and HIS MOVIES
Minnelli's 1951 triumph,
"An American in Paris,"
with Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron,
was his zenith to date
when it was named
Best Picture of the Year
at the Academy Awards.
In June of 1979, Jim Bawden arranged and conducted a private one-on-one interview with film director Vincente Minnelli. Bawden was at that time the TV columnist for The Toronto Star. He now
revisits that interview in a four-part series for us, giving us rare
insight into the thinking of the great director who died in 1986.
By JIM BAWDEN
When the 1950s arrived, Vincente Minnelli was riding the crest of a personal wavc of popularity as a director of "important" pictures for his studio, MGM, and was about to produce the works that would seal his reputation as a great filmmaker forevermore.
He began the decade with an enormous popular hit that he recalled as one of his most pleasant assignments so far--the original 1950 "Father of the Bride," a brilliant comedy about the chaos surrounding the wedding of a beautiful young woman.
Working on 'Father Of The Bride' was one of my most satisfying experiences, Minnelli remembered. "(Producer) Pandro Berman handed me an almost flawless script by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. The way they saw it the story was a series of vignettes familiar to anybody who ever planned a weddingthere was none of those shticky lines and slapsticky things. So, Pandro almost jumped when Dore Shary sauntered by his office and said hed promised (the role of the father) to Jack Benny.
"I hit the roof, but Pandro said it was a done deal and Id have to conduct a screen test. Well, Jack was letter perfect, he really got into the part. But the public would have expected his wisecracking self and Spence (Spencer Tracy) could do it so much better. Im just glad I didnt have to tell Jack in person. For Spence and Joan Bennett, (who was) hired (to play the mother) because she and darling Liz Taylor looked like mother and daughter, it was an old time reunion. Theyd first acted together in 1932s "Me And My Gal." Another reason Spence was upbeat: Great Kate (Katharine Hepburn) was no longer on the lot to disturb him and get him all riled over insignificant issues.
Much to the front offices amazement I rehearsed the actors before going onto the flats. I wanted to show how much more economical it was in a simple production like this. The only shooting off the lot was at the church in Beverly Hills. So when we started we whistled through it in just 25 days. Some scenes were done on the first take. Spence was never high on multiple takes. Liz glowed with good health and the pure joy of knowing she was about to be married in real life (to first husband, Nicky Hilton).
"Well, this was too good for MGM to resist and they insisted on arranging the whole real marriage as well. Of course, we all got invited. It was quite fun. Life is so much more complicated. Her real marriage was destined to last but a few months. By that time we were rumbling through (the sequel) "Fathers Little Dividend" (1951), another big hit for Metro and a third installment (in the series) was ordered up."
Future two-time Oscar winner
Elizabeth Taylor as the daughter
of two-time Oscar winner Spencer
Tracy in Minnelli's hit comedy, the original 1950 "Father of the Bride."
But a real-life event interrupted plans for the second sequel: Producer Walter Wanger, Joan Bennett's husband, suspected her manager, Jennings Lang, with having an affair with her. He dealt with it by accosting Lang in a parking lot and shooting him in what Minnelli described as "a very delicate spot," resulting in a Page One scandal of enormous proportions.
"And that was that," said Minnelli. "Joan went from 'the perfect wife' to a celluloid bad girl in just one dayand our series was over, just like that!
His next project was destined to be one of his greatest films, but it may not have seemed like it at the time: "An American in Paris," a big, splashy MGM musical built around the famous George Gershwin score with a storyline by Allan Jay Lerner. It starred Gene Kelly and an unknown leading lady from a French ballet company--Leslie Caron. It also featured a nearly 18-minute ballet sequence, until then always poison at the box office for fans used to see only tap-dancing in their musicals.
Minnelli said the MGM board members originally were unanimously against ending the movie with that long ballet number.
