Saturday, March 10, 2012

On "The Band Wagon" with Nanette Fabray

When I was in grade school, seeing a Fred Astaire musical on television was the next best thing to finding gifts under the tree on Christmas morning.  His work still lights me up like that inside.  In 1989, I was a VH1 veejay and talk show host.  That work occasionally took me from New York City to Los Angeles.  One particular direct flight back to NYC from LA seemed to last only one hour.  I was seated next to Nanette Fabray, one of the stars who sang and danced with Astaire in his excellent 1953 MGM musical, Vincente Minnelli's The Band Wagon.  How I love this movie!  A big sparking gem in the famed MGM musical crown, it's one of the great musicals Hollywood delivered back in its studio days.
Fabray and Oscar Levant are Lily and Lester Marton, the husband and wife Broadway team that's written an entertaining new musical comedy to lure Tony Hunter (Astaire) from Hollywood back to his Broadway roots.  Tony's movie stardom has dimmed a bit.  He's in a career lull.  The Martons are positive they have his comeback vehicle but they have to convince their sweet, worried friend that he's not too out-of-date to bring in a Broadway audience.
 Tony, a top Hollywood song-and-dance man, hasn't made a movie in a couple of years.  Some catty columnists have written him off as being "washed up."  The Band Wagon cleverly opens with a bright overture and credits over Hunter's -- and Astaire's -- trade mark.  A top hat.  
This rhymes the opening of the original 1935 RKO musical comedy, co-starring Ginger Rogers, that made Fred Astaire a major Hollywood star -- Top Hat.  
However, in The Band Wagon, Tony Hunter's trademark from one of his old musicals is now up for auction to the highest bidder.  If there is a bidder.  That's Hollywood.  In Manhattan, Tony's working with acclaimed multi-talented, pretentious and lovably egotistical director/actor Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan).   Cordova casts a new sensation, the highbrow ballerina Garbrielle Gerard (gorgeous Cyd Charisse), to be Tony's leading lady in the Martons' show.
His younger leading lady.  Tony is sensitive about his age.  The two dancers bicker almost a soon as they meet but we know all will be well.  Jeffrey and The Martons rally Tony's confidence with a rousing new song written for the film, a song that would become an anthem for MGM musicals history, "That's Entertainment."  This tune by Arthur Schwartz & Howard Dietz should've been an Oscar nominee for Best Song.  Can you sing the title tune from The Moon Is Blue?  Neither can I but it was a 1953 Best Song nominee opposite Oscar winner "Secret Love" from Calamity Jane.  "That's Entertainment" has proven to be way more memorable than "The Moon Is Blue."  The 1974 documentary named after the Schwartz & Dietz song, That's Entertainment!, was a compilation of many famous numbers and stars from the MGM musicals.  This was years before cable TV and DVD rentals came on the scene.  That's Entertainment! was such a big box office hit that two sequels followed.
There was no way I could sit next to Nanette Fabray and not ask her about working with Fred Astaire.  But how would I break the ice politely and, at the same time, convey that I really knew something about the crew of that Minnelli classic?  I asked her if Roger Edens was as brilliant as they say.  What a smile that put on her face.  Edens coached her for singing in The Band Wagon and she loved him.  Thank goodness for that Arthur Freed production.  It's the only movie that utilized Fabray's musical talents the way Broadway did.  Ms. Fabray told me she was really surprised and overjoyed that they had a hit movie.  She couldn't tell if it would be a hit while they were in production.  She said that director Vincente Minnelli would be a little blue sometimes because, although they were newly-divorced, he was still in love with Judy Garland, Oscar Levant was definitely a hypochondriac but really had suffered a mild heart problem while making the movie, Jack Buchanan underwent extensive dental surgery that made his mouth sore before shooting, Fred Astaire was concerned about his beloved wife who had just started to show signs of declining health and Cyd Charisse seemed aloof.  Fabray said that Charisse wasn't aloof when she'd go off to her dressing room.  She was worried about her husband, Tony Martin, who was not working and at home.  She constantly checked on him.  His hearing was so bad in one ear that it was almost clinically deaf.  "And then," Fabray chuckled, "we all got together and sang That's Entertainment."  She told me that Astaire was a serious, focused dancer who challenged himself.  A true gentleman.  She loved that he was jealous of her in the "Triplets" number.  There's a lift she did near the end of it that he couldn't do.  She teased Astaire by bragging that she had better stomach muscles.
