Story of Three Loves, The (1953)

The MGM studio went out of its way to find a project to justify Minnelli's $3,000 per week salary.   They found a curious fantasy without music called “Mademoiselle,” which formed the center of an omnibus film, The Story of Three Loves.   Hollywood has made only a few successful omnibus films, a genre that was always more popular in Europe.  In france, there were anthologies based on classic short stories, such as Somerset Maugham's Trio, or Max Ophuls's Le Plaisir, homage to Guy De Maupassant.

Veteran producer Sidney Franklin initially asked Minnelli to direct two of the film's three short tales, “Mademoiselle” and “Why Should I Cry?”  But one was enough for Minnelli, and the latter was given to Charles Waters, a regular replacement for Minnelli.

Shot on the back lot, the anthology consisted of “Mademoiselle,” set in Rome, “The Jealous Lover” in London, and “Equilibrium,” with a Parisian setting.  Favoring old-fashioned fare with an all-star cast, Franklin assembled an international troupe. Max Reinhardt's son, Gottfried, directed “The Jealous Lover,” a kind of replicated The Red Shoes, with James Mason playing the Anton Walbrook role, and “Equilibrium,” starring Kirk Douglas and Pier Angeli.

Planned for Leslie Caron, “Mademoiselle” was based on Jan Lustig and George Froeschel’s short story, “Lucy and the Stranger.”  The heroine, a wistful governess of an American family on holiday in Rome, recites Peguy and Verlaine to Tommy, a 7-year-old boy who can’t wait to become a grown-up.  When an old sorceress grants his wish for one evening, a transformed Tommy awakens to mademoiselle's beauty.  Ricky Nelson, already popular on TV, played the young boy, and Farley Granger the mature Tommy.   ZaZa Gabor was cast as a worldly barfly who vamps the hero before his date with mademoiselle.

Ethel Barrymore flaunted an imperious delivery as the fairy godmother, Mrs. Pennicott.  For Minnelli, working with Barrymore, then the grand dame of the New York theater, was the major reason for doing the film.   Enchanted by Barrymore's energy and professionalism, he catered to all of his star’s suggestions.

For her first scene, Minnelli placed Barrymore in an Italian-Gothic villa, basking in velvety Roman twilight.  The actress later reported that no director, not even her friend George Cukor, had treated her with such respect and presented her with such loving admiration.

By the late 1940s, Minnelli got used to the workings of the Metro Art Department and vice versa.  Aging and in decline, stubborn art director Cedric Gibbons now fully accepted his status as the studio's most brilliant director and accommodated most of his wishes and whims.   Indeed, it offered a luscious series of matte shots by special-effects master Warren Newcombe, who recreated the Roman Forum and Caracalla Baths, while back-projection was used to illustrate Farley Granger and Leslie Caron's carriage ride through the city.

There was much recycling of ideas, images, sounds, sets, and objects in Minnelli's movies.   For example, Miklos Rozsa's “new” score for his segment borrowed motifs from his Waltz composition for Madame Bovary.   And this film’s park setting would be used as a substitute for Central Park, just as it would be employed for the ride that Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse take in The Band Wagon, Minnelli's next picture.

With such smooth collaboration, “Mademoiselle,” the first segment to be shot, was done very quickly by Minnelli standards, requiring only three weeks, and wrapping up in February 1952.   However, the entire anthology was costlier and took longer to finish than anticipated.

Not knowing what to do with their inflated art-house production, MGM kept it on the shelves for over a year.   Three Loves finally opened at Radio City Music Hall in March 1953, after The Band Wagon, even though the musical had been shot before.    The public response was timid, and the movie turned out to be a commercial failure.

Even so, Minnelli imbues “Mademoiselle” with some touches of lyricism and whimsy.    Fables like this succeed or fail on their charm, and “Mademoiselle” simply lacked charm.    The settings are photogenic, and some of the close-ups appealing, but overall, it’s a stalled film, marred by a sumptuous but fake look.

Skeptical viewers wondered why would an adolescent boy in a Roman hotel read gloomy Gallic poetry? Granted the wish to become a man of 25, he accidentally encounters the fey governess still weeping over Verlaine.  The tuxedoed transient succumbs to her thrall, and soon the two somnambulists proclaim love, in slow verse and slow motion, drifting across the screen like lost souls

Like The Clock, the movie brings together two lonely innocents to a big city of strangers, but the emotional urgency that propelled The Clock eludes Minnelli here. Despite high production values, and Minnelli’s camera caressing Caron and Granger in their love scene, the segment is lifeless.

Fleeting seconds in the segment transport it to the Eternal City of Minnelli's imagination, for a change a dream without a ballet.   A succession of soft frescoes of nocturnal Rome, a surrealist trumpery–a giddying overhead shot of Farley Granger running down a gaslit alley, dwarfed by an equestrian statue, out of American in Paris.

The appearance of Ethel Barrymore halfway through the story is more than welcome.   Like Gigi's Aunt Alicia, Mrs. Pennicott is the star of her miniature domain.  With her, the story's high-flown sentiments give way to an astringent comedy.   Barrymore is a Minnelli type of witch, an elegant fairy godmother who presides over crumbling baroque archways and sunken Roman pediments.

Barrymore's grand dame reveals how she subdued the overweening German governess who blighted her own youth.  Mrs. Pennicott says that, to achieve the spell that would liberate him from mademoiselle, the boy must invoke her name on a stroke of 8: “I love to hear it pronounced, it intoxicates me.”   By turns vain and seductive, the veteran star gets a chance to show off her deliciously rich theatrical voice.

Though “Mademoiselle” was no more than a trifle to fill Minnelli's idle weeks, in between more important assignments, it touched a personal chord.  Mrs. Penicott personifies an essential Minnelli theme: The power of the imagination to overcome the mundane daily life.  As Minnelli himself grew older and dissatisfied with his personal life, he relied more and more on fantasy as an escape.

“Mademoiselle” may be seen as a draft for Minnelli’s last picture, A Matter of Time, yet another fable about an aged eccentric countess (played by Ingrid Bergman), who introduces a frustrated innocent (Liza Minnelli) to the lure of dreams, a topic that was also explored in Gigi.   The idea corresponds to Minnelli’s real-life role in transforming young women, like Lena Horne, Judy, and his own daughter, into sophisticated society ladies.  Unfortunately, the supernatural and comic relief elements in “Mademoiselle” would transform into pathos and regret in the 1976 picture.

Neither “Mademoiselle” nor A Matter of Time sustains the transcendent artistic quality Minnelli hoped to convey.   However, each film featured thematic motifs and visual imagery recurrent in Minnelli’s work.   In his swan song, a reclusive old lady enveloped in the sapphire light of a Roman dusk, contemplates the mysterious promise of the darkness to come.   Placed against the context of his own life, the film couldn't have been a more personal one. By 1976, Minnelli's professional glory had receded into memory, like the amorous exploits of the ravaged countess.