THE BAND WAGON (TWO-DISC SPECIAL EDITION - WARNER HOME VIDEO)
EASTER PARADE (TWO-DISC SPECIAL EDITION - WARNER HOME VIDEO)
 

 

Ever since I saw both SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (1952) and THE BAND WAGON (1953) I've been unable to decide which is the greater of the two and therefore which deserves the crown as the finest film musical of all time. Whenever I'd watch the deliriously funny SINGIN' (available from Warner in a stupendous Ultra-Resolution Two-Disc set) I'd never fail to be overwhelmed by the eager-to-please-at-all-costs energy and sheer bravado of that incomparably exhilarating and tuneful satire about the difficult transition between the silent screen and the talkies. After each viewing I'd be absolutely certain that no other musical could possibly top this phenomenal Kelly-O'Connor romp. In anticipation of my writing of this review I re-ran SINGIN' prior to screening Warner's stunning dvd debut of THE BAND WAGON and I hereby resolve that at the tail-end of this article I will, at long last, and with complete certainty, announce my eagerly anticipated (?) decision as to which film goes to the very top of the list. 

Let's first discuss the obvious similarities between the two. Both were originated and conceived by MGM uber-producer Arthur Freed, who hired Betty Comden and Adolph Green to invent from scratch a screenplay built around nothing more than a decades-old catalogue of great songs that had been collecting dust in the Metro vaults. Both starred the only two male dancers to ever reach continuous above-the-title super-stardom, Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. SINGIN' satirized the creation of an early-talkie movie, while WAGON targeted the misfortune and mayhem-ridden creation of a Broadway theatrical musical show. Both featured a long ballet-dance sequence near the final reel. Both were among the last non-widescreen 3-Strip Technicolor hit musicals that Metro produced before their shameful decision to switch to cheaper Ansco Color.

However, one significant way in which these two films sharply diverge is their vastly different tone, which seems to be strongly influenced by the very opposite personalities of Kelly and Astaire. SINGIN', like its star, is relentlessly ego-driven, showy, opportunistic, muscular, bombastic and competitively streetwise in its approach and demeanor. The tone of WAGON, on the other hand, is in every way, shape and form a mirror image of the Astaire persona: sophisticated, refined, subtle, elegant, slyly witty, humble, hard-working to a fault but eager not to show it, shyly self-effacing and wistfully romantic. The fact that it sometimes ventures into reality-based situations and character-driven darker areas that SINGIN' avoids at all costs makes it a significantly deeper film than SINGIN' and because of the unhurried manner in which it makes its satirical points it certainly is a warmer, and far more relaxing experience. 

There's so much to savor. The Penny Arcade "Shine On Your Shoes" number in which Astaire's initially rueful mood gradually and believably shifts into ebullience. The incomparably romantic Central Park "Dancing In The Dark" sequence, in which the prior antagonism of Astaire and gorgeous-beyond-words Cyd Charisse tentatively transforms to love. The joyous introduction of the show-business anthem "That's Entertainment" that injects a weary theatrical group (and us!) with unbridled enthusiasm. The lunacy and inventiveness of the "Triplets" number in which Astaire, Nanette Fabray, and Jack Buchanan ( hilarious beyond comparison as an ego-maniacal Broadway wonder-boy!) must dance on their knees to approximate the appearance of baby triplets who despise each other. The audacious and boldly colorful "Girl Hunt" ballet which uproariously sends up those penny-dreadful Mickey Spillane detective paperbacks while utilizing Michael Kidd's daringly modernistic choreography. The absolutely fantastic set design. The unparalleled musical arrangements of Adolph Deutsch and Conrad Salinger, and, of course, the inspired and meticulous direction of the great Vincente Minnelli at the very top of his form.

