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The Vincente Minnelli File – Part 1

The Vincente Minnelli File - Part 1

We’re now going to go through all the pictures directed by Vincente Minnelli (Liza’s Dad), which I saw and commented upon in my 1952-1970 movie
card-file. I came to appreciate this director’s style and strength more as I got older, though some of my most youthful reactions still have validity; but there are certainly differences of opinion between my older and younger selves. Minnelli had range as a director, from musicals to family dramas to family comedies, he handled all sorts of stories with sensitivity and scope, making quite an impressive number of classic Hollywood films, from An American in Paris to Some Came Running, from The Band Wagon to The Bad and the Beautiful, from Meet Me in St. Louis to Father of the Bride. He was an ideal director for the old Studio System, equally at home with
all kinds of tales and genres, and each done with dependable expertise and lack of pretension. Indeed, he made some of the most purely entertaining and memorable pictures in that Golden Age.

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (1951; d: Vincente Minnelli).

1952: (Artistic, clever, tastefully made, sprightly and
colorfully gay musical done completely in film terms; the concluding full-length ballet is beautifully danced and photographed.)

Added 1961: Very good- (The book is extremely weak, and there are not enough musical numbers; the film also has a veiled pretentiousness not
found in the Donen-Kelly pictures like “Singin’ in the Rain” and “On the Town”, which are fresh while this is somehow overly conceived. It is likeable, however, pleasant and thoroughly diverting.)
Added 2014: I tend to agree more with my 12-year-old self, because this has become a movie I really like a lot. The book is not weak at all, but rather daring in dealing with the sexual relationships in quite a frank way. Gene Kelly has never been more charming and likeable, and his choreography is simply extraordinary, not to mention his superb dancing throughout. Oscar Levant is no great actor, but he’s OK, though the number where he plays everyone in the orchestra and audience—an idea stolen from a Buster Keaton short—goes on too long. The ballet is still breathtaking, as are several other numbers, in particular “By Strauss” and “I Got Rhythm”. Let’s face it: this is a terrific picture—with wonderful music by George Gershwin, super lyrics by his brother Ira—and in which Leslie Caron makes a spectacular screen debut.

THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (1952; d: Vincente Minnelli)

1953: Excellent* (Superbly directed, acted and written Hollywood drama about an egomaniacal, ruthless and brilliant producer, and the people — a director, an actress, a writer — he uses on his rise to the top. Authentic atmosphere, fascinating detail, thoroughly engrossing.)
Added 1963: (Personal and marvelously effective, brilliantly and firmly constructed; a remarkably fluid work, intense and shiningly well done.)

Added 2014: Some of this is pretty melodramatic, but what do you want? It’s about Hollywood! All the characters and incidents have a basis in real life, and it’s fun to see how they’re used to excellent advantage in this story, from Val Lewton to John Barrymore. The construction is similar to that of “Citizen Kane,” on which producer John Houseman worked, but not as daring or dynamic: a more conventional, though effective, flashback structure. All the performances work, and there’s a subtle “inside” feeling that’s palpable. Not a great film, but if you’re in the movies or in love with them, the picture is endlessly entertaining. In other words, it’s kind of a guilty pleasure.

THE BAND WAGON (1953; d: Vincente Minnelli).

1953: Excellent (Elaborate, handsome, stylish musical with a show
business background: sprightly dances, rousing tunes, fast, slick direction,
charming performances make this an extremely entertaining, amusing, and very
pleasant affair.)

Added 1964: (Among Minnelli’s most effective
achievements: every department is lushly, brightly, colorfully perfect).

Added 1965: (Not a great film, but a delightful one, with fine
numbers and a good cast headed by [Fred] Astaire at his most inimitable.)

Added 1968: (A bright, overlong, but still damn likable work; the
script has its derivative moments, and there are one or two unlikeable numbers;
but the highlights still are high.)

