Monday, July 12, 2010

Director's Cut

In the tradition of an extended “director’s cut” edition of a feature film, I’m pleased to present some bonus content in reference to A Hundred or More Hidden Things: The Life and Films of Vincente Minnelli. As so often happens in the making of a movie, certain sequences are trimmed - or eliminated altogether - during the final editing process, typically because of time constraints. It’s pretty much the same with books. In the case of A Hundred or More, several of my illustrious interview subjects contributed observations or anecdotes that wound up on ‘the cutting room floor.’ While the following quotes didn’t make it into the published version of the biography, I’m happy to have an opportunity to share them with you here…

Richard Barrios, film historian on Meet Me In St. Louis: “When you see all of those imitations of it – Centennial Summer (1946) and On Moonlight Bay (1951) and some of the others – it really makes you appreciate all that Minnelli accomplished with St. Louis…There are all these subtleties and neuroses underlying what are supposed to be otherwise sort of normal family structures. Of course, Minnelli was part of those conventional structures himself but it’s my conjecture that he never did really feel at home in them.”

Jeanine Basinger, film historian on Madame Bovary: “The definitive Vincente Minnelli movie probably really is Madame Bovary. People don’t think of that because it’s a famous, serious Flaubert novel and people just don’t ‘go there’ but if you think about the story and what it is, it’s very definitely him. In the novel and in other presentations of the story, Madame Bovary is a symbol for women who are foolish and who let their empty heads get filled with romantic nonsense that ends up destroying their lives. In Minnelli, it’s transferred into a different meaning, which is that she desires beauty or something lovely in her life. That’s a whole different tack on it. And also, the way he handled the ball scene is sublime. It lifts you out of your seat and into the kind of experience that you pray will happen if you go to the movies. You really have the vicarious thrill of the dream come true. I think it’s just the best Madame Bovary that there is.”

Angela Lansbury on The Clock: “Moyna [MacGill], my mother, played in The Clock – an extraordinary little gem of a performance and in a wonderful scene with Keenan Wynn. It just stood out. It was so funny and sad and awful and great. Pauline Kael gave her a wonderful review in the New Yorker, which thrilled my mother…I don’t know who gave her that terrific idea of eating her own pearls for that scene. It could have been Keenan or it could have been Vincente or she might well have thought of it herself because she had a wonderfully madcap sense of humor for certain situations. It’s just a very delicious bit.”

Jess Gregg, writer: “Before Hollywood, Minnelli was connected with some of the biggest revues on Broadway. One of his competitors was John Murray Anderson, who was well known at the time but very few people remember him today. He was one of the funniest, bitchiest men I ever met. The stories about him are murderous…He worked on Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 with Minnelli. And he directed things like John Murray Anderson’s Show of Shows. And ‘John Murray Anderson’s This’ and ‘John Murray Anderson’s That.’ Although they worked together, Minnelli and Anderson were competitors. But John Murray Anderson never had the artistry of Minnelli. And he didn’t have Minnelli’s sharp eye for making everything look so unusually beautiful. Anderson was an operator and I don’t think Minnelli was ever that. I mean, Anderson would surround himself mostly with gorgeous chorus people – these statuesque girls who were six feet tall, so when they walked across the room, you noticed. And the boys he always had around him were knockouts – the best looking boys in town. They couldn’t talk intelligently about anything but they were marvelous to look at…Anderson was much more showbiz than Minnelli. In fact, Minnelli never seemed to me to be showbiz in that kind of way. When Minnelli first started making movies, I think he had a bit of contempt - at that time - for Hollywood. Later, after he had made a great success at MGM, things seemed to change… I don’t think he wanted to tamper with the bosses.”

