Saturday, May 11, 2013

Jumping Off

The Band Wagon (1953)
directed by Vincente Minnelli
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

"Made in Hollywood, USA" is better than "The End," I think, on the last frame of a movie (especially a movie set in New York). So I'll start with what I liked: the scenery. But it's more specific than that. The Band Wagon is self-referential, in that Fred Astaire's character, his fictional writer friends, and the self-involved director are stand-ins for Astaire and the film's crew. It's easy to see how the movie was influential on everyone from Jean-Luc Godard to Michael Jackson, but it isn't an easy movie to love.

That said, the Technicolor hot dog stand on "42nd Street" where Astaire stops when he steps off the train should be in the National Register of Historic Places. He buys a hot dog, then gives it to a kid, then tries his luck at the midway. Fred's feeling down because no one cares about an aging movie star. Everyone on the train from California kept talking about Ava Gardner; the paparazzi he greeted at Grand Central Station were waiting for her, not him.

Minnelli's point, in the end, is that an animatronic fortune teller is a better contribution to the world than the complete works of Christopher Marlowe (more or less). The 20th century beats all comers, and it's a fine sentiment. But take that scene on the midway. There's a song—the movie's first—but the subject isn't skeeball or cotton candy, but... a shoe shine. A shoe shine lifts your spirits. A shoe shine sets you right.

Roger Sterling would love it. The problem isn't that Minnelli subverts high art, but that times change, so Astaire's duet with a black man kneeling at his feet undoes all that modern goodwill. It's still a movie about the theater—big stage productions, soft shoes—even as it claims that theater can't compare to arcade lights on the big screen. Singin' in the Rain was released in 1952, but this feels like a precursor. 

Rainy nights on city sidewalks, like almost anything else, look especially good in Technicolor. My favorite "number" was the noir routine, mostly because the subway stage set looks just like a subway movie set, and it's always great to have a pretty stranger show up on a platform and wait for a train.