Fred Astaire in ‘The Band Wagon’ (1953)

This Vincente Minnelli musical is passably amusing for the first hour; mostly I just noticed how archaic it feels. Faded film star Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) returns to NYC from Hollywood in search of a Broadway show that will be his comeback vehicle. The city he moves through is a charming fantasy of New York populated by colorfully eccentric show people. The movie’s insider view of show business is more than offset by a golly-gee-whiz naivete and strenuously madcap atmosphere.

The Band Wagon really picks up about midway through, when Astaire and Cyd Charisse step out of a carriage in Central Park one night. Charisse plays a ballerina who’s been recruited to dance in Astaire’s Broadway comeback; up until now the relationship between them has been spiky, all brittle banter. But as they stroll through the moonlit park — a charmingly simple, artificial Central Park, more like a stage set than an attempt at realism — they drop the arch dialogue, and communicate far more eloquently through dance. He takes a few tentative steps, she responds in kind, and soon they’re practically gliding arm-in-arm in the moonlight.

This “Dancing in the Dark” number plays well in part because the music is instrumental, so there isn’t the distraction of corny lyrics; and because it’s so graceful — the camera gives us smooth, unbroken shots of Astaire and Charisse in motion. (Astaire’s contracts wisely decreed that the camera had to show his entire body in his dance numbers.) The moment feels like the expression of an elegant and confident popular culture from long ago.

But this Central Park interlude is a mere way station to the real focal point of The Band Wagon: the justly famous “Girl Hunt Ballet” that is the movie’s climax. A tough-guy gumshoe story told through music and dance, “Girl Hunt” starts with a wide shot of Astaire on a Broadway stage in a white suit and fedora. The backdrop behind him shows blowups of ‘50s pulp paperback covers, amusing facsimiles of Mickey Spillane novels. Astaire’s private dick is joined onstage by Charisse and her fabulous gams as the blondest of damsels-in-distress, seeking his help. He takes the case, and soon finds himself beset by goons. (These being self-respecting old-school gangsters, they’re all nattily dressed in suits.)

Un film MGM: poster for the French release.

Hoofing it to another part of the stage set, Astaire rifles through an antique shop — and here Minnelli starts to shoot the scene not like a Broadway musical but like an actual movie. The props in the antique shop provide lots of occasion for slapstick between Astaire and the hoods who want to do him in. He escapes, but Charisse has gone missing. Astaire dances away from us down a long corridor, and ducks out through a side door, and it’s like we’re entering a rabbit hole, the Broadway audience and the real world just a memory now. Astaire finds himself in a subway station, where two hoods perform synchronized cartwheels and fire their pop guns at him. He pulls out his own gat and they scatter.

The humorous sight of the two gangsters cartwheeling through the air takes the sequence to another level; it was probably here that it dawned on me I was watching a work of genius. And the scene builds from there — part of the pleasure of watching “Girl Hunt” is seeing each part top what came before it.

Case in point, the next transition, a low-angle shot where Astaire hustles up a fiery-red fire escape that’s framed against an electric blue sky. The shot is pure surrealism, since the fire escape isn’t tethered to anything — it might as well be a stairway to heaven. The sequence that began as an entertaining stage show is now a cinematic vision.

Noir that's what I call a musical. 1953 MGM publicity pic.

The climax: Astaire bluffs his way into the gangsters’ hideout, the ‘Dem Bones Café, a swanky speakeasy that’s a marvel of set design. Charisse triumphantly reappears as a brunette in a red, red dress and shows off some wonderfully flamboyant look-at-me choreography. This joint is no place for wallflowers: one hoodlum enters from the right side of the frame suavely performing a proto-moonwalk. Astaire responds with his most aggressive moves yet, and in this context fancy footwork trumps any old pistol. The 54-year-old Astaire looks pinched and tired in the movie’s straight dramatic scenes, but when he starts pulling those fancy steps, it seems impossible that he could be 54. The private dick gets the girl in the end.

I assume the clever appropriation of disreputable pop culture in “Girl Hunt” must have struck audiences as plenty novel in 1953; the wit of the conceit still shines through today. (How could it not, given the undying vogue for vintage pulp paperback covers.) The sequence is great fun, yet it also makes the whole movie feel smarter, sharper and more urban.

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