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Vincente Minnelli Wore

A Technicolor Dreamcoat

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Vincente Minnelli was an American director of both film and the stage, whose talents will always be remembered in classic movie musicals such as An American In Paris and Gigi.
Image provided by Reel to Real.
The Man Who Not Only Created Some Of The Biggest Musicals Of The 1940s, But Also Brought Van Gogh To The Silver Screen, Discusses His Cinematic Creations And Also Mentions A Woman Named Garland

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By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special For Modern Times Magazine

Oct. 12, 2015 — Sometimes life imitates art.

In the sad case of director Vincente Minnelli’s gutted and abandoned home on North Crescent Drive in Beverly Hills, it’s an instance of his former manse imitating silent screen siren Norma Desmond’s decaying brickpile from Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard.”

In August 1981, we interviewed Minnelli in the house where he lived with his socialite wife, Lee. Situated on a pie wedge-shaped lot just across the street from the Beverly Hills Hotel, back then, the Regency-styled home and grounds were beautiful; meticulously cared for by the usual phalanx of Latino housekeepers and gardeners that the rich of Beverly Hills hire by the gross.

In the ensuing years, the house became the subject of a tug-of-war between Lee and Vincente Minnelli’s daughter with Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli. After Lee died, the house languished in legalistic limbo and it wasn’t long before squatters took claim and made the derelict home uninhabitable.

The circular driveway we drove up more than 30 years ago is now overgrown with opportunistic weeds that have sprung up from cracks in the cement and the exterior is devoid of color, blanched white by the sun. Another irony, considering that the man who died there in 1986 trailblazed a string of movie musicals in the ‘40s and ‘50s that were noted for their luminous palette and honed visual sophistication.

Minnelli wasn’t just concerned with the workaday mechanics of filmmaking; he was an artist (more than most directors) who painted in a palate of Technicolor and was capable of creating movies that shimmered like the brushstrokes of Monet painting a canvas of his garden at Giverny.

With such films as An American in Paris, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Bandwagon and Gigi, Minnelli more than any other director fulfilled the standing MGM commandment: “Do it big, do it right and give it class.”

Dressed in a black shirt and white blazer, Minnelli ushered us upstairs to the library/office located on the second floor. A slight man with large eyes and sensuous lips but given to small, decorous gestures when emphasis was needed to underscore a particular point, Minnelli seemed to us an aesthete through and through. It was frustrating then (probably more for Minnelli than us), that he was maddeningly inarticulate in conversation. For a director so brilliantly skilled in marshalling the tricky cohesion (on so many complicated fronts) needed to make a film successful, Minnelli just couldn’t connect the dots verbally – without a whole lot of patience and prompting – and more than a little sign language. Then again, Minnelli’s stunning adroitness with the visual composition of his movies might have been a direct result of his lack of verbal acuity – compensation in one area for the lack in another.

“I guess I set the standard for color in those musicals,” Minnelli said. “I knew what I wanted to achieve from my previous experience as an art director doing Broadway shows for the Shuberts. I knew it was possible.”

To literally illustrate his point, Minnelli pulled out from a cabinet in his library a voluminous bound scrapbook of clippings he had gleaned from newspapers and magazines over the years. In its tremendous girth, it resembled a fantastical prop; something that the half-giant Hagrid might tuck under his arm in the Harry Potter series. As such, it took a dedicated effort by Minnelli to hoist it onto a desk. Yellow and brittle from age and use, the bulging clipbook chronicled various vogues of interior design and clothing for more than 40 years.

“I got into the habit of making use of the clip room at the Los Angeles Public Library,” Minnelli explained. “By referring to these cutouts, I was able to bring some measure of authenticity to each of my movies – whether they were costumers or more modern stories.”

Minnelli began his directorial career in Chicago, dazzling State Street sidewalk shoppers with his arrangement of the window displays in the Marshall Field’s department store. Not long after that, he went to New York City and became, at 29, the youngest set and stage director in the history of Radio City Music Hall, a certifiable “wunderkind.”

“I was there 3 ½ years. I did the stage lighting, designed the costumes and conceived the sets. I also did five shows with Beatrice Lillie,” Minnelli said. “Arthur Freed (MGM’s legendary producer of musicals) saw my work and brought me out to Hollywood in 1941 as a sort of protégé and troubleshooter. I pitched in on any film that needed doctoring. I’m afraid the art department at MGM didn’t like me much. They considered me a young upstart from Broadway with fresh ideas. But when I got my own films to direct, they left me alone.”

