Second Time Around

This Charming Man
Beloved most of all for his charming dancing partnership with Ginger Rogers at RKO in the 1930s, Fred Astaire actually did some of his best work in his '50s musicals. In fact, some of us love The Band Wagon -- the Vincente Minnelli-directed backstage musical of 1953 (screening Sunday at the Rafael Film Center) -- even more than Top Hat or the other RKO classics it so wittily references. Astaire plays a washed-up version of himself on his way to Broadway for a second start. The flippant loner he essays is able to express a real depth of suppressed emotion in his opening stroll as he croons how he's OK "By Myself," the first of many justly celebrated numbers from the Howard Dietz-Arthur Schwartz catalog employed here. Few musicals go from high point to high point like this film's last half-hour, which includes the hilarious "Triplets" and the film noir parodic "Girl Hunt Ballet."

A superb George and Ira Gershwin score underpins another excellent Astaire musical, Stanley Donen's Funny Face (1957), screening Sunday at the Roxie. Astaire plays a fashion photographer modeled after Richard Avedon who discovers mousy bookstore clerk Audrey Hepburn and transforms her into a model. The film's anti-intellectualism is par for the 1950s course, as a labored satire of Jean-Paul Sartre occupies all too much screen time. And this Fred isn't at all disturbed by his own aging -- Donen (Singin' in the Rain, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers) was always less interested in melancholy than his moody counterpart Minnelli. Funny Face does have beautifully modeled and subtly colored cinematography, even as The Band Wagon is the last of the great, candy-box Technicolor musicals Metro made.

-- Gregg Rickman

The Band Wagon screens Sunday, May 9, at 2 p.m. and Monday, May 10, at 7 p.m. at the Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth St. (at A Street), San Rafael. Admission is $7; call 454-1222. Funny Face screens Sunday, May 9, at 1:30, 5:30, and 9:35 p.m. at the Roxie, 3117 16th St. (at Valencia), S.F. Admission is $6.50; call 863-1087.

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