Matthew Tinkcom, film scholar: “I think that Minnelli learned a huge amount from queer subcultures in New York and Chicago. I think that the theatrical scene was one that was really nurturing to his aesthetic and his way of looking at the world. Hollywood was actually a huge queer subculture and one of the centers of it in U.S. life. But I think that Minnelli was taking an aesthetic that hadn’t been there before from his theatrical training. That’s why he flourished – because there was no one else doing what he did…I think there was a kind of community in the Freed Unit that was receptive both to his aesthetic and to whatever kind of ambiguous sexuality we’re talking about. At least on the Metro lot and especially in the Freed Unit, there was a kind of laissez faire attitude towards there being queer employees. The Freed Unit, was in fact, a kind of place where queer talent could flourish and then, on the other hand, Vincente Minnelli was a particular kind of talent who really flourished in that setting…Metro was in trouble in the late 1940’s and early 50’s and all of their balance sheets demonstrate that – like the rest of the industry – they were about to have a crash. I think they were baldly, from a financial point of view, saying, ‘Who around here makes unique products that we can put our stamp on?...’ And Minnelli was one of the key people.”

Sir Gerald Kaufman: “I met him when he came to do what was called a Guardian lecture at the National Film Theatre. They weren’t lectures at all. They were interviews. And some people are very, very good at them. In the case of Vincente Minnelli, you could scarcely get an answer out of him – he was so inarticulate. They gave a reception for him after the lecture and I was invited to it. I had something wrong with my neck at the time and I was wearing one of those surgical collars and he recognized me but when he said, ‘Hello’ to me, he said, ‘Ah, Father Callahan, I presume?’ You know, pretending for the moment’s joke that I was wearing a clerical collar and not a surgical collar…When you think about those brilliant numbers that he directed in Ziegfeld Follies, for example, nobody else would have directed them like that and that means that even within the Hollywood studio system, he was an auteur. There’s no doubt whatsoever about that…When I asked him, ‘What film by another director would you most like to have made?’ He answered, La Grande Illusion. I thought that was significant because I regard that as the greatest film ever made. The fact that he instantly – without a moment’s pause – said that, told you something about him. You can’t imagine Bryan Forbes saying he wished he had directed Grand Illusion.”

Irving Brecher, screenwriter (Meet Me In St. Louis, Yolanda and the Thief): “I was practically finished with the script of St. Louis and Minnelli read it and he was very complimentary about it. After the compliments, he said, “I’m sure you’re open to some changes…?” I said, “Of course.” So we started working it over together and I would act everything out for him and Vincente would react and he would try to be the audience. Occasionally – more than often – he would say, “I love that bit but you know that line that you have in the dining room scene…What if we tried something a little different in that spot?” In most cases, I would accommodate him as long as I was happy with [the change] myself. I didn’t concede anything to him if I didn’t want to. We went through it day by day, week by week for a month and finally finished it to our satisfaction and we turned it in. [Arthur] Freed was not a guy who read anything until it was finished and then he didn’t necessarily have the proper opinion in terms of what the work was. He was not good on scripts. He was good on music. He was excellent on casting. At any rate, we turned it in and the first words we got were from upstairs. The executives didn’t like it. There was no story. We were not surprised that they discovered that there was no plot but we were very concerned that they didn’t like it. Because we had been very meticulous about everything. There was nothing just thrown in. In ’44, Meet Me In St. Louis came out. After the preview, all the guys who said it had no plot stopped me on the street and congratulated me and they were kind enough to say, ‘You know, when I read it, I really didn’t like it but it sure turned out great…’ They were very generous. Al Lichtman, MGM’s head of distribution, who knew something about numbers, said, ‘This will be the biggest grosser in the history of the company up till now…’ He was right and today, it’s still raking in money every year and it’s considered one of the greatest movies ever made.”

Marian Horosko, dancer in the ballet sequence from An American in Paris: “When I first went on the set, we were shooting the Place de la Concorde scene and Vincente Minnelli was very high up on the boom – looking down at all of us – and in his lap was this little girl with these great big eyes and she was fascinated. And that was Liza. And actually, I have to admit, we played to her. She looked like four or five, maybe. You know, on the set you usually don’t have an audience but here was this child who was very interested in everything we were doing. Having Liza with him was a big treat for us and he was very pleased that she liked what she saw…She wasn’t a kid who just looked at it like a circus. She somehow got into it. I think her talent was blossoming or just forming at that point and even at that early age, she saw where she wanted to go.”

