By Maureen Lee Lenker
Vincente Minnelli -- husband of Judy Garland, father of Liza Minnelli, and one-of-a-kind Hollywood filmmaker. At a time when films were often more a reflection of their studios than the directors overseeing them, Minnelli presented himself as a unique auteur. Though there were certainly stand-outs like Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford, it could sometimes be difficult to find a studio director of Minnelli’s ilk who didn’t fall victim to the trap of filling the role of a cog in a studio assembly line. Minnelli however, was a rare breed -- taking his experiences as a set/costume designer and artist to craft unforgettable on-screen images. He made particularly brilliant use of Technicolor, a type of film just finding its footing as Minnelli rose through the ranks at MGM.
Minnelli had a deft hand with many genres, including witty comedies like Father of the Bride and melodramas such as Tea and Sympathy. But his skills as an artist and his eye for imagery particularly excelled in musicals, and he won an Oscar for his work on 1958’s Gigi. He left an enduring and stunningly beautiful body of work. Here are five of our favorites.
5. The Band Wagon (1953)
The tale of Tony Hunter, an aging song-and-dance man who hopes a Broadway show will restart his career, The Band Wagon starred Fred Astaire who was himself contemplating retirement. The film uses all the trappings of a “let’s put on a show” musical -- an overbearing artiste of a director, feuding co-stars who learn to love each other, and the warm ethos of “the show must go on.” Dancer Cyd Charisse and Astaire make for an unforgettable on-screen pairing, creating an iconic movie moment in the film’s closing number, “Girl Hunt Ballet.” The imagery and iconography of this sequence was so distinct that it inspired Michael Jackson’s equally iconic music video for “Smooth Criminal.” And the “Dancing in the Dark” number set in Central Park was spoofed by Gilda Radner and Steve Martin on Saturday Night Live. It’s the mark of a truly distinct director when others pay homage to your imagery in their own works of art.
4. An American in Paris (1951)
A tale of three friends struggling to find work (and love) in post-war Paris, An American in Paris won Best Picture and earned Minnelli his first Oscar nomination for Best Director. The film stars Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron as two fleet-footed lovers. The film is perhaps best remembered for its climatic 17-minute dream ballet, which evokes the painting styles of famous Parisian artists in its set design. Though the artistry and design of the ballet sequence is pure Minnelli, the film is also largely a product of the vision and determination of Gene Kelly, who often served as an uncredited director on his musical numbers. Still, Minnelli reveled in artistry and design, which he often brought to life in Freudian dream sequences in his films -- the American in Paris dream ballet is the apotheosis of this directorial signature. The impressionistic sets and accompanying extras and dancers are a sight to behold. The studio feared including such a lengthy instrumental sequence, but it paid off in spades and marked a cinematic feat.
3. The Pirate (1948)
One of Minnelli’s most maligned and misunderstood films, The Pirate is a delectable, delightful farce of the highest order. With a fabulous score composed by Cole Porter (it debuted the hit “Be a Clown”), this film tells the story of Manuela (Judy Garland), a young woman who dreams of being kidnapped by a notorious pirate. When traveling street performer Serafin (Gene Kelly) learns of her fantasy, he masquerades as “Mack the Black” to woo her. Both Garland and Kelly deliver comedically brilliant performances, hamming it up in a style reminiscent of Restoration comedies and Broadway farce. They’re so gifted in the roles, that you almost wish you could have seen them in an Oscar Wilde play or some similar work that requires a deft hand with farcical scenarios. The film also features another signature Minnelli dream ballet with Garland envisioning Kelly as her dream pirate beau -- it’s a can’t miss for any who swoon over Kelly. It abounds with Minnelli’s rich use of color, imagery, and extravagant costuming. It’s also a notable cinematic entry for being the first time that legendary dancers, The Nicholas Brothers, danced on-screen with a Caucasian person -- a sequence insisted upon by Gene Kelly which unfortunately cost the film box office in the segregated South.
2. The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)
Though Minnelli was beloved for his Technicolor musicals, he did a rare bit of noir filmmaking with The Bad and the Beautiful’s take of Hollywood on Hollywood. Kirk Douglas plays a scheming film producer who uses all those in his life to claw his way to the top, including a writer played by Dick Powell and a starlet portrayed by Lana Turner. Minnelli directed Gloria Grahame to an Oscar for her portrayal of philandering wife Rosemary. Minnelli uses his deft hand with color to paint with the noir tones of black-and-white photography and create luscious imagery. The film’s themes about the backstabbing and cost of making it in Hollywood are as pitch black as some of the its images. “People who read the script asked me why I wanted to do it," said Vincente Minnelli. "It was against Hollywood. I told them I didn't see the man as an unregenerate heel - first because we find out he has a weakness, which makes him human, and second, because he's as tough on himself as he is on everyone else, which makes him honest. That's the complex, wonderful thing about human beings—whether they're in Hollywood, in the automobile business, or in neckties."
1. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
Perhaps no film in Minnelli’s ouevre expresses his talents and eye for color and design so well as Meet Me in St. Louis. A series of seasonal vignettes depicting a family grappling with change in the run-up to the 1904 World’s Fair, the film managed to tell a story about anxiety over the breakdown of the family unit in the wake of World War II without ever mentioning the conflict in Europe. The vignettes, introduced by seasonally themed title cards, feel like magazine pages or window displays brought to life. Indeed, they used Sears & Roebuck, Montgomery Ward, and Marshall Fields’ catalogs from the time period to inspire costumes, sets, and more. Minnelli employed his considerable talents to paint bright, vivid, almost surreal Technicolor confections, while never losing sight of the darkness and heartache underneath this pop of color. Garland and Minnelli, who would marry soon after filming wrapped, met on this film. Judy fell for the director because he was the first person at MGM to make her feel beautiful and allow her to break out of her “girl-next-door” mold to take on a more glamorous persona. Though the marriage did not last, it produced this film (one of Garland’s best as well) and the talented Liza Minnelli.
In a time where directors were expected to kowtow to studio heads and production units, Vincente Minnelli carved a unique place for himself as a directorial artist.