Filmsite Movie Review
The Band Wagon (1953)
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Plot Synopsis (continued)

Problems During Rehearsals for the Show:

In the theatre auditorium where the musical 'The Band Wagon' would be presented, Cordova announced they would be rehearsing non-stop for four weeks:

There it is, folks. The work light. Only an electric bulb, perhaps, but for the next four weeks, these four walls will be our universe, our private world. We enter with nothing but a dream, but when we leave, we'll have a show. In between, there will be enthusiasms, frustrations, hot tempers, cold coffee. Some of us will fight, some fall in love, but all of us will work and adore it, because all of us are inspired by the same thing. The night that curtain goes up, it will go up on a smash hit. And believe me, kids, there's nothing in the world as soothing as a smash hit.

To the tune of "That's Entertainment!", a montage was presented of Paul auditioning and choreographing the dancers, while Cordova sat in the director's chair and rehearsed his own part as the Devil. Lines were practiced as the performers walked through their roles. Cordova encouraged Tony to substitute the absurd line: "Let me hear it, Tony. Did you ever try spreading ideals on a cracker?", and to over-emote:

"You're giving me only that one-eighth. Now I'm greedy. I want more. All eight-eighths."

Eventually, Tony became perturbed, frustrated and exasperated by the over-patronizing directions and conflicting modifications he was receiving from both Cordova and Paul, and a "superior smirk" from Gabrielle. Mid-rehearsal, he vented his anger at all of them for continuing to humiliate him and change his role:

I have had enough. I have had three weeks of these lovely rehearsals - three weeks of this Chinese torture. I don't know what you're trying to do around here, except make me look like a complete fool. A clumsy idiot. I've tried. I've tried. For three weeks, I've tried. I've taken everything. I've watched my part being changed, my numbers being cut out day after day, and I haven't said a word. Gotta be cooperative, gotta think of the good of the show. Well, let's get this straight: I am not Nijinsky. I am not Marlon Brando. I am Mrs. Hunter's little boy, Tony, song-and-dance man. I'm supposed to have entertained millions of people in my time. And I am not entertained by this little ballerina's snide insinuations that I am a no-talent hoofer. I am sick of her superior smirk. I'm sick of her. I'm sick of Faust. I am sick of this show. (To Cordova) Never mind saying it! Tony Hunter, 1953. I hereby declare my independence. Tony Hunter, 1776. Bless you.

After his blow-up, he walked out and returned to his hotel room. Meanwhile, dissension spread to Lester and Lilly who expressed their own concerns about the viability of their show and Tony's walk-out. In the theatre's alleyway, they ended up arguing amongst themselves. Lester accused Lily of bowing down too much to Cordova, and letting herself be overly-influenced by him:

Lily: Look, right or wrong, someone has got to be at the helm.
Lester: But to you, he's 100% right every time.
Lily: If you say one more word to me about Jeff's hypnotic influence on me, I'll scream.
Lester: Look, he's got you so bulldozed... (She SCREAMED) Look, someone's liable to think we're quarrelling.
Lily: We're not quarrelling. We're in complete agreement. We hate each other.

Friction between them led to the two married scriptwriters refusing to speak directly to each other. Lester retreated to the WE NEVER CLOSE bar across the alleyway, with the excuse that he had "gone to Tahiti to paint." [Note: He was referencing painter Gauguin's reclusive life in Tahiti beginning in 1891, and lasting for over 10 years.] In the background was a poster for a musical number and show titled "Every Nite At 7" playing at the 49th Street Theatre.

[Note: It was a reference to Astaire's previous film Royal Wedding (1951) with co-star Jane Powell. In the film's opening, the two portrayed a brother and sister, song and dance team who were performing together in their last week in a long-running Broadway dance musical titled 'Every Nite at Seven' at the 49th Street Theatre in New York. Their theatrical partnership was loosely based on Fred Astaire’s dancing act with his sister Adele Astaire. They sang and danced to the musical's opening title song: "Ev'ry Night at Seven," portraying a bored king and his flirty maid. They were soon on their way to London, England to put on their theatrical show during the celebration of Princess Elizabeth's wedding to Prince Philip. The actual royal wedding occurred on November 20, 1947.]

Tony and Gabrielle's Reconciliation:

In Tony's hotel room, decorated with original paintings from his own valuable art collection, he was still fuming about the production. He vented his anger with a surprisingly-destructive temper tantrum. Furious, he tore up sheet music, books, and furniture, and tossed a large collection of his records to the floor, until he realized he was unable to smash an UNBREAKABLE record of Micaela’s Aria from Carmen, performed by soprano opera diva Ina Massine.