Added 2014: The truth is: I love this movie! It feels like
Astaire’s
best, and number after number really soar: “Shine on My Shoes,”
“Guess
I’ll
Have to Change My Plan,” “Dancing in the Dark” in Central Park, the Mickey Spillane parody ballet, “By
Myself”,
and one terrific performance by Jack Buchanan as a kind of Orson Welles figure.
Comden & Green script is top-notch and they are splendidly portrayed by
Oscar Levant & Nanette Fabray. Features song, “That’s
Entertainment!” and it certainly is.

THE COBWEB (1955; d: Vincente Minnelli).
 

1955: Very good* (Elaborate, sometimes pretentious, but for the
most part convincing, absorbing multi-drama about the lives of patients and
doctors in a mental sanitarium, well directed, competently acted and written.) 

Added 1964: (Serious and very well done by Minnelli, an extremely
talented man; among the most impressive things in the film is his superb use of
CinemaScope and his handling of what is basically an overwrought script.)

Added 2014: This is the picture about the curtains. I’m
not kidding. The main plot, the MacGuffin, is about the goddamn curtains in the
main living room of this asylum. But the actors are so good, and Minnelli’s
direction is so lucid, that the whole thing sort of works.

LUST FOR LIFE (1956; d: Vincente Minnelli).

1956: Very good* (Although the acting is fine and the writing
good, it is the accurateness of the locations, the beauty of Van Gogh’s
actual paintings, and the brilliance with which they are photographed, that
makes this the best film-biography of a painter ever made. Kirk Douglas does a
creditable job as the master, but the paintings reveal far more of the man and
the artist: Van Gogh, strikingly photographed, steals the picture.)

TEA AND SYMPATHY (1956; d: Vincente Minnelli).

1956: Excellent* (Except for Mr. [John] Kerr, who is competent
but dull, this is a brilliantly acted and directed version of [Robert] Anderson’s
moving, compassionate play. However, the annoying epilogue, which has been
added for the benefit of the Code and other such institutions, is a rather
jarring and completely unnecessary note; still it does not mar the otherwise
deeply true and tender beauty of the film.)

Added 2014: I was lucky enough to see Deborah Kerr on stage in
the original Elia Kazan-directed Broadway production, and at the show I saw,
John Kerr, who had originated the part and played it in the movie, was out, and
his understudy had taken over. His understudy was Anthony Perkins! He was
brilliant, absolutely terrific. So far superior to the John Kerr performance in
the picture, but then Tony Perkins became a star and John Kerr went into
business. So the film will never, to me, be as good as what I saw on the stage.
Deborah Kerr was equally good on both stage and screen, she makes whatever
works in the picture work; she and Minnelli’s taste. The epilogue is more than
annoying, it’s horrible, and goes totally against the whole spirit of the
play. In it, Kerr’s character had to be punished and diminished because she
slept with one of the students, even though that act saved the student’s
life. This is where the Code of old was at its worst.

DESIGNING WOMAN (1957; d: Vincente Minnelli).

1958: (A very entertaining, briskly directed and acted Hollywood
comedy about a fashion designer and a sports writer who meet and marry:
big-slick-unpretentious and quite a bit of fun. Even Gregory Peck does a few
nice things.)

Added 1964: Good* (Truly a very delightful sophisticated comedy,
done with Minnelli’s usual high spirits and taste; the
script is light and silly, but it is performed and directed to perfection.)

GIGI (1958; d: Vincente Minnelli).

1958: Fair (Pretty but hollow version of the Colette story, with
uninspired Lerner-Loewe songs, and not particularly likable actors; nice to look
at, occasionally diverting and more often tedious.)

Added 1966: (Among Minnelli’s least effective
works – a not very interesting project done without his usual sparkle or flair;
on the contrary, an almost graceless, strangely wooden work, overwhelmed with
mediocre Beaton sets and costumes, and uncomfortable actors. A couple of the
numbers make nice, if unremarkable, use of the Paris exteriors, but the whole
seems to exist in a vacuum, with no one communicating; perhaps Minnelli’s
least inspired work.)

