Madame Bovary (1949): Minnelli’s Classic Melodrama

In his first meeting with producer Pandro Berman, Vincente Minnelli, assigned to direct the first Hollywood version of Gustav Flaubert’s noted novel, “Madame Bovary,” addressed some crucial issues. The producer had told Minnelli that Flaubert’s novel wasn’t very visual, and that it may not interest American audiences because it was a period piece, et in the nineteenth century. Additionally, the production Code didn’t approve of adultery as an appropriate subject for a major Hollywood movie.

To pass the Breens office seal of approval, it did help that the film was an adaptation of a world-renowned novel, and that the erotic sensuality was to be implied by uncensored thoughts rather than overt actions.

Screenwriter Robert Ardery was instructed to stay within the Production Code limitations, while trying to maintain the mood of the original work. Madame Bovary was one of Minnelli’s favorite novels. He felt strong emotional affinity with both the fantasies of Emma Bovary, the leading character, and the feelings of her dejected husband.

As usual, Minelli threw himself into researching the various interpretations of the lead character. He read essays on the books by Henry James, Somerset Maugham, and Sigmund Freud, among others. The book had enthralled generations of readers, each of which projected its own values onto Emma Bovary, trying to explain the motivations of the errant woman, who pays for her sings of sexual and materialist obsessions. Minnelli was trying to find a new, relevant, and contemporary angle that would touch a chord with American audiences of the late 1940s.

Next to the musical “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “Madame Bovary” became the film that most profoundly shaped Minnelli’s development as a filmmaker. The project came at a time when Minnelli was full of personal and professional doubts. After “Undercurrent,” and a year of anxious eagerness, Minnelli returned to the Freed Unit to direct “The Pirate,” his second collaboration with wife Judy Garland, which was meant to be the ultimate Minnelli-Garland musical. As mentioned, it was not.

Minnelli was beginning to wonder whether art was imitating life “Madame Bovary” tells the story of a woman whose private phantoms made daily life unendurable for herself, her spouse, and their infant daughter. Minnelli was living a similarly hellish scenario, albeit in modern costume, at a Beverly Hills home. Minnelli later acknowledged that Judy’s periodic retreats into fantasy helped him shape his view of Flaubert’s self-destructive and capricious Emma.

Like Minnelli’s best work, “Madame Bovary” simultaneously exalted the style of Hollywood moviemaking embodied by MGM, the most prestigious studio, while slyly debunking the moral assumptions that it also made the most traditional company.

It could have been an Illustrated Literary Classic, a genre MGM excelled in before WWII, with its opulent tributes to Dickens, Tolstoy, Shakespeare and Dumas fils. Those pictures aimed to please provincial romantics with pretensions to refinement, whose vicarious movie thrills made their lives even more wanting in excitement.

Minnelli was attracted to the subversive elements of the central character and story, specifically to Emmas doomed infatuation with the idea of love, and her vanity, which was a form of narcissism. A faithless wife and negligent mother, Emma defies all the feminine ideals MGM movies were promoting in the Greer Garson vehicles after Mrs. Miniver. Minnelli argued that if Emma earns the sympathy of the readers, it’s due to her human lapses.

“Madame Bovary” was the first Hollywood, but not the first film version of Flauberts novel. Minnelli was familiar with Renoirs version, which he liked, but wanted to make a different kind of movie. The book was a perfect material for Minnelli, who understood all too well how sensual deprivation and the lure of daydreams could lead to a destructive obsession. Several of Minnellis movies had already dealt with this fascinating theme.

Berman assigned the script to Robert Ardrey, who opted for a nuanced reduction of the novel. But due to censorship, Berman feared that even Emma’s suicide might be deemed insufficient punishment for her adultery. On screen, Ardrey suggested Emma’s promiscuity, but very little was actually shown. The chosen distancing device was voice-over narration: The story was bracketed with a reenactment of Flaubert’s trial for obscenity. Minnelli hoped that the MPAA itself would learn a lesson from the novelist’s narrow-minded contemporaries.

