Today we reminisce about
The MGM musicals of Vincente Minnelli
* Published specifically for The Second Annual Broadway Blogathon hosted by Rebecca at Taking Up Room *
I was never a huge fan of musicals or singing and dancing in films when growing up. My first real exposure to this genre was Annie which I watched over and over as a child due to a lack of choice in programming rather than anything else. Not only did I want to skip the songs, I also cringed every time Carol Burnett came on-screen because she wholly terrified me as Miss Hannigan. (Side note: It took me over twenty years to consider her differently than a villain!) During my teenage years, all of my 20s and into my 30’s, I still purposefully avoided these tune-enhanced pictures. It was not until circa early 2016 that I had a change of heart when TCM France featured Gene Kelly as their star of the month and chose to simultaneously focus on the diverse filmography of Vincente Minnelli. Something clicked and for the first time, I was won over by the magic of Technicolor combined with the talents of MGM’s Arthur Freed unit. Since that time, I have really opened up to traditional musicals even though modern films and Broadway productions still do not really interest me a great deal. If anything, I have come to greatly admire Minnelli’s work and am contented to have finally been able to see all of his MGM musicals.
Vincente Minnelli started working right out of high school in the field of fashion at a department store in the city of his birth, Chicago. While working as a window dresser, he moonlighted as an art school student during the evenings. This experience with clothing and sketching made him a prime candidate to work in the theatre as a costume and set designer. After moving to New York, his first theatrical credit was in the 1930 Broadway production Earl Carroll’s Vanities and a mere five years later, he acted as co-director (with actor Thomas Mitchell) and set designer for At Home Abroad at the legendary Winter Garden Theatre. Hollywood started to take notice as he orchestrated several more successful Broadway shows, working with many future contract players along the way such as: Eleanor Powell, Bob Hope, Eve Arden, June Allyson and Vera-Ellen.
Over the course of his film career, Minnelli had the privilege of working with the biggest names and talent in the business. The director would often work several times over with actors, sometimes using them in films of varying genres. Perhaps it will not come as a surprise to learn that he worked the most frequently with his first wife, Judy Garland, collaborating on five pictures together: 2 full musicals (Meet Me in St. Louis, The Pirate), 2 musical segments (Ziegfeld Follies, Till the Clouds Roll By), and a feature length romantic drama (The Clock). Not only that, he directed her without credit in Busby Berkeley’s Strike Up the Band plus, according to the American Film Institute, another feature for which I am not quite certain. My guess would be Babes on Broadway, another Berkeley-directed feature that also co-starred Garland with Mickey Rooney.
Gene Kelly and Lucille Bremer each appeared on four occasions under Minnelli’s direction, only once in the same film: Ziegfeld Follies. Bremer was twice paired with Fred Astaire but never danced on-screen with Kelly. Fred Astaire, Lena Horne and Cyd Charisse each starred in three of his musicals while Leslie Caron, Red Skelton, Leon Ames, Van Johnson, Howard Keel and Oscar Levant all starred in two of them. Charisse, Caron and Levant, in addition to Garland, were the only four main actors who would appear in both Minnelli musicals and dramas.
The faces of Minnelli musicals:
Thespians appearing in two or more Minnelli films include amongst others: Dean Martin, Eleanor Parker, Sam Levene, Van Heflin, Louis Jourdan, Gladys Cooper, James Mason, Glenn Ford, George Hamilton, Spencer Tracy, Joan Bennett, Elizabeth Taylor, Marjorie Main, Keenan Wynn, Barbra Streisand, Robert Walker, Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas. Minnelli also directed Russ Tamblyn in a non-dancing role some few years before Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
Minnelli completed 11 feature length musicals and participated in the direction of various segments in 3 others feature length musicals (those marked with an asterisk) for a total of 14 musical productions completed for MGM between 1943 and 1960. Most of his conventional critical acclaim came in the 1950s and as a result, several of his films from this period have become his most referred to, best known works. Personally, I have a more varied preference and will give a special acknowledgement to these features at the end of this article. I will also be briefer with Minnelli’s more popular films as there has already been so much said about them.
Cabin in the Sky (1943)
This is a marvellous, fantasy-like tale of good and evil that will touch your heart. Petunia (Ethel Waters) is a God-loving woman married to Little Joe (Eddie “Rochester” Allen), a worldly sinner who has a weakness for gambling and a certain Georgia Brown (Lena Horne). When Little Joe gets seriously wounded in an accident, he faces judgement from both sides and is given 6 months to changes his ways in order to enter Heaven without any memory of having been given this second chance. His salvation is largely thanks to Petunia’s unconditional love for him.
