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The Band Wagon: Special Edition

On top of being one of the best musicals ever made, 1953's The Band Wagon has the benefit of appearing prescient. In it, a Broadway musical is taken over by famous actor-director-producer Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan), who turns the original pitch of a silly little musical revue starring Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) into a fire-and-brimstone musical staging of Faust. As shown in a three-shot still montage of the show's premiere (one of the film's many famous sequences), this very serious approach lays a goose egg. Around the time of the picture's release, the musical genre was evolving, and though director Vincent Minnelli would have a hand in some of the more serious genre efforts — including his Oscar-winning An American in Paris (1951) and Gigi (1958) — shortly after Wagon began the run of widescreen Rodgers & Hammerstein adaptations that led to a string of expensive and disastrous late-'60s musicals that killed the genre. These movies eschewed dance numbers for stars like Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin pathetically warbling their way through tepid ballads (fortunately, some performers were redubbed). Pretense and portentousness drove audiences away, and that's the exact sort of serious-mindedness that almost ruins the production in The Band Wagon. Those larger efforts — though some have their merits — abandon the simple pleasure of watching song-and-dance hoofers do their thing, and that's exactly what this classic offers in spades. When it mattered most, it's too bad that Hollywood didn't look at The Band Wagon a bit more closely.

The movie follows Fred Astaire as Tony Martin — a character loosely based on Astaire himself — who comes to New York to be in a Broadway show after losing his way in Hollywood. The play is by his friends Lester and Lily Marton (Oscar Levant and Nanette Faberay, modeled on screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green), who then take the script to Jeffrey Cordova (Buchanan, fashioned on Jose Ferrer, but with a dash of the film's director). His brilliant plan is to hire ballet dancer Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse, whose singing voice was dubbed by India Allen) and her boyfriend-choreographer Paul Byrd (James Mitchell). Of course Cordova's meddling turns the production into a disaster, and Tony then takes the helm to rein it back to its fun slight self. Such leads to classic numbers like "Triplets," wherein Astaire, Buchanan, and Fabray perform as babies (and dance on their knees), and to the final big number, "Girl Hunt," the long-revered musical mystery noir ballet. And, of course, the initially bickering pair of Tony and Gabrielle find they are attracted to each other — when Paul leaves the show after their initial failure, temptation ensues.

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Few filmmakers understood how to shoot a musical number as well as Vincent Minnelli. In the opening song-and-dance number "Shoeshine," Astaire walks into a set-bound street arcade where the act of getting a shoeshine leads him into an impromptu number around the nickel attractions. Minnelli's camera sweeps about and lets Astaire display his boundless talent without unnecessary edits. By keeping the camera active and involved, but never hiding the grace and agility that made Astaire a star, Minnelli captures an elegance of movement that's been lost to time (especially when compared to the modern antecedents). Though the pairing of Astaire with Ginger Rogers is more renowned in film history, Cyd Charisse was an equally capable partner (they also worked together in Silk Stockings four years later), and her dancing skills are just as exquisite. But with her dark hair and Amazonian appeal, Charisse had a more tempting sexuality than Rogers ever did. Nonetheless, their partnership elicited questions; much is made of Tony Hunter's fears that she's too tall for him, and this joke was based on Astaire's off-screen concerns (it turns out they were of about equal height). Yet this blending in of real life sets the tone for the whole story, which plays things loose and funny — something easy to do with a comic ace like Oscar Levant. In its lightness, The Band Wagon is a classic. Perhaps it's because the genre was often (at its best) lighthearted and ebullient, but it's also because the picture understands that, in making a great musical, the production should have as little pretense as possible. And after all, this is the movie that made the song "That's Entertainment" famous.

Warner Home Video presents The Band Wagon in a two-disc Special Edition with a solid full-frame transfer (1.33:1 OAR) and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (for purists, the original 1.0 soundtrack also is included). A stunning Technicolor production, the film has been restored, and it now looks better than it ever has on home video. The first disc comes with an amusing commentary track with the director's daughter Liza Minnelli, joined by her friend and film scholar Michael Feinstein. Also included on the first disc is a Fred Astaire trailer gallery offering selections for The Band Wagon and seven other titles. Supplements on Disc Two include "Get Aboard!: The Band Wagon" (37 min.), which features Liza Minnelli, Nanette Fabray, Jonathan Schwartz, (son of songwriter Arthur Schwartz), Cyd Charisse, James Mitchell, Ava Astaire McKenzie (Fred's daughter), and vintage interviews with Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and choreographer Michael Kidd. "The Men Who Make the Movies: Vincent Minnelli" (58 min.) is a 1973 documentary on Minnelli directed by Richard Schickel that features an on-camera interview with the director, and it's narrated by Cliff Robertson. Also included is the Vitaphone short "Jack Buchanan with The Glee Quartet" (6 min.), the deleted number "Two Faced Woman" (4 min.), and a selection of dailies (8 min.) that mostly cover the "Two Faced Woman" number. Dual-DVD slimline keep-case with paperboard slipcase.

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