In 1931, Fred Astaire and his sister, Adele, had one of their several Broadway successes in a musical revue called The Band Wagon.  That cast included future Astaire film co-stars Helen Broderick (Top Hat, Swing Time) and Frank Morgan (Broadway Melody of 1940, Yolanda and the Thief).
Minnelli's film has the same title and a few of the show's songs by Schwartz & Dietz but a vastly different plot.  Betty Comden and Adolph Green gave us this witty Hollywood-on-Broadway script after their Hollywood-on-Hollywood Singin' in the Rain script, another top MGM musical.  Singin' in the Rain star, Gene Kelly, was constantly complimented as being "athletic" in his dancing.  That adjective is rarely, if ever, attached to Astaire and it should be.  Look at his dance to the title tune in Top Hat, his eight consecutive lifts of Ginger over tables as their big finish to "The Yam" in Carefree, his dazzling 4th of July tap number to "Let's Say It with Firecrackers" in Holiday Inn and his drunken heartbreak rage dance after he introduces "One For My Baby" in The Sky's the Limit.  Those routines would've had the younger Gene Kelly thoroughly soaked in sweat during rehearsals.  Like Tony Hunter, Astaire reinvented himself with a new jazz beat in The Band Wagon.  The remarkable Michael Kidd (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers) choreographed this musical and, under his dance direction, Astaire was indeed athletic.
Watch Astaire as he dances to the role of tough private eye Rod Riley in the celebrated "Girl Hunt" ballet, a spoof of the popular and lurid "Mike Hammer" detective stories by Mickey Spillane.  That is not a light, easy number. It's very physical, very complicated. Notice the lifts, kicks, knee drops and fight scene.  Fred Astaire, in his early 50s, made it look easy.  He was graceful, he was elegant, he was athletic, he was totally cool.
In that number Gaby (Charisse) also reinvents herself dancing the roles of the brunette vamp ("She came at me in sections.  More curves than a scenic railway") and the blonde damsel in distress ("She was scared.  Scared as a turkey in November").  Kidd's choreography gave Charisse an iconic screen image used in the movie poster and shown in every network news report of her passing in 2008.  Those legs!  Cyd Charisse in a sexy red dress and legs that seemed to stretch from MGM's Culver City soundstage all the way to the United Kingdom. Va-va-va-voom!  The "Girl Hunt" number is a knock-out.
If you saw this number in The Band Wagon, you knew who the killer was in Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy.  In writing Madonna's character for that 1990 movie, the writers borrowed heavily from the "Girl Hunt" ballet in Vincente Minnelli's 1953 classic.  I'm being polite with "borrowed heavily."  They flat-out copied it.
The Band Wagon continues to be an inspiration.  A couple of seasons ago, NFL star Hines Ward was the big winner on ABC's Dancing with the Stars.  One of his best numbers was an ode to the "Dancing in the Dark" number.  Not only was the choreography from that romantic dance number referenced, so were the Astaire and Charisse costumes that Hines Ward and his partner wore.
There was a park bench in Astaire's "Dancing in the Dark" number.  They was a bench in the Dancing with the Stars number that Hines Ward did.  I'm sure I'm not the only film buff who noticed.
