Images of Magic and Transformation
Just Look at It!
Vincente Minnelli was fond of words like “beauty” and “magic”. They crop up in interviews and in his autobiography, to the point where these words become an aesthetic principle or even a philosophy from a director otherwise notoriously incapable of being articulate about his own work: “The search in films, what you try to create, is a little magic.” And one searches for and creates this because it is also what the spectator desires: “the main search is for a little magic in our lives” (1). Minnelli’s cinema contains many moments designed to enchant the spectator, such as the spectacular “Coffee Time” number in Yolanda and the Thief (1946) in which Johnny Riggs (Fred Astaire) and Yolanda Aquaviva (Lucille Bremer), dressed in gold and white, dance on a floor designed in flowing, hallucinatory black and white waves; or there is the moment in Father of the Bride (1950) when Stanley Banks (Spencer Tracy) enters the bedroom of Kay Banks (Elizabeth Taylor) and sees his daughter in her wedding gown, an otherwise simple, ritualistic moment elevated to the realm of the magical when Kay’s reflection is caught in a three-panelled mirror and she looks lovingly at her father while his voice-over narration tells us: “She looked like the princess in a fairy tale. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d held out her hand for me to kiss.”
To be a filmmaker for Minnelli, then, is to be a type of magician or enchanter. Indeed, many of his films very broadly assume the form and mode of romance: the world of fairy tale and myth, of the gothic and melodramatic, but just as strongly the comic, and a world dominated by the possibilities of metamorphosis and transformation. But these modes are most often given a contemporary or at least twentieth century setting in which the ongoing cultural weight of romance is implicitly measured against the modern and the psychological. The cinema has given us many filmmakers, from Georges Méliès to Orson Welles, who have been taken for (or taken themselves to be) magicians, making films which, through the magic that they create, implicitly or explicitly strike at some of the fundamental aspects of cinema and in which cinema itself becomes the ultimate form of modern technological magic. Minnelli made two films which directly show us the world of filmmaking, The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and Two Weeks in Another Town (1962), the second of these a film which Jean-Luc Godard, in Introduction à une veritable histoire du cinéma, has linked not only with his own Contempt (1963) but also with Dziga Vertov’s The Man with the Movie Camera (1928). But how different are Minnelli’s methods from Vertov’s! Vertov’s journey in The Man with the Movie Camera is one from (as Annette Michelson has phrased it) magician to epistemologist, in which Vertov’s documentary strategies, achieved largely through montage, both enchant and reveal the structural and material basis of that enchantment. Minnelli’s journey, on the other hand, is achieved largely through all the state-of-the-art resources of a studio-created mise en scène. But it is also a journey in which a director/magician goes deeper and deeper into the core of the initial attraction to magic itself, in which bewitchment often gives itself over to the most voluptuous forms of enchantment or, conversely, to states of nightmare. (A separate essay could be written on Minnelli’s use of stairs as marking the passage into and out of the world of enchantment or metamorphosis.)
In the most frequently quoted attempt to pinpoint the limitations of Minnelli’s cinema, Andrew Sarris writes: “Minnelli believes more in beauty than art” (2). Beauty, according to this line of reasoning, becomes a way of decorating over the reality which great art is presumably meant to reveal. “I don’t think Vincente ever understood middle class,” claims Keogh Gleason, Minnelli’s frequent set decorator. “He…thought everybody dined with candles and a crystal chandelier” (3). Gleason’s comment might lead one to conclude that the images which Minnelli created in film after film (many of them, in fact, meant to be images of middle-class small town or suburban American family life) are, on some fundamental level, false, or at the very least fantasy images of the middle-class which Hollywood and mainstream capitalist culture in general so regularly offer. These middle-class characters in Minnelli do sometimes dine by candlelight or with a chandelier hanging over their heads and their homes are often improbably filled with vase after vase of beautifully cut fresh flowers carefully positioned amidst plush, colour-coordinated décor. “Just look at it!” Gene Kelly’s Jerry Mulligan in An American in Paris (1951) exclaims in his voice-over narration at the “star” that he calls Paris. Just look at it! Implicitly this is what a number of Minnelli’s films say to the spectator of the lavish worlds that they show, from the 1903 neighbourhood street that magically springs to life from its Currier and Ives-style print at the beginning of Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) to the stunning opening sequence on the Bois du Boulogne in Gigi (1958). A cinema consecrated to beautiful but ultimately decorative and false images? Initial appearances to the contrary, I would say no and instead prefer to follow Thomas Elsaesser when he makes the claim that Minnelli’s films are not simply exercises in style but address some of the ethics of mise en scène itself (4).
“You’ve led me by the hand into a strange, wonderful world, a world to dream of.” This is what Ann Hamilton (Katharine Hepburn) says to Alan Garroway (Robert Taylor) in Undercurrent (1946). In fact, what Garroway ultimately leads Ann towards is both dream and nightmare and this is also what Minnelli does in a cinema equally fascinated by the beauty of the dream and the attractions of the nightmare. His 1958 melodrama Some Came Running climaxes with one of his most famous nightmare set pieces, the fairground shooting of Dave Hirsh (Frank Sinatra) and Ginny Moorhead (Shirley MacLaine). But Minnelli still insists that “there is a beauty of its kind in Some Came Running” (5). In fact, one of his unrealised projects was an adaptation of The Lower Depths “because I think there is beauty in that kind of squalor” (6). In the strange finale to Ziegfeld Follies (1946), Kathryn Grayson makes the search for beauty-in-all-things explicit when she sings, “There’s beauty everywhere.” And it is this type of search for beauty at any cost which finally destroys Emma (Jennifer Jones) in Madame Bovary (1949), a woman whose defensive cry of “What’s wrong with wanting things to be beautiful?” (a variation of which she repeats on her deathbed) so easily lends itself to a reading in terms of some of Minnelli’s own impulses as a filmmaker. When Minnelli himself died, the Cahiers du cinéma obituary, written by Michel Chion, was entitled “Une certain idée de la beauté”.
