The Band Wagon: Special Edition (1953)

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Released 27-Apr-2005

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Family Main Menu Audio & Animation
Audio Commentary-Liza Minnelli And Michael Feinstein
Trailer-Astaire Trailer Gallery
Featurette-Get Aboard! The Band Wagon
Featurette-The Men Who Made The Movies: Vincent Minnelli
Featurette-Jack Buchanan With The Glee Quartet
Rating Rated G
Year Of Production 1953
Running Time 107:40
RSDL / Flipper RSDL (50:39)
Dual Disc Set
Cast & Crew
Start Up Language Select Then Ads Then Menu
Region Coding 2,4,5 Directed By Vincente Minnelli

Warner Home Video
Starring Fred Astaire
Cyd Charisse
Oscar Levant
Nanette Fabray
Jack Buchanan
James Mitchell
Robert Gist
Thurston Hall
Emory Parnell
Herb Vigran
Steve Forrest
Bess Flowers
Julie Newmar
Case ?
RPI $29.95 Music Arthur Schwartz

Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame Full Frame English Dolby Digital 5.1 (384Kb/s)
French Dolby Digital 1.0 (192Kb/s)
Italian Dolby Digital 1.0 (192Kb/s)
English Audio Commentary Dolby Digital 1.0 (192Kb/s)
English Dolby Digital 1.0 (192Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio None
16x9 Enhancement No
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.37:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English
English for the Hearing Impaired
Italian for the Hearing Impaired
Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

††† Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) is a washed-up movie star who arrives by train in New York. At the station he is met by two friends, Broadway writers Lester and Lily Marton (Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray), who have plans to star him in their next musical. To help get the project off the ground they enlist the help of impresario Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan), who is not only directing a couple of plays on Broadway, but is acting in one himself: Oedipus Rex.

††† Cordova enthusiastically takes on the direction of the play, which he then proceeds to turn into a musical version of the Faust story. He manages to recruit reluctant ballerina Gabrielle Girard (Cyd Charisse) as the leading lady, but initially she and Tony don't get on so well. The show looks like it will be a disaster, but can Tony and Gabrielle settle their differences and turn disaster into triumph?

††† From this flimsy premise comes the best musical of the 1950s, in fact one of the best films of that decade. The film is partly an excuse to trot out a whole bunch of 1930s songs by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz. Some of these come from an early show in that decade called The Band Wagon, which starred Fred Astaire and his sister. That's not the only in-joke in this movie. Tony Hunter is based on Astaire himself, who was at a career crossroads at the time. The most famous song in the film also includes the line "the gay divorcee who's in search of her ex", referring to one of his films with Ginger Rogers. The Jeffrey Cordova character was reportedly inspired by Josť Ferrer, though we are told in the audio commentary that it turned out in practice to be a parody of the director of the film.

††† It is a perfectly realised confection, ideally cast and the pinnacle of director Vincenti Minnelli's career. Not that it was an entirely happy time for those involved. Fred Astaire's wife was dying of cancer as it was being made, Oscar Levant was recovering from a heart attack (and making life hell on the set) and Minnelli was divorcing Judy Garland. Jack Buchanan also had to take time out to have root canal work done.

††† What sets this musical apart from others of the Fifties is that it is neither pretentious nor overwrought, and not burdened with plot. There is enough in the story to hang a bunch of musical numbers on, and there are no heavy dramatics. In a sense the story is an inversion of earlier MGM efforts where Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland would "put on a show" from nothing: here we start with a show and watch it brought crashing down. There is also a warmth that glows through the screen, helped by the perfect cast. Astaire was never better as a screen presence than here, likeable and funny while still able to dance like no-one else. Cyd Charisse is a perfect dance companion for him, more elegant (and more talented) than Ginger Rogers. If she can't act quite as well, she doesn't need to - apart from one scene where she is called upon to burst into tears and one is not sure if she is really distraught or just faking it.

††† This was the second Hollywood sojourn of Jack Buchanan, an English stage star who could dance and sing as well as act. Shortly after the advent of sound he had starred in the Ernst Lubitsch musical Monte Carlo with Jeanette MacDonald, but this did not lead to a career in American films. By this time in his early sixties and suffering from spinal arthritis, he would die four years later from spinal cancer. Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who had written On the Town for Leonard Bernstein, and the previous year had written the screenplay for Singin' in the Rain, decided to write themselves into The Band Wagon as the Martons (in real life they were not a couple). Oscar Levant is certainly a dead ringer for Green, and stage star Nanette Fabray is excellent as Lily.