Hard to believe, but Berman initially planned to cast Lana Turner, the studio’s glamour-plastic woman, still described as “The Sweater Girl.” But Minnelli rejected the idea as both implausible and impractical. The Production Code censors had already warned that Madame Bovary was trouble enough, even without Lana Turner’s incendiary screen image. Minnelli refused to consider Metro’s other stars, British imports Greer Garson, who was established but boring, and Deborah Kerr, who was still new in Hollywood, because both were too refined ladies for the part.

While having drinks with David O. Selznick one evening, the mogul mentioned his wife, Jennifer Jones, for “Madame Bovary,” a film that he had wanted to produce himself. Selznick was quick to point out Joness recent track record: her Oscar for playing the saintly Bernadette of Lourdes in Song of Bernadette, and her range, switching radically from playing a sexy vamp in Duel in the Sun to playing the spirit of eternal innocence in Portrait of Jennie.

Selznick agreed to release Jones for the film so long as MGM used some of his idle leading men. Hence Emma’s noble seducer, Rodolphe, was assigned to Louis Jordan, and James Mason was cast as Flaubert, affording the estimable Brit the opportunity to flaunt his impeccably musical and cultured voice. Only one actor, Van Heflin, as Charles Bovary, was chosen from the MGM’s stable. As it turned out, he was the only male thespian who gave a weak performance that upset Minnelli.

Minnelli shot “Madame Bovary” from mid-December 1948 to February of 1949. He tried to make a stylish-looking though not extravagant picture. Minnelli recreated the nineteenth century village at Culver City. Jack Martin Smith’s set design was a model of backlot recycling. The English hamlet with its rustic stone bridge, which was used in Greer Garsons films, was camouflaged as a quintessentially French town square of Yonville.

As Minnelli expected, Jennifer Jones proved to be tremendously insecure and hence required constant reassurance. From the moment she was cast, Minnelli prepared himself for Selznicks interference via his (in)famous memos, which dissected every aspect of the production. Selznick did not disappoint, endlessly complaining about Flaubert’s psychological approach, the size of Louis Jordan’s part, and even about Metro’s makeup department’s willful attempt to sabotage Jennifers unique loveliness.

Selznicks visits on the set were not welcomed, either. Minnelli maintained a cordial if distant approach when Selznick arrived. In the end, Minnelli listened to Selznick only in regards to Jennifer Jones’s makeup, but he dismissed all the other complaints, particularly those concerning Jones dresses. That was one area that Minnelli was an expert of, and would not tolerate any interference, not from a crass man like Selznick, who let his wife look and act preposterously in Duel in the Sun. Like Cukor, who had been fired from Gone with the Wind, and loathed Selznicks taste, Minnelli was critical of the mogul; at MGM, Duel in the Sun was known as Duels for My Sins.

Minnelli was aware of the similarity between his own marital situation and that described in the text. Engrossed in work after many idle months, he didnt lavish his undivided attention on Judy, as she expected. Vulnerable and troubled, Judy had always resented Minnellis immersion in work, and now even more so. Judys criticism and self-pity soured Minnellis enthusiasm. Nonetheless, this time around, he was determined not to let Judy kill his professional joy entirely. In fact, he used the studio as an escape from home, staying longer hours than the usual.

“Madame Bovary” became the prototype for many of Minnelli’s subsequent dramas. At the center, theres usually a hero/heroine-misfit whos maddened by lifes routines, norms, and rituals. Identifying with his protagonists, male or female, Minnelli experienced similar emotional struggles in his own private life.

Minnelli’s melodramas hold a dark mirror to his musicals. Whats optimistic and in Technicolor in the musicals becomes pessimistic and in black-and-white in his melodramas. “The Pirate” and “Madame Bovary” made a symmetrically matched pair, in the same way that, in the 1950s, back-to-back The Bad and the Beautiful and The Band Wagon complemented each other. Thematically, they all tell similar stories, but stylistically, theyre vastly different, resulting in widely divergent films.

Like “The Pirate”‘s Manuela, Emma Bovary is a woman stifled by the mores of her environment. For each woman, the main allure of her impending marriage is materialitsic. Both heroines are prey to erotic longings, born and shaped by literature and popular magazines. The difference between the two women is that, as befits a hopeful genre like the musical, Manuela is liberated by her imagination, while the gravity of daily life brings Emma’s fantasies to tragedy.