Chris Marker has stated that when he, Alain Resnais and Ghislain Cloquet were in London in 1952 filming Les Statues meurent aussi they began every day by attending a 10am screening of An American in Paris. An American in Paris: a film which, apart from a few second-unit shots, recreates Paris entirely on Hollywood soundstages and the back lot; Les Statues meurent aussi: a documentary short on what happens to African art when it is exhibited in museums where it loses its relationship to the folk culture from which it sprang and as a result becomes lifeless, part of the “botany of death that we call culture.” In a larger sense, the short is also about the nature of art and what it (along with science and religion) means to us in our fight against death, becoming the “instrument of a desire to seize the world.” There are, of course, many ways for an artist to seize the world and consequently many ways for the artists we sometimes call filmmakers to do so as well, through the most rigorous of documentaries to the most stylised of musicals. Marker does not go into detail as to what it was he and his collaborators got out of this daily ritual of watching An American in Paris except to note the “lightness” that they felt watching the film (7). Consequently it may have been nothing more than a refuge from the seriousness of the work on their own obviously very serious film. But let us suppose for a moment that what these three French filmmakers saw in the faux French world of An American in Paris was a cinematic universe parallel rather than antithetical to their own, one equally possessed with a desire to seize the world and equally concerned with its own version of the “truth” but paradoxically articulating it within the realm of artifice. In the midst of a review of Francis Ford Coppola’s musical One from the Heart (1982) Serge Daney describes Coppola as working within the Minnellian idea “that a good illusionist does not ‘break’ the illusion, but constantly multiplies it, ad infinitum. The truth of a mask is not the face but an excess in the mask…Two minuses make a plus. Two falsehoods make a truth” (8).
With Minnelli, we have a cinema which takes the aestheticisation of the world as its formal principle, and which has at its centre characters who, for better or worse, luxuriate in beauty and what they perceive to be enchantment. Elsaesser’s observation that Minnelli’s characters “are only superficially concerned with a quest, a desire to get somewhere in life” and instead are concerned with “total fulfillment” and a “total gratification of their aesthetic needs” is a central one, linking Minnelli’s films with a conception of the self and the world which has “a long, intellectual tradition” (9). That such a drive is often impossible to fully achieve, that it is subjected to a variety of social constraints, is something which the films dramatise. The question of how we are to read Minnelli in terms of the social/political has been a topic in the criticism and commentary on his work for the past few decades, from those who see his films as completely symptomatic (formally as well as ideologically) of the conservatism of Hollywood and the dominant culture, to those who regard the films as being subversive of this same culture. While I believe that neither of these approaches are completely satisfactory, the films do give voice to some of the basic conditions and repressive aspects of the culture of which they are a part while also suggesting ways (and sometimes utopian ones) for altering these conditions. If Minnelli’s work has a strong utopian dimension it is not a simple one and the films repeatedly dramatise the extent to which one person or group’s utopian dream is another’s nightmare. The seemingly utopian country of Patria in Yolanda and the Thief, for example, is referred to in the same sequence as both a “garden of Eden” and a “cemetery with a train running through it” and such a conflict is at the centre of Brigadoon (1954). This film is the most obvious instance in all of Minnelli’s work of his fascination with the idea of a certain type of fairytale-like environment, evident in his filming of the beautiful opening sequence of the town waking up from their hundred-year sleep or the “Waitin’ for My Dearie” number, a small miracle of subtle and expressive camera movements and staging; but just as vividly the film shows an attraction to the idea of a particular utopia’s opposite (the noisy and chaotic New York restaurant sequence which, inadvertently or not, makes contemporary urban life seem like a lot of fun) or with its literal destruction, as in the film’s major set piece, the hunt for the character who hates Brigadoon and wishes to destroy it by escaping. “It was wonderful because it was all so nervous and wild,” is Minnelli’s enthusiastic description of this sequence devoted to chaos and violence (10). In the “Mademoiselle” episode from The Story of Three Loves (1953), a French governess (Leslie Caron) cannot get Tommy (Ricky Nelson), the little boy she is tutoring, to properly pronounce the word suspendu. An important word for Minnelli, in French or English, in that the worlds that we see in this cinema are neither fully utopian nor dystopian but suspended between the two modes, capable of shifting from one type of world to another.
A Working Life
Vincente Minnelli, born Lester Anthony Minnelli, was the fifth child (and the only one to survive infancy) of Vincent Charles Minnelli and Mina Le Beau. His father was the co-impresario of a tent show company, the Minnelli Brothers’ Tent Theater, and his mother acted in these productions which regularly toured Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana during the summer. As a child, Minnelli also acted in some of these productions which were typical of tent shows of the period – melodramas or unauthorised versions of hit Broadway shows. During the winter, his parents usually separated in order to find scattered work in vaudeville while their child was sent to stay with relatives, mainly those in the small town of Delaware, Ohio. It was in this town where the Minnellis eventually settled after their tent show was driven out of business by the success of silent films and Minnelli’s father began to make a small living as a freelance musician. Minnelli has characterised his adolescence as one in which he was prone to “flights of fancy”, attracted to literature and art, dreamily sketching in solitude (11). After graduating from high school, Minnelli moved to Chicago where his sketches landed him a job as a window dresser at Marshall Field’s department store. It was also in Chicago where (in self-transformation) he changed his name from Lester Anthony to Vincente. Eventually Minnelli’s sketches got him the job of chief costume designer (and later set designer as well) for the Chicago movie theatre chain of Balaban and Katz which staged, on a weekly basis, ornate revues to accompany their films. When Balaban and Katz merged with Paramount-Publix in 1931, the company moved to New York and Minnelli went with them. It was in the New York of the 1930s where Minnelli’s theatrical reputation was firmly established, as he also began to design for Earl Carroll’s Vanities and for Radio City Music Hall spectaculars, the latter of these eventually leading to the job of not only designing but directing these monthly shows. After leaving his job at the Music Hall, Minnelli performed similar designing and directing duties for some of the most notable Broadway revues of the period, including At Home Abroad (1935) and Ziegfeld Follies of 1936.