Darryl Hickman, actor on Minnelli and Tea and Sympathy: “I never saw the play on Broadway but it seems pretty clear what Robert Anderson was writing about – you know, this kid being accused of being gay and nobody really knows whether that’s true or not. I’m sure that MGM – being MGM – was sort of halfway committed to that. In those days, they had to be afraid of that kind of subject matter. I’m surprised that they made the film at all looking back at what a dicey subject that was for Hollywood at that time. Very daring. I think you have to give them credit for even going as far as they did…In the world that I grew up in at MGM, there were people that we – in our inside world – knew were probably gay – George Cukor and others – and they were family. The message that I got growing up at the studio was that it was really nobody’s business but ours. Within the ‘family,’ nobody was to even mention anything like that. It was not discussed…And I think that was the way that Minnelli was dealt with. He was effeminate and if there are any people who are not, as a general rule, effeminate – it’s a film crew. They’re totally the other way. They can be crude and sometimes obnoxious and they swear a lot. Macho. They’re really the opposite of anybody who’s sensitive…But Minnelli was a major director and there was a respect for him because of who he was. And he was a part of the family, that’s all.”

Joe McElhaney, editor of Vincente Minnelli: The Art of Entertainment, on A Matter of Time: “I think that A Matter of Time, more than any other film, proves that [Minnelli] is a deeply personal filmmaker and that, in fact, the vision is not dependent on genre. What genre does A Matter of Time belong to? It’s a bit of a melodrama. It’s a bit of a musical. It’s a bit of a comedy. It’s not really any genre. The producer clearly interfered every step of the way and almost destroyed the film. And yet, it’s almost the most pure, the most distilled of all of his films.”

David Gerstner, film scholar: “Minnelli always said that painting was his first love. That’s the way that he approached theatre. And that’s the way that he approached film – that it was a canvas. And putting the films together in a certain way was to, in fact, paint the entire thing the way he envisioned it…In An American in Paris, you can literally see the texture of the paint. It is a painterly film. When Gene Kelly’s paintings pop up on the screen, you can see Minnelli’s desire – his wish to have the texture of the paint shown throughout the film. And in watching the film, you can feel the texture. There are moments where it’s like an impasto, it’s so thick – and not just the paintings but the film itself. Look at how textured the ballet sequence is. Minnelli is all about texture and he’s all about layers.”

Ben Geary: “I met Vincente in 1978 in Athens, Ohio , which is the home of Ohio University. The occasion was an international film festival, which I inaugurated in Athens and that particular year, we invited Vincente Minnelli to be our guest for a week so that he could conduct a seminar with Ohio University film students and to headline a retrospective of his movies that we presented at the Athena Theatre in Athens, Ohio, which was my theatre…Minnelli was an especially interesting guest in many ways. I liked his demeanor. He was very soft-spoken, very low key and very enjoyable. I was quite taken by his kindness…I’ll tell you a little anecdote about Vincente. On the last day that he was in Athens, I escorted him back to the Columbus airport and we were talking and he felt a little lonely to travel by himself. So, I said, ‘I’ll sit with you until the gate opens and we’ll carry on some conversation, so that you won’t be too lonely while waiting for your plane…’ Well, after awhile, this woman comes in – very well dressed, very beautiful and it was Ann Miller. She had just finished a concert at the Palace Theatre in Columbus and she saw Vincente and they hugged each other and it turned out she was going back to L.A., too. Suddenly, he was no longer lonely.”

Michael Grace, nephew of Minnelli’s set decorator Henry Grace: “Marjorie Main [who starred in Meet Me In St. Louis] said that working for a studio like MGM was very factory-like. She said, ‘You have to remember that we got there in the morning, we reported to whatever set we were working on, we acted and we went home. I never found it glamorous at all. It’s actually a very lonely business.’…For a studio director like Minnelli, it was the same thing. These directors would finish one movie and then move on to the next one almost immediately. I met [George] Cukor twice and I asked him about this stuff and he said the same thing: ‘You know, I was always moving on to another movie...’ It isn’t like today where the director might be sitting there for a year cutting his film. You didn’t have that sort of luxury back then. It was a total assembly line.”

