Song and dance man Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) fears he is yesterday's man; for example, a sale of his memorabilia at an auction leaves the auctioneer desperately pleading for bids and when he is on a train to New York from his home in Los Angeles he interrupts two passengers reminiscing about his past glories to tell them that he's all washed up. Yet there's a reason he is going to the Big Apple, and that's because he has a possibility of a new show that he might well star in. After three years of going nowhere, perhaps this will provide a break for him - but the business has changed since he's been away...
Part of the fun of watching The Band Wagon is wondering how much of it was based in fact. Did Astaire really believe himself to be a hasbeen at the time this was made? Was Cyd Charisse too tall for most of her dancing partners? And was putting on a show truly as traumatic as the film makes out - and was this film equally as bothersome for the participants? It was scripted by Betty Comden and Adolph Green who wrote a pair of surrogate characters essentially playing themselves as a husband and wife couple (they weren't married in real life), adding to the musing on precisely how accurate a depiction of backstage troubles this was.
Although this is one of the most graceful musicals of its era, the experience of going through the efforts to make a hit show does appear to bring out the worst in its characters. We're in no doubt that they're all decent people - there are no villains here - it's just that circumstances have them all pulling in different directions when you would think by this time they would understand that they were working in a collaborative medium. They do eventually see eye to eye, but not before their big production looks to be heading for a major disaster.
There are a few reasons for that, but the impresario in charge, Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan spoofing José Ferrer) goes in completely the wrong direction for the talents of Tony, rebuilding the writers' work as an ultra-pretentious musical version of Faust. This could have been played for more laughs than it is, but there are bits which make it clear that this is the cast and crew's livelihood at stake, so it's not so much of a joke to them if they're honest. All the main characters clash, whether it's Tony and ballet dancer and leading lady Gabrielle Gerard (Charisse) thinking the other doesn't want them around, or the relationship between writers Lester (Oscar Levant) and Lily (Nanette Fabray) close to break up.
What saves this from wallowing in misery is the lightness of touch director Vincente Minnelli brings, and some excellent song and dance choices. At first the film is sparing with the big numbers, Astaire's shoeshine performance standing out, but as the characters find ther feet so does the film reflect that, and soon not two minutes is going by without someone breaking out into song. Once Jeffrey's vision is a flop, Tony gets everyone back on track as if to prove the relevance of the older, classic productions that might have been forgotten in a brash modern age, which not coincidentally proves that Astaire still had what it took to succeed as well. Highlights from then on include Astaire and Buchanan's exquisite "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan", the bizarre "Triplets" and the grand finale, obviously inspired by Gene Kelly, where Astaire and Charisse perform a Mickey Spillane tribute. This really is one of the brightest of the fifties.