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Thursday, September 19, 2019

What Happened To 42nd Street?

Tony Hunter's New York

This post is about the first eighteen minutes of The Bandwagon. Fred Astaire, as washed-up musical star “Tony Hunter,” entrains for New York, and finds it a changed place. So, no doubt, did others of MGM staff who mourned a Broadway which gold was now brass, if that. These first reels sum up a point of view shared by most behind, and in front of, 1952 cameras (The Bandwagon released seven months after completion). This opener plays like old folks’ lament for show biz way of life that won’t be coming back, thanks to kids of base appetite (hot dogs w/o even mustard), and more inclination for peep shows than what used to be a Gayest White Way. Director Vincente Minnelli and writers of The Bad and The Beautiful earlier parodied a low-end of Hollywood with its Cat Men and Son of the Cat Man, but that was gentle beside this. To taste so rarefied as Minneli’s, New York of The Bandwagon was sullied past rescue, so what comeback could a Tony Hunter hope for? Singin’ In The Rain dealt with changed times, but in reverse, outmoded silent movies given way to greater glory of talkies, a rough transition but worth it. Playing from the bottom up made Singin’ In The Rain a cheerful ride, as in good riddance to the old, and aren’t we happier with movies that talk and sing. Rain also had youth, at least appearance to that effect (Debbie Reynolds a closest thing to a newcomer among veterans --- even Donald O’Connor had been around longer than most people realized). The Bandwagon was maturity and their effort to cope, Tony Hunter eased aside and struggling to hang on, as perhaps were stars on board. Astaire romance with Cyd Charisse (b.1922) is occasion for us to feel his age (b.1899), an issue to 50's linger. Deserving as it was to be a hit, The Bandwagon instead lost a million to Singin’ gain of $1.6 million. We can treasure The Bandwagon in hindsight more than a 1953 audience to whom it spoke less agreeably. Who liked being told their popular culture was so debased?

The Bandwagon opens with an auction of “Tony Hunter’s Personal Effects.” Like Bette Davis in The Star of a previous year, we assume that Tony is broke and reduced to selling his possessions, but it turns out later that he has an art collection to underwrite revision of a Broadway play in trouble. The auction, like Tony’s career at present, is a flop. They can’t even get an offer for the top hat and stick he used in "Swinging Down To Panama," a title to humorously evoke Astaire’s own Flying Down To Rio, largely unseen since playing new in 1933. Star artifacts were sold to the public, often bid for as part of estate disposal, and I’ve heard much of what now would be valuable going for low dollars. That can happen when so much is dumped onto a market at once. We’re led to think no one wants Tony Hunter’s “popori” at any price. How many celebrity auctions came to such impasse? I’ve seen star mementos float from dealer to store and back again without generating interest. John Barrymore’s last wife used to sell his ties, handkerchiefs, cuff links, to whoever might care, and for surprisingly little, this a sort of 80’s annuity based on bric-a-brac she was astute enough to keep.

An aspect of gracious living still had in 1953 was club cars on trains. It was like crossing land on a cruise ship. Drinks served, conversation with strangers, these congenial because if they can afford the ticket and beverage, they must be congenial. Again we’re reminded of Tony Hunter’s downfall by a magazine ad he has done for cigarettes, but stars at a peak did such ads, had for decades, and would do so until the Surgeon General cracked down. Passengers discussing Tony don’t realize he is with them, a book in front of his face. “He used to be good twelve, fifteen years ago,” one of them says, at which point Tony reveals himself to their shocked embarrassment. Did (or do) celebrities have moments like this, as in civilians unknowingly (or worse, knowingly) insulting them in a public setting where there aren’t protective buffers? I’d commend good sport Astaire for playing a character many might mistake for the actor’s own circumstance. Like Barrymore in Dinner At Eight, or Bing Crosby in The Country Girl, the part of Tony Hunter goes close to Fred Astaire not as he was, but what he might become if his kind of musical should fall out of a public’s favor. Astaire would speak to such concern in his later memoir (Steps In Time), a point at which he was moving from dance to dramatic roles.

