Commentary Track

The Band Wagon (1953)

This week on The Spectator Film Podcast…

The Band Wagon (1953) 12.19.19
Featuring: Austin, Maxx

Commentary track begins at 9:30

— Notes —

  • “The Band Wagon” by Joe McElhaney from Senses of Cinema — Review of The Band Wagon from Senses of Cinema.
  • “Minnelli, Vincente” by Joe McElhaney from Senses of Cinema — Great director profile from Senses of Cinema.
  • “Two-Faced Woman” outtake from The Band Wagon — An excised song from the film. This number further emphasizes Cyd Charisse’s liminal position between Art and Entertainment, and the sets utilize the same art style found in the Isle of the Dead sketch transition.
  • “Ghost singer India Adams appears” by Susan King from Los Angeles Times — This article’s surprisingly brief given its fascinating subject matter, but it still manages to shed some light on India Adams and the practice of ghost singing in Hollywood musicals.
  • “The self-reflexive musical and the myth of entertainment” by Jane Feuer — This links to a PDF of a tremendously insightful essay discussing the concept of spontaneity within the musical genre. Feuer’s discussion of the musical’s valorization of spontaneity and improvisation is incredibly helpful for any examination of The Band Wagon.
  • Genre: The Musical edited by Rick Altman — This is a truly fantastic anthology of essays on the (mostly American) musical. I’m not quite sure if it remains in print, but if you can get your hands on it we highly recommend picking it up. “Vincente Minnelli” by Thomas Elsaesser and “Art and Ideology: Notes on Silk Stockings” by Robin Wood were both helpful in guiding our discussion for this week, but The Band Wagon is mentioned by several more essays as well. We’ll include some relevant passages below:
    • “Vincente Minnelli” by Thomas Elsaesser
      • “For what seems to me essential to all of Minnelli’s films is the fact that his characters are only superficially concerned with a quest, a desire to get somewhere in life, i.e. with any of the forms by which this dynamism rationalizes or sublimates itself. What we have instead, just beneath the surface of the plots, is the working of energy itself, as the ever-changing, fascinating movement of a basic impulse in its encounter with, or victory over, a given reality. The characters’ existence is justified by the incessant struggle in which they engage for total fulfillment, for total gratification of their aesthetic needs, their desire for beauty and harmony, they demand for an identity of their lives with the reality of their dreams. Minnelli’s films are structured so as to give the greatest possible scope to the expansive nature of a certain vitality (call it ‘will’, or libido) – in short, to the confrontation of an inner, dynamic, reality and an outward, static one” (15).

      • “Minnelli’s typical protagonists are all, in a manner of speaking, highly sophisticated and cunning day-dreamers, and the mise en scene follows them, as they go through life, confusing – for good or ill – what is part of their imagination and what is real, and trying to obliterate the difference between what is freedom and what is necessity… What, in this context, characterizes the Minnelli musical is the total and magic victory of the impulse, the vision, over any reality whatsoever. The characters in his musicals transform the world into a reflection of their selves, into a pure expression of their joys and sorrows, of their inner harmony or conflicting states of mind” (15).

      • “Thus defined, the world of the musical becomes a kind of ideal image of the medium itself, the infinitely variable material substance on which the very structure of desire and the imagination can imprint itself, freed from all physical necessity. The quickly changing décor, the transitions in the lighting and the colours of a scene, the freedom of composition, the shift from psychological realism to pure fantasy, from drama to surreal farce, the culmination of an action in a song, the change of movement into rhythmic dance – all this constitutes the very essence of the musical. In other words, it is the exaltation of the artifice as the vehicle of an authentic psychic and emotional reality. Minnelli’s musicals introduce us to a liberated universe, where the total freedom of expression (of the character’s creative impulse) serves to give body and meaning to the artistic vitality of the director, both being united by their roles as metteurs en scene of the self” (16).

      • “The paradox of the musical, namely that a highly artificial, technically and artistically controlled décor and machinery can be the manifestation of wholly spontaneous, intimate movements, or the visualization of submerged, hardly conscious aspirations, becomes not only Minnelli’s metaphor for the cinema as a whole, but more specifically, it makes up his central moral concern: how does the individual come to realize himself, reach his identity, create his personal universe, fulfill his life in a world of chaos and confusion, riddled with social conventions” (16-17).

    • “Art and Ideology: Notes on Silk Stockings” by Robin Wood
      • “The validation of ‘entertainment as against ‘art.’ ‘Entertainment’ – as something to be passively absorbed rather than actively participated in, dedicated to the discouragement of awareness – is a central ‘bourgeois-Capitalist’ concept and one inherent in the Hollywood musical as a genre, surfacing in the case of individual films as an explicit concern. The overt, if often only superficial, anti-intellectualism of a number of Hollywood musicals… is obvious… Art, both classical and avant-garde… is belittled and ridiculed because it is potentially disturbing and subversive and because it demands active concentration. Entertainment gives people what they ‘really want’ – the kind of temporary escape and distraction that prevents their dissatisfactions from reaching articulation” (63).

      • “This particular ideological project is neatly epitomized in the ‘That’s Entertainment’ number in The Band Wagon, which explicitly reduces all cultural achievements indiscriminately to the same level of innocuousness. (Cyd Charisse’s ballet-dancing in the same film can be presented straight, partly because she is a woman and ballet is regarded as a feminine art, partly because ballet here is decorative rather than disturbing, hence poses poses no challenge to the entertainment concept.) The blatancy of this is concealed beneath an appeal to debased democratic principle: Entertainment is anti-elistist because it is what anyone can appreciate without much effort” (63-64).

  • The Routledge Dance Studies Reader [2nd Ed.] edited by Alexandra Carter — We didn’t feature this book during our conversation, but it’s still worth mentioning for the two insightful pieces by Richard Dyer and John Meuller analyzing the ‘Dancing in the Dark’ sequence. If those pieces are any indication, this is a useful volume for anyone looking to learn more about dance.

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