Some day, perhaps tomorrow, we will have to explain to young generations what a "movie musical" was. We won't be able to do that without invoking the name of Vincente Minnelli. He was, said his colleague and friend, Alan Jay Lerner, "the greatest director of motion picture musicals the screen has ever known."
Lerner, who wrote the script for Minnelli's classic "An American in Paris," died earlier this year. Arthur Freed, Minnelli's mentor and the producer who headed the most prodigious and prestigious of the musical units at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, died in 1973.
And on Friday night, at the age of 83, after a long illness, Vincente Minnelli died in Beverly Hills. MGM in its glory days is being reassembled in the hereafter. Now the director's chair is filled.
So closely and inextricably is Minnelli identified with MGM musicals that on Saturday, reporting his death, a New York TV station credited him with directing the ebullient musical satire "Singin' in the Rain." That was one of the few illustrious MGM musicals Minnelli did not direct. He did, however, direct "Gigi," "The Band Wagon," "Brigadoon" and, in 1944, "Meet Me in St. Louis," the kind of musical that even people who don't love musicals love.
"St. Louis" starred Judy Garland, later Mrs. Minnelli (one of four wives) and mother of Liza Minnelli. Although the director was a show biz sophisticate who had arrived in Hollywood from a successful art director's career in New York, he was able to make "St. Louis" a lovingly homey homage to American small-town life and values that was remarkable for its warmth and clarity.
A lot of movies were celebrating fundamental Americana during World War II, but it is Minnelli's elegantly idealized vision that seems to hold up best after the passage of four varyingly tumultuous decades. The film's depiction of turn-of-the-century St. Louis now evokes both the fearfulness and the hopefulness of America during the war.
Minnelli directed straight dramatic films, too, but the trademark fluidity of his camera made even his nonmusicals somehow musical. "Madame Bovary" reached a dramatic climax during a deranged waltz in a vast mirrored ballroom. "The Bad and the Beautiful" included an audacious interlude in which Lana Turner threw a hysterical fit while driving down a rainy road, and although she's certainly not singing, the scene could be considered one of the great melodramatic arias ever staged for a film.
It is an aria for actress and camera, and Vincente Minnelli was the composer.
In his 1974 autobiography "I Remember It Well," Minnelli recalled his technique for getting the optimal performance out of Turner, who he felt was among those who underrated her abilities as an actress. After each long take of the very difficult scene, Minnelli would assure Turner that her work had been just right but that the camera or the lighting or the sound equipment had malfunctioned, and would she please do it again.
Minnelli was never known as a bully or a tyrant. In person he seemed quiet, elfin, soft-spoken and self-effacing, and he talked largely in fragments of sentences. One could tell he must have used more psychology than tyranny to rule a movie set. "Always you had to deal with temperaments," he once recalled. "You had to find ways of dealing with each one. I never had any trouble finding a way. All actors are insecure."
Perhaps his finest dramatic film was "Lust for Life," the story of another brilliant Vincente -- van Gogh -- with Kirk Douglas playing the tortured artist. Even if his marriage to Judy Garland was among the legendary fiery matchups of Hollywood, Minnelli probably could not be considered "tortured," and yet "Lust for Life" is very much one artist's tribute to another.
Lowering the boom of "art" on Minnelli's films during his lifetime might have sounded pretentious. It would also have threatened to take some of the lyrical vitality out of them. But in time, perhaps tomorrow, he'll be afforded the kind of respect that college professors lavish on 19th-century novelists now.
There was a lot of art-imitating-life in Minnelli's career. Betty Comden and Adolph Green were, in part, lampooning themselves when they wrote the script for "The Band Wagon," Minnelli's hilarious sendup of solipsists and narcissists in the theater, and the film includes an explosive production number ("Dance, fools, dance!") that appears to spoof an earlier, similarly bombastic one in Minnelli's "The Pirate."
When it was determined that actor Leon Ames, who played Papa, should sing with a voice like producer Arthur Freed's in "Meet Me in St. Louis," Freed himself was recruited for the job; that's his voice on "Through the Years," sung around the parlor piano in the Smith family's living room.
And in his autobiography, Minnelli recalled an incident from his years as little Liza's proud papa that is highly reminiscent of arguably the most charming sequence in "St. Louis" -- the spookily treacherous Halloween night of young Tootie, played by Margaret O'Brien.
Liza was costumed as a witch one Halloween in Beverly Hills, Minnelli wrote; he'd commissioned her costume at the studio. "This was during her serious period, when she wouldn't be laughed at," he recalled, and the child was mortified when at each house her appearance elicited friendly chuckles. "Finally we stopped at Gene Kelly's. His was an award-winning performance. 'A witch! A terrible witch! Save me!' Liza walked home with her pointed witch's chin held high."
To get Margaret O'Brien to cry during the famous snowman sequence of the film -- after Garland sings "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" -- director Minnelli, he later admitted, had to tell the young actress that her dog had died. Somehow this worked in take after take.
The magic of the movies.
Occasionally, as in the blowhardy "Yolanda and the Thief," Minnelli's work seemed overwhelmed by decor, not just integrated with it. And while he was spectacularly productive during the '40s and '50s, his '60s films were generally lackluster. His last film, "A Matter of Time," with daughter Liza, came across like some lesser director's imitation of a Minnelli movie.
But at the height of his powers he took the big-studio, made-in-Hollywood movie as far as the eye could see, and then a few steps farther. His visions were splashy but not gaudy, his sensibilities romantic but not campy. This was when movies were bigger than life and better than life, and when, if you were in a snit or a funk, you could go into a movie house expecting what you saw on the screen would cheer you, bolster you and embolden you when it came to facing the fiends and the furies waiting outside the theater.
Even in Minnelli's first MGM feature, "Cabin in the Sky," there was an astonishment of bold strokes. Minnelli looked back on his first directorial effort in his book: "The studio put on an extra man to teach me the simple technique of the camera, primarily when to look left or right," he wrote. "Once that simple lesson was learned, I could dispense with the consultant's advice.
"My instincts saw me through."
The progressive dismantling of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer is all but complete now. What was once Hollywood's grandest studio has become a mere paper pawn in the financial dealings of coldblooded financiers. The works of Minnelli and other great directors are now just items in an inventory. But you open the film can, and what you get is still magic.
One can see the vibrancy of Minnelli's inspiration even in tiny moments. In "Cabin in the Sky," Ethel Waters sings "Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe" to a bedridden Eddie (Rochester) Anderson, while a tall, handsome angel stands at the foot of the bed, listening. Waters sings, "Sometimes the cabin's gloomy, and the table's bare, but then he'll kiss me, and it's Christmas everywhere," and Minnelli cuts to a shot of the angel slowly disappearing.
There's something ecstatically cinematic about even this simple little shot. Clearly, someone with a keen eye directed it -- a keen eye and a soft heart. Vincente Minnelli's instincts saw him through, and up on the screen it was Christmas everywhere. Ah yes, we'll remember it well.