There was no enthusiasm for this project until (studio boss) Dore Schary saw the first scenes in a studio screening room and then he relaxed his hold on us and let us proceed," Minnelli said. "But even after seeing the first cut, Dore said it was brilliant but wouldnt return a cent of profit.
Though many critics feel "An American in Paris" was a perfectly realized musical fantasy with amazing dance sequences smoothly integrated with the musical score, Minnelli told me he would have changed the film a lot if he'd had the authority.
"We couldnt shoot in France because of postwar conditions, so a crew shot some second unit stuff but our Paris was on the MGM back lot. I lucked into Leslie Caron in her first movie and she just took to Gene Kellys leadership. I still wish we could have done it in Paris."
But the movie surprised every skeptic at the studio, turning in huge profits and earning more Oscar nominations than any MGM musical of the postwar period to date. It was even nominated for Best Picture and Minnelli himself was nominated for Best Director, his first such nomination. Not so surprisingly, Minnelli pronounced the night of the 1951 Academy Awards as the most nervous time in his life.
'An American in Paris' had a nomination as best picture, something denied to 'Meet Me in St. Louis' or 'Ziegfeld Follies,'" he told me. "Musicals just did not win Oscars. But I had it all arranged in my head that just maybe 'A Streetcar Named Desire' and 'A Place in the Sun' would cancel each other out."
Before the Academy Awards were handed out, "A Streetcar Named Desire" was named best picture by the New York Film Critics. "A Place in the Sun" won the Golden Globe for Best Picture.
"I thought 'Streetcar' brilliantly acted," Minnelli said, "but it was filmed theater. I was nominated, too, as director but the competition was fierce--both George Stevens ("A Place in the Sun" and Elia Kazan ("A Streetcar Named Desire") plus John Huston ("The African Queen") and then Willie Wyler ("Detective Story"). Humphrey Bogart won the Best Actor award over the favored Marlon Brando, whose "Streetcar" co-stars (Vivien Leigh, Karl Malden, Kim Hunter) won all the other acting awards.
(When) Bogie took best actor away from Brando," Minnelli recalled, "there was this huge gasp from the crowd. When Stevens won as director I figured that was it. Then 'American in Paris' was announced as best picture and you could have heard a pin drop! It was followed by huge applause. The next day a lot of the film critics were highly displeased.
Altogether, "An American in Paris" won six Oscars--Best Picture, story and screenplay, cinematography, musical scoring, art direction, costume design--plus a special citation for Gene Kelly for his contributions to the dance sequences. To be sure, Minnelli was almost completely satisfied, though he recalled, "I still wanted an Oscar for myself."
After that momentous triumph, Minnelli felt he should have enough clout to demand MGM let him do something really daring rather than just look for his next musical. He asked for "The Bad And The Beautiful" (1952) as his next screen project.
with Lana Turner
in a dramatic scene from
"The Bad and
This was planned as a serious drama with an all-star cast and an "inside Hollywood" background. Its main characters all seemed to be based on some very real people, most of them still living and working in Hollywood. Minnelli imagined everyone would be guessing who the real people were that the characters were supposed to represent, especially the protagonist, a movie producer so ambitious that he'd do almost anything to achieve success. It was almost a Hollywood "Citizen Kane" about a man who had touched the lives of almost all the other characters, one way or another. The studio brass just couldn't understand why Minnelli wanted to make such a movie.
They said it was about a bastard, that it would hurt Hollywoods well-scrubbed image," Minnelli recalled. "I said I had to do it and I had to have Kirk Douglas as my anti-hero. From the moment the script (by Irwin Shaw) was finished I could spot David Selznick as the focal inspiration for Kirks character, Jonathan Shields. David could, too. He complained in scathing terms to Dore (Schary), who brushed him aside and said (Shields) was based on producer Val Lewton. And Lana Turner's Georgia Lorrison was Diana Barrymore. I think there was more than a little of (Columbia Pictures Pres.) Harry Cohn in Walter Pidgeons Harry Pebble. All of Hollywood ran to...spot the real characters when it came out.