Tony steps off the train and imagines a gaggle of reporters are there to meet him (“Thanks for the red-carpet bit, I didn’t expect it”). Ava Gardner, in a cameo, is who they want, her greeting to Tony a glimpse of how stars might interact when they unexpectedly meet. Do celebrities pretend to know each other even where they don’t know each other? The public assumes stars are all intimately acquainted. Ava’s conversation with Tony is interrupted by reporters wanting just one more shot. “Honestly, isn’t all this stuff an awful bore?” she asks him, a tactless question on one hand because Tony hoped these photographers were there for him. She “confides” to Tony because he too is (or was) a star and will understand. I’m guessing celebrities walk a tight conversational wire, even when talk is casual. It calls up memory of chat shows where a guest would go off promoting message and engage his/her neighbor on the couch instead of focusing on the host … next thing you know, there’d be a testy exchange and Carson or whoever had to cut fast to a sponsor.

Tony walks the platform “By Myself,” Astaire performing his first song in The Bandwagon. He’s holding a cigarette. Tony smokes a lot, more so than I’d think would be healthy for a dancer who needs every ounce of wind. How much did Astaire smoke off-screen, or did he smoke at all? For all of reduced circumstance, Tony is not morose. The Bandwagon would be a downer if he were. The bittersweet coda was twenty more years coming, when MGM did That’s Entertainment and had Fred Astaire duplicate his stride past a now dilapidated mock train, presumably one used in The Bandwagon. A first and only glimpse of real-life New York is an establishing one, a marquee featuring Disney’s The Story of Robin Hood, billed with The Half-Breed, both mid-1952 RKO releases. From this actuality, we cut to Minnelli’s soundstage depiction of what “used to be the great theatre street of the town,” says Tony, “What’s happened to 42nd Street?” He refers to “Noel Coward and Gertie” at the Selwyn, and his own success at the New Amsterdam, both venues having swapped legit for movies by 1953 when The Bandwagon came out.

Setting for The Bandwagon is contemporary, but beyond the establishing Robin Hood marquee, all other “movies” on Minnelli’s 42nd Street are fictitious. There is "Tears For Tomorrow" plus "Jungle Tigress," along with others posted on backdrop standees ("Money Talks" looks at least twenty-five years old). The biggest screen noise in New York when The Bandwagon filmed was undoubtedly This Is Cinerama, which did historical business, but was not representative of most attractions that were not attracting, thanks to continued inroads made by television. 42nd Street was in any case a haven for moviegoers in 1952, more “shooting galleries” than ten determined fans could cover in a day. Here was height for old and new, a brand new release as likely to be paired with what today would be called a 30’s classic (many of those still in circulation at the time). Who needed "Jungle Tigress" when King Kong was back in theatres for summer ’52 and stomping records?

Tony visits a Penny Arcade where there are kinetoscopes. I don’t know how many of these survive, but there were a fair number at arcades in Myrtle Beach when I was there in the late 60’s. One I remember showed the electrocution of an elephant. Wouldn’t these things have been collector items even then? I skipped school to go and see an old theatre man in a neighboring town during 1971. He had posters, trade mags piled high, but what I didn’t expect was the out building where he kept arcade games … not cheesy pinball, but gorgeous units that looked to date way before me, and I suspect him too. A lot of these had to be unique, or at the least rare and hotly sought-after by whoever gathers this sort of Americana. I’ve wondered since what became of that storehouse. No matter how, or when, you depict Broadway-42nd Street, it will be paradise to someone. There are even those who wish it were seedy and dangerous again as in a 70’s Taxi Driver epoch. Each to his own taste. You Tube driving up Broadway in 1929, with sound, is a time I’d most like to have experienced. The New York street life Tony Hunter explores may have been Minnelli and 1953’s idea of civilization in decline, but to me it is Shangri-La, a Gotham we could all wish still thrived.


Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

That poster for MONEY TALKS sent me looking for some arcane production with that title, and I think you're right: it appears to be the 1926 M-G-M feature of that name. The director was Archie Mayo, which explains the "ARCHIE MA..." lettered on the poster.
As you know, SINGIN' IN THE RAIN also made use of antique M-G-M one-sheets (LOVEY MARY and THERE YOU ARE, both 1926). The prop man knew where all the 1926 paper was!

11:13 AM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

To your surprise, this film was never officially released in Argentina due to a quota of non-domestic movie productions that could be domestically exhibited. Formally, it was shown on television and was shown in cineclubs but there were never a commercial release to theaters.

The introduction to the film by Fernando Martín Peña and Roger Koza offers a different take on the film that you didn't address: they mention that there is a parody of Orson Welles as a director, which does make sense. And they mention a few other things that are fascinating to think about:

11:36 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

These days, Tony would find it difficult plowing through all the tourists and costumed characters in Times Square. It's better than the 1970s, but annoying as hell. George S. Kauffman would be appalled.

