A Surplus of Feeling: The Films of Vincente Minnelli

October 26, 2013 § Leave a comment

Preparing to see Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me In St. Louis for the first time, I predicted a thick slice of pie-eyed Americana nostalgically exalting a time that never really existed, a palliative to wartime America reminding everyone that things weren’t so bad—that fawning over a collective national past of luxuriant homes and frolicsome school dances, with its idyllic center at the 1904 World’s Fair, was just the thing to forget the conflict abroad. After the film was over, I was sobbing uncontrollably, having witnessed something far more heart wrenching than I could have imagined.

Meet Me In St. Louis opens upon a world of rose-tinted fantasy, to be sure, but it’s a fantasy rooted in the psyches of its protagonists, the daughters of the middle-class Smith family. The bright colors and buoyant musical numbers that permeate the movie are a projection of youthful optimism and contentment, each of which grows threatened by changes from both within and without. The two oldest daughters, Rose (Lucille Bremer) and Esther (an exceptionally radiant Judy Garland), find themselves smitten with the opposite sex, deep into the most agonizing stages of adolescence, and Minnelli suggests that their romantic maturation, in its own way, signals the death knell to the fantasy existence of their childhood. The threat from without comes in the form of a job offer: the family will be better off financially if Mr. Smith (Leon Ames) relocates to New York, leaving St. Louis behind.

What I took at first to be a diversionary embrace of a more innocent time was in fact a harrowing portrait of innocence coming apart at the seams. Meet Me In St. Louis throbs with the disillusionment wrought by the Second World War, and the hurt is no more apparent than in Garland’s climactic rendition of ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,’ which she sings to the youngest sister Tootie (Margaret O’Brien) in an effort to assure her that everything will be okay, that this loss is just a momentary setback and that a future happiness is right around the corner. It’s a devastating scene, Esther straining to preserve for her sister a naïve hopefulness that she herself has lost, the great specter of uncertainty haunting every plaintive note. And it was precisely at this point in the movie that, in a fit of tears, I decided that Vincente Minnelli was a very special, and very distinct, voice in American cinema, even though the rest of his filmography was entirely unknown to me.

Minnelli is often reductively billed as a director of musicals, which discounts the staggering diversity among those musicals as well as the slew of comedies and melodramas he made in near-equal proportion. And yet attempts to account for that diversity remain reductive still, consigning Minnelli to the role of genre specialist or flexible craftsman. He didn’t simply make excellent films within a variety of genres, but he imbued those films with an unfaltering sensitivity to the psychological anguishes, anxieties, and passions of characters who almost always seem to feel more fervently than is acceptable by the standards of reality, or even by those of other movies. The emotions experienced by his characters are so immense that they either drive their hosts to the brink of madness or spill over into the environment itself. And it is according to these recurrent emotions, rather than genre categories, that Minnelli’s work is organized.

For example, the same fear of familial change that marks Meet Me In St. Louis also dominates Father of the Bride, a black-and-white comedy; Gigi, an Oscar-winning Technicolor musical set in lavish, turn-of-the-century Paris; Home from the Hill, a lurid, Freudian melodrama; and The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, an ostensibly cute father/son comedy that would go on to spawn a TV sitcom. The anxiety that consumes Spencer Tracy’s suburban lawyer in Father of the Bride as he realizes that his daughter has developed into a full-grown woman is the same felt by Louis Jordan’s young bon vivant when he finds that he has fallen in love with Gigi, the cousin he looks after like a little sister but who has been developing into a beautiful young woman under his very nose. In a markedly different register, Home from the Hill examines familial dissolution triggered by Faulknerian disillusionment: upon learning that his wealthy, land-owning father (played with bone-chilling authority by Robert Mitchum) has kept secret an illegitimate child, a young man (George Hamilton) flees to start a new life free of his influence. The Courtship of Eddie’s Father is perhaps Minnelli’s most underrated film, a comedy that observes the relationship between a recently widowed father (Glenn Ford) and his young son (Ron Howard) as the former attempts to remarry. Here the generational anxiety rests with little Eddie, who cannot bear to see his father marry the wrong woman, and the strength of the film stems from Minnelli’s attentiveness to the wants of both characters, neither of which ever holds more sway than the other.

It’s this all-pervasive empathy that makes Minnelli’s films so compelling. Rather than turn Mr. Smith into monster of rigid pragmatism, Minnelli fashions for the head of the household an outer casing of upright sternness that, in choice moments, peels back to reveal a caring, troubled, frequently embarrassed man perplexed by a family of women whom he loves but can hardly understand. Though just about every character in Home from the Hill is at odds with one another, there is no distinguishing between protagonists and antagonists—even Robert Mitchum’s bitter, domineering patriarch shows signs of frailty and remorse. And in his love stories, the playing field between couples is always level, whether at marital war (as in Designing Woman) or in the throes of romance (as in The Clock).

