One of the distinctive things about the Freed Unit at MGM was that they didn’t just mine Broadway for film material; Arthur Freed brought Broadway talent to Hollywood. One of these was Tony-winning actor, dancer, and choreographer Michael Kidd. Born Milton Greenwald to Russian Jewish refugees on August 12, 1915, Brooklynite Kidd briefly studied engineering before switching to dance. He was bored and engineering was too impersonal.
Kidd first made a name for himself as a soloist with the American Ballet Theatre, succinctly billed as “The Kid,” before switching to choreography. He won a Tony Award for his work on Finian’s Rainbow in 1947, the first of five Tonys he would receive from the Broadway community over the course of his career.
What made Kidd’s choreography special was that he not only drew from a very big toolbox, incorporating jazz, ballet, tap, and any other style he could work in, but he constructed his routines like a ballet: Character development was communicated through the dance. Kidd called it, “human behavior and people’s manners, stylized into musical rhythmic forms.”
Arthur Freed poached Kidd when he saw Kidd’s choreography on Guys and Dolls, and Kidd’s first Hollywood film was 1952’s Where’s Charley, an adaptation of the stage hit starring Ray Bolger. However, 1953’s The Band Wagon is where Kidd really broke through. On the surface it might seem like an average let’s-put-on-a-show film, but it’s one of the more authentic backstage stories out there because the people who made it lived it. Everyone who worked on the film, from screenwriters Adolph Green and Betty Comden to director Vincent Minnelli to the actors such as Nanette Fabray, had long histories on the stage.
The movie opens on the train to New York, and one of its passengers is Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire). Tony’s a washed-up actor who can’t get an job to save his life, so he’s heading back to his stage roots. His career is in such shambles that when he tries to have his stuff auctioned off, no one bites, not even when the lot is his old top hat and cane.
Once in New York, Tony meets up with his old friends Lester and Lily Marton (Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray). They’ve got a new show they’ve written, and they’re all ready to run it past pre-eminent triple threat Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan). Jeffrey thinks he knows what Tony’s problem is: He’s too old fashioned. “Times have changed, Tony, and you have to change with them.”
Okeydokey. Jeffrey might think that Tony’s behind the times, but he’s not exactly enthusiastic about Lester and Lily’s show, either. He’s planning on making a few changes.
First of all, though, they have to get prima ballerina Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse) on board. She’s fine about doing the show, but she and Tony are skeptical about each other. They don’t think their styles mesh well and Tony thinks Gabi is too tall. These two go at each other like cats and dogs, making rehearsals a pain in the neck.
One night, though, Gabi comes over to apologize, and she and Tony go walking through Central Park. Put it this way: They find a way to meet in the middle. After that, rehearsals are much more peaceful. Oh yeah, and the two fall in love, not that we see much of it.
Too bad the show’s a mess and the opening night is a disaster. No one even comes to the afterparty. Later on, Tony finds the chorus and crew having a grand time of their own, and one by one Gabi, the Martons, and Jeffrey drift in. After yukking it up for a while, they all agree a major rewrite is in order, and of course the inevitable happens. Going on tour might help, too.
Michael Kidd’s choreography in The Band Wagon ran the typical gamut of styles and it works beautifully. While I like the fabulous “Girl Hunt Ballet” and “That’s Entertainment“, both of which are just really, really cool, I think my favorite number is “Dancing In the Dark,” which happens during Tony and Gabi’s walk in the park. The music is lush, the dance looks spontaneous, and by the end of it it’s apparent that these two characters have reconciled, as they go from quicker, flowy movements to slower isolations that require them to depend on and trust each other.
Another awesome sequence is the “Penny Arcade” number at the beginning of the film. Tony has a ball playing all the different games and hoofing with the shoeshine man (who, by the way, really was a shoeshine man), and what’s impressive about it is the dance is filmed in one long take. No cuts. That’s never been typical for dance numbers in films because performers have to sustain their characters without breaking, plus there are marks that have to be hit and it can’t necessarily be done without cuts and inserts. Veteran stage actor Fred Astaire, who was famous for his perfectionism, was up for it.
The only number I really don’t care for much is the “Triplets” sequence, which has Fred, Nanette, and Jack dressed up as toddlers and required them to dance on their knees. It’s not completely terrible, but it is kind of annoying. On the plus side, it’s fairly unforgettable.
Like Tony and Gabi, Fred Astaire was dubious about Michael Kidd, although obviously sans the slight romantic edge. Again, Astaire was a famous perfectionist, and he wasn’t sure he and this young upstart from Broadway would work very well together. At rehearsals Astaire would sit, commenting on Kidd’s every move as if it was part of the choreography and making Kidd nervous.
It took a day or two of this before Kidd changed his tactics, waiting until five when Astaire went home before getting to work. When Astaire came in the next day, Kidd would show him the new choreography, and gradually Astaire was won over.
Unfortunately for Hollywood, Michael Kidd was a latecomer to musicals. It was only a few years before, as Betty Comden once put it, “the bottom fell out,” so Kidd went back to Broadway, where he directed and choreographed steadily until the early nineties.
The Band Wagon remains a favorite among film lovers and those who made it. It’s wonderfully executed, looks gorgeous, and does what it sets out to do, which is entertain.
For more Tony winners, please click here. Thanks for reading, all, and see you tomorrow with another post…
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Get Aboard! The Band Wagon. Dir. Peter Fitzgerald. Los Angeles: FitzFilm, 2005. (documentary)
Musicals, Great Musicals: The Arthur Freed Unit At MGM. Dir, David Thompson. New York: Alternate Current International, NHK, WNET Channel 13 New York, 1996. (documentary)