Lust for Life: Minnelli’s Van Gogh Masterpiece (Part Three of Five)

Part Three of Five

MGM’s new technology presented another major problem. Metro refused to shoot Lust for Life in any other way than CinemaScope, which was not suitable for the reproduction of Van Gogh’s work.    Minnelli had to find a way to fit Van Gogh’s canvases into the frame.   MGM then dropped Technicolor and used another process, Ansco, which Minnelli found more suitable.    But Ansco had halted their production, and it was hard to find any stock at the warehouses.

Please Read Parts One and Two

Minnelli wanted the dramatic scenes to look as closely as possible to Van Gogh’s own paintings. Arguing against the use of a wider-frame Cinemascope, Minnelli went to New York to persuade Arthur Lowe in favor of the old-fashioned Academy ratio, which was closer to the paintings’ dimensions.    Lowe countered that, no matter how the movie was shot, it would still be projected in Cinemascope around the country.

In the 1950s, MGM had abandoned the expensive Technicolor in favor of Eastman, which didn’t require special cameras.    Minnelli disliked Eastman because it was unable to register a shade of yellow, a color that was crucial to Van Gough’s palette.  It was also, as noted before, Minnelli’s favorite color, dominating most of his pictures’ art design.    In the end, Minnelli was able to get the studio’s last remaining stock of Agfacolor.

 With Minnelli’s help, the studio pleaded with various art collectors, from actor Edward G. Robinson to the Moscow Museum of Modern Art, to allow them to use Van Gogh’s paintings.   At the end, those chosen for the painter’s studio in Arles were faked.    Other paintings appeared in close-up inserts of Van Gogh at work.   Minnelli also sent a crew to several galleries to shoot Van Gogh’s canvases with still cameras. 

Housemann hired the Museum of Modern Arts’ Impressionism expert, John Rewald, to serve as consultant.  Two other artists were hired to execute the ersatz Van Gough: one provided the finished paintings, the other doubled for Douglas’s painting scenes.

Minnelli had no problems persuading MGM to shoot Lust for Life on location.    For this picture, the natural landscapes were essential in conveying the details of the artist’s work.    As a result, the crew went to the coalmines of the Belgian Borinage and to Van Gough’s Dutch countryside, then to Paris, the Provence, and the Ile-de-France, where Van Gough spent his final years.

Unfortunately, Minnelli was busy with Kismet until midsummer, the fields and vineyards were ripening under the sun.    Housemann thereupon decided to shoot the script in reverse order, with the company going north as the weather grew colder.    Before principal shooting began, cameraman Joseph Ruttenberg flew to Arles to film the orchards while blooming.    Minnelli was very pleased with his footage.

This time around, Minnelli was more careful not to adorn what was an essentially somber and downbeat story with glossy entertainment values.    In fact, Paris featured only peripherally in the film, with few outdoor scenes that depict artists at work.   Instead of showing the Parisian nightlife, as Moulin Rouge did, Lust for Life offers Van Gogh’s own work and personality.

Van Gogh is usually portrayed as a womanizing artist who’s wandering around Europe socializing with prostitutes, sneering at Degas for painting “feminine” art, such as ballet dancers.    In Minnelli’s film, there’s only a brief love affair with Christine, a working class prostitute-mother.  

More importantly, Minnelli refrains from the Hollywood clichés in depicting artists.   He refuses to show Van Gogh as a “sensitive” or “bohemian” artist, suggesting that there was nothing urbane about him, his life, and his work.

Oscar Nominations: 4

 Actor: Kirk Douglas

Supporting Actor: Anthony Quinn

Screenplay (Adapted):  Norman Corwin

Art Direction-Set Decoartion: Cedric Gibbons, Hans Peters, and Preston Ames; Edwin B. Willis and F. Keogh Gleason

 Oscar Awards: 1

Anthony Quinn


Produced by John Houseman

Associate producer: Jud Kinberg

Assistant Director: Al Jennings

Screenplay: Norman Corwin, based on the novel by Irving Stone

Cinematography: F.A. Young

Art Direction: Cedric Gibson, Hans Peters, Preston Ames

Set Decoration: Edwin B. Willis; Keogh Gleason

Music: Miklos Rozsa

Editing: Adrienne Fazan

Costumes: Walter Plunkett

Color consultant: Charles K. Hagedon

Print process: Metrocolor

Recording Direction: Dr. Wesley C. Miller

Hair Stylist: Sydney Guilaroff

Makeup: William Tuttle

RT (Running Time): 122 Minutes


Vincent Van Gogh (Kirk Douglas)

Paul Gauguin (Anthony Quinn)

Theo Van Gogh (James Donald)

Christine (Pamela Brown)

Dr. Gachet (Everett Sloane)

Roulin (Niall MacGinnis)

Anton Muave (Noel Purcell)

Theodorus Van Gogh (Henry Daniell)

Anna Cornelia Van Gogh (Madge Kennedy)

Willemien (Jill Bennett)