Monday, 22 October 2012

Vincente Minnelli: MGM's Most Versatile Director


He was the unique directorial force behind the following classic movies, to name a few: An American in Paris, The Band Wagon, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Bad and the Beautiful, and Gigi. 

He also directed the lesser-known but equally worthy of attention The Pirate, The Clock, Cabin in the Sky, The Long, Long Trailer, Lust for Life, Brigadoon, Bells are Ringing, Madame Bovary, and The Cobweb. 

Since my childhood, I've always been drawn to the work of Vincente Minnelli. Growing up on the MGM musicals, I saw many of his films before really even knowing who Minnelli was. As a teen, I started to delve in more detail into his films, and even did a directorial study on him for a high school media studies class. Never mind Spielberg and Tarantino like the other students were studying... I wanted Minnelli! I won't mention here that I had to tell my teacher who Minnelli was and what he directed....

Looking at Minnelli's filmography, now with the lens of an adult, I can't help but notice the versatile breadth of genres in his creative output: musicals (of course), dramas, melodramas, and straight comedy. Liza Minnelli once said of her famous father that he was the only director at MGM to be assigned such varied types of films, and to direct each style equally well. While Liza is rightfully proud, she is also very accurate. While we tend to think of Minnelli as the most creative MGM musicals director of all time, to not consider his forays into straight dramatic pictures would be criminal. Minnelli's trademark visual eye translated beautifully into every style of movie he made. My goal here is to draw attention to Minnelli's immense versatility and unparallelled unique talent.

EARLY MINNELLI

Lena Horne in Cabin in the Sky (1943)
Born Lester Anthony Minnelli in Chicago, Minnelli's first jobs included being a window dresser for a department store, and a photographer of actors. I think this is important to note, given that it demonstrates Minnelli's flair for the visual, which he would later translate brilliantly on film. He then moved to New York and moved up from set designer to stage director at Radio City Music Hall and on Broadway before he was discovered by MGM musicals producer Arthur Freed. Freed, a man with a knack for noticing talent, gave Minnelli his first chance at directing on film, with the all-black musical Cabin in the Sky (1943). Viewed today, it is obvious that no one had, up to that point, had ever created a "look" on film quite like Minnelli. While it is not one of his best films, it is significant to his output in the sense that it reveals a uniqueness, a new sophistication and touch of visual class that Minnelli brought to the MGM musical. 

Judy and Vincente in joyful times, their wedding day, June 1945
It is impossible to discuss the early Minnelli films without talking about Judy Garland. Besides the obvious events of Vincente falling for Judy, courting her, marrying her, and then creating their famous daughter Liza, he also directed his best early films with her as the star. Perhaps even more importantly, he transformed Garland into an adult screen beauty and legitimate screen star.

Garland, as seen through Minnelli's loving and sensitive eyes in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
When Arthur Freed approached Garland about taking the starring role of Esther Smith in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), she viewed the role as a step back in her career. Having finally been given the chance to play adults on screen (Jo Hayden in 1942's For Me and My Gal with Gene Kelly and the glamorous Lily one year later in Presenting Lily Mars), Judy didn't want to play the teenage Esther. Agreeing reluctantly, she also didn't respond initially to Minnelli's directorial style of "take-after-take for perfection." She wasn't used to being corrected or coached so frequently on her performance, especially for what seemed like the simplest of scenes. However, she was soon falling for her new director, and he for her. Liza Minnelli says in the introduction to the initial DVD release of this film that Minnelli's love for Garland fills every frame of film that she is in. How right she is. Garland has rarely looked so radiant than in this film (wacky hairdo aside!). Who can forget her final few bars of "The Boy Next Door" as she closes the sheer lace curtain, and Minnelli pans into her gorgeous, longing face, or the delicate lighting as she sings 'Over the Bannister" from the top of the staircase to her sweet and young John Truitt. These images have remained so detailed in my mind ever since my childhood, probably more so than any other film I watched frequently during my early years. Not only is Meet Me in St. Louis one of Garland's best performances, it is also an effortless directorial turning point for Minnelli. Visually and atmospherically, he captures early 20th-century small-town America, and paints a sentimental and vivid portrait of the Smith family. It is no surprise it has remained such a musical classic. 