††† All but one of the songs were recycled from old Dietz and Schwartz tunes. The one new song they wrote has become a standard: That's Entertainment, the music for which was written in about thirty minutes. It appears twice, first in a show-stopping routine by four of the five principals (minus Charisse) and then as the finale to the film. Other songs include A Shine on My Shoes, in which Astaire dances through an amusement arcade, part of which is in partnership with a shoe-shiner played by Leroy Daniels, a real-life shoeshine man who was literally discovered on the street by the director. There's Dancing in the Dark, where Astaire and Charisse dance together in the park, with the former showing he had lost none of his grace and ability - his entry into the carriage at the end of the piece shows exquisite timing and balance. Astaire and Buchanan do an old-fashioned soft-shoe routine together complete with top hat and cane, and the film ends with a long ballet called The Girl Hunt, which sends up not only the pulp crime fiction genre, but Gene Kelly's style of athletic dance as well.

††† Look quickly in the latter sequence and you can see a very young Julie Newmar in her pre-Catwoman days. And if you like spotting familiar faces, in the first ten minutes you can see Emory Parnell, Herb Vigran, Bess Flowers, Steve Forrest and a cameo by a big Hollywood star of the time. Veteran Thurston Hall plays the major backer of the show.

††† The Band Wagon is in my opinion MGM's best musical, only equalled by some of the pre-code musicals out of Paramount (Love Me Tonight, The Smiling Lieutenant) and Warner Bros (Gold Diggers of 1933, Dames, 42nd Street). This new DVD release from the latter company, who now have control over MGM's output, is remarkable, and anyone who likes this film should rush out and buy this two-disc set.

Don't wish to see plot synopses in the future? Change your configuration.

Transfer Quality


††† If I was allowed a one-word review of the video quality, it would be: awesome.

††† The film is transferred in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1, close to the original 1.37:1.

††† Warners have used their Ultra-Resolution process to transfer this Technicolor film to a high-definition format, and then to DVD resolution. This process is used on three-strip Technicolor. Three-strip Technicolor used a huge camera that could film on three reels of black and white stock simultaneously, and to cut a technical story short, each reel was dyed and put together as a single strip to make positive prints. Ultra-resolution involves doing the same thing using the original black and white negative material, but scanned in high-resolution, digitally coloured as three images and then put together. It has been used on a few DVD releases, but this is the first I have seen. It looks amazing, highly detailed and sharp with superb, vivid colour. The clarity is so good that at times the film seems to be three-dimensional.

††† Brightness and contrast are exceptional, with no shadow detail problems in evidence. Blacks are deep and solid, and whites pure and clean. There is some minor film grain visible, but no digital artefacts that I could detect.

††† There are one or two film artefacts. A couple of times I saw some small blotches of colour, for example on Astaire's trousers at 48:49.

††† Optional English subtitles come in a white font and transcribe all of the dialogue, though not always verbatim.

††† The disc is RSDL-formatted, the layer change coming at 50:39, right at the end of a shot where Tony is looking at a record. It is only slightly disruptive..

Video Ratings Summary
Shadow Detail
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts


††† Like the video, the audio has been well restored. The default audio track is a remixed Dolby Digital 5.1, and the original mono audio is also provided, though why it is classed as a Special Feature is a mystery.

††† The film was shot with an experimental 3-channel stereo soundtrack, but it was not used because of the lack of reproducing equipment in theatres. Unfortunately the stereo soundtrack does not survive. The surround remix here was developed from a composite of two slightly different mono soundtracks, which went put together created something like a stereo soundtrack. Whatever the origin of the surround mix, it is surprisingly good. It actually does sound like an early stereo film soundtrack. Voices are obviously positioned solidly in the centre channel, but instruments sound as if they are spread across the front channels, creating something that approximates a stereo soundstage, without losing any focus.

††† Rear channels are only used for music, and while there are low frequency effects present in the audio stream my subwoofer remained dormant throughout.

