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The Band Wagon - Special Edition

Warner Bros./Warner Home Video . R4 . COLOR . 108 mins . G . PAL


I've seen this described in a few places as perhaps the greatest of all the Hollywood musicals.

No way. That's total exaggeration. I'd never say anything like that, because I'm not into unjustified hyperbole. The most I'll say is that this is one of a dozen greatest-ever musicals, up there with Three Little Words, Oklahoma and with at least nine of the movies featuring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Just like those other musicals, The Band Wagon is simply sublime. It's sheer escapism, boasting a fun story, a wonderful Arthur Schwartz score, and one of the songs which defines the genre of the American musical, 'That's Entertainment'.

The story begins with us meeting a washed-up movie-star taking a train ride to New York. He is Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) and the public has passed him by while they clamor for a new generation, represented by Ava Gardner in a wonderful vignette appearance. Tony's last big hit was the movie Travelling Down to Panama, a mock-reference to Astaire's own early movie Flying Down to Rio. That was long ago. He's through.

But he'll be back on track if the librettist-team of Lester and Lily Marton (Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray) have their way. They've come up with a scheme to have Tony Martin meet the Lion of Broadway, theatre director Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan). If anyone can make Tony Hunter relevant to today's entertainment scene, it will be Cordova.

Only problem is that Cordova has grandiose plans way past entertainment. He plans to turn Lester and Lily Marton's Broadway musical into a dark and dramatic musical updating of the Faust legend, with Tony Martin as Faust. And he plans to introduce as the Faustian temptress Marguerite a Prima-Ballerina, Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse).

The overworked, overblown show of course fails on its out-of-town tryout. Can it be reworked and saved? Can dancer Tony and ballerina Cyd bring their styles together for a triumphant union of genius? And will the temperemental but prodigiously talented director Geoffrey Cordova be persuaded to stay part of the team in the reworked and simpler, homelier production?

The answers to all the above is of course yes, yes, and yes. The new show is a triumph, and the film triumphs just as brilliantly as the show-within-the-show.

One of the delights is the fact that the constantly feuding but always loving real-life writing team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green have written themselves into the story as the constantly feuding but always loving team of Lester and Lily Martin. Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray are perfectly cast as this special couple -- as you can see when you meet the real couple in the extras accompanying the movie.

But the real glory of this movie are its trio of absolute stars, Cyd Charisse, Fred Astaire and Jack Buchanan.

Cyd was Fred's best partner since his glory-days with Ginger Rogers. And in this movie, Fred and Cyd team to compete with the 'ballet' extravaganzas of Gene Kelly's MGM movies such as Three Little Words and An American in Paris. But where Gene Kelly was deadly serious -- and just a tad boring -- Fred and Cyd create a wonderfully mocking spoof on film-noir. It's a tribute to the Mickey Spillane school of detectives, the 'Girl Hunt Ballet'. Delicious unpompous stuff, with great dancing.

I'm a Fred Astaire fan from way back. Those RKO musicals of the 1930s with Fred and Ginger are the absolute high-point of the genre. But as great as Fred is here, I've got to admit that the absolute dominant star of The Band Wagon is the song-and-dance man from Britain, Jack Buchanan.

Jack Buchanan had a wonderful career in Britain, usually partnered with his long-time partner Elsie Randolph. Their stylish recordings and British movies are not well enough known, and The Band Wagon was his major transatlantic hit.

Watch for him. Well, you can't really miss him. He totally dominates every scene he is in, with his smooth, languid grace and easy charm. When he combines with Fred to perform 'Guess I've got to Change my Plan', we're seeing a teaming of champions. There is no other moment in the American musical tradition quite like it.

Get on The Band Wagon -- you'll want to join it again and again for its near-perfect ride.


This is one of the latest in Warner's new Ultra-Resolution super-transfer method which aims at getting onto DVD the full brilliance of the old three-strip Technicolor process.

The film itself must have been filmed with a slightly more muted palette than some others which have been restored with this process, as it lacks the absolute vivid quality of, say, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Meet Me in St Louis, or Gone With the Wind. But the reproduction is still most pleasing. It's clean and accurate and intensely exciting in the way the best of these old movies, colour and black-and-white, can be.


The soundtrack has been reprocessed from its original mono into 5.1 Surround.

Purists will appreciate the fact that the original mono soundtrack can be selected, but the 5.1 Surround is in fact very decent, with extra roundness and warmth. It does create a very mild semblance of stereo for music, while preserving a solid centre-stage for voice. Clever stuff, and without feeling gimmickry.

You'll note a slight lift in pitch in the soundtrack as a result of the PAL speed-up effect. It's not as bothersome as I've noted on some occasions, but it's still a matter of regret that neither software nor hardware manufacturers can resolve this problem.


The double-disc set comes with a good swag of extra features. It misses a couple of minor extras found on the American edition, but all the major extras are here.

First up, on Disc One, is an optional audio commentary by Liza Minnelli and Michael Feinstein. Liza, as you may remember, is director Vincent Minnelli's daughter, while Michael Feinstein makes a living performing music of this period. They're both very knowledgeable, though I have always found Liza in particular intensely annoying and cloying. It's a commentary for the ultra-dedicated.

There's a doco on the second disc entitled The Men Who Made the Shows - Vincent Minnelli which you would imagine, from the title, to be a biography of that director.

It's nothing of the kind. It is instead a hagiographic account of the films in his career, narrated for the most part by Minnelli himself, who keeps saying 'you know' about a dozen times a minute in case we've missed the point. No facts here, but it's a handy and often surprising compendium of his movies, which runs for almost an hour.

The best extra feature is the 37-minute long featurette 'Get Aboard! The Band Wagon', which is one of the best 'making of' accounts of its time, at times affectionate, and at times deeply bitter. While some of its participants remember the movie fondly, others recall just how much pain and suffering it took to create such perfect on-screen bliss. Great stuff.

There's a six-minute historic Vitaphone short, 'Jack Buchanan With The Glee Quartet'. Vitaphone was a process which recorded sound on huge shellac discs, which were played, hopefully at the same time, as the film. It's been well transferred. And while the subject matter has dated, it's interesting to see that Jack Buchanan's unique easy, nonchalant style hardly changed at all over the intervening years.

Finally, there is a Fred Astaire Trailer Gallery, presenting trailers for eight MGM movies. These are: Broadway Melody of 1940, Ziegfield Follies, Easter Parade, The Barkleys of Broadway, Three Little Words, The Band Wagon, Silk Stockings and Finian's Rainbow. Of these, all except two -- The Barkleys of Broadway and Three Little Words -- have been issued on DVD.

Warners in America have announced that Barkleys will soon be released as part of two five-disc sets celebrating the partnership of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers -- here's hoping that Three Little Words, which features a particularly strong musical score, also gets released soon.


Two words. Get it. Get on the Band Wagon.

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  •  DVD NET Gold Review List 
      And I quote...
    "The greatest musical ever? No way. This is just one of the 12 greatest musicals ever. "
    - Anthony Clarke
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