The virtuouso ballerina Gabrielle knocked on his door to visit him privately - and he was shocked by her appearance: ("You must have the wrong apartment"). He softened up when he saw that she was immediately and genuinely impressed by his colorful paintings, and asked him about an early 1877 painting of Edgar Degas of two ballerinas, Dancers at the Barre. [Note: The French painter was known for over 1,500 paintings of young classic ballerinas in frilly pastel tutus.] She admitted she had come because it was "Paul's idea," but that she wasn't intending to apologize to Tony because he had been so mean to her:

You've been mean to me. You didn't want me in the show in the first place....And you think I'm a dime-a-dozen ballet dancer...And this whole thing's making me a nervous wreck and no show is worth it. I wouldn't apologize to you in a million years.

Tony realized that she was just as upset as he was about their whole contentious situation: "I thought I was the only nervous wreck around here, and all this time you've been behaving..." She confessed that she had also behaved "horribly." Her tears of frustration prompted Tony to begin re-evaluating and apologizing to her:

Tony: You just misunderstood me, that's all. I think you're terrific. I think everything in the show is probably terrific, except me. I've been scared to death of you, and scared to death of every last kid in the chorus.
Gabrielle (hysterically crying): Don't be nice to me. It just makes me seem twice as ugly.
Tony: I'd say you were more plain than ugly, but at least you've got talent.

Tony suggested to her that it was great that they were finally speaking openly with each other for the first time, since in the past, they both felt inadequate and insecure in each other's presence:

Tony: We're from two different worlds, two eras, but yet we're supposed to dance together, work together. No one consulted us, but we're the only things that matter in this whole thing. Not those geniuses out there, telling us what to do.
Gabrielle: You're right. We have to do the performing.
Tony: We're the ones that have to get up on that stage and make idiots out of ourselves.
Gabrielle: Tony, is that what's gonna happen?
Tony: No. Of course not. Things are going to be fine. I have a feeling that everything is going to be much better from now on.

To test their dancing compatibility and to escape from their quarrelsome theatrical rehearsals ("our little sweatbox of the arts"), the duo of Hunter (in a light-weight beige jacket and matching silk tie, bright yellow Oxford button-down shirt, off-white pants and two-toned shoes) and ballerina Gabrielle (in a full-skirted and pleated white dress with a thin black belt) went for an open, horse-drawn carriage ride under the moonlight into Central Park. They first walked into a well-lit patio's dance floor of couples serenaded by a five-piece band. They proceeded through and then slowly strolled down a private and secluded path to a separate and clear pastoral space. There, they performed - without an audience - the sublime, classic, graceful, and elegant 'getting to know you' love duet and production number "Dancing in the Dark."

[Note: The dance performance was mockingly recreated on an April 22, 1978 episode (Season 3, Episode 18) of Saturday Night Live, by the similarly-dressed Steve Martin and Gilda Radner.]

Their different dancing styles (vaudeville vs. professional ballet) were ultimately fused together in an unfamiliar (and neutral) environment for both of them - not a theatrical stage or a movie set, but the pastoral setting of a public park open to everyone. They danced before various park benches, white globe lights and large rock formations, with the Manhattan skyline behind them. They began by spiraling and mirroring each other's moves before executing more complex moves and swirls, including jumping across the concrete bench, ascending a set of concrete steps, and ending up in their own horse-drawn carriage. Their elegant, flowing, graceful and intimate 'courtship' and sexually-tinged 'love-making' dance, now spontaneously freed from direction by others, proved to them that they were harmonious, compatible and could work together. Their new relationship established through dance would lead to a blossoming of their romantic feelings for each other.

The Show's Disastrous Out-of-Town Opening in New Haven, Connecticut:

Transport company workers moved equipment and props into the back stage entrance of the New Haven (CT) Theatre for the start of out-of-town tryouts. A frantic Hal Benton was complaining to director Cordova about overcrowding the stage's sets: "We just can't open in three days." A stagehand (Al Ferguson) added: "You've got more scenery in this show than there is in Yellowstone National Park." Approval to cut 16 bars out of one of the dance numbers by Lester required a go-between to get approval from Lily - the two were still feuding and not directly communicating with each other over every last-minute change.