Minnelli’s An American in Paris and Gigi won Oscars for Best Picture of 1951 and 1958. But he felt that to make any real impression on the throngs who cast their Academy Awards votes (or anyone else), a musical must be exceptional.

“Most musicals are lighthearted entertainment with no other pretensions,” he said. “I do believe a film should do more than just entertain. Cabaret (starring Minnelli’s daughter, Liza) is a marvelous example of a deeply disturbing, ominous, yet entertaining musical drama.”

Lust for Life, the film version starring Kirk Douglas of Irving Stone’s biography of the life of Vincent Van Gogh, ranks as Minnelli’s favorite film. It is truly homage from one artist to another with Minnelli doing vibrant justice to the genius of the Dutchman.

“We shot the movie entirely in Europe. I used locations in Paris and Belgium. I even shot scenes at St. Remy, the mental institution where van Gogh had himself committed toward the end of his life,” Minnelli said. “One problem we had to resolve was Vincent’s suicide scene in the wheat field at Arles. I shot it on a cold fall morning. We had to fly in some mature wheat and treat it chemically so it would stay alive while Vincent painted his famous last canvas of the black crows flying over the field; all for the sake of accuracy.”

The distraction of keeping wheat fields alive in mid-frost would be enough to drive any director to his own padded cell at St. Remy. But Minnelli had his own sanity-saving methods. “I would disassociate myself completely at night,” he said. “To take my mind off the job, I’d read detective stories.”

Among the many stars with whom Minnelli worked was Judy Garland who he described at the consummate performer. “I tried to direct her as little as possible,” he said. “She would be powdering her nose with a disinterested gaze and I wouldn’t be sure I was getting through to her. But when the camera rolled, every inflection and nuance was in place – sheer perfection. Gene Kelly was the same way. I’d tell him to make a scene jauntier. Gene would look at me quizzically. He was, of course, the definition of the word jaunty.”

A pivotal point the in the careers of both Minnelli and Garland was the film – an enduring classic of Americana – during which they fell in love, Meet Me in St. Louis.

“Judy didn’t want to make that film back in 1944; she wanted to do more sophisticated parts. She thought the teenage role of Esther Smith would set her career back 20 years,” Minnelli said. “She asked MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer and the film’s producer Arthur Freed to intercede for her but she couldn’t get anywhere, so she came to the set the first day of rehearsal secure in the knowledge that she would at least make life miserable for ‘this squirt director Minnelli from New York.’ I’ve been lucky to have great success with things that at first glance didn’t seem so good.”

In 1945, Minnelli directed the cinema’s two greatest dancers, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, in their only routine together, “The Babbitt and the Bromide” from Ziegfeld Follies. It stands as a unique historical pairing of two legendary hoofers with vastly different styles who were in their artistic prime – a curio forever captured in the time capsule of film.

“The rehearsals were maddening,” Minnelli explained. “Astaire would demonstrate an idea for a step and ask Kelly what he thought of it. Kelly would say, ‘fine, great, swell.’ They tried to convince each other and be so polite. That dance took three weeks to rehearse, but it turned out well. Fred Astaire is lighter than air you know and Gene is earthier. Both are perfectionists to the nth degree. It was a fascinating thing to witness.”

Thirty-five years ago we asked Minnelli what he thought of the infrequent occurrence of new film musicals, The Wiz in particular. He told us he saw a screening of the film which starred Diana Ross in the role of Dorothy and Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow and was an all-black version of a hit Broadway musical that was, in turn, based on the 1939 movie starring that “consummate performer,” Judy Garland.

“I decided then and there not to see any more new film musicals,” he said.

For the nonverbal Minnelli, it was a mouthful. Some things, you see, just can’t be improved on.

David Fantle & Tom Johnson have interviewed more than 250 celebrities, mostly from “Hollywood’s Golden Age.” They are co-authors of the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV and are currently writing a biography of songwriter and legendary MGM musical producer Arthur Freed. Reach them at david.fantle@gmail.com or tjohnsonca@aol.com
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