by Judy Geater
There’s a Western musical number in one of Fred Astaire’s least-known films, Let’s Dance (1950), where a TV set is seen on the wall, showing a cowboy film. Astaire eyes it disbelievingly for a second – then whips out a gun and shoots the screen. A slightly less drastic method of getting rid of the competition is used at the start of another Fifties film musical, Young at Heart (1954.) Here, an elderly Ethel Barrymore is sitting watching a boxing match on television, but the commentary is deliberately drowned out by her musician brother (Robert Keith), until she switches off – and the message is driven home by a wry comment that he “won the fight”.
In real life, however, the fight wasn’t so easy to win.The audience was falling away to television, and the writing was on the wall for big-budget Technicolor musical extravaganzas. When The Band Wagon was released in 1953, MGM’s Arthur Freed unit, which had made so many great films, was facing a struggle for funding, and Astaire’s contract with the studio was coming to an end. It’s hardly surprising that, despite its lavish musical sequences, including Astaire and Cyd Charisse’s romantic Dancing in the Dark, the film at times has a sad, wistful feeling about it compared to the high spirits of Singin’ In The Rain the previous year.
These two movies are often compared, as both are backstage stories featuring great songbooks of musical standards. (The songs for The Band Wagon are all by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz, and some had featured in Astaire’s 1931 Broadway musical with the same title, though the story is completely different). Also, both The Band Wagon and Singin’ in the Rain had scripts written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, loaded with many satirical references . However, as David Parkinson points out in The Rough Guide to Film Musicals: “Whereas Gene Kelly’s confident classic was an optimistic paean to talking pictures, Fred Astaire’s underrated homage to the stage was shrouded in a pessimism that implied that the days of old-time show business were numbered.” (more…)