June Lockhart, actor on Meet Me In St. Louis: “I came on board to all of the films I did as a young girl very much adjusted to the fact that it was the director who was the captain of the ship. With Minnelli – he was in charge but in such an elegant way. There was no pressure and there was no temperament from him. And it was quite something to see him – in his understated way – guide these enormous scenes like the opening of the World’s Fair – with all of the lights and moving the extras around and everything. One of the things that I loved about making that film was that we got to rehearse and rehearse and rehearse till we finally shot it. We felt so comfortable in what we were doing because it had been very carefully worked out. For the Christmas dance scene, when I’m first brought into the film – it seems to me that we rehearsed that for well over a month and probably more…With Minnelli, it was like creating a full, painted portrait before the cameras even rolled.”

India Adams, on voice doubling for Cyd Charisse in The Band Wagon: “It was a deep, dark secret. You weren’t allowed to tell anybody. As a matter of fact, I went to New York for a visit and Dorothy Kilgallen had an item about it in her column. I remember it said, ‘The biggest guessing game around Radio City Music Hall is…Who sang for Cyd Charisse in The Band Wagoon?’ And I was dying to phone her up and say, ‘I did it! I did it! I’m here…’ but I didn’t have the nerve to do it. I don’t recall that I actually had to sign something saying that I wouldn’t reveal that it was my voice you heard but in those days it was understood that you just didn’t tell anybody…Now, long after the fact, it’s no longer a big secret.”

John Fricke, film historian: “When you consider the fact that Vincente was taken off of Easter Parade...historically, the blame for that is that Judy’s therapist went to Arthur Freed and said it wasn’t right – or good – for Judy and Vincente to be together all day and then working at the studio as well. I think you’ve got to go back and put that into perspective. There had just been a year of trouble on The Pirate. The Pirate was in questionable shape after its’ sneak previews in September of 1947, which is when Vincente was removed from Easter Parade. Whether it was Judy’s awareness or Freed’s awareness or Metro’s awareness, somebody got the message. The thought was, ‘After all of this trouble, we don’t trust Judy Garland with Vincente Minnelli in a professional way. This is not going in the right direction…’ If you look at the script they started with for Easter Parade, it’s as dour as the original Broadway show of Pal Joey. [Gene] Kelly’s character is that mean and thoughtless and manipulative and self-centered. In the final film, [Fred] Astaire isn’t self-centered. He’s absent-minded but not mean and manipulative. I’m not putting [Frances] Goodrich and [Albert] Hackett down for the original script that they did because we all know what great scenarists they were but somebody must have been pointing them in that kind of heavy-handed direction and I don’t know who it would have been but Vincente. If he was dismissed from that picture, I think it was because everybody realized, ‘If we have one more of these inaccessible musicals starring Judy Garland, we’re throwing her away. MGM could not afford to do that and that’s why Vincente was removed.”

Clive Hirschhorn, film historian: “As a creative artist, he was obviously always striving for something and dreaming to reach a peak of some kind of perfection in which everything he was good at – his sense of style, his design, his vision – all merge together beautifully. In the real world, that’s not likely to happen. It’s more likely that you’d achieve that kind of symbiosis in some kind of dream-like situation. The whole of Meet Me In St. Louis, I suppose, is one’s dream childhood, one’s dream family…In a way, it’s what Eugene O’Neill was trying to do with Ah, Wilderness! It was the one time that O’Neill was after something that none of his other plays had: a perfect world. The perfect family set-up. An idealized version of life. Though there really isn’t a dream sequence in Meet Me In St. Louis, the whole thing is very much like a dream and it does come close to the ideal that Minnelli was always striving for…I think throughout his whole career, he wanted to work out any problems he may have had through art. Art clearly played such a vital part in his life…life…One of his greatest non-musicals is Lust for Life and I think it’s one of the most successful non-musicals because of his total commitment to the material. I think he was so engaged in Lust for Life for obvious reasons – it was about a creative artist who had torments, as every creative artist probably does. Obviously in his design years, Minnelli painted and did sketches and he was trying to achieve some kind of style of his own but I’m sure there was also this need to cover up all sorts of things in art. I think art with a capital ‘A’ meant so much to Minnelli. And there’s no question that he was a genuine artist.”

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