Ballet sequences seem to pop up with certain regularity in musicals of the ‘40s and ‘50s. They are not a formal ballet to speak of. Typically, they represent an amalgam of ballet, jazz, modern dance and various other styles, usually taking place inside the head of one of the characters. Oklahoma! is a famous example, with Agnes de Mille’s original stage choreography for “Laurey’s Dream Ballet” transferred intact from Broadway to Fred Zinnemann’s 1955 film version. Many of the best ones have Gene Kelly’s name is attached them: “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” from Word and Music (1948), “A Day in New York” from On the Town (1949), “An American in Paris” from An American in Paris (1951) and “Broadway Rhythm Ballet” from Singin’ in the Rain (1952).
Fred Astaire, Kelly’s friendly rival at MGM, had a plum ballet sequence of his own in The Band Wagon (1953), a film showcasing the music of Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz about a group of performers involved with a troubled stage musical. The piece is called “The Girl Hunt Ballet,” the finale of the film and a triumphant indicator that the show-within-the-movie is now a hit.
Originally, Betty Comden and Adolph Green had written a song for the ending called “The Private Eye,” an attempt at a murder-mystery ballet that, in spite of being a non-Schwartz-and-Dietz composition, was proving unworkable in terms of staging and orchestration.
“The Girl Hunt Ballet” took as its inspiration a Life magazine article on Mickey Spillane, the prolific author of pulp fiction crime novels. The creative team got to work, crafting a tale set in the Spillane-like urban underworld of tough-guy criminals, duplicitous dames and hard-boiled private dicks.
Schwartz sent MGM’s music arranger Roger Edens some themes for him to work with, while Mary Ann Nyberg set about creating the stylized costumes: dapper suits for guys; slinky gowns for dolls. Preston Ames and Oliver Smith, working under Cedric Gibbon’s authority, created the minimal, expressionist sets, which included a city street, a dress salon, a subway platform, a fire escape, a woman’s bathroom and a jazzy nightspot.
Choreographer Michael Kidd was a little nervous about how Fred Astaire would react to Kidd’s more avant-garde movements and thus worked out the routines after Fred had left for the day, but ultimately Astaire grew keen on the idea of doing something new. Kidd’s daring is most evident in the Dem Bones segment of “The Girl Hunt Ballet”—each patron entering the bebop joint with their own unique gait, which Astaire assimilates, and Astaire’s unconventional, sexually charged dance duet with Cyd Charisse.
Finally, director Vincente Minnelli felt the ballet needed narration and called upon lyricist Alan Jay Lerner to write it. No wanting to step on the toes of the film’s official writers, Comden and Greene, Lerner agreed to it on the conditions that he not be paid and that Minnelli claim to have written it himself.
Here's a look at the entire 12-minute number.