Every performance in this film is magical. Waters was made to play Petunia, a role that she originated in the 1940 Broadway production. Many times you are taken by her beautiful smile and want to share in her joy for life. Allen provided a lot of humour that was perfectly suited to the mood of the film. The imagery used by Minnelli is gorgeous, especially for the scenes of Heaven. A lot of detail went into the set design, easily being one of his loveliest productions.
There is a long history of all-black films made by smaller studios dating back from as early as 1919. The first all-black film made by a major Hollywood studio did not occur until 1929’s Hallelujah directed by King Vidor for MGM. It was well received by the public at the time of its release but did not do much to advance mainstream interest in these types of pictures. Cabin in the Sky would prove to earn a moderate profit which is already quite something considering that the film was boycotted in many movie theatres in the American South. Eleven years later in 1954, the Otto Preminger-directed Carmen Jones would be a big box-office success though, again, black participation in films would remain limited.
The subject of Good vs. Evil was popular during this time, even in Disney cartoons. Two examples are the 1938 short Donald’s Better Self and the 1940 award-winning short Lend a Paw.
I Dood It (1943)
Constance “Connie” Shaw (Eleanor Powell) is an actress/dancer who is starring in a play at the Martinique Theatre alongside her fiancé, Larry West (Richard Ainley). Never one to miss a performance, Joe Renolds (Skelton) comes every day to admire Connie and has consequently learned everyone’s lines in the play. One night at a USO benefit, the two become acquainted and Connie decides to use Joe as a front to make her two-timing fiancé jealous. Before she knows it, the situation spirals out of control and the two end up married with Joe even ending up performing on stage with Connie. Could this unlikely union actually turn out to work?
Apparently many of the gags were taken directly from Buster Keaton and his 1929 film Spite Marriage. Keaton worked closely with Skelton who had a natural gift with the same type of comedy so Skelton’s delivery was flawless. There is a very funny scene between Connie and Larry’s other woman, Suretta (Patricia Dane) in which they compared kisses given to Joe. Suretta complains that Connie’s initial charity kiss to Joe was weak so she in turn gives him a very passionate one, to which Connie responds with a huge smacker. The response from Suretta is priceless: “Sheesh! That wasn’t a kiss – that was a war effort!” Overall this is a silly film but I loved it all the same and Eleanor’s first number, Western Rope Dance, is just amazing. Of three numbers, it was the only one unique to this film.
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
This quaint story of the Smith family is not something that immediately enticed Louis B. Mayer but a few years after Minnelli first proposed the idea, he and Arthur Freed were given the green light to go ahead with his project. MGM purchased the rights for the story in 1943 from author Sally Benson who had originally had her work published in the New Yorker magazine. Benson worked very closely with Minnelli to perfect every minute detail of the costumes and scenery just as she had remembered them from her own childhood, on which several characters of the Smith family is based. The result was well worth the effort as both the public and critics adored the film, sentiments still largely felt to this day. Meet Me in St. Louis was professionally and personally defining to Minnelli and Garland, offering them one of the biggest hits of their careers.
* Ziegfeld Follies (1945)
Segments Directed: Here’s to the Girls, This Heart of Mine, Limehouse Blues, The Great Lady Has an Interview, The Babbitt and the Bromide, There’s Beauty Everywhere
Minnelli took charge of all scenes involving Judy Garland and Fred Astaire, which turned out to be a large majority of the film since Astaire is so frequently featured. The most memorable of these is The Babbitt and the Bromide, featuring a rare on-screen teaming of two of the most prolific song and dance men ever to grace film: Astaire and Gene Kelly.
Yolanda and the Thief (1945)
In the fictional country of Patria, 21-year-old Yolanda Aquaviva (Lucille Bremer) is the sole heir to the considerable family fortune and expected to manage the estate as well as all business interests. Having lived in a convent since the age of 3, she has largely been sheltered from the outside world and is unprepared for the life ahead of her. Travelling through the land is Johnny Riggs (Fred Astaire) and Victor Trout (Frank Morgan), two con men who are down on their luck and looking for a big payday. Johnny sets his sights on Yolanda, pretending to be her guardian angel in order to get close to her and influence her decision-making. Being very naïve and believing that Johnny was actually sent to her by God, Yolanda yields control to him and Victor. Love is in the air, however, and could change the outcome for everyone.
