The Band Wagon: A Minnelli Film
Vincente Minnelli’s musicals are often characterized by comedic domestic settings. A happy family life is interrupted by the prospect of leaving sunny St. Louis for metropolitan New York in Meet Me in St. Louis. The relationship of a happily married couple is threatened by gambling and violence in Cabin in the Sky. A young girl is sent to her aunt to be groomed for a high-class marriage and courted by an unsuspecting young man in Gigi. Yet, in one of Minnelli’s most entertaining musicals, The Band Wagon starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, there is no nuclear family to be found. Rather than focusing on a familial narrative, The Band Wagon is a backstage musical that follows the development of a “modern” Broadway play. While this step out of the family and into the theater might be seen as anomalous among Minnelli’s work, The Band Wagon remains rooted in the themes and ideals characteristic of Vincente Minnelli’s other musical films. The incorporation of both popular and high culture art along with a narrative disruption and return to normalcy, allow The Band Wagon to be examined alongside films like Meet Me in St Louis and Cabin in the Sky rather than as an anomaly among Minnelli’s musical films.
One of the identifying factors in Minnelli’s films is the incorporation of both high art, which is an art held in high esteem in the culture of the elite, and popular art, which exists in the culture of the less well-educated. Items such as painting, ballet, and Shakespeare might be considered part of high culture while swing dancing, jazz music, and folklore might be considered part of popular culture. Meet Me in St. Louis displays the combination of these two art forms in the carefree musical number “Skip to My Lou.” The melody and lyrics of “Skip To My Lou” are a display of folk culture as the song was popular among children in frontier America. Yet it is presented with instrumentation and vocal harmonies, characteristics that were most certainly not part of the original folk song. This organized and almost choral take on the song would fit into the category of high culture while the song itself is part of popular culture.
One of the most striking juxtapositions of popular and high art in Minnelli’s musicals occurs in The Band Wagon. Tony Hunter, grumpy about his fallen situation, enters a Penny Arcade and consequently breaks into song and dance. While in the arcade, surrounded by people playing games, sitting in photo booths and getting their shoes shined, he is handed a hot dog, the epitome of American fair food. Tony is enveloped by this culture of the masses and, after getting his shoes shined to the tune “Shine on My Shoes,” he is lifted out of his emotional slump. The film immediately cuts to Jeff Cordova’s production of Oedipus Rex, an obvious display of the kind of high art that it is hard to relate to. The juxtaposition of this morbid and gothic production with the casual song and dance in the arcade draws your attention to the use of both forms of art.
Shortly after Cordova’s production of Oedipus Rex, Cordova and two of Hunter’s friends attempt to persuade Hunter that Faust is a good narrative for a musical. Since the film itself is a musical, the characters break into a song describing entertainment. It is very much Cordova’s song as the lyrics reference high art such as Oedipus Rex and Hamlet: “A ghost and a prince meet / and everyone ends up in mincemeat.” At the end of the film, this song is reprised but this time with lyrics more characteristic of Hunter’s casual artistry: “No death like you get in Macbeth / no ordeal like the end of Camille / The world is a stage / the stage is a world of Entertainment.” The use of both sets of lyrics with the same melody also serves to draw attention to the contrast between the two forms of art.
Yet Minnelli did not get his reputation as a modern storyteller by merely contrasting the two cultures. He was most skilled at integrating both of them into one situation and thus modernizing the musical art form. In The Band Wagon, there is a struggle between two forms of dance, Gabrielle Gerard’s ballet and Tony Hunter’s soft step. As a climax to this struggle, Minnelli displays a beautifully choreographed noir-style dance that successfully integrates into a single number Hunter’s casual style and Gerard’s refined one. While the piece clearly draws on Gerard’s talent for ballet, it is subtitled “A Murder Mystery in Jazz.” Jazz, being in itself a combination of both high and popular art, frames the sequence as Hunter and Gerard, people from two different worlds, dance together. This number is considered a great and successful modernization of art not only by the diegetic audience but also by viewers of the film.
Packaged inside Minnelli’s domestic comedies, there is a recurring theme of disruption followed by a return to normalcy. As Polan notes in her essay on The Band Wagon, “the classical Hollywood film…becomes the site of an eternal return of the same” as it tames the force of contradiction (133). This theme from classical Hollywood is typically incorporated into Minnelli’s films as family units are torn apart and brought back together by the end of the narrative. In Meet Me in St. Louis, the stable Smith household is disturbed by the prospect of moving away from their familiar home. The film closely follows the daughters, as they must try to come to terms with the social implications of moving away. Yet by the end of the film, the ambitious father gives up his promotion in big-city New York in favor of returning to a happy state of normalcy in St. Louis. In Cabin in The Sky, gambling and violence interrupt the cozy life of a happy couple and the result is a fantastical comedy about the struggle between heaven and hell. Yet at the end of the film, Minnelli reveals the entire plot to have been a dream and the couple, now rid of the burden of sin, is able to return to their happy marriage. While The Band Wagon does not take place in a family setting, it does continue this theme of a disruption and return to a prior happiness. In the case of The Band Wagon, Hunter’s state of normalcy is being “Mrs. Hunter’s little boy, Tony—song-and-dance man.” Yet this identity is called into question by Cordova’s idea of a “modern” musical. This musical take on Faust tries to force Hunter to relinquish his independence and conform to Cordova’s ideals. Luckily for Hunter, Cordova’s play is a disaster, allowing for Hunter to take control of his life and work as he turns the musical back to the classic revue style. While the resulting musical still incorporates some of Cordova’s ideas, namely the balletic talent of Gabrielle Gerard, the production is essentially Hunter’s. After a period of disruption, Hunter’s life is brought back around to its normal state like in many other Minnelli narratives.
While Minnelli’s musicals often take place within a domestic setting, there are many other aspects that are characteristic of his film direction. The combination of high art and popular art as well as a disrupted state of normalcy are only two of the many characteristic themes that can be seen in Minnelli’s musicals. While these elements are often overtly apparent in his films, the list is not always present in its entirety. Therefore, there is no reason to identify The Band Wagon as the only anomaly among Minnelli’s musicals. Given that no two narratives are the same and the common themes are often stressed in different ways, each Minnelli film has its own anomalous elements. While the anomaly in The Band Wagon is the lack of a domestic family, the outlying element in Meet Me in St. Louis might be considered the Halloween scene, a song-less, gothic scene that appears as a visual nightmare among dreams. Cabin in the Sky is the only black musical Minnelli directed, making it an outlier in its own way. Yet all of these films share similar themes and styles that are characteristic of Minnelli allowing them to be examined alongside one another.
Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey. “The Band Wagon.” Vincente Minnelli: The Art of Entertainment. Ed. By Joe McElhaney. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2009.
Polan, Dana. “Denial and Difference in The Band Wagon.” Vincente Minnelli: The Art of Entertainment. Ed. By Joe McElhaney. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2009.
The Band Wagon. Dir. Vincente Minnelli. Perf. Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. MGM, 1953.