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I’m on the band wagon


Those with a yen for slapstick will lobby for Singin’ in the Rain as the best movie musical. Hipsters with a gritty sensibility might make the case for West Side Story. Sentimentalists with a taste for thoroughly saturated color will stake a claim for The Wizard of Oz.

Indeed, these three topped the American Film Institute’s list of great musicals, compiled a decade ago. So, who’s to argue?

I am.

These films lack the ingredient essential to top my personal list of movie-musical greatness: Fred Astaire. And as much as I love the Fred and Ginger masterpieces of the 1930s, it is 1953’s Technicolor send-up of the theater, The Band Wagon, that is my favorite. It also contains two of the best dance routines on film, an intimate pas de deux in Central Park (more about that in a moment) and a riotous melee in a gangland jazz club in which time stands still as Cyd Charisse peels off a wrap revealing the most dazzling red-sequined dress in the history of red-sequined dresses.

The Band Wagon also has something to say about the strange and vitriolic times we live in.

Astaire and Charisse are the ill-matched stars preparing to bow in a Broadway show that has been hijacked by impresario Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan), a hammy narcissist so busy dominating every conversation that he never listens, even as disaster looms. He has taken a charming little musical and turned it into a mid-century-modern Faust. Trapped in the theater rehearsing the pretentious dog’s breakfast of a show, all the cast is at each other’s throats, none more so than Astaire and Charisse. That is, until they escape the bubble and take a carriage ride through the park.

“Oh look! Trees,” says Astaire.

“And isn’t that called grass?” Charisse jokes. “And look, there’s the sky.”

“You know,” Astaire says, “this has all been here the whole time we’ve been shut up in our little sweatbox of the arts.”

“Really? Amazing.”

“Do you know what those are on those benches?” Astaire asks. “People. Happy people. Would you believe that they don’t even care whether we have a damnation scene in our show or not?”

“Neither do I,” says Charisse.

And with that, all the anger and hate melt away. Soon Astaire and Charisse are dancing in the park to Dancing in the Dark.

Washington, D.C., has its own hammy impresario producing, directing, and starring in a troubled show, one that has all the players consumed with rage and hate for one another. I hope that some of them took a carriage ride through the park this summer. They might have found that outside the sweatbox of politics there are people who don’t even care whether we have an impeachment scene.

I took a ride with my family in August to one of our favorite places, southeastern Vermont. It’s not that people there are uninterested in politics, they just aren’t consumed by it. From Manchester, Vermont, you can get the local TV news from Schenectady, New York, where the lead story was about a missing rabbit. A blue bunny named Banana, to be precise. Banana had been stolen from his cage at the Vale Urban Farm, and not for the first time (the bunny is irresistibly cute). After public outcry, the rabbit was returned. From the amount of airtime the story got, you’d think Banana was a hurricane. But what a delight to be outside of the sweatbox, where happy people are happy to hear about the return of Banana the bunny.

There were happy people at the old marble quarry in Dorset, Vermont, leaping off marble cliffs into the treacherous waters below. And for risking life and limb, nothing surpassed the Mt. Equinox “hill climb” in which drivers speed up a curvy mountain road in race-rigged vintage sports cars. There was a red 1963 Aston Martin DB4GT almost as beautiful as Charisse in her red-sequined dress. Watching it fly off the starting line is just what a Washingtonian needed to shed the sullen shoptalk of the swamp.

Eric Felten is the James Beard Award-winning author of How’s Your Drink?