Marx Brothers, Astaire,
Charisse Close TCM Festival
David Steinberg Tells a Groucho Marx Story and Susan Stroman Explains to Audiences Why The Band Wagon Is Among the Greatest Movie Musicals Ever Made
By Tom Johnson
Special for Modern Times Magazine
May 5, 2016 — Great music, dancing and belly laughs from two classic American movies, Horse Feathers starring the Marx Brothers and The Band Wagon with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, drew big crowds on the final day of TCM’s Classic Film Festival in Hollywood on Sunday.
Comedian David Steinberg who spent a year and a half with Groucho Marx while writing the first draft of Minnie’s Boys, the 1970 biographical stage play about the brothers and their indomitable stage mother, introduced Horse Feathers. The 1932 Paramount Studios movie is considered (along with Duck Soup) to be among the Marx’ best, with frenetic wordplay and sight-gags flying faster than insults at a Republican presidential debate.
Steinberg, 73, who said he never misses an opportunity to see a Marx Brothers movie, currently has a podcast show in which he sits with comedians, entertainers and creators to discuss life, art and comedy.
“I’m one of the few people that have a podcast of his own and doesn’t know what it is,” he told the audience. “I think it’s like a radio show.”
To get the crowd into the right mood for Horse Feathers, Steinberg told a story about having lunch one day with Groucho at The Brown Derby restaurant in Beverly Hills.
“At that time I had been on TV quite a bit and had gained some notoriety for my “sermon sketches” on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Steinberg said. “Groucho was seated facing me and I was seated facing the door when two priests came in. They noticed me but couldn’t quite see who I was sitting with. ‘Oh, David Steinberg, so great to see you,’ they said. As they came over, Groucho turned around and they said: ‘Mr. Marx, we want to thank you for bringing so much joy into the world.’ Groucho didn’t bat an eye and shot back: ‘And I want to thank you for taking so much out.’”
One of the last movies to be screened at the Festival was the 1953 MGM musical, The Band Wagon, directed by Vincente Minnelli, choreographed by Michael Kidd and starring Astaire and Charisse.
Illeana Douglas, who introduced the movie, told the audience: “I said at the outset of planning this Festival that if anyone else gets to introduce The Band Wagon I’m going to kill them. It’s one of my favorite movies of all time.” Douglas, an actress, granddaughter of Melvyn Douglas and a TCM factotum who hosts specials for the network on unheralded women film directors, is also the author, last year, of the well-received memoir: I Blame Dennis Hopper.
Before the film, she chatted with Broadway director/choreographer Susan Stroman, a five-time Tony Award-winner, four for Best Choreography and one as Best Director of a Musical for The Producers.
“I worked with Liza Minnelli (Stepping Out at Radio City) and she would always talk about The Band Wagon and following her father around on the set when she was a young girl,” Stroman said. “He actually had the costume department at MGM reproduce Cyd’s costumes from the film for her to wear as a little girl. He’d bring them home for her.”
Stroman said that she could relate to everything about The Band Wagon. “A lot of things that happen in the plot of the movie actually happen to Broadway theater folk,” she said. “The Jack Buchanan character is based on Jose Ferrer who at one time had about three Broadway shows running. He was producing and starring and they tap into that. Even the idea of a show being in trouble out of town and what are you going to do. I had that experience with Crazy for You.”
According to Stroman what was unique about Astaire is that he danced with a musicality that very few other performers had.
“He sits in the pocket of the rhythm of the music; just right in the beat of the music,” she said. “He’s so musical. He was very collaborative with his choreographers and also with his orchestrators and arrangers. He would have the band drop out at key moments so you could just hear his feet tapping. So it was a very collaborative situation with the music department and Fred all the time. Astaire has a grace and elegance and looks like he’s floating on air but it is all within the music. You don’t see that with other performers.”
Just for the record, (notwithstanding the sublime sensuality of Charisse in The Band Wagon) Stroman confessed that her favorite Astaire movie is Swing Time co-starring his most famous partner, Ginger Rogers.
“They are just perfect together,” she said.
David Fantle & Tom Johnson have interviewed more than 250 celebrities, mostly from “Hollywood’s Golden Age.” They are co-authors of the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV and are currently writing a biography of songwriter and legendary MGM musical producer Arthur Freed. Reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
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