Bad and the Beautiful, The (1952): Minnelli’s Classic Hollywood Melodrama–Part One

Part One

Having just made a huge artistic and commercial hit, the Oscar-winning musical, An American in Paris, Dore Schary, head of MGM, was keen for Vincente Minnelli to direct another picture quickly.  MGM wanted a similar kind of musical and offered his prime director Lili., a sentimental melodrama with music.

Designed for Leslie Caron, Lili was too similar to the picture he’d just finished.  This time around, Minnelli felt assured enough to decline the next musical offered to him, Lili.   As the first solo vehicle for Leslie Caron, Helen Deutch composed a fable-with-songs about a provincial French waif who joins a traveling carnival.  Minnelli was the obvious choice, but the turf was too familiar, so he declined.  Lili was then assigned to Charles Waters, who by then had become used to picking Minnelli’s rejects.   When Lili proved to be an unexpected hit, Minnelli regretted his decision, which was solely based on artistic considerations.

Minnelli had recently read a script titled “Tribute to A Bad Man,” that had been kicking around the studio for some time. “You really want to do that?” Schary asked in a state of disbelief, “That’s the story of an out-and-out heel.”

Minnelli disagreed. “No, I don’t think it is.  I think anybody like Jonathan Shields (the protagonist that Kirk Douglas would play) who has the charm to get people to work for him and get involved with him must have the charm of the world.”

Schary then asked, “Who could play such a monster?”

Minnelli was ready with an answer, “Only one actor, Kirk Douglas.”

Minnelli believed that Douglas was the only actor who could effortlessly combine tough harshness with easy charm. Douglas was the kind of actor who didn’t have to portray strength; it came naturally to him.   The challenge for Douglas would be to get the smooth charm aspect right.

Unbeknownst to Minnelli, Schary approached Clark Gable, whose popularity as MGM’s reigning king was beginning to decline.    Quite expectedly, the King turned it down.   Douglas, in contrast, thought that the script was wonderful, and relished playing a “bad movie mogul.”   When MGM announced that Lana Turner was the “beautiful” of the title, the papers were filled with gossipy items, like “When these two get together?”

Despite differences of age and aesthetic sensibility, Minnelli and Orson Welles shared some elements in common.   Both became famous as young directors in the New York theatre in the 1930s.  Both moved to Hollywood and began making movies in the 1940s, and both collaborated with producer John Housemann. In later years, Minnelli would tell the French magazine, Cahiers du Cinema, that Welles was the Hollywood auteur he most respected, due to audacious style.

In Minnelli’s The Band Wagon, the comically pretentious Jeffrey, who tries to direct a musical version of Faust, is like a fictional synthesis of Orson Welles and Minnelli.   The personalities of Welles and Minnelli again converge in The Bad and the Beautiful, a steamy Hollywood melodrama that was inspired, among other sources, by Citizen Kane.  The film’s narrative structure also resembles that of Citizen Kane, including the equivalent of a Rosebud flashback and Kirk Douglas’ ill-defined Oedipal confusion.

Welles’ former associate, John Houseman, who had recently become an MGM producer, came across a short story by George Bradshaw, “Memorial to a Bad Man,” which was published in the “Ladies Home Journal.”   Based on the life of Jed Harris, it concerns the death of an unscrupulous Broadway director.   The director’s lawyer invites his former collaborators to the funeral, where each one recalls how they were first seduced and then betrayed by him.

Anticipating their hostility, the dead man defends himself in his will, claiming that he had taught them important lessons that helped make them successful.  As a last request, he begs them to collaborate on producing a play in his memory.  Amused by this presumptuousness, and still fascinated by him, they agree to work on the play.  The story ends on an ironic note, with their speculation on the bizarre future project.

Bradshaw’s tale was interesting because of its multiple-perspective narration, which recalled Citizen Kane. However, instead of a satirical expose, Houseman opted for a glossy, intensely emotional melodrama.   He proposed to change the setting from Broadway to Hollywood, and to tell the story of a producer (rather than director), someone like David Selznick.  Houseman said he was tired of theatrical stories with protagonists patterned after Jed Harris.   He also wanted to avoid a film that might seem too similar to All About Eve, another cynical multiple-perspective narrative about the theater, written by Herman Mankiewicz’s brother, Joseph.

In the 1950s, Hollywood movies were becoming more self-reflexive, examining their own past with a peculiar mixture of nostalgia and cynicism.  A whole cycle of films, including Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard,  George Cukor’s remake of A Star Is Born, Joseph Mankiewicz’s The Barefoot Contessa, Sam Fuller’s The Big Knife, appeared in the early 1950s.   Though less troubling, and more in tune with the MGM’s conservative image, The Bad and the Beautiful represented one of the highlights of that cycle.

Please Read Part Two.