Yolanda and the Thief: Director Minnelli and Fred Astaire

“Yolanda and the Thief” was conceived as a musical for Vincente Minnelli to direct and for Fred Astaire to star in.

A Latin-baroque reverie, it was based on Ludwig Bemelmans and Jacques Therys short story, which was published in the July 1943 issue of Town and Country magazine. Freed composed the music himself and he asked his collaborator, Harry Warren, to write the lyrics. With a budget of $2.4 million, “Yolanda and the Thief” began shooting on January 15, 1945, and was completed four months later.

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Lucille Bremer plays Yolanda, not the best choice, but she was having an affair with Freed at the time, and he promised to do something special for her. To persuade Minnelli, Freed pointed out that Lucille had proven to be a congenial dance partner for Astaire in the “Ziegfeld Follies.” Minnelli was to direct Yolanda right after “Ziegfeld Follies.” However, due to the crisis with the production of “The Clock,” priorities changed, and Minnelli began working on “The Clock” only three days after principal shooting ended on “Ziegfeld Follies.”

Bremelmans and Thery’s outline was handled with fidelity in the screenplay. “Yolanda and the Thief” takes place in a Hispanic-American utopia; Latino in the story, Patria in the film. Bremelmans had a whimsical bent, but, when writing for adults, his tone curdled into faux-naivete. Yolanda had a cute premise, but no solid plot or real characters.

Though out of synch with the movie’s Latin setting, a big-band jitterbug is Yolanda’s only spirited sequence, heightened by Minnelli’s vivacious staging. “Yolanda” proved that Minnelli could create magic in a vacuum, but that his fantasy could reach higher if he were given worthier text to work on. Yet for all the novelty in intent, Yolanda misfires in execution. The biggest error was casting the title part of a good fairy with Lucille Bremer, who was simply too frosty and too old to bring it off.

The previews in New York and Los Angeles went over well, but the critical reaction was negative. The “New York Times” Bosley Crowther gave the film its most favorable notice, noting that, taste and imagination are so rare these days that Minellis film stood out. However, the reviewer Howard Barnes called it “pretentious bore.” Most reviewers dismissed the script as inane, while some were offended by the idea of a con man passing as an angel. American audiences have shown tolerance for con men but they couldn’t accept Astaire playing one, and raffishly so.

A modestly-budgeted movie like “Yolanda” should not have failed so miserably, but it did. The public didn’t accept a simple story placed in avant-garde setting. Yolanda became Minnelli’s first big flop, slapped with negative reviews that depressed him, since they totally contradicted early expectations. Yolanda’s failure disheartened Minnelli, who thought that the script was witty, but it just didn’t play.

From the start, Freed worried that Yolanda would end up looking like a laborious collage of ill-assorted parts, decorated visual audacity. Indeed, the public’s response was timid to a musical that was too rarefied and too exquisite for Wartime audiences. Yolanda and the Thief became the first major flop of the Freed Unit. Nonetheless, Minnellis idiosyncratic daring is evident, and though a failure, it was still superior to the mediocre and pointless “I Dood It,” Minnellis worst effort.