It's interesting to note that whenever Minnelli worked with Astaire (YOLANDA AND THE THIEF, the "Limehouse Blues" number in ZIEGFELD FOLLIES) the director would go to great lengths to emphasize the darkness in the previously uncomplicated and light-as-air Astaire personality . Thus, it might be said that Minnelli's influence on Astaire was similar to Alfred Hitchcock's and Anthony Mann's on James Stewart. In any case, Astaire delivers an acting performance of a depth and variety of emotions that is quite stunning to see. Of particular note is the sudden blistering "farewell" speech ("Tony Hunter -1953!") he angrily delivers at mid-point in which his sense of frustration at cast and crew finally boils over. Without question this is Astaire's finest hour as an actor.

I looked and I looked, but try as I may I could find no mention in the publicity or liner notes that Warner's had utilized its miraculous Ultra-Resolution process on this particular dvd. No matter. What we have here is one of the finest, if not THE finest, transfer of a full-screen 3-Strip Technicolor film that I've ever seen. Having screened THE BAND WAGON scores of times I'm convinced that no transfer, with the possible exception of Warner's own THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD has ever duplicated the original look of a difficult-to-transfer and complex Technicolor film with such fidelity. The vast palette of colors that only true Technicolor could produce fairly leap off the screen with a degree of sharpness and utter lack of distortion or blooming that is simply mind-boggling to witness, as are the perfectly rendered skin tones. The original monaural sound option is fine, but the reprocessed 5.1 Dolby Digital option bests it by a mile, gloriously emphasizing the magnificent contributions of arrangers Deutsch and Salinger. 

And now, as promised, I am ready to finally and with complete and unyielding certainty declare once and forever whether SINGIN' IN THE RAIN or THE BAND WAGON will ,in my opinion, occupy first position as the greatest original film musical of all time.

AND THE WINNER IS ----- (fanfare, please!) 

THE BAND WAGON ! (applause!)

No , wait a minute, I've changed my mind. SINGIN' IN THE RAIN is definitely the greater of the two. That's final! 

What could I possibly be thinking? The winner, without a shadow of a doubt, is THE BAND WAGON. That's all brother! 

On the other hand ------------------- 

The fact that the plot of EASTER PARADE (1948) is but a tenuous, fragile, and gossamer excuse to somewhat haphazardly pull together 22 old and (then) new songs and wrap them up in a beautiful and sumptuously appointed Technicolor package doesn't decrease the continuous level of total enjoyment and bountiful pleasures that this buoyant and engaging film provides one iota. How could it, when the songs are by Irving Berlin and are sung and danced to by no less than Judy Garland, Fred Astaire (his comeback film after a self-imposed two year retirement) and Ann Miller in her MGM debut. 

It's abundantly clear from their first on-screen moment together that Garland and Astaire love working together, and it's their palpable affection and respect for each other's abilities that imbues this happy frolic with a joie de vivre the like of which has seldom been experienced or equalled in other cinematic musical creations, and makes one aware of what we missed when Garland's mental problems kept her from reuniting with Astaire in both THE BARKLEY'S OF BROADWAY and ROYAL WEDDING. While EASTER PARADE remains an infinitely more conventional musical show than THE BAND WAGON, the high spirits, abundance of humor, unbridled joy, and toe-tappingly terrific teamwork that these two legends display here provides the lucky viewer with ample reason to revisit this delightful EASTER PARADE again and again. 

Virtually all who view Warner's new EASTER transfer will be blown away by the intense sharpness and loud, varied and unblemished colors that leap from the screen at virtually every instant. That said, the few remaining fanatical 3-Strip Technicolor purists among us who know the way this film originally looked  might be taken aback by the oversaturated colors that make the entire cast (and even the MGM lion!) look as if they had just returned from an extended visit to Palm Springs. Just compare the skin tones on display here to THE BAND WAGON's 100% accurate tones and the few who care will see what I mean. The laser-disc and especially the Turner Classic Movies' transfer were clearly too bland and drained of color, but in this isolated case it would appear that the Warner folk have overcompensated somewhat. The monaural sound is as crisp and clear as can be, which makes us appreciate even more than usual the terrific Lennie Hayton and Conrad Salinger musical arrangements that were supervised and conducted by the great Johnny Green. 

--DICK DINMAN

 

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