The Band Wagon [Warner Home Entertainment] might not be the best movie musical ever, or maybe it is. The property hails from Broadway, at least in a manner of speaking. It has little to do with the 1931 musical of the same name (spelled The Bandwagon); the songs come from the catalogue of that revue's creators, Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz, and original star Fred Astaire repeats his chores (although he sings only one of his Bandwagon songs in The Band Wagon). But in 1953, The Bandwagon was still legendary; it has long been considered the finest Broadway revue ever, although I can only find one current-day theatregoer who actually saw it. And, indeed, he says it is the finest Broadway revue since he started seeing them all in 1924. When M-G-M decided to build a movie around Schwartz & Dietz songs, the title was there for the taking (especially since Dietz was vice-president of the firm, having handled their publicity since the days of silent pictures).
Fred Astaire is at his suavest best, accompanied by two other top-drawer musical comedy stars. Nanette Fabray was Broadway's new golden girl at the time. (Three consecutive flop musicals did her in, and she was supplanted by new girl in town Gwen Verdon.) Jack Buchanan was a song-and-dance man with style, the British Fred Astaire if you will. Each has his or her moment to shine, and when the trio come together for "Triplets" (from the 1937 musical Between the Devil), they will slay you. This is musical comedy know-how, transferred to the screen. At the helm of this Band Wagon was Vincente Minnelli, whose first important Broadway credit was Dietz & Schwartz's 1935 revue At Home Abroad.
Along with those stars and those songs (which include "Dancing in the Dark," "By Myself," "High and Low" and the written-for-Hollywood rouser "That's Entertainment"), The Band Wagon has a delicious screenplay devised by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. So the whole thing is a great treat. The two-DVD set has been decked out with all sorts of watchable extras, so there's no question about this one.
The Band Wagon is available singly or as part of Warner Home Entertainment's Classic Musicals box set. Three of the four other titles are adaptations of Broadway musicals. Bells Are Ringing does the job fairly well, preserving the treasured stage performance of Judy Holliday in what turned out to be her last hurrah. "I'm Goin' Back," Judy sings in her big final number, "where I can be me, to the Bonjour Tristesse Brassiere Company." This is selling a song, all right. Once again Comden & Green and Minnelli, this time with music from Jule Styne.
The other adaptations are good examples of what not to do. Finian's Rainbow and Brigadoon, two near-perfect musicals that opened within two months in early 1947, both collapse on celluloid. For different reasons, yes, but the films are mighty curious. With On the Town, An American in Paris and Singin' in the Rain under Gene Kelly's belt, M-G-M decided in 1954 to send him to the Highlands of Scotland. Not a good idea, as it turned out. For starters, what had been two strong-singing roles on stage were handed to dancers Kelly and Cyd Charisse. This one was yet another Minnelli epic, but without that magic touch. There's Kelly, and then there's Astaire. Astaire got Finian's but it was a very different Astaire in a very different era. The show's strong social stance kept it off the screen for more than 20 years. By the time it went before the cameras, it was the age of Aquarius — Hair had already arrived on Broadway — and Astaire was pushing 70. So Fred didn't play the romantic hero, or the comic hero; instead, he played the heroine's father. This was a non-singing role in 1947; the fellow who played it on stage, coincidentally enough, appears as the heroine's father in the Brigadoon film. In an attempt at making Finian's significant to 1968 audiences, youthful director Francis Ford Coppola was put in charge. The results were understandably very different from what was onstage in 1947; that was the whole idea, I suppose. But it doesn't reflect well on what Burton Lane and Yip Harburg created a generation before.
Coming soon to a theatre near us, to coin a new paraphrase, is the Disney Cameron Mackintosh Mary Poppins. In the meantime, the house of Walt has seen fit to outfit a super-duper new 2-DVD release of the 1964 original [Buena Vista]. Mary Poppins is a jolly 'oliday, all right. The stars, Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke — both Broadway recruits — are supercali-whatever; the score, by the Brothers Sherman (currently on Broadway with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), contains a good handful of fine tunes, and the film is loaded with charm and magical effects.
The music sounds especially good, in large part due to the presence of orchestrator Irv Kostal. Kostal was just then in his prime, following West Side Story, Fiorello! Tenderloin and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Listen, and watch, the way the Mary Poppins orchestrations prop up the action on the screen. Quite a spree, it is. Mary Poppins served to force Kostal out of the Broadway market. Conflicting schedules prompted him to walk out on his contract for Fiddler on the Roof. (Which would you choose?) Poppins turned out to be the right choice, especially as it led Kostal directly to the film version of The Sound of Music.
Disney has also released their cinema classic Bambi [Buena Vista]. This never was a stage musical, and presumably never will be (although stranger things have happened). Bambi is less musical than its Disney brethren, with the songs more incidental than character-related. That's probably all to the good, and besides the point; this 1942 film is quite special, and as is typical the two-disc set is loaded with interesting extras (including deleted scenes, a "making of" documentary, and more). With a spiffed-up, state-of-the-art restoration, Bambi shows us what Disney was doing back when Walt was at the controls. In 1942, in the middle of World War II, a film like Bambi must have really seemed magical.
—Steven Suskin, author of "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork" [Chronicle Books], the "Broadway Yearbook" series, "Show Tunes" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.