In all of these films, theres a conflict between the urge for self-expression and the pressure to conform to societal norms. They all show Minnelli’s understanding of and sensitivity to women. Arguably, theres greater intensity in a Minnelli movie when the protagonists are female. “Madame Bovary, c’est moi!” Flaubert famously declared–Minnelli could have said the same, and occasionally he did. Yet Minnelli also expresses this empathy for the men with dispassionate irony, a detached authorial voice, embodied by James Masons narration.

Though her interpretation lacked depth, Jennifer Jones’s star quality, her frail beauty, and elegant poise, were important, accentuating Madame Bovarys fatal delusions. Madame Bovary’s life is sustained entirely on illusion and fantasy, and she imagines herself the center of glamorous fantasies. Minnelli’s Emma muses on “love in a Scotch cottage, love in a Swiss chalet.”

Minnelli draws a number of tongue-in-cheek contrasts, like Emmas grand entree in the first reel. Graciously preparing breakfast for the young doctor who’s called to see her farmer father, she beams in her kitchen over her omlette pan, while wearing a long white gown! Viewers have been tipped off that this elegant domestic is not the “real” Emma, but a cameo turn to titillate her own vanity and dazzle Charles. Unseen by Dr. Bovary during his midnight vigil, in the previous scene Minnelli showed the girl in her usual guise, bustling in farmhouse kitchen, in a smock and kerchief under her chin.

Emma’s apprenticeship in her craft is shown in a flashback of her convent years. Its an image that held strong personal meaning for Minnelli. In her bedroom, we see the teenager musing–the camera spans to her reveries, a shrine as an eclectic collection of framed landscapes of enchanted woods, engravings of rapt lovers ripped from novels, copies of fashion magazines. They are described by Mason’s mournful voice-over as “images of beauty that never existed.” These fetishes accompany Emma for the rest of her life, placed in the attic to which she retreated from her bleak domesticity. Just as Judy Garland used to do.
“Madame Bovary” is a tale of the misguided nineteenth-century housewife, who is rushed down the primrose path to ruin. Metro had actually put it in the form of an open defense. James Mason plays the author on trial, for writing this infamous novel, as indeed Flaubert actually was. Though it was not his choice, Minnelli abided by the restriction of having Mason speak a preface to the work and offer occasional commentaries off-screen voice as the story unfolds.

However, by using this device, Metro suggested that Emma Bovarys tragic life was not the result of willful sinning by a selfish, licentious woman, but the consequence of her environment, her upbringing and her childish dreams. We had taught her to believe in Cinderella, Mason tenderly remarks. In Minnellis interpretation, Emma is the victim of hopeless illusions, a sheer product of the romantic age and its ideals. She doesnt find the man of her dreams in her poor loving husband, or in her dazzling lover, or in the pitiful law clerk. In the end, it is ruin and despair, shame, desolation, and death.

Minnelli kept the story moving with smooth directorial touches. As noted, the high point of his work is a ballroom scene, which spins in a whirl of rapture and crashes in a shatter of shame. In this sequence, Minnelli the stylist fully visualizes his theme in a way that he is not successful in other sequences.
In the spring of 1949, “Madame Bovary” was edited, scored and dubbed. The results of the previews, which were held in Santa Monica and Pasadena, were satisfying. Audiences reaction cards rated the film and Jennifer Jones as outstanding. Berman, however, wasn’t impressed; he never found preview cards effective. Minnelli relied on Berman’s personal reactions for many of the changes made after the previews.

“Madame Bovary” drew on Minnellis rare sensitivity to its source material and his vivid sense for melodrama. The movie was too gloomy and fatalistic for the broad public, though it performed respectably at the box-office. Nonetheless, it was Minnelli’s first dramatic film since The Clock to entirely fulfill his expectations and meet his high standards. The movie demonstrated Minnellis breadth of talent, proving that his stylistic flair could enliven the most demanding and bleakest of subjects.

“Madame Bovary” ended the first phase of Minnelli’s career at Metro, which began in 1942 with “Cabin in the Sky” with a bang. With Minnellis private life in shambles, the solace of work was again crucial. Channeling all his energy into “Madame Bovary” was not only a good idea but proved to be a live-saving experience, literally.

The favorable reception signaled a new, highly creative phase in Minnelli’s career that would last for a whole decade, up until “Home from the Hill,” in 1960.