††† The sound is a little restricted at times, but dialogue comes across very clearly, without any distortion. There is no hiss and no problem with audio sync.

††† Music, as mentioned above, is by Dietz and Schwartz. I can't say I like all of the songs used in this film, but they are perfectly handled. New orchestrations were done by Conrad Salinger and others.

Audio Ratings Summary
Audio Sync
Surround Channel Use


††† This set extends to two discs. The film with audio commentary is on disc one, as is the trailer gallery. The remaining extras are on disc two. Warners need to be castigated for including an unskippable anti-piracy commercial on disc one. One can fast-forward through it, but does anyone really think that this will deter anyone who wants to copy the disc?

Main Menu Audio & Animation

††† The main menu has a sequence of still shots of the two leads dancing, done in the style of the poster. Dancing in the Dark is the audio component.

Audio Commentary-Liza Minnelli And Michael Feinstein

††† Minnelli is of course the daughter of the director, and Feinstein is a Broadway singer specialising in songs of an earlier era, being particularly linked with the music of Gershwin. Minnelli was also present at various times on the set of the film, and although she was only six at the time she remembers a lot about it. This is a better commentary than it should be, given that Minnelli says "hey, perfect" and "great" a lot of the time, and they both tend to drool over the musical sequences. But their enthusiasm is infectious and they both give some interesting background to the film (Feinstein seems to have prepared some notes on it). It is mentioned that this was Charisse's first film as an actress rather than a dancer, which is not correct. This error is repeated in one of the featurettes.

Trailer-Astaire Trailer Gallery (22:31)

††† Eight trailers for films featuring Astaire, though in some he does not appear very much. All are in good condition. They are Broadway Melody of 1940, Ziegfield Follies, Easter Parade, The Barkleys of Broadway, Three Little Words, The Band Wagon, Silk Stockings and Finian's Rainbow.

Featurette-Get Aboard! The Band Wagon (37:06)

††† This documentary features new interviews with Charisse, Fabray, and James Mitchell (Charisse's boyfriend/manager in the film) and some older interview footage with choreographer Michael Kidd, Betty Comden and the late Adolph Green. There are also bits by Liza Minnelli, several of the crew and the daughter of Fred Astaire. Interesting to see how people have aged, and it provides a good behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film.

Featurette-The Men Who Made The Movies: Vincent Minnelli (56:00)

††† This is an original episode of this series made in the early 1970s and written and directed by Richard Schickel. While the series was re-released in 2002 with new commentary by Sydney Pollack, this one has the original narration by Cliff Robertson. What Warners have done to update this is replace the original film excerpts with the same excerpts from brand new restorations, so all of the film sequences shown look exceptional, especially when compared with the interview footage with Minnelli, shot on grainy 16mm. The show looks at his career with lengthy extracts from his best films, interspersed with interview segments with the director (and no-one else).

Featurette-Jack Buchanan With The Glee Quartet (5:58)

††† A 1928 Vitaphone short that enshrines what must have been a vaudeville act for posterity. It's fairly basic and not particularly entertaining.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

††† The Region 4 has most of the extras of the US Region 1 except for a deleted scene involving Charisse miming to the song Two-Faced Woman. There are also some dailies of this song sequence that are missing from the Region 4. This material is not very substantial, so while it edges the Region 1 ahead in theory it probably isn't worth the extra cost, unless you absolutely must have it. Note that the Canadian Region 1 is a single-disc affair, presumably missing the extras on the second disc of the US release.

††† The UK Region 2 is identical to the Region 4.


††† Classic, classy and thoroughly entertaining musical.

††† An exceptional video transfer.

††† A fine audio transfer, even if the audio has been remixed.

††† A good set of extras, though I wish we could have had everything that Region 1 has.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Philip Sawyer (Bio available.)
Monday, April 18, 2005
Review Equipment
DVDPioneer DV-S733A, using Component output
DisplaySony 86CM Trinitron Wega KVHR36M31. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to DVD player, Dolby Digital, dts and DVD-Audio. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum.
AmplificationSony TA-DA9000ES
SpeakersMain: Tannoy Revolution R3; Centre: Tannoy Sensys DCC; Rear: Richter Harlequin; Subwoofer: JBL SUB175

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