Eventually, Minnelli’s success brought him to the attention of Hollywood. After one aborted attempted to work for Paramount in 1937, Minnelli was firmly lured to Hollywood in 1940 by MGM musicals producer Arthur Freed. Minnelli remained under contract to MGM for over two decades. As with his work on stage, Minnelli was quickly recognised for the distinctive quality of his visual style: a highly mobile frame marked by complex tracking and crane shots and a frequent use of long takes, a choreographer-like attention to the staging of action, and an expressive sense of décor and colour. Minnelli married four times, most notably to his first wife, Judy Garland. Their famous daughter, Liza Minnelli (the first of two Minnelli daughters), was also the star of his last film, A Matter of Time (1976). More recent print and television biographies of Garland have either implied or explicitly stated that Minnelli was homosexual or at least bisexual although so far (outside of sniggering comments about Minnelli’s less-than-conventionally-masculine behaviour) none of this material has offered a satisfactory and entirely coherent picture of Minnelli as a sexual being. Until a full-scale and reliable biography appears, we could say that a person who married four times and had two children was one whose sexuality was, at the very least, complicated. However, queer studies has more recently opened up new possibilities for understanding Minnelli’s work, in terms of both the visual style of the films and their particular perspective on sexuality and gender relations. While detailed attention to this aspect of Minnelli’s work is not possible here, the very fascination with transformation of the self and the world in Minnelli no doubt derives much of its basis from a certain kind of anxiety about the potentially repressive nature of the family and bourgeois marriage as well as anxieties about carefully prescribed gender roles which one often finds in his films.
At any rate, Minnelli was one of the most successful filmmakers of the Hollywood studio system and eventually won an Academy Award for his direction of Gigi. He is most strongly identified for his work in the musical (Elsaesser calls Minnelli “the virtual father of the modern musical” (12)) but he is also responsible for some of the most interesting (and often scabrous) domestic comedies of the post-war period and, especially important within certain auteurist discourses, for his melodramas. It is a body of work which easily lends itself to genre analysis and to the type of critical reading which stresses the various cultural and economic factors which affected the production and meaning of these films. However, in a paradox not uncommon for most major auteurs, Minnelli’s films have as much in common with each other as they do with other studio and genre products, a fact not entirely lost on other Minnelli critics in the past. Why such linkages across genres exist would require a far more complex exploration between genre and auteur than the space here allows for. Under these circumstances, as well as for reasons of polemics and provocation, I have chosen to focus on Minnelli as auteur. “My work,” Minnelli once stated, “in the final analysis, is the story of my life” (13). One could take such a statement in at least two ways: that it was a life devoted to hard work in which that work served as a substitute for a sustained personal life; or that this body of work, ostensibly done as part of a contractual obligation, reveals an artist working on a deeply personal level, who repeatedly discovers and reveals himself through the mass cultural anonymity of Hollywood.
Clearly we have a life permeated by theatre, from the “lowest” forms of popular entertainment via the family tent shows (which, Stephen Harvey points out, undoubtedly influenced Minnelli’s affectionate depiction of the itinerant theatrical world of the 1948 film The Pirate (14)) to the comparatively elite world of the ornate and fashionable Broadway musical (a world depicted with equal affection in the 1953 film The Band Wagon). Minnelli not only situates many of his films within the world of theatre or filmmaking but he also draws attention to the theatrical nature of everyday life, in which anything from a wedding to the designing of the curtains in a sanatorium can take on a decidedly theatrical quality. This is also a life just as clearly permeated by art, fashion and design, and a fundamental need to turn all manner of experience and perception into visual spectacle. If Minnelli’s characters theatricalise their environments they also just as often turn them into sites of visual display, as Minnelli himself does through the mise en scène. The placement of actors and use of décor has a precision to it undoubtedly formed by someone immersed in the world of both “high” art and fashion and someone accustomed to arranging figures within the frame of the canvas, the proscenium arch, and the shop window. “Not one little frame [of a Minnelli film] is haphazard,” claims Gleason, “everything is studied” (15). And yet these precisely arranged frames may also overflow with detail, as in the Smith family home in Meet Me in St. Louis, about as enveloping an interior space as any film has given us, every room of the house filled with items of décor which draw the eye towards them. Special mention should be made here of The Cobweb (1955), its complex ensemble staging and use of the CinemaScope frame to show multiple points of action within a single shot anticipating Robert Altman’s films of the 1970s.
To varying degrees, all of the auteurist writing on Minnelli stresses the crucial role of décor and its relationship to the psychological states of the protagonists who often function as metteurs en scène within their own lives and thereby (if one chooses to do an allegorical reading of the films) as extensions of Minnelli himself. In The Cobweb, Dr. Devanal (Charles Boyer) is the author of a text whose title could not make such needs more explicit: The Theory and Practice of Milieu Therapy. Décor in Minnelli’s world is most often projected out, both as an expression of the self and as a method of entrapping others. In Lust for Life (1956), the room that Van Gogh (Kirk Douglas) lovingly decorates for Gaugin (Anthony Quinn) – Van Gogh’s own paintings covering the walls – is at once a show of affection and a way of binding Gaugin even closer to him, of almost literally enveloping him in Van Gogh’s own aesthetic impulses. The very impulse to frame for Minnelli as a filmmaker shows this constant desire to control, shape, display and re-order the reality of the world, to give a particular kind of life to something created through the most artificial of means. In this regard, the window in Minnelli is less a metaphor for looking out upon the real world as it is a window for looking into an alternate world which is always theoretically lying in wait to be reshaped. In The Clock (1945), Al (James Gleason) tells Joe (Robert Walker) and Alice (Judy Garland) that he fell in love with his wife (Lucile Gleason) while watching her flip pancakes in the window at Child’s; the suggestion here is that it was neither the woman nor the action of flipping pancakes alone which attracted Al but how his attraction for her was shaped and determined by the frame of the window. That the window may also turn on and frustrate the desires of the protagonists, be nothing more than a window, is also central. Later in The Clock we find an image which perfectly encapsulates the possibilities of the window for all-too-ironically containing reality while also frustrating desire when, in the midst of Joe’s desperate search for Alice we see a pan and reverse tracking shot across the New York skyline – which then turns out to be only a photograph of that skyline in a store window.
