Minnelli Legacy: Artist in Factory?–Part 1

book pack

book pack

Between 1942 and 1962, Vincente Minnelli directed 29 films at M-G-M, eventually becoming the studio’s longest-tenured, highest-paid, and most prestigious director.

Minnelli’s career at the studio was by no means restricted to musicals; he also directed many successful comedies and elegant melodramas.

Minnelli’s career was the single driving force of his life.  His wives, companions, and friends always complained that he was married to his work. In their arguments and eventual divorce, his fi rst wife, Judy Garland, accused him of favoring the interests of M-G- M over her personal and professional ones.

Like some other Hollywood directors, Minnelli fi rst received serious critical recognition from foreign fi lm critics. French critics writing in Cahiers du Cinéma and British critics in Movie championed him in the 1950s and early 1960s as one of Hollywood’s consummate filmmakers, an artist and craftsman of the first order.

Now, in the first de cade of a new century, it is time to ask, what is Vincente Minnelli’s fi lm legacy? What did he accomplish as a fi lm artist and under what conditions?

Artist in Factory

Several notions about Minnelli have persisted over the years, such as the idea that he was an artist trapped in Hollywood’s factory, a victim of the studio system who suffered under the tight control of M-G-M’s top executives.

However, my research shows that nothing is further from the truth. Unlike some directors who fl oundered and often crashed in the studio system, Minnelli blossomed, reaching artistic heights that he could not have accomplished without the steady support of M-G- M and its specialized departments. Yes, there were strains and confl icts, but there was also tremendous help, based on the division of labor along more or less defi ned lines, that prevailed at M-G-M.

As a member of the Freed Unit, he benefi ted from the opportunity to work with the biggest stars, greatest musical talents, and fi nest craftsmen.  This roster of varied and gifted personnel helped Minnelli form his uniquely cinematic vision, which encompassed all aspects of production.
Although a perfectionist, Minnelli knew his limitations. He was not a producer or a writer, which worked against him in the 1960s, when the studio system declined. Moreover, he was endowed with a passiveaggressive personality, on the set and off, and while he always knew intuitively what he wanted, he often found it hard to articulate it and communicate it to his actors.

In good times and bad, Minnelli never lost his passion for work and for the creative pro cess. As he once observed: “There’s nothing as exhilarating and challenging as getting a fi lm project off the ground: The tantrums, the feuds, the emergencies, the race against time, the sudden salvation of high humor, which comes on and has you pounding the floor.”

High Art and Mass Culture

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gigi

For many moviegoers, Minnelli exemplifi ed the best of Hollywood’s mass entertainment, a positive concept in his world. Admired for his wild sense of color and dynamic camera movement, Minnelli was blessed with an aesthete’s temperament that recalled a long tradition of paint ers.

Even while in Hollywood, he continued dreaming about being a painter in Paris, and toward the end of his life, he spent more and more time on his drawings and paintings. It’s crucial to remember that Minnelli was a modernist artist whose sensibilities were shaped in the 1920s and 1930s by the same forces that gave birth to modernist literature, painting, architecture, and dance.  As such, his work bridged the gap between high art and pop u lar culture, showing that the latter could have genuine artistic dimensions and that high art could have a pop u lar base and wide commercial appeal.

James Naremore has correctly observed that Minnelli served as an emissary between the cultural margins and the center, feeding mainstream entertainment with its needs for novelty, innovation, and change—up to a point. Minnelli’s historical importance at M-G- M rests on his ability to modernize entertainment, drawing on various, mostly nonfilmic sources.

lust-for-life_3From a very early age, Minnelli spent the little extra money he had collecting art books. First, they served as escape routes from solitude and shyness and later as sources of inspiration for his Broadway and Hollywood work. He consciously borrowed ideas from French art movements, such as the decorative art nouveau and the impressionist styles of the late nineteenth century and the post- impressionism of the twentieth.

He was particularly infl uenced by the romantic visions of the surrealists, exposing in Freudian ways the sexual and po liti cal unconscious. Minnelli directed the fi rst surrealist ballet presented on Broadway, choreographed by the Rus sian immigrant George Balanchine, who later founded the New York City Ballet. Like his mentor and friend George Gershwin, he blended a Eu ro pe an aesthetic with a uniquely American idiom, drawing on jazz, folklore, and other sources that combined the Old World with the New, a similarity of taste that explains his attraction to Gershwin’s An American in Paris. Minnelli pop u lar ized ballet, which suffered from the American public’s view of it as an elitist art form. In his correspondence, he often chose the word “dance,” rather than ballet, to avoid the Eu ro pe an (and feminine) connotations of the term.

In both his look and his outlook, Minnelli wedded the notions of the dandy aesthete with that of the commercial entertainer. In 1937, Esquire described him as “the incarnation of our preconceived notion of a ‘Village type,’ with the fl at black hat with a wide brim, loose collar and no tie around his thin neck.” In publicity releases, the Shubert Or ga ni zation and Radio City Music Hall emphasized his vanguard taste: “A modernist, Minnelli revels in torch songs, music from the heart of Harlem, and picturesque angular furniture.”

An_American_in_Paris_posterNever an intellectual, Minnelli considered himself to be something of a cultural sponge who absorbed all kinds of ideas from books, paintings, movies, and the zeitgeist. “I’m just as apt to throw myself into a thing that’s very low class as the next guy,” he used to say. Nonetheless, he made very few fi lms that were crass or beneath his refi ned taste. Films such as The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, Goodbye, Charlie, and The Sandpiper are exceptions to his usual high standards. But these pictures wer directed in the last de cade of his career, and not so much by choice. The first two were concessions to Hollywood’s competition with tele vi sion; the third was made when he was in his sixties and lacked the clout to demand more challenging projects.

Minnelli was an intuitive artist, more a fl amboyant fabulist than a conventional storyteller. The critic Richard Schickel noted that Minnelli did not have an analytical mind, that he “seems to feel his way toward the solution of creative problems, clued more by visual ideas and, of course, musical ones than by any of the signs one might term ‘literary.’ ”

Like some other major fi lmmakers—Hitchcock, Ford, and Sirk, among them—Minnelli fi rmly believed that genre pictures could serve as personal expressions of their directors’ idiosyncratic sensibilities.
Nonetheless, and for better or worse, Minnelli is mostly associated with one signature genre, musicals, even if, of his thirty- four features, only a third were musicals. As the “master of musicals,” Minnelli is seldom given credit for his contribution to comedy, in the same way that Hitchcock
is always described as the “master of suspense,” Ford the “master of westerns,” and Sirk the “master of melodrama,” though all three had worked well in a wide variety of genres.