2:30 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

In the late 70s there were still a lot of vintage machines at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, offering peep shows, novelty calling cards ("DATE CARD: Keep it and I get a date. Give it back and I get a kiss. WHEN DO I COLLECT?"), B&W postcards of pre-60s celebrities, mechanical soccer with the metal players clad in little wool sweaters, low-tech skeeball, and my favorite, the Genuine Fan Dance. Instead of a movie, the Genuine Fan Dance offered a few seconds of an open Chinese fan with little doll legs attached, "dancing" on strings. But even then, "Bandwagon's" arcade held greater and more mysterious wonders. I suspect they were more a product of MGM production design than anything else.

For all its Techicolor gloss, "Bandwagon" does try to catch some of Broadway reality. Screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolf Green were successful Broadway librettists/ lyricists who'd come up from low-rent revues and knew about flops as well as hits, so instead of a besotted sugar daddy we get a parody of a real backers' audition, followed by lots of persuasively inside touches such as a (mostly) no-nonsense chorus audition, overhauling a scene in the lobby while the stage is tied up, tech fiascos, the out-of-town tryout, etc. Comden and Green even parody themselves as the show's writers. Both were seasoned performers, with stage and screen credits -- Did they consider playing the parts, the way their characters wrote themselves into the show? Talk about meta. Oliver Smith, a legendary Broadway set designer, did some production design. Whether he did just the onstage pieces or the whole movie, I don't know.

Of course, any pretense of realism goes out the window at the end. Throughout, we hear that the original plan was for book musical about a moonlighting kiddie book writer; the director turned it into Faust. The pre-Faust version is supposed to be what they finally brought to Broadway. But in finest Busby Berkeley fashion, we get a series of revue numbers that don't fit into any storyline, with sets that wouldn't work in a theater. It works because we're in a big MGM musical in a beautiful soundstage NY, and movie audiences were used to such improbable "Broadway musicals".

A footnote: One of the big laughs in the film is the show's disastrous tryout: images of desolation and death, ending with an egg and cutting to a stone-silent audience (led by some of the investors) filing out of the theater. On the DVD there's a deleted scene that was meant to be part of that grim performance: Cyd Charisse doing a vamp number. It's not bad, and they must have realized that was the problem: they needed to show something unentertaining or nothing at all.

6:35 PM  
Blogger Glenn Erickson said...

Tony complains that he belongs in a museum, for 'Egyptian mummies, extinct reptiles, and Tony Hunter.' I'm always reminded of that scene when I see a sign on the 10 freeway in L.A.. It announces a turnoff for 'The Museum of Tolerance,' a real museum. It seems a sour joke, that Tolerance has become so thoroughly extinct that it also can only be found in a museum.

7:40 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

As for the question about dancers and smoking... These days I don't know, but I spent a lot of years performing in musical theater, and the common wisdom, at least in the '70s and '80s, was that "singers drink and dancers smoke."

I did know many serious, talented dancers who were chainsmokers. Don't know how they did it, but then again, I don't know how they did any of what they did, tobacco or not.

8:14 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

It's a tragedy of film history that Comden and Green didn't get the chance to finish the screenplay for the film. It always feels truncated to me.

And while I'll stipulate that one should not mistake the career of Tony Hunter for that of Astaire, the only time Fred worked at the New Amsterdam was in 1931-32 when he was doing, yes, "The Band Wagon." And while Coward and Lawrence were indeed down the block doing "Private Lives," they were at the Times Square, rather than the Selwyn.

2:07 AM  
Blogger Beowulf said...


Just curious have you ever been to New York City or lived there? My show-biz cousins have lived in a rent-controlled apartment in the Village since forever. I lived in mid-Manhattan during the summer of 1969.

I'm walkin' here!

11:52 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Never lived there, but visited a number of NY collectors between the 70's and 90's, and did a lot of film/paper shows both in Manhattan and at the Meadowlands.

12:08 PM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Spent many an afternoon at Jerry Ohlinger's Movie Materials store. Most of the stills in my first few movie books came from Jerry's place.

2:03 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

The film/paper shows here were great; I don't think they've had one in over 15 years, maybe 20. Maybe we crossed paths while thumbing through PRC lobby cards.