Minnelli’s own characterisation of himself as a dreamy adolescent seems intended to draw parallels with some of the protagonists of his own films who likewise are prone to dream states or subjective visions. While such a parallel is (as we shall see) accurate enough, neither Minnelli’s own biography nor the basic drives of his own characters can be completely explained by such a simple formula. For clearly we have a life devoted to hard work, to intense productivity, from the musical revues of the 1920s and ’30s, in which show after show would be turned out on a weekly or monthly basis, to his days in Hollywood in which his status as a contract director required him to make at least one film a year, often two or even three. One cannot dream such a huge body of work into existence. In his autobiography, Minnelli stated that he would like his tombstone to read: “Here lies Vincente Minnelli. He died of hard work” (16). To die of hard work: the phrase here suggests less the romantic conception of dying for art and even less the Promethean idea of work as toil and sublimation than it does a sensibility which takes active pleasure in work. Minnelli’s characters are not simply dreamers but workers, people who need and want to work, and who do indeed often take enormous pleasure in what they do for a living. It is not worth being serious about work or even showing it unless it can become a form of play. The milkman Al in The Clock is someone we never see deliver milk since he is quickly injured by a drunk (Keenan Wynn). We do, however, see Joe and Alice deliver the milk for him since showing these two amateurs doing it for one early morning run allows the film to make work seem like play, divorced from any real economic necessity on the part of Joe and Alice. We never see Mr. Smith (Leon Ames) at his law office in Meet Me in St. Louis, we only see him come home, exhausted, and complaining about losing a case. His function is to provide the income by which his family can happily live without significant material needs, oblivious or indifferent as to how or why this money is acquired. (In this regard, the Smith family members are model capitalist consumers.) Utopia in this film is a world of material abundance without work. Only the father repeatedly interrupts this fantasy.
On the other hand, films which directly deal with the world of artists, filmmakers, designers, performers, repeatedly show people devoted to work, often to the exclusion of other things in their lives: Characters who seem to marry or “grow up” late (if at all), who have put devotion to work above all else. “You like designing clothes?” asks the slightly incredulous sports writer Mike (Gregory Peck) of his new wife Marilla (Lauren Bacall) in Designing Woman (1957). “I love designing clothes,” she responds. “It’s a silly, ridiculous business and it pays far too much money and you meet silly, ridiculous people and I love it…not the people, the job.” Work as something frivolous but which is also, precisely for that reason, necessary to psychic well-being. In the film of his which Minnelli routinely cited as his favourite, Lust for Life (and a film sometimes ridiculed for its supposed reading of Van Gogh within the mythology of the romantic and tortured artist), much of the emphasis in the film is on the act of labour rather than romantic agonising. The film takes great pains to show us not only the labour of drawing but also the drawing of labour and how central the latter was to Van Gogh’s early development. “Work is so hard to draw,” we hear on the soundtrack from one of Van Gogh’s letters to his brother. Van Gogh’s problems here are also clearly Minnelli’s, in which the film must simultaneously do justice to this aesthetic problem of Van Gogh’s while also finding a cinematic language which conveys this, making it interesting and indeed magical as we observe both Van Gogh and Minnelli conquering this problem of representing work. Work is not so much agony as it is pleasurable toil since the result occurs within the realm of aesthetics rather than toil serving as an end in itself. “I am trying hard not to draw hands as gestures, not so much faces as the expressions of people.” This aesthetic issue for Van Gogh the painter is also the aesthetic issue for Minnelli the filmmaker, not only in Lust for Life but throughout his work, this mise en scène-based cinema which relies not only on costuming, lighting and décor but also on the actors, on their placements and movements within the frame, and on gesture (17).
If to die of hard work is one extreme of the pleasure to be had from the act of labour in Minnelli, the other extreme, that of misery, is the absence of work when it is desired: Karen McIver (Gloria Grahame) in The Cobweb, who has no job and no outlet for her need to express herself outside of an excessive fixation on designing the curtains for a sanatorium in which her husband is a doctor; or characters like Dave in Some Came Running or Jack Andrus (Kirk Douglas) in Two Weeks in Another Town who have reached particular moments of crisis within their lives in which they can no longer create and simply drift into alcoholism, dissipation, insanity. Only a character like Wade Hunnicut (Robert Mitchum) in Home from the Hill (1960) is exempt from these needs and drives since Wade essentially functions as an aristocrat within his small Texas town, a man who doesn’t even wear a watch because, as he notes with pride, time waits on him. What links all of these characters (working or not) is the degree to which they are singularly possessed with an idea, an obsession which they pursue relentlessly. The mad, obsessive desire of Tacy Collini (Lucille Ball) in The Long, Long Trailer (1954) to be a devoted new wife to her husband (Desi Arnaz) plays itself out for her through a much stronger devotion to their obscenely large mobile home, the care of which gives her the kind of aesthetic outlet that marriage does not. When her husband proposes selling the home, her horrified response is, “I won’t give up my trailer. I love it, I love it.” More than her husband, it is clear. However, the most exemplary characters in Minnelli are those who have a desire to not simply to aestheticise the world but transform it and they do so through a variety of methods.
