Thursday, May 21, 2009

Script/Film comparison: The Band Wagon

Writing the screenplay for a musical must be a fairly frustrating experience. You provide the narrative framework, but everything which really makes the genre worth doing (the musical numbers) is out of your hands.

Musicals (and now I'm talking about the Golden Age Hollywood musical, not the recent permutations of the form) are also generally considered as having uninteresting plots, cardboard characters and all-round weak scripts. These accusations are not unfounded, unfortunately - but the musical is in fact one of the genres where the psychology of the characters can be examined in depth most easily.

Songs (especially when integrated with the storyline) are in fact a version of the classical monologue. The character expresses what s/he is feeling, and why - it's a window into their mind. However, in most musical screenplays the lyrics of the songs are not provided by the screenwriter. So the screenwriter is in fact blocked from using this potential goldmine - unless he's either the lyricist as well (a rare occurrence) or the script is built up around a library of existing songs.

The Band Wagon, written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, is usually considered the best Hollywood musical together with Singin' In The Rain (written by the same duo), and in any case is counted as Fred Astaire's overall best film. So an opportunity to read this script and compare it to the finished film is a great way to see what a classic movie musical looks like on the page and how the numbers are integrated (or not) into the script.

A quick recap of the story: Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire), a once famous song-and-dance man, returns to New York to star in a Broadway show written by his friends Les and Lily Marton (Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray). They have attracted the attention of genius theatre producer/director/actor Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan), who thinks their light-hearted revue shows parallells with Faust, and sets about remodelling it to fit his artistic vision. Tony is paired with ballerina Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse), who is the girlfriend of the pretentious choreographer of the show. Tony and Gabrielle start off hating each other, but as the show spins out of control, they grow closer. Opening night is a disaster, Tony takes over and returns the show to its roots (with Cordova's full support) and it becomes a huge hit. Oh, and he gets the girl as well.

What makes The Band Wagon as effective as it is, is obviously the quality of the musical numbers. The basic storyline is very straightforward, even almost simplistic. The romance is almost perfunctory - Tony never gets to confront Paul over Gaby, doesn't (need to) engage in shenanigans to break up the couple or win her heart (it just happens naturally).

However, the script manages to lift the material above the ordinary in two ways. One, Tony Hunter is very close to Astaire himself (except that when he was making Band Wagon, Astaire was more popular than ever). The struggle of a formerly famous star to keep up with contemporary developments, and his frustration at discovering that his style of working and performing is no longer relevant, provide one of the main areas of conflict.

Secondly, the script pokes fun at the world of showbiz and the way 'genius' directors build up their own mystique and legend, even if it turns out to be disastrous for the production they are mounting. Comden and Green were intimately familiar with both Broadway and Hollywood, had written theatre shows and film scripts, and performed comedy revues as well. So their lampooning of the showbiz world is accurate and funny. They've even written a version of themselves into the script (Les and Lily), and here too their personal experience gives more weight to these sidekick characters.

As for the comparisons between the script and the film:

The script I've read differs in quite a few details from the finished film, though the storyline and characters remain the same.

It's a fairly short script (87 pages) while the film is nearer to 2 hours - of course the Girl Hunt Ballet number by itself lasts for 17 minutes, so the usual page count/film length rules don't apply in this case.

The script opens in a very interesting fashion, with a cinema audience looking at us, the real audience. They're watching Tony Hunter's films (which we don't see, though we hear music and tap dancing), with huge enthusiasm at first, especially when he dances with Penny Robbins (a Ginger Rogers reference); as time passes, she eclipses him in popularity (we gauge all this from the reactions of the movie audience) and finally the movie audience wonders 'Tony Hunter? Who's Tony Hunter?' when his name appears on the screen.

Why was this cut? Probably because it may have been a little too confusing or self-conscious a gimmick to open the film with - and also because the same point (Tony is no longer a star) is made in the following scenes which are in the final film - the auction of Tony's paraphernalia, and Tony in the train hearing two travelers discuss how he's washed up.

The first number of the film, By Myself, follows shortly after. The script mentions the song which is sung, and the surroundings (Grand Central Station).
That's it. The only hint about staging is that he enters the Waiting Room as the song ends.