Elaborate instructions were being shouted out by Cordova to his crew to rehearse the finale in the first act - the transformation scene. A revolving staircase with complex special-effects, costuming and lighting seemed to go well, as Cordova cooed: "This is real theatre. Everything's smooth as silk," but the practice-scene quickly fell apart when different sections of the staircase began ascending and descending in the wrong direction, and the lighting bar collapsed. Cordova began barking orders at his befuddled technician Herman: "For heaven's sake, look at your cue sheet." After the colossal failure, he tried to calm everyone's nerves:

Calm down. Don't let us lose our heads. This is a setback, but that's what we come out of town for.

Tony shouted out: "You can't put Gaby on that thing. It's dangerous. I won't allow it," but Cordova was undeterred: "It's all right. After all, we expected to strike a snag or two." Even the over-worked, tired Gabrielle absent-mindedly accepted a cigarette to smoke from Tony to relax - after having regularly refused them all along. Cast members Tony and Gaby had lost sleep and were too exhausted to practice, but were pressured by Paul to persevere. Cordova dragged them to center-stage while exhorting them regarding the damnation scene: "I want it to be outstanding. It must be beautiful, fabulous, warm, and fiery." During their short rehearsal of the song: "You and the Night and the Music," the two were startled by repeated bursts of fiery pyrotechnics exploding at their feet, and clouds of smoke caused them to choke. Cordova realized there was a major problem with the number: "Hal, it seems to be a little too much, doesn't it?"

[Note: Director Vincente Minnelli admitted that he had self-referentially included the scene as an in-joke, to mirror his over-produced filming of his overly-expensive, troubled musical film The Pirate (1948).]

The show opened for its premiere in New Haven the following night - a formal black-tie event, with Cordova's investors and financial backers all in attendance from New York. Before the curtain opened, Cordova brought together all the performers back-stage for a "pep-talk" - hopeful about how their artistic production would also be a financial success:

Tonight, we're about to perform before an audience in a theatre. It's not only a temple of the arts, but a place of business. And I feel we have here a venture that is successful on both counts.

He also explained how he would now be stooping to their level as one of the actors: "Up to now, I've been giving you orders as director, but when next you see me, I shall be just as one of you, an eager ham, anxious to make good. Actors, let's go."

The opening premiere of Cordova's modified The Band Wagon was not "the great hit of the year" as expected. The disastrous and miserable failure was visually and metaphorically illustrated by dark clouds moving from right to left, and a montage of three black and white drawn sketches:

  • a gondola steered by a black-garbed figure was delivering a white-shrouded mummy to an island of the dead. [Note: The sketch was based upon Arnold Bocklin's 1883 painting "The Isle of the Dead."]
  • a stark skeletal head of a cow. [Note: It resembled Georgia O'Keefe's 1931 painting titled: Cow's Skull: Red, White, and Blue.]
  • a large egg (the show had literally 'laid an egg') [Note: When Wall Street crashed in late October of 1929, Variety printed a memorable headline: "WALL ST. LAYS AN EGG." Later, it became a well-used idiom in 20th century show business, meaning "failing badly."]

One of the most enthusiastic financial backers staggered blank-faced and pale from the front exit door of the theatre's auditorium. Although he had originally planned to attend the hotel's post-show party, he hastily planned to leave town: "Drive me to the station. Maybe I can still make the 11:40 back to New York."

After the complete failure, a lavish post-premiere party (with white-hatted chefs and a full band) was set up in a hotel ballroom, but the room was devoid of revelers. The show's somber-faced backers had all departed on the late-night train to NYC, and the cast members had fled. Tony felt awkward by himself at the party, and excused himself before finding a small group of chorus members in one of the hotel's suite-rooms. They were holding their own private, 'good old-fashioned wake' for the show's demise, with drinks, beer, pizza, and sandwiches - ham and deviled egg. With the cheerful group, he entertained them with storied remembrances of his early show-biz career.

Tony was soon joined by Gabrielle and the Martons (who had made up with each other after the show's demise), and they were able to revive everyone's spirits. To lift everyone up, Lester (on the piano) suggested singing a comical number with Tony and Lily: "I Love Louisa":

When I'm drinking beer I'm thinking 'Ach, life is dear'
But there's someone I love even more than beer
I love Louisa, Louisa loves me

When we rode on the merry-go-round I kissed Louisa
And then Louisa Louisa kissed me
We were so happy So happy and free
Ach! Ach! But she's a beautiful Louisa
Ach! When I choose 'em I never want to lose 'em.
Someday Louisa Louisa will be
More than just a Fraulein to me

The enlivened mood of good humor in the group was short-lived, and their depression returned.

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