Minnelli’s thoughtful and dynamic handling of gender, with equally nuanced considerations of male and female character types, is one of his unmistakable auteurist trademarks. In movies spanning Meet Me In St. Louis to Bells Are Ringing, he displays an uncanny understanding of feminine romantic longing. Throughout these films are young women grappling with their sexual maturity (Meet Me In St. Louis, Gigi), women who contend with the rift between their fantasized lovers and the men they end up falling for (Yolanda and the Thief, The Pirate), and women who find their love either unrequited by troubled men (Some Came Running) or seemingly thwarted by real-world constraints (Bells Are Ringing). Love in Minnelli’s films often supersedes Hollywood clichés about romantic desire and becomes instead a matter of existential necessity, an irrepressible urge pulsating through the physical worlds his women inhabit. It’s only fitting that he was assigned to adapt Flaubert’s ‘Madame Bovary,’ and while it certainly doesn’t rank among his best work, its strongest moments tap into the notorious heroine’s overstuffed romantic dreams with a visual eye at once intimate and grandiloquent—the two flip-sides of Minnelli’s cinematic universe.

His treatment of masculinity is most fully developed in his triad of Kirk Douglas films—The Bad and the Beautiful, Lust for Life, and Two Weeks in Another Town—in which the masculine impulse toward domination and control is conflated with artistic conquest. In The Bad and the Beautiful, Douglas is a Hollywood producer whose outlandish behavior alienates those he works with, even as it pushes them to create their best work within the industry. Vincent Van Gogh biopic Lust for Life furthers the idea that the artistic drive is both creative and destructive, Douglas portraying the legendary Dutch artist as a tormented soul who only manages to paint his enduring masterworks at the expense of his career, his family, and his good friend Paul Gaugin (Anthony Quinn). Where Jonathan Shields in The Bad and the Beautiful is an enigma filtered through the eyes of his former associates, Van Gogh is an open book of passion and despair whose descent into madness Minnelli charts with terrifying precision. Two Weeks in Another Town is in many respects a thematic sequel to both films, Douglas a washed-up actor who checks himself out of a sanitarium with the intention of returning to the movie industry, now well into the age of the international co-production. As with the romantic feelings of Minnelli’s women, the artistic drives of his men carry a strong existential import. By the end of this final installment, Douglas has cut off ties with almost everyone he knows and emerges a better man for it.

Part of why these characters register with such forcefulness is Minnelli’s visual expressionism: almost every aspect of mise-en-scéne either reflects or accentuates what the characters are feeling. And Minnelli’s characters are so emotionally vibrant that the saturated colors and floral arrangements that furnish their worlds seem to emerge organically, as extensions of their innermost thoughts. This is most evident in the delirious dreamscapes of the early musicals, in which fantastical, wish-fulfilling musical numbers materialize as though from suppressed desires too powerful to be expressed otherwise. Minnelli eventually learned to transfer this expressionism to his earthbound melodramas, unfurling CinemaScope compositions of limitless density and detail. From the sprawling culinary décor of the French household in Some Came Running to the foreboding crimson panels of Robert Mitchum’s den-cum-trophy room in Home from the Hill, the sets in Minnelli’s ‘Scope films possess a character all their own. And because he made a habit of telling these stories almost exclusively in long-shot, the characters come to feel inextricable from the spaces they inhabit, making their psychological confinement all the more palpable.

It’s in Cahiers favorite Some Came Running that all of Minnelli’s career-long themes are synthesized into a tormented melodrama that can be fairly called his masterpiece. This time Sinatra plays the Douglas role—albeit a more introverted variation—a self-destructive, burnt-out writer named Dave Hirsch, who returns from military service during WWII to his hometown in Indiana, where he inadvertently sets off an unwelcome chain of events. Martha Hyer plays the woman he falls for, a prudish schoolteacher named Gwen French, and Shirley MacClaine is Ginnie, the floozy who falls for him. The theme of feminine sexual maturity is explored via the classist dichotomy between these two women: Gwen’s intellectual maturity offsets a sexual frigidity that prevents her from accepting Dave as her lover, whereas the mentally unsophisticated but emotionally sensitive Ginnie aches with unapologetic love for him. Dave, frustrated by Gwen’s coldness and his own lack of inspiration, digs his way into a paralytic stupor, schmoozing with gambling buddy Bama Dillert (played by Dean Martin at his best) and doing little else. The small town where all this plays out is steeped in hypocrisy, and the film’s most heart-sinking moment—and a vintage Minnelli instance of youthful disillusionment—comes when Dave’s niece bears witness to an affair carried on between her father (an ingratiating Arthur Kennedy) and his secretary.

In the earlier films, the harsh threat of reality is either postponed (Meet Me in St. Louis), made to accommodate the characters’ fantasies (The Clock), ultimately accepted (Father of the Bride), or scarcely seems to exist at all (Yolanda and the Thief). In Some Came Running, it’s all there is, a hemmed-in world of repression and duplicity that takes captive the hopes and dreams of its inhabitants. As Minnelli’s career progressed, he seemed to grow more attuned to the tragic possibilities of unfulfilled needs and oversized desires, ambition leading to annihilation and romantic longing perpetually unquenched. But his later movies are no less powerful as heartfelt outpourings of pure feeling, imbued with the same compassionate sensitivity to cataclysmic change. As Dave holds a dying Ginnie in his arms under the kaleidoscopic light of the surrounding carnival, he stands no further from the abyss than the Smith sisters on Christmas Eve. And while nothing as joyous as the World’s Fair awaits him, a reverent toss of the hat by Dean Martin will do just as well. – Stuart

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