Garland, Robert Walker, and Minnelli discuss a scene on the set of The Clock (1945)
Minnelli's first foray into dramatic pictures also came to fruition because of Garland. Judy was working on her first straight drama called The Clock (1945) with director Fred Zinnemann, and was less-than-satisfied with the way in which he was directing the film. She suggested to producer Arthur Freed to bring Minnelli onto the project, convinced he would bring a sensitivity and subtlety to the film that Zinnemann wasn't grasping. Garland, with her star power, won, and for the betterment of everyone (including movie audiences), Minnelli took the helm. An under-seen film with wonderful performances by Garland and her leading man Robert Walker, the wartime story of Alice Mayberry falling for Corporal Joe Allen and marrying him after knowing him 48 hours is a plot that could have only been written during WWII. However, Minnelli's direction, and decision to make the setting of New York City a third main character, gives it a modern flavour that audiences can still relate to today. The overwhelming metropolis of NYC gets in the way of our lovers as the city seems to conspire against them in every possible way... they lose each other on the subway, they can't get a marriage license soon enough, and the judge's office is minutes away from closing when they finally do arrive to tie the knot. NYC is almost the villain of the piece, and this idea was purely Minnelli's. It is clear that despite Garland's romantic feelings for Minnelli (they were engaged by the end of the shoot), she knew that Minnelli had what it takes to make the film more than a corny love story. The scene at the beginning of the film when Walker's Joe Allen first arrives in NYC and is overcome by the tall skyscrapers and unkind atmosphere is easily Minnelli's best camera work to date, as Walker is made to look like a very small and insignificant part of this grand, impersonal city. While Garland fans love the film as it's her first movie without singing a note and her first chance to truly demonstrate her acting chops, Minnelli fans will appreciate his delicate and sensitive handling of the material. 

Beautiful Lucille Bremer in Yolanda and the Thief (1945)
Producer Arthur Freed was one who let his creative talent take artistic risks, even if it meant losing money at the box office. Minnelli's Yolanda and the Thief (1945) is certainly one of these examples. One of Fred Astaire's rare box office failures, it's still worth viewing. Sure, the dialogue scenes are sometimes painfully slow, the plot leaves much to be desired, but Minnelli's visual touches reach a new maturity and risk-taking creativity that makes this film worth watching at least once. We get a special sense of Minnelli's past experience as a set designer in this film, from the seemingly uneven black and white floor in the "Coffee Time" dance duet with Astaire and his partner (lovely Lucille Bremer), to the otherworldly "Dream Ballet" full of fanciful imagery that could only be a product of Minnelli. While Minnelli may have made this film too "out there" for the mass audiences, it shows his maturing signature directorial style.

MID-CAREER MINNELLI

Gene Kelly and Garland at their comedic best in The Pirate (1948)
The Pirate (1948) may be Minnelli's most misunderstood film. It certainly was at its initial release. Who would have thought a movie starring movie giants Judy Garland and Gene Kelly would be a box office flop? Well, Judy Garland herself had an inkling. Despite the film being directed by her (estranged) husband, she believed that the tongue-in-cheek script would elude the public, and that audiences wouldn't understand the swashbuckler satire of 1920s Hollywood actors with purposeful over-acting. But, Garland, with her ever-increasing personal troubles, let Kelly and Minnelli (an eager-to-revolutionize-the-movie-musical team) take the creative reins on the film. (No, Kelly and Minnelli were not sleeping together as certain under-researched sources state). While 1948 audiences were shocked at the casting choice of Garland as Manuela (a woman fascinated with a murderous pirate) and didn't understand Kelly's brilliant comedic take-off of Douglas Fairbanks as strolling player Serafin, it is now a cult film with a loyal following. To me, The Pirate is a movie that gets better with each viewing. Garland and Kelly are always the perfect match for each other on film, but here their comedic timing is especially delightful. The famous crockery-throwing fight, with Manuela throwing everything (with perfect aim!) she can find at Serafin when she learns his true identity, is comedic gold. Furthermore, Kelly's choreography, in partnership with Robert Alton, reaches new creative heights, particularly in the visually stunning and ever-modern "Pirate Ballet." Plus, Garland gets to truly display her amazing comedic gifts for the first time in this film, and while Kelly has more screen time and the more grandiose role, Garland steals every scene she is in. It's a film way ahead of its time, and Minnelli's inventive and artistic direction is one of the main reasons it has such a strong cult following today. 