Transformation and Metamorphosis
In order for the world to be transformed in Minnelli, the protagonists who inhabit it must be receptive, in a sufficiently passive or contemplative state of mind. Hence the importance of not simply the dream but also the world of sleep or any states of mind which exist between waking and dreaming (including drunkenness or alcoholism). “Wake up, Manhattan,” the radio voice of Norm (Jerry Van Dyke) gently instructs on the soundtrack at the beginning of The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1963), “Come out of that warm, rosy dream.” It is somewhere within these ambiguous waking/dreaming states that Minnelli’s world often springs to life. Cabin in the Sky (1943) makes this literal, since the bulk of the narrative is framed as a dream. But later films perform more complicated variations on this idea. The two major transformations of Charlie Sorrell (Debbie Reynolds) in Goodbye Charlie (1964), first from lady killer to woman and then, at the end, from woman to dog, take place as Charlie’s best friend George (Tony Curtis) attempts to sleep but is prevented from doing so by the two appearances of the reincarnated Charlie. Furthermore, this relationship to the world of sleep and dreams that Minnelli’s characters have often results in their somewhat detached, trancelike personalities.
“I’m not very interested in anyone but myself.” It is Stevie (John Kerr) in The Cobweb who says this but it could have come out of the mouth of any number of Minnelli characters. These dreaming aesthetes tend to be deeply narcissistic and Oscar Levant’s “Concerto in F” number from An American in Paris, in which he serves as pianist, orchestra conductor and finally adoring spectator of his own performance, stands as a supreme example of this tendency. Within this narcissistic world of display and expressive décor, the mirror so often serves as the privileged emblem and tool of these impulses: Emma Bovary who, as she says, “must have a mirror” and who momentarily stares transfixed at her own image at the ball before she is forcefully pulled away to dance; or Charlie Sorrell, who becomes sexually aroused at the sight of his/her own nude body in a mirror in Goodbye Charlie. While the world of Narcissus is traditionally thought of in relation to infantile sexuality (and often a pre-condition or extension of homosexuality) it may also become, in the words of Herbert Marcuse, “the germ of a different reality principle…transforming this world into a new mode of being” (18). In this regard, narcissism is not necessarily a negative in Minnelli but may serve as an important step in the path towards the creation of new worlds, new identities. The Contessa (Ingrid Bergman) in A Matter of Time is a ruin of narcissism but is also responsible (if only indirectly) for transforming the chambermaid Nina (Liza Minnelli) into a film star. It is precisely her narcissism which allows her to perceive the world in the way that she does and which strongly connects her to a kind of life force. When her ex-husband (Charles Boyer) asks her how she can still retain what are, to him, foolish ideas her reply is, “Because I’m alive.”
Transformation itself in Minnelli essentially takes two related forms. One involves a process of education in a body of work filled with teachers of some type or another, always instructing on matters of aesthetics, a word which can have very broad connotations referring not only to the creation of art but also to the creation and aesthetics of the self. How does one make an entrance into a room and, once there, how does one move across it? This is the type of “problem” which many of Minnelli’s characters face and treat with the utmost seriousness. The mastery of social behaviour is crucial here because we are essentially dealing with a world without privacy, in which not only décor but human beings are always on display and in which one can never fully escape from the demands of the social world. “I must say it’s difficult for anyone in this family to have any privacy,” is the complaint of Rose (Lucille Bremer) the oldest sister of Meet Me in St. Louis and this type of complaint can be extended to the social environments of everything from Madame Bovary to The Reluctant Debutante (1958) to Home from the Hill, worlds built strongly around spying, eavesdropping and gossip and in which, as that great teacher Aunt Alicia (Isabel Jeans) says in Gigi, bad table manners break up more households than infidelity. And this kind of “education” that we find in Minnelli is not trivial since it determines how the characters are to be received within their respective social orders. In Tea and Sympathy (1956) the failure of Tom (John Kerr) to be an acceptable masculine classmate for his fellow students at prep school is largely related to problems of Tom’s methods of dress, gesture and behaviour and the misinterpretations which arise out of these: Tom is thought to be gay and must be coached by his roommate Al (Darryl Hickman) in the “proper” way to walk so that Tom will be perceived as heterosexual. Such a mastery of social behaviour is not simply one of accepting the cultural order as it stands. Rather, such mastery must first take place – one must successfully negotiate one’s way through that world – before it can ever be transformed. The Courtship of Eddie’s Father is a film filled with characters who instruct or who teach themselves lessons in everything from bowling to Spanish to public speaking. All of this culminates in the extraordinary sequence near the end of the film when Eddie (Ronny Howard) instructs his father (Glenn Ford) on the proper way to court the neighbour across the hall, Elizabeth (Shirley Jones). Here Eddie is both metteur en scène and actress, assuming the role of Elizabeth while also directing his father, calling him “darling” and “sugar” and “my excellent strong man”. It is a sequence utterly charming and “innocent” but which also derives much of its force from the undercurrents of incest and homosexuality which exist beneath it, not as the source of trauma but as the source of potentially liberating comic celebration.