The next scene, where Tony meets Les and Lily, is fundamentally the same in the film though there are many dialogue changes. Tony makes to kiss both Lily and Les in the script, Les' hypochondriac nature is emphasized far more and his catchphrase (I can stand anything except...) is not yet present. The Shine On Your Shoes-number which follows is coupled with another song (New Sun In The Sky), and it is given to the three characters (instead of just Tony in the film). Interestingly, the final moment of the routine, where the mystery machine opens, playing music and setting off fireworks, is here as well, though it's described as a pinball machine here (and now I really have to lay off mentioning all the little details or this post will be longer than the Bible).

With regards to the songs, it's interesting to see that most of the songs in the script were put in another place and context in the film, cut completely or filmed and then deleted from the final film (a crime against cinema, if you ask me). An example of the latter case is the song Gotta Bran' New Suit, in which Tony shows Les and Lily a routine he made up for one of their songs only to be told it's no longer in the show after he finishes with a big flourish.

An example of songs being switched around is the famous Triplets number, performed by Astaire, Fabray and Buchanan in the film: here, it's in the party sequence after the disastrous opening night, and it's done by Tony, Les and Lily. In the film, it was replaced in that scene by I Love Louisa, and the triplet act was put into the revamped show.

Many of the songs which were dropped were probably new songs by the songwriting team of Schwartz and Dietz (most of the score consisted of their old songs from the ealry '30s). There's one very big number featuring Jeff Cordova which would have come at the moment where the rehearsal goes wrong because of all the smoke bombs, where he explains that 'That's What You Go Out Of Town For', listing all the things that can go wrong in a show. In fact the only new Schwartz and Dietz song to be used in the final film is That's Entertainment, which became hugely famous when it was used for the eponymous MGM musical compilation film in the '70s.

With regards to the characters and their conflicts, Gabrielle's lover and master Paul gets more lines, but is even more actively dislikeable than in the film. As the script never gets to grips with putting the romance in the centre of the narrative, it's understandable that the part was reduced - however, in the final film Paul is such a non-entity that he barely registers. There's one very clever scene in the script where Paul choreographs a routine for Tony, giving him very simple steps, and then has the chorus do an incredibly difficult and spectacular routine so as to completely humiliate his romantic rival. It's too bad this wasn't kept, as it makes the conflict more active and uses the language of the musical to develop the conflict.

The Band Wagon is explicitly written in two acts, with every scene numbered as in a play (e.g. Act 1, scene 10). The second act is shorter in page count than the first, and the romance between Tony and Gabrielle only becomes active in the second half of the script (it starts somewhat sooner in the film, but not too much). The act break, by the way, is the moment when Tony, having had enough of Jeff's pretentious 'High Art' and feeling totally out of his depth, runs off and quits the show. The first moment where Tony and Gaby start falling in love, the wonderful Dancing In The Dark number (already present in the script), takes place on page 63 of an 87-page script! That's very late indeed.

Another element which was changed in the final film was the Les/Lily plot. They were apparently intended to get into a big relationship crisis because of the events surrounding the show, and then finally make up again after the opening night disaster. In the film, nothing of this subplot remains, and Les and Lily don't have any kind of arc. But actually that's an improvement, as the subplot is developed so badly in the script it doesn't even register, despite them getting a few scenes to themselves including a bedroom quarrel.

By the way, in the script we get to see a little more of the actual play that is being performed - the Astaire/Buchanan duet actually had a scene leading into it where they both learn that the object of their affection is going to marry a third man, giving a rationalisation for the song title, I Guess I'll Have To Change My Plans.

The end of the script is probably the weakest part. Much of it is similar to the film - the show's a big hit, Tony expects a celebration but everyone seems to have deserted him, when he leaves his dressing room he suddenly walks into a surprise party for him and Gaby declares her love for him - but the details differ. For some bizarre reason, Gaby disguises herself as a cleaning woman in order to surprise Tony, and when discovered she serenades him with an 'updated' version of the By Myself number, after which everyone pops out to congratulate the happy couple and sing That's Entertainment once again. It simply doesn't work at all. It also shows that, though it has no narrative value in the film, the Girl Hunt ballet actually functions as the climax of the film. Everything which comes after it (the resolution of the romance plot) is just the resolution, and is sort of throwaway. The main question of the script is: will the show be a success, and performing the big number answers that question in the positive. But it's a different way of resolving the big dramatic question, as there's no real conflict here, no confrontation between two forces with opposing goals.

Get your dose of Hollywood goodness here (region 1)

or here (region 2)

And if you want to know more about Fred Astaire's life and career, this is the best book on the subject currently:

And just because I feel like it, here's Dancing In The Dark! Enjoy!

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