Yolanda and the Thief is visual delight as the film is enhanced with gorgeous, colourful set and costumes. Bold colours are mixed with pastel shades while luminosity is mixed with shadows. Overall, it is one of Minnelli’s most prestigious projects though one that was very poorly received and critiqued, mostly due to the storyline. It is quite understandable considering the lack of serious guidance that Yolanda receives from her Aunt Amarilla (Mildred Natwick), not to mention the gullibility of the young woman. While the pair of Astaire and Bremer is hardly an eyesore together, the two do lack a necessary romantic spark which makes you emotionally support their characters. In terms of dancing, Astaire is of course brilliant while Bremer puts forth a noteworthy effort herself especially considering that she was not a natural dancer. Luckily for them both, they had previously danced together in Zeigeld Follies. (Bremer was discovered while performing as a nightclub singer in New York although oddly enough, she was dubbed for this role.)
Like in Cabin in the Sky, there were a couple of moments that reminded me of The Wizard of Oz in this film. At the beginning of the “Dream Ballet”, there is no mistaking a coloured brick road that is quite like the Yellow Brick Road that leads to Oz. There is also a very curious door that has 5 smaller doors incorporated into it, making for a contraption that could have easily been found in Oz or perhaps even in Alice’s Wonderland! It is also interesting to note that Johnny takes a red carnation from the Aquaviva garden and keeps it by his bedside, later wearing it on his lapel before the “Dream Ballet” sequence begins very much like Gene Kelly’s Jerry holding a red rose before and after the ballet sequence in An American in Paris.
* Till the Clouds Roll By (1946)
The scenes with Judy Garland were filmed by Minnelli in October and November of 1945, well before all other production began on the film due to her pregnancy. It is quite remarkable that she was able to complete such energetic routines as in the clip below considering that she was between 5 and 6 months pregnant at the time. This musical is a bit different from the ordinary as it is very broken up into segments yet it has a central storyline present throughout the film. Passing the two-hour marker, it is also quite long. For the moment, it is amongst my least preferred musicals though it was lovely to see such an amazing ensemble cast together.
The Pirate (1948)
This marks the second pairing of the Judy Garland and Gene Kelly after 1942’s Me and My Gal which was also Kelly’s screen debut. It was also the first full length Minnelli picture in which Kelly appeared. Garland and Kelly were veritable magic together, sharing excellent timing and a natural appeal. They were able to laugh together, have petty fights, and seem like a real couple in love. In an alternate universe, I think they may very well have been married as they were truly made for one another.
Mostly a vehicle to show-off the physical prowess of Kelly, Garland looks beautiful more than anything else. This was a trying period for the actress and she missed a great deal of time from filming due to various ailments. Kelly’s style of corporal expression is wildly complicated in some scenes, especially during the “Pirate Ballet” when he twirls a large metal spear while dancing amongst a plethora of exploding flames. He also did many of his own stunts. This was the beginning of Gene Kelly almost acting as co-director when working with Minnelli. He and Garland would complete a similar stage act at the end of The Pirate as they would go on to do in Summer Stock two years later.
The Pirate has many good elements to it and is really entertaining but audiences did not flock to the theatres to share the experience. It was a project that was not appreciated by Louis B. Mayer either and it seems that he somewhat revelled in the film’s failure. I find Kelly to be slightly too animated in this film and am also turned off at the abrasively macho attitude of his character, Serafin. Still, the grand effort by Minnelli and the Freed unit is clearly visible and is once again a optical treat.
An American in Paris (1951)
The title really says it all. Painter Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly) is a starving artist in Paris, having stayed there after the end of World War II because he adored the city. He meets a rich woman (Nina Foch) who is more interested in recruiting Jerry to become her lover than in supporting his art though she outwardly would deny this. Jerry is only interested in a lovely French woman named Lise (Leslie Caron) and desperately seeks to win her affections without the knowledge that she is already engaged to be married to one of his acquaintances. It’s just a day in the life of an American in Paris!
Undoubtedly one of Minnelli’s most celebrated productions, An American in Paris was very well received and earned an astounding 8 Academy Award nominations, winning for 6 of them. Minnelli did not win for Best Director that evening (that honour went to George Stevens for A Place in the Sun) but the film did win Best Picture, a decision that is not looked upon very well these days with many modern critics finding the distinction one of the worst wins in Academy history. Perhaps the movie has not aged all that well in parts but then again, the award is a reflection of tastes and the lifestyle in the early 1950s. At the time, this was a very innovative and exciting film; in many ways, it still is.
* Lovely to Look At (1952)
This remake of the Astaire-Rogers picture Roberta was primarily directed by Mervyn LeRoy aside from a 16-minute long fashion sequence handled by Minnelli featuring fashion designs by Adrian and choreography by Hermes Pan. Complete in Broadway style with jazz music, over-the-top numbers, and heightened by magnificent, vibrant colours, Minnelli’s style resembles the lengthy ballet sequence in An American in Paris and gives a sneak peak of what is to come in The Band Wagon.