Added 2014: I’m very ambivalent about this movie: I
like it sometimes more than other times. Sometimes I agree with my earlier
comments, and other times I like seeing Maurice Chevalier doing a musical for
the first time since Lubitsch’s glorious The Merry Widow (1934). And he talks to the audience as he did in
those other divine Lubitsch musicals: The
Love Parade
(1929), The Smiling
Lieutenant
(1931), and One Hour With
You
(1932). I’m sure Minnelli was aware of that as well, and that
personalizes the picture in an interesting way. And much as I hate to admit it,
Louis Jourdan singing “Gigi” all over Paris pretty much works, and it’s
a terrific melody anyway. The fact that they don’t make movies like this anymore adds
to its appeal, so that in the long run, you’re glad they made it, even though it
irritates you at times.

THE RELUCTANT DEBUTANTE (1958; d: Vincente Minnelli).

1958: (Paper-thin entertainment about the fashionable London “Season”,
during which parents present their daughters to society, enlivened by
delightful performances from Rex Harrison, Kay Kendall, an elaborate, colorful
production, and slick, speedy work by Minnelli.)

Added 1963: Very good (More than just a slick bit of fluff, it
gains in distinction through Minnelli’s satirical and stylish direction and
through the brilliantly farcical playing of Harrison and Kendall; Angela
Lansbury and Peter Myers give hilarious support, but the contributions of
Sandra Dee and John Saxon are negligible.)

SOME CAME RUNNING (1958; d: Vincente Minnelli).

1958: (Uneven, unconvincing, confused story of an unsuccessful
writer’s return to his home town and the factions of, and
relationships he develops with, its inhabitants. Except for an overly
flamboyant but well done final sequence at a carnival, Minnelli’s
direction is only competent and never inventive, and the acting is very
uneven.)

Added 1964: Excellent* (It is difficult to understand how one
could be so wrong: this is, quite to the contrary, one of Minnelli’s
most complex, brilliantly observed and superbly directed and acted works, as
well as an excellent distillation of [James] Jones’ long
novel. Shirley MacLaine’s performance of a pathetic young tart
is heartbreakingly real and deeply moving, probably the finest thing she has
ever done; Sinatra has rarely been as unmannered and convincing; and Dean
Martin brings exactly the right note of charm and boorishness to the role of a
wandering gambler. The relationships Sinatra has with a writing teacher who
separates the man and his work, and the ignorant but human floozy who does not
understand either him or his work yet loves him anyway, these are certainly
among the most complex and maturely handled things of that kind seen on the
screen. Minnelli brings his sensitivity and talent to this work and has created
one of the finest dramas of the fifties, a picture that gains in depth and
intricacy with every viewing.)

Added 2014: I agree with my 1964 self. I like this movie a lot.
The three stars are very magnetic and engaged. They play wonderfully together:
the long take of Sinatra and MacLaine in front of the bus at the beginning, and
the long take of Martin and Sinatra the first time they meet at a bar are
scenes that are filled with life, real and fictional. The picture has many very
powerful scenes—all shot on real locations in an Indiana town—and
the score by Elmer Bernstein is exceptionally good. Minnelli’s
work all the way through is exemplary, and the final carnival sequence is
brilliantly stylized and succeeds on a suspense level as well. This is one of
the last Hollywood star vehicles that really plays.

HOME FROM THE HILL (1960; d: Vincente Minnelli). 

1960: (Stylish, effectively color-photographed drama about family
tensions and intrigues in modern-day Texas: well acted by George Peppard,
Robert Mitchum, George Hamilton. Elaborate production, livened by Minnelli’s
brisk, flashy handling.)

Added 1963: Excellent (Far better than one originally thought: a
brilliantly conveyed atmosphere, truly splendid mise-en-scène,
often deeply moving script and acting: a mature, serious and always provocative
work, a fine example of Minnelli’s sensitivity and adaptability. On the
whole, a rather beautiful movie.)

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