Theatre in Film Series: The Band Wagon (1953)

Written by Ashleigh Gardner

June 29, 2016

Though theatre was my first love, film has stolen my heart in recent years. In Part II of our ongoing Theatre in Film series, we explore the latter years of Classical Hollywood Cinema when Technicolor was new and movie musicals, filled with rich color and vibrant acting, lifted off the screen. For the first film in Part II, we celebrate The Band Wagon from 1953.

The Band Wagon (1953)

Directors: Vincente Minnelli
Starring: Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Oscar Levant, Nanette Fabray, and Jack Buchanan

What happens:

Tony Hunter (Astaire), a famous movie star, has been commissioned to return to his roots — the stage — for a musical comedy written by his friends, Lester and Lily Marton (Levant and Fabray). When the trio approach famous classical dramatic actor, Jeffrey Cordova (Buchanan), and solicit his involvement, Cordova inserts himself into the production and transforms the show’s light comedy into a horrific retelling of the Faust tale. Tony also takes issue with his co-star, famous ballerina Gabriella “Gaby” Gerard (Cyd Charisse), over her height and classical dancing style. After an unsuccessful and embarrassing opening night, the entire company bands together to return the musical to its original script and take it on tour. And through the successful run of the show, Tony finds himself falling in love with his once-despised leading lady.

Why it matters:

Ranked alongside Singin’ in the Rain as one of Classical Hollywood Cinema’s top movie musicals, The Band Wagon explores rich and larger-than-life characters to match its vibrantly colored and saturated sets and costumes. Unlike the previous five films in our Theatre in Film series, The Band Wagon is in full Technicolor and utilizes this aspect to the fullest degree, especially in the arcade scene in which Fred Astaire’s character is surrounded by reds, blues, and yellows with bright marquee lights positioned overhead. These visual aspects are identifiers of films from this era, but their stories keep them more grounded.

Character relationships in this film parallel those we experience in reality. Jeffrey Cordova is the experienced and conceited actor who plants himself as director and performer in one, selfishly taking over the production from the minds that created it. Lester and Lily Marton are the frustrated writers who quickly find that a script in the wrong hands can spell disaster. Tony Hunter and Gaby Gerard, two performers who have very different styles of expression, despise each other: Tony is made uncomfortable by Gaby’s height and classical background, and Gaby, while star-struck in his presence, dislikes his unprofessional immaturity. (These complaints weren’t just fictional either. Astaire demanded Charisse wear flats in all scenes in which they performed together.)

Not only is this film about the common theatrical personas and we encounter every day on the stage (and behind the scenes), it’s a testament to the changes we make between the day we begin a show and the day we close it. Cordova doesn’t remain overbearing; he rallies for the success of the production after its returned to the original script. Lester and Lily make up after an awful fight that dares to halt the production. Tony and Gaby, through a series of moments where they discover one another’s passion and talent for theatre, trade their ire for respect and admiration. And despite the cliché of a love story that inevitably finds its way into Golden Age cinema, The Band Wagon showcases one that works through very real issues, not just for ordinary people, but performers, too.

This film is the first featured in Part II of “Theatre in Film”. See below for the others in Part II.


Want to start with Part I? Check out 42nd Street (1933).

Ashleigh Gardner received her AA in Theatre/Drama/Dramatic Arts from Valencia College and her Bachelors Degree in English Literature and Masters Degree in Literary, Cultural, and Textual Studies from the University of Central Florida. She is a playwright, an actor, and’s Editor. 
Thumbnail image from The Band Wagon. Copyright © 1953 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.