The Band Wagon (1953)
A past-his-prime actor named Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) is teamed up with Gaby Gerard, a lovely young ballerina for a musical play written by Tony’s friend Lester and Lily Marton (Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray). The unlikely duo has a rough start due to mutual animosity and misunderstandings but eventually come together by combining their dance skills and falling in love. When the show debuts to poor reviews, the whole gang comes together to make the show a success.
Box-office receipts for the film were pretty good but not enough to off-set the costs of the film, resulting in a steep loss for MGM. Since The Band Wagon received multiple Academy Award nominations including for Best Story and Screenplay so it is safe to assume that it was looked upon favourably. Nonetheless, Minnelli’s effort was not fully recognised until decades later when it was reappraised by modern scholars who were able to acknowledge the genius in both the script and in the musical numbers. It earned the 17th position on the American Film Institute’s list of Greatest Movie Musicals, the third Minnelli musical to earn such a distinction after An American in Paris (9th) and Meet Me in St. Louis (10th). Quite possibly the best thing about the DVD release of this film is the inclusion of the film commentary with Liza Minnelli who has kept very vivid memories of being on the set with her father during the filming. Her excitement is contagious!
Cyd Charisse had mainly been a supporting player and dancer at MGM before landing this leading role. Before coming to Hollywood, she was a trained professional ballerina and had no formal training in acting. I thought she did a marvellous job for his first main role considering her lack of experience. Fred was a very gentle and giving partner so that also gave her a nice boost. They would be paired again in 1957’s Silk Stockings, a musical take on the film Ninotchka that turned out very well. I love both Astaire-Charisse films but really enjoyed their humour-filled dynamic in Silk Stockings.
Two Americans get lost during a hunting expedition in Scotland but luckily find food and shelter in a nearby village called Brigadoon that is strangely not marked on the map. As they come into contact with some of the villagers, they cannot help to notice that things are very different around them as if they are in an alternate universe. Tommy Albright (Gene Kelly) is enchanted with what he sees and falls in love at first sight with a beautiful young woman named Fiona Campbell (Cyd Charisse). Together they pick wild heather from the fields and get to know each other better. All the while, Tommy’s mate Jeff Douglas (Van Johnson) is impatient to get back to hunting and seems very bothered with being in Brigadoon, especially when a local girl starts fancying him. He remains largely emotionally removed by the experience, failing to be touched by Tommy’s feelings for Fiona and moreover for the village’s very unique story. “Fiona reluctantly agrees to take them to see the schoolmaster, Mr. Lundie (Barry Jones), who tells them of the “miracle” that happened in Brigadoon:
Two hundred years ago, the Highlands were plagued with sorcerers who were turning people away from God’s teaching. To protect the people from outside influences, the village minister asked God to make Brigadoon and its inhabitants vanish into the Highland mist and awaken for one day every one hundred years. Lundie adds that as part of the minister’s contract with God, if anyone from the village leaves, the enchantment will be broken for all, and Brigadoon will disappear forever.”*
As you can imagine, these circumstances complicate the growing love between Tommy and Fiona as well as the relationship between Tommy and Jeff, who has no inkling to stay in Brigadoon for eternity. There is no easy choice to be made by the characters, especially Tommy, who will give up his entire existence to be united with Fiona. What will his family and friends think? How can one just disappear into thin air? Since this is a fantasy film, there are endless questions than can be posed and plot holes galore to be found. One must practice their suspension of disbelief in cases like this to simply enjoy the simpler, central story at hand. Not only that, Minnelli once again goes above and beyond with an unbelievable attention to set and costume detail. The unpredictable, often inclement weather conditions in Scotland made an on-set filming impossible but I think that filming in the studio worked well, taking nothing from the overall value of the picture.
The dance sequences are far less grandiose in Brigadoon because they involve a great deal of ballet movements to reflect the delicate, romantic feel of the film.
Set in Old Baghdad during the time of The Arabian Nights, or the Middle Ages/medieval period, the story follows a common man referred to as The Poet (Howard Keel) and his daughter Marsinah (Ann Blyth). They are hungry and destitute, failing to have many means to improve their situation other than selling Poet’s short works. One day, Poet is mistaken for a beggar and ends up gathering a small fortune by pushing donators to give him more money, much to the chagrin of the usual, “old fashioned” beggars. This amuses Poet who declares:
“Never have I seen a profession more keenly in need of new blood. As of now, this business is under new management.”
