The Band Wagon (1953) is a classic MGM musical (it’s the film that included the famous song “That’s Entertainment”) with Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Nanette Fabray, Oscar Levant…even a walk-on by Ava Gardner. Astaire plays a popular but aging Hollywood song and dance star who’s returned to Broadway in the hopes of restarting his career, where’s he’s mismatched with Gabrielle Gerard, a famous ballerina unfamiliar with musical theater, played by Cyd Charisse. Their initial outing, an ill-conceived highbrow musical version of Faust, is a disaster. But Fred saves the day by rallying the cast and crew to rework the material into a more conventional musical comedy show that premieres to rousing success…while he and the ballerina (who originally nearly despised each other) naturally end up falling in love.
Okay, so why should we mention this film here? Because of its legendary The Girl Hunt Ballet sequence.
One of many song and dance numbers planned for the film was called “The Private Eye”, but it proved unworkable for some reason. Still determined to probe that theme, they found inspiration in a recent Life magazine article on Mickey Spillane, at that time a very controversial pop culture phenomenon, reviled by critics, but read by millions. The result, “The Girl Hunt Ballet” is a dance tale set in a Spillane-style urban underworld of violent New York streets and smoky gin mills, all teeming with cops and robbers shooting it out, gangsters wielding switchblades and fetching femmes fatales…Charisse (remember, she’s playing an aloof prima donna ballerina in the film) the ‘fetchingest’ of them all. Astaire does what comes easy for Astaire – being effortlessly cool, even playing a private eye. Director Vincent Minelli decided the sequence needed some narration, like Mickey Spillane’s first person narrative Mike Hammer novels themselves, and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner wrote it, though he insisted on going unpaid and uncredited so as not to step on the toes of the film’s songwriters and screenwriters.
I’ll be the first to admit that musicals aren’t really my thing. But The Girl Hunt Ballet is really something to see. Articles about it frequently refer to Charisse and Astaire’s “sexually charged” duet. That’s putting it mildly. I don’t know how the film didn’t melt. The extended 12 minute sequence captures every period pulp and hard-boiled mystery cliché and trope you can think of and turns them into a brilliant piece of noir art. Maybe you don’t want to sit through all of Band Wagon. I get that. But if you can seeThe Girl Hunt Ballet – YouTube or wherever — watch it. And with good speakers and the bigger the screen the better.