Washed up musical star Tony Hunter (Astaire) hasn’t made anything in 3 years but seems OK with it. He arrives in New York City, and although the journalists that greet him are actually there for Ava Gardner, his old friends Lily and Lester Marton (Fabray and Levant, respectively) show up to meet him with an idea for a new stage musical.
The playwright couple have a plan to get the incredibly pretentious Jeffrey Cordova (Buchanan) to direct their play, and they are also hoping for ballerina Gabrielle Gerard (Charisse) to take on the female lead opposite Tony.
While the Mortons succeed in getting the people they want, Jeffrey decides to turn their fun musical comedy into a modern retelling of Faust, with himself playing the devil. In addition, the two stars don’t get along, both misinterpreting the other’s reverence for arrogance and acting accordingly.
We’re suckers for good musicals and The Band Wagon delivers. Fred Astaire is impressive even in his fifties (which, for dancers, is like seventies) and the humour is on point. We loved Jeffrey’s version of Oedipus Rex, everything to do with Lily and Les, the gradual changes in the show, the murderous triplets and especially Dem Bones Café and the Noir in dance.
Victoria Page (Shearer) is a young, ambitious ballet dancer who, after a party, is invited by ballet impresario Boris Lermontov (Walbrook) to try out for his company. At the same time, young composer Julian Craster (Goring) gets a job with the same company coaching the orchestra. As Vicky rises to be the new prima ballerina (after the old one got married), Julian also rises through the ranks as a composer. The culmination of both their work is a new ballet, The Red Shoes, based on H. C. Andersen’s classic fairy tale. Julian composes while Vicky dances the lead.
The ballet is a great success, and its two rising stars fall in love, something Lermontov is none too happy about. He fires Julian, and Vicky, though torn, decides to go with her boyfriend. She marries him and he starts composing operas, also to great success. However, despite her meteoric rise to fame in Lermontov’s ballet, Vicky spends the following year out of work.
Next season, Vicky goes back to Monte Carlo on holiday with her aristocratic aunt and runs into Lermontov again. He convinces her to dance The Red Shoes once more, but on the night of the performance, Julian comes and demands his wife choose between him and the ballet. Crazed (or possessed?) by this ultimatum, Vicky loses her mind and her control, just like the protagonist in Anderson’s fairy tale.
It’s clear that Lermontov is supposed to be some sort of parallel to the shoe maker in the fairy tale, but honestly, he’s not the devil here. He encourages her ambition – an ambition that comes from her, not any outside force. Sure, his encouragement comes from mainly selfish reasons, and he may have some ulterior motive of his own, but at least he want her to follow her passion. Julian seems to think she should be content being the wife and muse of a talented composer, despite her own obvious talent which she is unable to develop once they leave the company. In our opinion, Julian is the bad guy here.
This film is spectacular and definitely a new favourite of ours. It’s an intriguing story with great, often eccentric, characters (we particularly love the other members of the ballet company), gorgeous costumes and breathtaking dancing. The performance of The Red Shoes – a ballet within the film – is wonderful and somewhat reminiscent of the Berkeley musicals from the ’30s, beautifully incorporating cinematic effects with amazing dancing to tell the story.
It seems to us that women’s ambition is a dangerous thing (in which case Lermontov is the devil), although we’re not sure for whom. Is it scary for the men who lose control over them, or for the (fragile) women who will crack under the pressure of trying to balance a traditional role (doting wife and house maker) with a professional career? Possibly both, but it seems like women tend to pay the price – especially in morality tales and fiction (let’s not even go into the sexual undertones of this film and, indeed, the fairy tale on which it’s based).
What we learned: A happy and full life should have room for love and ambition. To have to choose is unfair (especially when it’s one gender asking the other to choose while they themselves can have it all..). Also, things haven’t changed much for ballerinas in the last 7 decades, judging from the parallels between this film and Black Swan (2010).
We’re going back in time to catch up on a recent addition to the list, and what a great addition! Judy O’Brian (O’Hara) is an ambitious young club dancer with ballet dreams. However, when she goes to a meeting with Steve Adams (Bellamy) to audition for the American Ballet Company, she sees the professional dancers and is intimidated by their (very impressive) skills. Thus, she runs out before seeing Adams.
Adams leaves his office at the same time and tries out his smooth umbrella game on Judy, but is brutally rebuffed. She goes back to the apartment she shares with a fellow dancer and they are visited by Bubbles, aka Tiger Lily White, (Ball) – a former dancer in their troupe who has made a name for herself in Burlesque. She is looking for more girls and hires Judy as a stooge – she is to dance ballet during breaks in Bubbles’ set to rile up the men who have not paid to see art.
As if Judy’s life isn’t complicated enough, she also starts dating Jimmy Harris (Hayward) – a rich drunkard who is still in love with his ex-wife. When Bubbles finds out she goes after Jimmy herself, and the humiliation of her job, Bubbles’ insensitivity and her crushed ballet dreams culminate to enrage the so far kind and sensitive Judy.
After an amazing speech to the leering audience, Judy gets into it with Bubbles who, after initially playing the outraged victim, reconciles with her fellow dancer and with herself. As for Judy, she has another encounter with Adams and things are definitely looking up.
Dance, Girl, Dance was a great addition to the list. It has strong female characters and great dance scenes – two things we absolutely love. The fact that this is the first film with a female director comes across as well (although there are of course male directors who can write and direct women – we’re not trying to be sexist here). The issues addressed in the film are interesting coming from a female perspective, and Dorothy Arzner handles the lives of dancing girls in the ’40s with a slightly different take than Busby Berkeley. Great dance movie – great movie!
What we learned: is it worth sacrificing one’s dignity for fame and money? Also, a double feature night of Dance, Girl, Dance and Split (2016) leads to strange dreams of James McAvoy as a ballet dancer…
P.S. Confused about numbering? Check out this handy disclaimer!