Before he can enjoy his newfound wealth, Poet gets forcefully taken to a notorious thief who orders him to undo a spell put on him 15 years prior, obviously confusing Poet with someone else. This confrontation, in turn, brings him further wealth and also to the attention of the powerful Wazir who believes Poet to be a thief. In the meantime, Marsinah falls in love with the Caliph (Vic Damone) although they do not initially know each others’ identities. The story mainly revolves around the Turkish word kismet which means destiny. “No man can avoid his fate. That is kismet.”
Just like Brigadoon, Kismet had exceptionally lush sets and costumes that were awe-inspiring. This picture was made to be filmed in Technicolor. The usual Minnelli standard is well in place yet this is a very different musical than his others because of the varied setting and that all of the lead singers perform their own vocals. This is a true stage to screen adaptation which must have pleased Minnelli immensely. Kismet had been made three times prior for the screen but this is the first time that the film was not based on the original 1911 play. The film unfortunately did not hit a chord with audiences stateside or internationally, amounting to another huge loss for the studio.
I love how Howard Keel admires Ann Blyth in this clip, which is clearly well beyond him just being in character. It is one grand singer enjoying the talents of another. This song is a perfect representation of the quality of talent in this Kismet. Blyth was early in her second pregnancy during the filming of this movie and already had an 11-month-old son despite her youthful, flawless looks.
Noteworthy for being the only film that garnered Vincente Minnelli an Oscar for Best Director, Gigi was also named as Best Picture. Just as with An American in Paris, the merits of being named a Best Picture winner have been heavily questioned by modern critics who find it to be a poor choice. Even back in the day, many viewed these accolades as recognition for a career of achievement rather than a singular grand effort. The days of musicals were coming to an end due to changing tastes and Minnelli had been looked over many times in the past. This was as good a time as any for the Academy and Hollywood to salute them. Gigi is not a film in need of excuses, however, because it is a fine and entertaining film by itself. Some of the songs and the subject matter may be a bit taboo but after all, “that’s entertainment!”
Instead of a clip from the film, I propose that you listen to Tony Martin’s rendition of “Gigi” as sung by Louis Jourdan in the film. Tony was married to Cyd Charisse! (Vic Damone and Dean Martin also did their own renditions.)
Bells Are Ringing (1960)
Susanswerphone is an answering service that is based in a slightly run-down apartment in New York City and which is run by several women including Ella Peterson (Judy Holliday), a dreamer who often gets involved in the private lives of her clients. Her goal is to help them with their troubles and make them happier in their lives. In the course of things, she falls in love with Jeffrey Moss (Dean Martin) who she can only identify as “Plaza Double 0, Double 4, Double 3”. Ella has deduced that Jeffrey needs a mother figure so she poses as “mom” whenever he calls the service. They happen to meet when Ella goes to Jeffrey’s apartment to wake him up for an important meeting though she introduces herself under a fictional alias. She has a positive influence on him and Jeffrey ends up falling in love with her as well. All the while the police is investigating Susanswerphone as they suspect that it is a façade for a Lonely Hearts Club.
This film has some significant history linked to it. It was the last film of Judy Holliday who would pass away only five years later at the age of 43. It was also the last MGM musical directed by Vincente Minnelli as well as the last musical produced by Arthur Freed. Bells Are Ringing marked the end of an era. The production was adapted from the 1956 stage play starring Holliday and Jean Stapleton who plays her superior. Reception was positive though it did end up losing money at the box-office.
Holliday was brilliant in her role and it is clear that she relished the role, putting on a terrific performance despite already being ill from the illness that would later take her life. She reminded me a lot of fellow stage and screen actress Madeline Kahn who would also sadly pass away at an early age. Dean Martin was very funny and it was a nice change to see him in a romantic comedy while, of course, treating us to his divine voice. There are some interesting mod-style aesthetics that also make this film Technicolor goodness. It would be a perfect double feature with Minnelli’s Designing Woman.
My favourite overlooked Minnelli musicals are in order of preference: Brigadoon, Yolanda and the Thief and Kismet, followed by the more popular The Band Wagon.
Having finally seen all of Minnelli’s MGM musicals, my opinion of him has solidified and I am more drawn to his work than ever before. He was an amazingly talented man behind the camera who brought so much magic to the screen. It seems as though he never really got his due in Hollywood in terms of praise and box-office receipts for reasons that I cannot comprehend. He made musicals like no other and was boosted by an array of talent both in front of and behind the screen that is spellbinding. I think he knew the influence that he had on the genre and was beloved within certain circles even though getting the pats on the back from the higher ups like Louis B. Mayer would have been awfully nice. If you are new to discovering musicals like I was or want to further your knowledge, I would highly recommend becoming a student of Vincente Minnelli.