minnelli coming down on the side of light entertainment, but his film is hardly some anti-art polemic. There’s a miraculous moment where Cordova immediately relinquishes control of the show to Tony after the initial flop, and the movie does away with conflict almost entirely. Truth to oneself, the material, and, perhaps most importantly, one’s collaborators is the real measure of worth here. If one were to make a contemporary comparison, Cordova’s version of the show would stand in not for arthouse cinema, but for the scourge of “elevated” genre films, which similarly attempt to affect artistic significance by coating themselves in a dull patina of prestige. 

Minnelli actually elevates the musical comedy to high art because his is an elevation without condescension, achieved not by hewing to convention, but by following his personal vision to its wildest extremes. The astonishing “Girl Hunt Ballet” set piece that provides the film’s finale is the ultimate example — Minnelli fully immerses us in his pop-culture dream world, in which the boundaries between high and low, fantasy and reality, cinema and theater finally fall away completely. Minnelli did believe more in beauty than art — he believed that beauty was a constant, a pure expression of the soul, while our definition of “art” is as fickle as our taste. Maybe that’s not so naïve after all?

Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.