This process of instruction and transformation may take a second and more extreme form. If Minnelli’s cinema is filled with teachers it is also filled with enchanters performing feats of magic, as with the witch Hazel Pennicott (Ethel Barrymore) in The Story of Three Loves. She transforms Tommy into an adult male (Farley Granger) who then romances his governess in a single evening before he is turned back into a little boy at the stroke of midnight, a variation on the Cinderella story with the genders and class distinctions reversed. Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas), the brilliant producer of The Bad and the Beautiful, is a more earthbound enchanter but still a central one since the magic he creates is that of cinema itself. However, he does not create this magic from scratch but instead needs an audience, fellow artists over whom he can weave a spell and inspire them to reach heights not possible without his intervention and his acute awareness of how their minds function as much as their talents. (In France, the film was released under the title of Les Ensorcelés.) But one need not even be either a literal magician or a professional artist to have such powers. Ella Peterson (Judy Holliday), the switchboard operator of Bells Are Ringing (1960), is described as a “miracle worker” and “magician” for her ability to get playwright Jeffrey Moss (Dean Martin) out his creative slump (exacerbated by sleep and alcohol) after having broken with his partner. All of these characters, in different ways, may be seen to cast spells over their subjects. “If you say one more word about Jeff’s hypnotic influence over me, I’ll scream,” Lily Martin (Nanette Fabray) yells at her husband Lester (Oscar Levant) in The Band Wagon in relation to the charismatic and egomaniacal director Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan). The relationship between hypnosis and the basic allure of the cinematic apparatus and viewing situation has often been noted. Perhaps the ultimate hypnotic figure in all of cinema is Dr. Mabuse, whose power has so frequently been seen as a metaphor for the controlling metteur en scène. In all three of Fritz Lang’s Mabuse films, the doctor’s maniacal need for control ultimately results in his downfall, leading to madness or death. This rarely happens to Minnelli’s characters since hypnosis in this world is not based upon a stark opposition between an overpowering metteur en scène and his submissive subjects. It is not the downfall of the hypnotic figure which we witness in Minnelli but a situation in which the hypnotist assumes a role in which he is drawn into the world of the hypnotic subject, a world which turns out to be far more powerful than the hypnotiser had originally imagined.
One can see this clearly in the two films which deal with hypnosis explicitly: The Pirate and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970). In both films we find female protagonists who are such willing subjects that they fall under hypnosis immediately and deeply. In The Pirate, Manuela succumbs to the allure of the spinning hypnotic mirror of Serafin (Gene Kelly), an actor claiming to have studied with “the great Mesmer” and who hopes to seduce Manuela through his hypnotic powers. But under hypnosis, the “pure soul” and “prim exterior” of Manuela shatters as she literally shoves Serafin out of her way and reveals her passionate attraction to the pirate Mack the Black to an audience, singing of her fantasy (essentially a rape fantasy) of being taken away and sexually submitting to him, this submissiveness clearly serving as a mask for the more strongly active and aggressive sexual life she desires. While initially taken aback, the intensity of Manuela’s sexuality only increases Serafin’s attraction for her, culminating in his impersonation of Mack the Black. In On a Clear Day, the psychoanalyst Dr. Marc Chabot (Yves Montand) places Daisy Gamble (Barbra Streisand), a passive woman with “no character of any kind”, under hypnosis to help her stop smoking. But the hypnotic state is so deep that under it she reveals her prior life as Lady Melinda Tentrees in Regency England. Within the massive space of Chabot’s office and under hypnosis she repeatedly assumes this role of Lady Tentrees, causing Chabot to fall in love not with Daisy but with Melinda. Daisy’s hypnotic states become a type of space which these two characters mentally inhabit in different ways. Minnelli often shoots these sequences in Chabot’s office in such a manner that they seem to be neither simple flashbacks nor simple subjective images but images which are being projected, as though on a screen, and which are viewed by Chabot and Daisy-as-Melinda.
Minnelli’s own publicly stated fascination with inconsistent personalities (19) makes explicit the degree to which his characters are caught within contradictory drives, between “total fulfilment” and repressive or destructive tendencies, the latter of these the result of social and cultural pressures as much as they are innate psychological problems. Furthermore, the senses which are attempting to achieve fulfilment here are at once sexual and aesthetic. The ideal realm for Minnelli is one in which the aesthetic is given free play and in which sexual identity and desire are fluid rather than fixed. The Pirate is arguably the fullest realisation of this tendency since what Mack the Black represents to Manuela is sexual satisfaction outside of bourgeois marriage and monogamy (her fantasies involve the pirate sexually conquering many women at once, of which she is just one) as well as the excitement of travel and urban life, symbolised by Paris. What she ultimately gets instead, through Serafin, is a narcissistic actor who can assume the role of a sexual conqueror for Manuela and brings with him the excitement of travel, but who also functions as a buffoon and who is finally no less attractive for that reason. By the end of the film, Manuela escapes from her small town and from bourgeois marriage into Serafin’s world of theatre, dressed (like Serafin) as a clown of indeterminate gender and singing “Be a Clown”. But the hypnotic spell is only partially broken. Minnelli does not take us (or Manuela) to “reality” but to the theatre, in which reality is in a state of constant negotiation. A world in which work is also play, a world of narcissism but also one of laughter and freedom as well as beauty and magic in which one is constantly being offered the possibility to transform oneself and one’s immediate surroundings through performance, costuming, décor. Only temporary transformations, perhaps. But sometimes, that is more than enough.
Cabin in the Sky (1943) Busby Berkeley directed the “Shine” number when Minnelli was ill.
I Dood It (1943) Much of the footage in this film (which Minnelli did not want to direct) is not his, including the three Eleanor Powell production numbers, one of which was apparently new but not directed by Minnelli while the other two were left over from other films: Born to Dance (Roy Del Ruth, 1936) and Honolulu (Edward Buzzell, 1937).
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
The Clock (1945)
Yolanda and the Thief (1946)
Ziegfeld Follies (1946) Minnelli directed the following sequences: “Traviata”, “This Heart of Mine”, “Limehouse Blues”, “A Great Lady Has an Interview” and “The Babbitt and the Bromide”. The “Beauty” finale was originally shot by Minnelli and featured Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. In its final version, Charisse can be glimpsed briefly but Astaire is nowhere to be seen. Kathryn Grayson is the star of the number. However, it is not clear from either Hugh Fordin’s production history of Arthur Freed’s films or from Stephen Harvey’s book on Minnelli if this Grayson footage is Minnelli’s or not. Certainly the Daliesque middle section of the number was directed by Minnelli.