Jennifer Jones as the much-desired Emma Bovary in Madame Bovary (1949)



Aside from 1946's Undercurrent, Madame Bovary is Minnelli's first foray into straight dramatic films. It seems odd, somehow, to view a black-and-white Minnelli film, since colour is such an integral part of Minnelli's visual style. Think of that amazing Minnelli red in the "Pirate Ballet." It's hard to imagine Kelly's choreography without the stunning red background, or the beautiful Technicolor framing in every shot of Meet Me in St. Louis. Minnelli still brings his signature style to the "Madame Bovary Waltz," as Emma (Jennifer Jones) dances with Louis Jourdan's sophisticated Rodolphe Boulanger, and, as the music becomes more frantic, so too do Emma's reactions (resulting in her fainting) and the increasing speed of Minnelli's camera. Emma's psychological and sexual thoughts are exposed through Minnelli's smart direction. Sadly, it is the one truly effective scene in a film that is otherwise a misfire.

THE MINNELLI MASTERPIECES

Leslie Caron and Gene Kelly in the brilliant An American in Paris (1951) ballet, with a typical Minnelli yellow in the background
A conversation about Minnelli would be grossly incomplete without a discussion of the 1951 Best Picture winner, An American in Paris. Beating out such classics as A Place in the Sun and A Streetcar Named Desire, Minnelli's visual stamp has never been stronger than in this film. From the black and white costume party (pure Minnelli), to the most realistic looking Paris ever created on a Hollywood sound stage, to the beautifully designed sets that make existing paintings come to life in the ballet sequence, this film screams "Directed by Vincente Minnelli" like no other, with the exception, perhaps, of Gigi. It is interesting, then, to note that according to Gene Kelly's widow Patricia Ward Kelly, Gene himself directed the ballet sequence. Minnelli, called upon to direct Father's Little Dividend, had to abandon the project and leave the ballet for Kelly to helm. However, there is no question, from sources that link Minnelli back to this project as early as 1949, that his creative and visual ideas infiltrate every frame of the ballet. While Kelly too had a fascination with France and with visual art, the colours and overall atmosphere in the ballet (including that unforgettable "Minnelli Red" rose) are unmistakably Minnelli. Minnelli and Kelly prove themselves to be an amazingly matched creative team, and yet each possessing very different skill sets and approaches. Minnelli's creative ideas may have been too "artsy" without Kelly's stunning and trademark "everyman" choreography. Yes, it's a ballet, but it's a Gene Kelly ballet, and therefore, designed for audiences to enjoy. Together, Minnelli and Kelly create something far more than mere entertainment. It's art, but art that almost everyone can appreciate. The Academy certainly did, by bestowing upon Gene a statuette for his achievement in choreography. While An American in Paris is not Minnelli's best musical (in my humble opinion, anyway), it marks a landmark achievement for the American movie musical. Who would have thought that a 16 minute ballet tacked onto the end of a film, with no plot-advancement device, would then earn the Best Picture Oscar of that year? Minnelli and Kelly's risk-taking paid off. 

Kirk Douglas and Lana Turner heating up the screen in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)

Soap opera has rarely been classier than in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), Minnelli's melodramatic (yet relevant) comment on Hollywood and the film industry. It seems that Kirk Douglas gave some of his finest performances in Minnelli's films, and his portrayal of filmmaker Jonathan is one of his best. Lana Turner, too, creates one of her most effective characterizations as actress Georgia who is essentially used by Douglas' Johnathan to make money at the box office. Minnelli somehow transcends melodrama here to create an intriguing look at Hollywood of his own era. You can research what real-life figure of Hollywood each character is based on, or you can just read into it yourself, with the clues Minnelli (and the script) gives us. While some maintain that this film is a second-rate version of Sunset Boulevard (1950) or that it's pure soap opera, for me, it's Minnelli turning soap opera into art. You can't help but be drawn into this fictionalized Hollywood world, and the famous scene when Lana Turner drives away from Douglas' house and has a breakdown could be construed as over-the-top, but Minnelli knows that it is. That's what makes the scene so effective. It's a larger-than-life comment about a larger-than-life industry. For me, it's one of Minnelli's most captivating dramas. It's also full of nuanced, subtle moments, like Turner's scenes with Douglas where she reveals her troubled past, or the inventive way in which Minnelli chooses to introduce the character of Georgia. You can dismiss this movie as melodrama, but if you do, you haven't watched it with enough depth or attention to Minnelli's enormous detail.

Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse in the musical masterpiece The Band Wagon (1953)
 For my money, The Band Wagon is Minnelli's musical masterpiece. Why? It combines everything that makes a Minnelli musical great. First off, there's a wonderful cast, with Fred Astaire at the helm, and a gaggle of scene-stealing and very humorous supporting actors like ever-depressed Oscar Levant and "The British Astaire," Jack Buchanan. Secondly, there is so much attention to detail that you always notice something new each time you watch it. Minnelli said in an interview once that there should be a "hundred or more hidden things" in each film. This movie, to me, is the movie that typifies Minnelli's statement. Just watch the "Shine on Your Shoes" scene, and how each extra is a defined character, reacting in many different ways to Astaire's song and dance. It's a brilliant little moment in movie musicals. Third, the classic Minnelli elegance is present in almost every scene, with the elegance made even more obvious given that the most elegant man of cinema, Fred Astaire, is his leading man. Fourth, Minnelli finally makes Cyd Charisse a leading lady on this film, and she, of course, is Astaire's most elegantly matched dancing partner. Think of their duet to "Dancing in the Dark"... to me, it's essentially the most perfect dance ever put on film. Finally, I think the reason that makes The Band Wagon so wonderful is the fact that it takes place on the New York stage, where Minnelli got his start. You can just sense that he was drawing from his own first-hand experiences for this film, which adds a charmingly realistic humour to the doomed musical that Buchanan's company is trying to get on Broadway. There is also realism in Fred Astaire's Tony Hunter, a song-and-dance man past his prime. The Band Wagon presents Astaire with one of his best and most sympathetic characters. Minnelli brings out in Astaire a beautiful, vulnerable quality that tugs at your heart, when, combined with Michael Kidd's modern choreography, gives us a new and relevant Astaire for the 1950s. Each time I watch this film, I can't believe I didn't enjoy it the first time. It's the most charming Minnelli film out there. It's no surprise to me, therefore, that it's Liza Minnelli's favourite work of her father's. How can you not love it? It's infectious and joyful. 

An overdue sight: Minnelli with an Oscar, for Gigi (1958)
Critics call Gigi (1958) the last great musical of MGM's Golden Age. I would call it one of Minnelli's most signature pieces: glorious set design, vivid characters, a great Lerner and Loewe score, a Parisian setting, and that unmistakable "Minnelli touch." The cast is uniformly excellent: Leslie Caron is the only woman who ever could have played Gigi, Maurice Chevalier brings his always-charming self  as Honoré, Louis Jourdan is the appropriately handsome male sophisticate who eventually falls for Gigi, and Hermione Gingold and Isabel Jeans are pitch-perfect as comedic relief and Gigi's female family influences. While it is the film that brought Minnelli his well-deserved Oscar, I always feel when watching this film that while Minnelli's visual and atmospheric flair is no doubt at its peak, that we are perhaps already past the Golden Age of MGM musicals. In some scenes, the movie seems to be trying too hard to be sophisticated... I can't quite pinpoint what it is, but Minnelli's direction doesn't appear as effortless as in The Band Wagon, for example. It could be too that the plot of Gigi training to be a courtesan hasn't dated well, and neither have the lyrics for "Thank Heaven for Little Girls," though we all know that Chevalier's character means no harm. Flaws aside, the film is still a treat, and improves with each viewing. 

THE UNDERRATED MINNELLI

The following is a quick analysis of Minnelli's films that I feel deserve more attention.

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz as Tacy and Nicky in The Long, Long Trailer (1953)
Those who know The Long, Long Trailer (1953) will probably first think of it as the movie Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz made while on hiatus from their hugely successful sitcom, I Love Lucy. And it is, but it's also a film that shows us Minnelli's flair for comedy. Minnelli quietly and subtly reins in the Lucy-Ricky TV archetypes for this film, and creates a milder but still funny Tacy and Nicky who are more suited for the sophisticated big screen. The result is a comedy with many charming moments, and a fine supporting cast including the always-hilarious Marjorie Main. The tension Minnelli builds in the scene where Tacy and Nicky ascend up the mountain, and Nicky is clueless about all the rocks Tacy has secretly left in the trailer, is comedic gold, yet also truly suspenseful. Minnelli is also unafraid of slapstick, in the scene where Tacy is victim to Nicky's clueless, song-filled driving as she attempts to make dinner in a moving trailer. The movie is an insight into a very different Minnelli, yet still very effective. 

