July 3, 2012  |  An Auteurist History of Film
Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon

The Band Wagon. 1953. USA. Directed by Vincente Minnelli

These notes accompany the screenings of Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon on July 4, 5, and 6.

The Hollywood backstage musical had been a mainstay since the birth of the talkies. At Warner Brothers, Lloyd Bacon and Busby Berkeley presided over both Footlight Parade and 42nd Street in 1933 alone, directing the diverse the talents of James Cagney, Joan Blondell, and Dick Powell. And who can ever forget Warner Baxter in the latter film telling Ruby Keeler, “You’re going out a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star.”?

As detailed in Mark Griffin’s wonderful book A Hundred or More Hidden Things: The Life and Films of Vincente Minnelli, Vincente’s (then Lester’s) childhood was spent as part of a barnstorming Ohio theatrical troupe called the Minnelli Bros. Mighty Dramatic Company Under Canvas. Although the boy played children’s roles, he had a greater passion to be an artist than an actor, and his father and uncle began accepting his suggestions for set and costume designs at an early age. As Griffin says, the Mighty Dramatic Company “wasn’t the Ziegfeld Follies, it wasn’t peddling snake oil either.” (Minnelli partially directed M-G-M’s Ziegfeld Follies seven years before The Band Wagon.) Minnelli had spent several years working in the theater, both in Chicago and as art director at Radio City Music Hall in New York, before going to Hollywood, so he had what my late colleague Stephen Harvey referred to as “Minnelli’s sensitivity to the special, self-contained qualities of the theater.”

Writing of The Band Wagon, Harvey refers to “the distilled theatricality” of the film. “Within Minnelli’s mock proscenium, his cast gives the illusion of immediacy you get from live performance, enhanced by the proximity of the camera. It’s a fusion of the best of both worlds.” The question arises with Minnelli as to how much of his personal phantasmagoria has been sacrificed by the cinema’s pull in the opposite direction, toward the naturalism of the photographed image (not to mention commercial pressures to avoid outstripping the imagination of the audience and the studio). Of course, one can also ask how many of his personal fantasies may have been more fully realized due to the cinema’s capacity to do things not possible on the stage. Minnelli had pushed the outside of this particular envelope in 1945, with his other Astaire film, Yolanda and the Thief. With its spectacular performances, superb Oscar-nominated Comden-and-Green script, and Dietz-and-Schwartz score, The Band Wagon was a huge success.

Writing for CinemaTexas film society in 1977, Dave Rodowick and Ed Lowry confronted the dichotomy of Minnelli’s commitment to both stage and screen. “Early in the film, it becomes apparent that The Band Wagon is a ‘post-Minnelli-musical’ musical as the development of the new show grows into a parody of the Minnelli style…. The Band Wagon may be the first existential musical.” In explicating this premise the two authors engage in a serious discussion too lengthy for inclusion here. However, they conclude that there are two Vincente Minnellis in conflict over which is to be the auteur of the film. One Minnelli is committed to the “high art” of the theater (embodied by Jack Buchanan), the other to the “low art” of the movies (embodied by Fred Astaire.) Within this construct, the director works for and finally achieves a high/low synthesis represented by Buchanan’s declaration of the equality of rhythm between “Bill Shakespeare’s immortal verse and Bill Robinson’s immortal feet.”

Lest we get carried away with the film’s portent, Mark Griffin reminds us that The Band Wagon is “one of the most joyous and exuberant musicals in cinema history…. Minnelli’s movie radiates with the soul of showbiz.” So it would probably not be unfair to consider this the director’s most personal film, with Astaire and Buchanan both his onscreen representatives, and that both would subscribe to the words of Howard Dietz:

Everything that happens in life
Can happen in a show
You can make ‘em laugh
You can make ‘em cry
Anything—anything can go
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

Speaking of entertainment, we lost one of our best contemporary auteurs last week in Nora Ephron. Although she did direct eight films, her primary contribution to film was as a writer. Among the most public and poignant mourners, however, were directors with whom she had done some of her—and their—best work: Mike Nichols (Silkwood) and Rob Reiner (When Harry Met Sally). Ms. Ephron was parented by screenwriters from Hollywood’s golden era, and appropriately she was inspired by Leo McCarey’s An Affair to Remember for Sleepless in Seattle and by Ernst Lubitsch’s and Samson Raphaelson’s The Shop Around the Corner for You’ve Got Mail. Janet Maslin wrote in The New York Times about Ephron’s aspiration to be “the sharpest wit in the room.” As a sometime scribbler with similar desires, I can relate to that, but I also realize that in most cases I’m likely to get only halfway there. Enviously, it would have been tempting to discover her secret, perhaps to follow her as she made the rounds of restaurants. If only one could acquire such talent by echoing Rob Reiner’s mother, in witnessing Meg Ryan’s orgasmic display at Katz’s Delicatessen in When Harry Met Sally, by saying, “I’ll have what she’s having.”