The Pirate (1948)
Madame Bovary (1949)
Father of the Bride (1950)
Father’s Little Dividend (1951)
An American in Paris (1951)
The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)
The Story of Three Loves (1952) Minnelli directed the “Mademoiselle” sequence.
The Band Wagon (1953)
The Long, Long Trailer (1954)
Brigadoon (1954) Shot simultaneously in two versions: a 1.85:1 widescreen version and a 2.55:1 CinemaScope one
The Cobweb (1955)
Kismet (1955) Some sequences directed by Stanley Donen after Minnelli left the project to begin production on Lust for Life.
Lust for Life (1956) One sequence (a retake) was directed by George Cukor.
Tea and Sympathy (1956)
Designing Woman (1957)
Gigi (1958) Charles Walters shot some retakes on the film, including portions of the song “The Parisians” and “She’s Not Thinking of Me”. Contrary to rumours, none of the title song is Walters’. He did shoot a retake of it but his footage was not used. “I Remember It Well” is also entirely Minnelli and not Walters, rumours again to the contrary.
The Reluctant Debutante (1958)
Some Came Running (1958)
Home from the Hill (1960)
Bells Are Ringing (1960)
Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962)
Two Weeks in Another Town (1962)
The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1963)
Goodbye Charlie (1964)
The Sandpiper (1965)
On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970)
A Matter of Time (1976) Final version disowned by Minnelli after significant re-cutting by Samuel Z. Arkoff and after the dubbing and scoring were taken away from Minnelli. Footage in the prologue and epilogue as well as the stock and second-unit travelogue footage throughout the film were primarily shot by others.
Artists and Models (Raoul Walsh, 1937) Minnelli conceived the production number, “Public Melody Number One”. Minnelli: “As filmed, I found the involved production number a full scale mess…”
Minnelli contributed ideas (without credit) to the production numbers of two Busby Berkeley films, Strike Up the Band (1940) and Babes on Broadway (1942).
Panama Hattie (Norman Z. McLeod, 1942) Minnelli is credited with staging the musical numbers.
Thousands Cheer (George Sidney, 1943) According to Stephen Harvey, Minnelli directed Lena Horne’s “Honeysuckle Rose” number although no other Minnelli filmographies that I have seen list the film and Minnelli does not mention Thousands Cheer in his book.
Till the Clouds Roll By (Richard Whorf, 1946) Minnelli directed Judy Garland’s scenes only.
Lovely to Look At (Mervyn LeRoy, 1952) Minnelli directed (without credit) the fashion finale.
The Seventh Sin (Ronald Neame, 1957) After Neame left the project, Minnelli finished direction of the film without credit.
All the Fine Young Cannibals (Michael Anderson, 1960) According to Gavin Lambert’s biography of Natalie Wood, Minnelli directed two sequences without credit.
Vincent Amiel, “Madame Bovary: l’arrière-pays”, Positif, no. 295, September 1985.
Lindsay Anderson, “Minnelli, Kelly and An American in Paris”, Sequence, 14, 1952.
Jean-Loup Bourget, “L’œuvre de Vincente Minnelli”, Positif, 310, December 1986.
Barry Boys, “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father”, Movie, no. 10, June 1963.
Andrew Britton, “Meet Me in St. Louis: Smith, or the Ambiguities”, Australian Journal of Screen Theory, 3, 1978.
Emmanuel Burdeau, “Minnelli double band”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 586, January 2004. Analysis of seven shots from the “She’s Not Thinking of Me” sequence from Gigi.
Joseph Andrew Casper, Vincente Minnelli and the Film Musical, London, Tantivy Press, 1977.
Michel Chion, “Une certaine idée de la beauté”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 387, September 1986.
Jim Cook, “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever”, Movie, no. 24, Spring 1977.
Angela Dalle Vacche, Cinema and Painting: How Art Is Used in Film, University of Texas Press, 1996. Includes chapter on An American in Paris and Minnelli’s relationship to American Abstract Expressionism.
Serge Daney, “’Pirate’ n’est pas que décor” and “Minnelli pris dans sa toile” [on The Cobweb] in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à mains, Aléas, 1997.
Eric de Kuyper, “Step by Step” [analysis of the “Dancing in the Dark” sequence from The Band Wagon], Wide Angle, vol. 3, 1983.
Jean Domarchi and Jean Douchet, “Rencontre avec Vincente Minnelli”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 128, February 1962.
Raymond Durgnat, “Film Favorites: Bells Are Ringing” in Gregg Rickman (ed.), The Film Comedy Reader, New York, Limelight Editions, 2001.
Thomas Elsaesser, “Tales of Sound and Fury” in Christine Gledhill (ed.), Home Is Where the Heart Is, London, BFI, 1987.
Thomas Elsaesser, “Vincente Minnelli” in Rick Altman (ed.), Genre: The Musical, London, Boston & Henley, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981. Best general analysis of Minnelli’s work in English.
Hugh Fordin, The World of Entertainment: Hollywood’s Greatest Musicals, New York, Doubleday & Co., 1975. Production history of Arthur Freed’s musicals.
Edward Gallafent, “The Adventures of Rafe Hunnicut – The Bourgeois Family in Home from the Hill”, Movie, nos 34/35, Winter 1990.
Beth Genne, “Vincente Minnelli’s Style in Microcosm: The Establishing Sequence of Meet Me in St. Louis”, Art Journal, Fall 1983.
David Gerstner, “The Production and Display of the Closet: Making Minnelli’s Tea and Sympathy”, Film Quarterly, vol. 50, no. 3, Spring 1997.