This is one of the most beautiful dances in Fred Astaire's film career and one of the most lyrical sequences in a Minnelli musical.  The bickering dancers have had some rocky rehearsals.  They call a truce and take a stroll through Central Park.  Wordless, they watch dancers, continue their stroll and absorb with sweet music of a summer night.  When they're alone, one improvises a dance move.  The other answers.  Then they stop, face each other and they become a couple.  They find their own music.  They can dance together.  If this number was on Turner Classic Movies and Martians were landing in view outside my apartment window, I would still be entranced by the "Dancing in the Dark" number with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse.  You feel Tony and Gaby begin to fall in love during this number.  Pure magic.  One of the elements I love about this Comden & Green screenplay is how problems that arose during rehearsals and the disastrous out-of-town preview are worked out by opening night.  Jeffrey, the director, is such a ham that he has to be in the shows that he directs.  Also, he's got a penchant for overdone special effects and adding too many set designs. ("You got more scenery in this show than there is in Yellowstone National Park!")  Classically trained, Jeffrey tries to make shows cerebral with a Masterpiece Theatre message instead of simply entertaining the audience.
Jeffrey learns humility.  The eccentric control freak learns to take direction when he sees that Tony is the perfect person to run the show.  Jeff becomes a supportive, entertaining song-and-dance man.  Some of his smoking special effects, terrible in early rehearsals, work perfectly in the "Girl Hunt" jazz ballet of the revamped show.  Tony can still wear his trademark top hat.  He combines the old with something new in The Band Wagon.
The Martons get to keep their original concept of a fun, topical musical revue.  It wasn't diluted into the intellectual musical version of Faust that Cordova originally -- and dreadfully -- staged.  The pulp fiction fun is back.
Tony is sensitive about his height at the beginning.  He's positive that if Gaby wears heels in a number, she'll be taller than he is.  Gaby wears heels in the "Girl Hunt" ballet.  The height problem is solved by simply putting a hat on Tony.
"The show's a hit," Gaby says as the company toasts a surprised Tony after the show.  Critics and audiences love the Broadway musical with star and director Tony Hunter.  And Gaby knows the feeling.  "We've come to love you Tony," she reveals.  I really dig this closing monologue written for Charisse.  It's so delicious the way she lets him know she's a lady in love.  The cast and company uniting for a reprise of "That's Entertainment" is just the perfect way to end this outstanding "Let's put on a show!" musical comedy.  One of the ironies of Old Hollywood is that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, who made film history as a legendary dance team in outstanding Hollywood musical comedies, got their Oscar nominations for dramatic work.  Ginger won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance as independent Kitty Foyle.  Astaire was a Best Supporting Actor contender for the all-star disaster blockbuster hit, The Towering Inferno.  If Fred Astaire had ever been a Best Actor Academy Award nominee for one of his musicals, he should've been nominated for The Band Wagon.  What he did at age 52 deserved a shot at some Hollywood gold.  Nanette Fabray was so lucky to work with him.
Fabray also gave me sage advice about the "business" of show business.  Her top recommendation was to "get it in writing."  Her late husband, Ranald MacDougall, had an Oscar nomination to his credit for writing the screenplay that helped Joan Crawford win a Best Actress Academy Award.  He wrote Mildred Pierce.  MacDougall wrote NBC's 1966 pilot,  Fame Is the Name of the Game, starring Anthony Franciosa.  Fabray said that there was a handshake agreement between her husband and a very honorable TV exec friend if the pilot got picked up.  Unfortunately the friend died before the pilot was picked up and, well, let's say that less honorable TV execs got involved.  Anthony Franciosa played the same character in NBC's 1968 hit series, The Name of the Game but MacDougall's name is not in the credits.  He wrote the pilot yet got no credit when his work became a series -- with characters from his pilot script.  He got no money either.  By the way, Franciosa played a man who worked for People Magazine -- and this was about six years before there really was a magazine called People.  What a fabulous, unforgettable time I had talking to the witty and wise Nanette Fabray.  Unfortunately for us, she starred in only one Hollywood musical.  But The Band Wagon is one of the best.

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