Kelly and Charisse in the dream world of Brigadoon (1954)
For my money, Brigadoon (1954) is the most underrated of the Minnelli musicals. I grew up loving this film and being completely captivated by the fantasy of it all. It was only when I reached my late teens that I discovered I was in the minority of people loving this film (at least among critics and academic sources). I'm sure many people know that by 1954, the budget for musicals wasn't what it used to be, and they weren't bringing in the box office returns that they used to. Therefore, while Gene Kelly envisioned this musical to be a Scottish answer to Oklahoma!, with MGM cast and crew going on location to Scotland for the film adaptation of the hit Broadway play, the MGM powers-that-be (and Minnelli) had a different idea): shoot the film entirely on a sound stage. The result? The first real disagreement among the creative team of Minnelli and Kelly. I must say though, staunch Gene Kelly fan that I am, that I believe the film benefited from being shot only on the MGM lot. Why? Because the fantastical story lends itself to being on a set, and not in a real location. Plus, I believe Vincente Minnelli was a true dreamer. He conceived many films with truth or fears being realized in dreams. Think of Spencer Tracy's dream in Father of the Bride, or Fred Astaire's fantastical dream in Yolanda and the Thief, or the dreamlike state Joe and Alice fall into as they listen to the sounds of New York City in The Clock. Kelly's character of Tommy Albright finds his preferred reality, or his truth, in this dream-like world of Brigadoon, and with Charisse's Fiona Campbell. To me, this realization in Kelly's character wouldn't be nearly as effective on authentic heather hills. Instead, Minnelli makes us believe that Brigadoon is real, but doesn't look it... it's too beautiful and wonderful to even appear real. Sure, the movie is sometimes cheesy, and the sets aren't up to the usual MGM standard, but Kelly and Charisse's duets are among their best work, especially with "The Heather and the Hill" dance. Minnelli's direction is also brilliant in the moment where Kelly leaves Brigadoon and then suddenly we are rushed back into the hustle-bustle of a crowded New York City bar, complete with businessmen, drunkards, and overly made-up women. The fact that Minnelli knew New York City so well gives this scene an extra dose of authenticity. I find the film to be a repeatable treat, and a gem among movie musicals, even if it's far from perfect. 

Lauren Bacall and Richard Widmark in The Cobweb (1955)

OK, The Cobweb (1955) is melodrama, and there's no other way to categorize it. But it has impressive performances from an all-star cast including Lauren Bacall, Gloria Grahame, Richard Widmark, Charles Boyer, Lillian Gish, Susan Strasberg, and Oscar Levant in a straight dramatic role. Yes, there is an all-too prominent subplot about draperies, and the plot is sometimes confusing, but it is very interesting to see Minnelli explore a world and a directorial style that almost resembles the work of Douglas Sirk. Plus, Minnelli's fine direction of the actors allows the material to transcend the melodrama, and become an absorbing character study of these troubled characters: the patients and doctors of a psychiatric clinic. 

Dean Martin and the one and only Judy Holliday in Bells are Ringing (1960)

 Minnelli's swan song for the Freed Unit, Bells are Ringing (1960) is a charming-as-can-be film. I must confess, I think I prefer it to Gigi-- not for its visual style, but for its overall enjoyment factor. Judy Holliday is darling as Ella Peterson, a woman who works for an answering service and is in love with a man she only knows over the phone. Dean Martin is his usual natural charming self as Jeffrey Moss, the man who falls for Ella, while not knowing her true identity. Adapted from the stage musical in which Holliday starred, Minnelli retains a lot of the "stagy" feel of the film, and this is what most critics find distracting about the film. I personally find it to be an interesting approach to this particular story, and, since Holliday was such a brilliant stage actress, she excels in this format. Sadly, the Minnelli sophistication is absent from the film except in the party scene, where Ella attempts to name-drop celebrities with a bunch of theatre folk. There is no mistaking the lack of energy in this film, since it is usually abundant in a Minnelli musical. However, it's still a charming film with a strong score that deserves at least one viewing. 

FINAL WORDS

Fans of Minnelli's filmography are highly encouraged to read A Hundred or More Hidden Things: The Life and Films of Vincente Minnelli by Mark Griffin. A wonderful mix of biography and film analysis, the book is guaranteed to be a treat for any Minnelli fan. 

Thanks for reading, and please let me know your thoughts on your favourite Minnelli films! Let's keep discussion about this great director alive!

Vincente and Gene Kelly on the set of An American in Paris (1951)

2 comments:

  1. Wonderful writing! Kirk Douglas is marvelous in The Bad and the Beautiful, too. I also love Brigaddon, such an underrated film, and think Gigi is not Minnelli's best work (maybe it's because I watched the film dubbed).
    Oh, and I've been reading so much about The Long, Long Trailer that I'm getting very curious about it!
    Kisses!
    Le (@startspreading)

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    Replies
    1. Glad you enjoyed it! Yeah, I can never bring myself to truly love Gigi.

      The Long, Long Trailer is a very cute film! Just watched it again last night and introduced it to my boyfriend.

      Thanks again!

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