Minnelli said when Lana Turner was offered the part she told him, Look after me. This is the first time Ive ever been asked to really act on the screen.
Turner's acclaimed performance as the self-destructive Georgia is still widely regarded as her best ever.
"Once she got into it," said Minnelli, "she really let go. She wasnt put off by Kirks posturing. She just laughed and kept on going. At the first showing in a studio theatre, she jumped up and ran down the corridor shouting, I CAN act!' I was very disappointed she didnt get an Oscar nomination. She was that good.
"Robert Surtees (the cinematographer) did a superb job of accentuating the whites and blacks; every scene gleamed with this tension. In color, the whole conflict would have seemed watered down, prettified. Douglas was so good, people actually hated him more than ever and everybody was surprised it was Gloria Grahame who walked off with the only acting Oscar (as best supporting actress). I used her again in 'The Cobweb' (1955), but the part wasnt as showy.
Even though Minnelli's own career was soaring, he said the atmosphere at MGM starting in the mid-Fifties was all doom and gloom. Wed been fighting against the inroads of TV up to then, but slowly the studio started fading. I always said the beginning of the end came when they let Clark Gable go in 1953. It opened the door to a deluge of farewellseven Mr. Mayer wasnt there anymore.
"There was a mania to remake past hits. I did the fashion show in 'Lovely To Look At' (1952) after Mervyn LeRoy (who directed the rest of the film) left the studio. It was a remake of 'Roberta' (1935).
"Then I was called in to fix up 'The Seventh Sin' (1957) after the studio let the original director, Ronald Neame, go. It was a terrible remake of Garbos 'The Painted Veil.'
"I stand guilty with 'Kismet' (1955), third version of that chestnut. There were so many of them (remakes) in those years: 'Scaramouche,' 'Quo Vadis?', 'Small Town Girl,' 'Rose Marie,' 'The Student Prince.' It seemed to be dying down until 'Ben-Hur' was that rarity, a successful remake.
Minnelli shook his shoulders when asked about his Huckleberry Finn project that he labored on for the better part of two years before it was abandoned in 1953. The stars were to be Danny Kaye and Gene Kelly. Instead, his next big musical was "The Band Wagon" with Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Nanette Fabray, Jack Buchanan and Oscar Levant.
Cyd Charisse, displaying those
fabulous legs, vamps Fred Astaire
in the "Girl Hunt" number from
Minnelli's 1953 musical
"The Band Wagon."
I did have 'The Band Wagon' to look forward to and that kept me going. It started, you know, when Betty Comden and Adolph Green had finally had enough of Fred Astaires bellyaching. You see Fred was always beefing about being unappreciated at Metro and getting back to Broadway. But he never did, of course."
So, the story that Comden and Green came up with for "The Band Wagon" was about a washed-up Hollywood dancer (Astaire) who decides to go back to Broadway under the supervision of a demanding producer.
"And (to play) the egotistical producer bringing Freds character, aging hoofer Tony Hunter, back to Broadway, I wanted Clifton Webb," said Minnelli. "I was astounded he turned us down and I feel it was sheer nerves. Hed played this Mr. Belvedere character in movies, but on stage hed been a dancer first. How would his newfound movie fans feel about that? So, he claimed hed already signed for 'Stars and Stripes
Forever' (The Fox film in which he played John Phillip Sousa).
"We finally got Jack Buchanan, who reported in bad physical shape. All his teeth had to be fixed on days off. Nanette Fabray was nervous because shed done so very few movies and she told me she found her co-stars terribly cold. Shed say hello in the morning to Cyd Charisse and Cyd, who is as shy as a colt, would just skitter by.
One of his first chores on setting up "The Band Wagon" was to go through all the songs in the repertoire of Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz and decide which ones would be used in the new production of the old hit stage show.
