Madame Bovary: Minnelli Directs, Miklos Rozsa Composes Great Music

The distinguished composer Miklos Rózsa worked on several Vincente Minnelli pictures, including Madame Bovary and Lust for Life.

In his memoirs, he recorded the following observations about this experience. I had heard much bad and little good about MGM before I arrived there: that its immense and relentless conveyor-belt-style productivity depended on a constant ingestion of new creative talent, but that artists counted for little or nothing apart from their ability to deliver the goods.  Well, I can only report that, in my early days at least, I saw little or nothing of this.  I was treated in all quarters with the greatest kindness and consideration.  Louis B. Mayer was at that time still the head of the studio, but all my dealings were with Sidney, and I never had cause for complaint.

My first two pictures were of no great consequence, but they seemed to please because I was then assigned to Madame Bovary, with Jennifer Jones and the young Louis Jourdan.  The title was magic to me.  As a child I had read the novel in French, and loved it.  Now I re-read it, and Flaubert’s other novels.  I had a collaboration with Vincente Minnelli of a kind I had enjoyed previously only with Lang, Wilder and the Kordas.  Usually one is called in when the picture is finished and told, ‘There’s the picture – compose!’  I love to be in from the planning stage, to give and receive suggestions.  This is the only way a work of art – assuming one thinks of a film as a potential work of art – can come into being.

Minnelli was a sensitive artist and director, and he made a masterpiece of Madame Bovary.  The set-piece of the film was the great waltz in the ballroom.  During our discussions I would refer to Flaubert, he to his script.  If he mentioned something that wasn’t in the book, I would open Flaubert as a priest would.  Flaubert describes the waltz in detail and Vincente wanted to recreate it accordingly.  He told me exactly how long each part, each incident should be, and I was able to write the music to match and in a spirit of dedication, knowing that in this instance the camera would be following my music, not my music the camera.  For the pre-recording I arranged it for two pianos, one of which was played by a very young member of the MGM music department called André Previn.

Minnelli was so excited by the waltz when the two pianos played it that he asked his wife, Judy Garland, to come over to hear it.  There is a sudden modulation in the piece where the big tune lurches into an unexpected key, and at that moment Miss Garland gasped in thrilled amazement and good pimples appeared on her arms.  (Always the actress!)  Minnelli shot the scene to the two-piano track, which was later replaced by the orchestrated version.

We went to the out-of-town preview with some trepidation, because nobody knew how an American audience would react to a hundred-year-old French story.  The waltz scene is quite long – about five minutes – and I remember with a certain pride that at the end the whole audience burst into applause.  Of course this wasn’t necessarily only for the music, but for the brilliance and excitement of the scene as a whole.