Dennis Giles, “Show-making” in Rick Altman (ed.), Genre: The Musical, London, Boston & Henley, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981.
Stephen Harvey, Directed by Vincente Minnelli, New York, Museum of Modern Art and Harper & Row, 1989.
Peter Hogue, “The Band Wagon”, The Velvet Light Trap, no. 11, Winter 1974.
Donald Knox, The Magic Factory: How MGM Made An American in Paris, New York, Praeger, 1973.
Robert Lang, American Film Melodrama: Griffith, Vidor, Minnelli, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1989.
Blake Lucas, “The Comedy Without, The Gravity Within: Father of the Bride” in Gregg Rickman (ed.), The Film Comedy Reader, New York, Limelight Editions, 2001.
Joe McElhaney, At the Breaking Point: Lang, Hitchcock, Minnelli and the Decline of Classical Cinema, Temple University Press, 2004.
Paul Mayersberg, “The Testament of Vincente Minnelli”, Movie, no. 3, October 1962 [on Two Weeks in Another Town].
Vincente Minnelli (with Hector Arce), I Remember It Well, Garden City, New York, Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1974.
George Morris, “One Kind of Dream: George Morris on A Matter of Time”, Film Comment, vol. 12, no. 6, November–December 1976.
James Naremore, The Films of Vincente Minnelli, Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, “Minnelli and Melodrama” in Christine Gledhill (ed.), Home Is Where the Heart Is, London, BFI, 1987.
Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema: Directors and Direction 1929-1968, New York, E.P. Dutton, 1968.
Richard Schickel, The Men Who Made the Movies, New York, Atheneum, 1975.
Mark Shivas, “Minnelli’s Method”, Movie, no. 1, June 1962.
J.P. Telotte, “Self and Society: Vincente Minnelli and the Musical Formula”, Journal of Popular Film and Television, vol. 9, no. 3, 1982.
Bernard Timberg, “Minnellian Nightmare: Meaning as Color”, Film/Psychology Review, vol. 4, no. 1, Winter/Spring 1980.
Matthew Tinkcom, Working Like a Homosexual: Camp, Capital, Cinema, Durham and London, Duke University Press, 2002. Includes chapter on three of Minnelli’s musicals of the 1940s, Ziegfeld Follies, Yolanda and the Thief and The Pirate, analysed in relation to issues of camp and queer aesthetics.
Jean-Paul Torok and Jacques Quincey, “Vincente Minnelli ou le peintre de la vie rêvée”, Positif, nos 50–52, March 1963.
Jean-Paul Torok, “Minnelli existe, j’ai vu tous ses films et je l’ai rencontré”, Positif, no. 80, April 1976.
Robin Wood, “Minnelli’s Madame Bovary”, CineAction!, no. 7, December 1986.
Penny Yates (ed.), The Films of Vincente Minnelli, The Thousand Eyes, Ltd., 1978. This booklet, published in conjunction with a New York City Minnelli retrospective, contains three essays: “The Musicals” by Joel E. Siegel, “The Melodramas” by George Morris and “Spectres at the Feast: European Viewpoints on Minnelli’s Comedies” by T.L. French [Bill Krohn].
Articles in Senses of Cinema
The Band Wagon by Joe McElhaney
Cabin in the Sky by Rick Thompson
Some Came Running by Dana Polan
1977 Interview with Minnelli by Henry Sheehan
Classic Film and Television Home Page: Vincente Minnelli
Analysis of a number of Minnelli films by Mike Grost
Depth Perception: Films by Vincente Minnelli
Article by Fred Camper in relation to 2004 Chicago retrospective: mainly on The Pirate, Some Came Running and Home from the Hill.
It Could Be Oedipus Rex: Denial and Difference in The Bandwagon
Essay by Dana Polan
Medium-Shot Gestures: Vincente Minnelli and Some Came Running
Essay by Joe McElhaney
Minnelli’s Technicolor Style in Meet Me in St. Louis
Essay by Scott Higgins
Queer Modernism: The Cinematic Aesthetics of Vincente Minnelli
Essay by David Gerstner
Click here to search for Vincente Minnelli DVDs, videos and books at
- Both quotations from Richard Schickel, The Men Who Made the Movies, New York, Atheneum, 1975, p. 268.
- Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema: Directors and Direction 1929-1968, New York, E.P. Dutton, 1968, p. 102.
- Donald Knox, The Magic Factory: How MGM Made An American in Paris, New York, Praeger, 1973, p. 117.
- Thomas Elsaesser, “Vincente Minnelli” in Rick Altman (ed.), Genre: The Musical, London, Boston & Henley, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981, p. 25.
- Schickel, p. 268.
- Marker Direct”, interview by Samuel Douhaire and Annick Rivoire, translated by Dave Kehr, Film Comment, May–June 2003, p. 39. Originally published in Libération, March 5, 2003.
- Serge Daney, “One from the Heart”, translated by Ginette Vincendeau, Framework, 32/33, p. 174.
- Elsaesser, p. 15.
- Hugh Fordin, The World of Entertainment: Hollywood’s Greatest Musicals, New York, Doubleday & Co., 1975, p. 429.
- Minnelli, pp. 39–40.
- Elsaesser, p. 12.
- Stephen Harvey, Directed by Vincente Minnelli, New York, Museum of Modern Art and Harper & Row, 1989, p. 297.
- Harvey, p. 25.
- Knox, p. 100.
- Vincente Minnelli (with Hector Arce), I Remember It Well, Garden City, New York, Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1974, p. 380.
- See my own essay on this matter: “Medium-Shot Gestures: Vincente Minnelli and Some Came Running”, http://www.16-9.dk/2003-06/side11_minnelli.htm.
- Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization, Boston, Beacon Press, 1966, p. 169.
- Schickel, p. 254.