Vincente Minnelli's Dream of Tony Hunter's Band Wagon's "Girl Hunt"
Silva, Arturo, Film Criticism
With its high degree of self-reflection, historical star awareness (the Fred Astaire persona), and laying bare of the musical's many elements, Vincente Minnelli's The Band Wagon (1953) has long been recognized along with Singin' In the Rain (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1952) and A Star Is Born (George Cukor, 1954) as one of those films that bring the classic phase of the Hollywood musical to a close. Similarities include all three belonging to the musical sub-genre "The Show Musical" (as defined by Rick Altman in The American Film Musical); both the Donen/Kelly and Minnelli films are written by Betty Comden and Adolphe Green; and the Minnelli and Cukor films incorporate details of the bio-filmographies of their stars, Astaire and Judy Garland. And, while Singin' In the Rain and A Star is Born are pretty straight-forward stories with narratives and numbers perfectly integrated from beginning to end, The Band Wagon's very short conclusion is preceded by a long sequence of four numbers, plus the famous "Girl Hunt," all of which appear to have almost no connection whatsoever to anything that has preceded them, besides bearing no clear--or even opaque--relation with each other. Most accounts of the film's long ending write it off in a casual "that's entertainment!" manner, thereby acknowledging the obvious--the end is odd and does not seem to make narrative sense--while also avoiding any real attempt at trying to account for it. But a careful reading of the elements of this long concluding section, and particularly the "Girl Hunt's" mise-enscene, can, I believe, not only clear up the "mystery of the mystery" of the "Girl Hunt," but of much more besides, giving The Band Wagon a hitherto unperceived coherency and wholeness that reaches even beyond itself. This paper will attempt such a reading, looking first at the film's various sources and at those four unconnected numbers as well as other issues the film raises, and read the whole as a bricolage of elements which, paradoxically, makes the film utterly Minnelli's own. The second part will offer a detailed reading of "The Girl Hunt," revealing it to be a dream of the hero's desire for the heroine and whose themes and images derive from the main body of The Band Wagon's narrative.
Part One: The Band Wagon
I. The Narrative
The Band Wagon is the story of Tony Hunter (Astaire), a former stage musical star now down on his luck. He is persuaded by his writer friends Lili and Lester Marton (Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant) to star in their new musical, which they hope to have produced by Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan). Their idea is of a children's book writer, to be played by Tony, who moonlights by writing crime thrillers. But Cordova wants to turn the "light, intimate" musical (read: Low Art) into a "modern, musical morality play ... with meaning and stature" (read: High Art). He wants--gasp!--to turn it into a modern-day Faust. Further, he wants Tony's co-star to be the ballerina (read again: High Art) Gabrielle Gerard. (1) Tony is skeptical, but he is convinced to give it a try after Cordova and the Martons convince him in song what it's really all about: "That's Entertainment." However, Tony and Gabrielle meet very un-cute, take an instant dislike to one another, and during a rehearsal he walks out. Gabrielle comes to apologize, and they discover in the exquisite "Dancing in the Dark," (2) that they really can dance together. But come opening night, Faust (3) proves to be the flop that the disastrous pre-opening dress rehearsal revealed it would be. Finally, Tony, Gaby (as she comes to be called), and "the kids" (the team of supporting dancers and singers) decide to "yank out all that [Faustian] junk," go back to the original Marton script of The Band Wagon and try it out on the road. Even Cordova acquiesces: "One man has to be at the helm," he says. Then--and this is the point where the straight narrative breaks off--come a series of four different numbers, followed by "The Girl Hunt," and the brief conclusion, a declaration of love and a reprise of "That's Entertainment. …