5:50 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Reader Vance Durgin comments via e-mail:

Hi Mr. McElwee,

Have enjoyed your blog for years. Re: "The Bandwagon," looks like some of the 42nd St. shots were done on Metro's "Fifth Avenue" standing set on Lot 2 (the angled shape of the movie marquee, which shows up in many movies, gives it away) and not a sound stage.

I had the never to be repeated good fortune to explore that lot, including the train station set, in 1975. Most of the sets were in poor condition though East Side Street on the northeast end of the lot was being repaired and redressed for use in the short-lived "Popi" TV series.

The rail cars in "The Bandwagon" have always been an anomaly to me. IIRC, Astaire is shown coming in on the 20th Century Limited, which did use through sleeping cars from the Santa Fe Super Chief, LA-NYC, but the cars where Fred is singing "By Myself" appear to be chair cars, not sleepers. These cars carry "Pullman" lettering in their upper corners, but Pullman never operated chair cars. Also, the windows seem too square for chair car windows, which in that era were more rectangular. These cars also carry nameplates, but chair cars were not named and I don't think the names on these cars match up with real ATSF car names (but I could be wrong). Did Metro borrow some ATSF chair cars and dress them up as sleepers? That seems likely unless they dressed up the heavyweight cars in "That's Entertainment" to look like streamliners, which doesn't seem likely though the windows seem a better match. In any case, the cars just seem a bit "off." Nice plug for the Santa Fe, though.

BTW, the 1977 music video for the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive" was shot on Lot 2 and provides a mini tour of some of the dilapidated sets including the train station set. They were filming the "Sgt Pepper" movie on the lot around that time.

Vance Durgin
North Tustin, CA

5:56 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

A check of the internet suggests the cars are Santa Fe 44-seat coaches, built by Pullman-Standard. These have the square windows, similar roof design, door trim and railings. Rectangular windows were favored by competitor carmaker Budd.

The DeQuincy Railroad Museum has Santa Fe 4472, built in 1947. The Heart of Dixie Railroad Museum has Santa Fe 2931, ordered 1948 and delivered in 1950, according to their websites.

1 vote for chair cars pulled out of the coach yard and dressed up like sleepers.

Steve Fairman

1:59 PM  
Blogger CanadianKen said...

Thanks for posting so many wonderful shots from one of my all-time favorite movies. A welcome reminder of the glories of old school Technicolor. For me, "The Band Wagon" represents the ever buoyant Mr. Astaire'e finest hour (and that's saying something!).

6:41 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Well, I pulled out THE BANDWAGON and took a look at it plus the bonus features.

Time well spent, again, thanks to Greenbriar Picture Shows.

7:22 AM  
Blogger Jerry Kovar said...

42nd Street from the mid 50s-1970 was my paradise. First with my dad taking me there to choose from the 10 theaters. Usually the westerns at the Times Square theater or the re-issues (Dominant, The Thing w/Mighty Joe Young). Truly the beginning of my film education.

The magic was that the theaters did not advertise (except later on I discovered Cue Magazine) so we truly "went to the movies" not to "see a movie".

Magical times.

7:42 AM  
Blogger Randy Jepsen said...

The smoking in this film is non-stop. Everyone is smoking. It annoyed me so much I didn`t enjoy it like I do SINGIN` IN THE RAIN or other musicals.

5:57 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Mustard is on display. People generally always have condiments with hot dogs. Fred is given a hot dog mechanically not because he wanted one. He passes it on to a kid. I suspect the lack of mustard on it has more to with mustard flying around during a dance routine than with anything else. That stuff would be messy.

The real revelation in that number is Fred's dance with the shoe shine operator whom Minelli actually discovered dancing on the street while he shined shoes.

It's incredible he worked so well with Astaire. Credit to both of them.

6:10 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

My problem was with the kid eating a dry hot dog, but then maybe offscreen, he went back and put mustard on it, but then, had it been me, I would have insisted on honey mustard, plus mayonnaise.

9:52 AM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

My favorite smoking scene is in (if memory serves) "M" where the overlords of the underground are squeezed into a room literally filled with a solid layer of cigarette and cigar smoke. Whew. Mayo on a hot dog? Sir, choose your seconds!

10:09 AM  
Blogger mndean said...

The shoeshine operator is Leroy Daniels, often seen on TV's Sanford and Son as one of Fred's pool room pals.

12:20 AM  

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