PLAYBILL PICKS: The Five Greatest Movies About the Theatre

By Robert Simonson
02 Aug 2012

Cyd Charisse

The Band Wagon: As often as not, the film world salutes the stage through song. There are dozens of movie musicals that tell the story of a stage musical. The Band Wagon, released in 1953, is one of the best. Though named after a famous Broadway stage revue of 1931, the plot has little to do with the original Broadway production, and the score retains only a couple songs from the show (the catalog of songwriters Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz was plundered for it, and they wrote a new number for the picture — "That's Entertainment!"). Like about half of the theatre films ever made, it's about a show in trouble. The director (played by Jack Buchanan) is a visionary kook. The leading players — Fred Astaire playing a has-been film idol looking for a career jolt and Cyd Charisse as a ballet stage who is contemptuous of stage folk — don't like each other. The playwright-songwriters (Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant) are based on Broadway's Betty Comden and Adolph Green (who wrote the screenplay). The show-within-the-movie ends up being rewritten top to bottom out of town.

"Writing 'That's Entertainment!' into the Great American Songbook would be enough to ensure this musical about musicals into the pantheon," said Cashill. "But there's so much else going on. With Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant 'doing' the writers, the incomparable Comden and Green, we get a musical comedy view of how a show changes on the road, with all the ups and downs along the way. It's as well-observed, and amusing, as the silent-into-sound-era shenanigans of their 'Singin' in the Rain' [screenplay]." Tony-winning composer-lyricist Marc Shaiman called it his "favorite M-G-M musical." Wittman said of it, "After watching Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant...I said, 'That's what I want to do. Be a married composing team!,'" while Beane quipped, "A washed-up film star tries his hand at Broadway to get his career restarted? Completely unrealistic." (Beane happened to pen the libretto of a stage version of the movie, retitled Dancing in the Dark. It stalled following a 2008 world premiere at The Old Globe in San Diego.)

Fred Astaire, Nanette Fabray and Jack Buchanan in "The Band Wagon."
© 1953 - Warner Bros.