So much to chose from, remembered Minnelli. We had to leave some greats out. Thats how the theme of putting on a show within another show emerged. I feel the movie works so well because it was all true. Fred was nervous about working with Cyd and her great ballet background. So, we had (his character) Tony fearful of Cyds Gabrielle character the same way, even walking around her on their first meeting so he can measure her height.
"Oscar (Levant) was going through another nervous breakdown. Hed also had a mild heart attack, so he refused to do anything that was physically demanding. Now
that I think of it this was not a happy picture to make, not at all.
Minnelli says hes still asked about some of the dance numbers and how he did them.
'Triplets' was staged by Michael Kidd magnificently with Astaire, Buchanan and Fabray dancing on their knees, which can be very painful. Nanette suffered a gash on her leg from the 'Louisiana Hayride' number. Shooting 'Guess Ill Have To Change My Plans' should have gone smoothly, but Jack Buchanan was completely petrified about working with the great Astaire. Jack kept drying up. For the finale, Oscar refused to rehearse, which disgusted Fred, who was all about rehearsal, and then I started reworking it on set.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Fred leaving the set, totally frustrated--the first time he had ever done this, or so he later told me.
Minnelli remembered the penultimate big production number was originally intended as a spoof of mystery movies. It was Michael Kidds idea to restage it all as a Mickey Spillane ballet based on a Life magazine photo shoot. Now called 'The Girl Hunt,' Alan Jay Lerner wrote its narration but received no credit and I was ordered by (Producer Arthur) Freed to shoot it in three days.
"Boy, was Fred up for the challenge, for something hed never done before. Well, it actually took a week to shoot it and we made it a feast of yellow, red, lots of smoky
ambiance. It has remained one of my favorite numbers. But you know it was Cyd who supplied the sex appeal with those extra long legs of hers.
"The Band Wagon," which cost $ 2.16 million grossed $5.65 million in North American box office returns, meaning the movie musical had returned to favor at MGM.
For a time after that, Minnelli's momentum seemed to stall for a bit. He shot his segment of "The Story of Three Loves" (1953), which told three separate love stories that took place on an ocean liner, in three weeks.
Minnelli scored another
commercial hit with
"The Long, Long Trailer,"
which capitalized on
the TV popularity of
Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball
from their "I Love Lucy"
It wasnt a successful movie. Too many cooks, I suspect. But it enabled me to work with Ethel Barrymore for a few days. Then I did the first return of Lucy Ball and Desi Arnaz to MGM since their TV hit, "I Love Lucy" came on. Of course, they were playing their TV characters (in "The Long, Long Trailer") but with different names. Everybody knew that. We had fun doing it, but it was only important because it showed there could be a crossover from TV to films I didnt do their second picture, 'Forever Darling,' and it wasnt as big a success.
Minnelli thought his next picture was going to be an adaptation of W. H. Hudson's classic novel "Green Mansions," an exotic tale about a female "child of the jungle" called Rima, the Bird Girl.
I spent much of 1954 trying to get 'Green Mansions filmed. I had a star I thought could do it--Pier Angeli. It was always a favorite book of mine but there were insurmountable problems. We trekked into the Venezuelan jungle. We trekked out again. The problem was how to photograph such things as the girls coat made of spider webs. When MGM finally tried it in 1959 with Audrey Hepburn (directed by her husband at the time, Mel Ferrer) it was done on studio sets and it showed. Im glad I took a pass on it.
Still ahead for Minnelli as MGM were the 1954 musical "Brigadoon," the film version of Robert Anderson's controversial stage play "Tea & Sympathy," the life story of painter Vincent Van Gogh, "Lust For Life," and the film that finally would bring him the coveted Oscar for directing--"Gigi."
(Continued in Part Four of "Vincente Minnelli & His Movies" next week.)
©2009 by Jim Bawden. The photos are courtesy of MGM. This column first posted April 13, 2009.
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