Home » film

‘The Dog is Going to Die’

Vincente Minnelli: Hollywood’s Dark Dreamer
Emanuel Levy
St. Martins, 2009

It’s surprising that this is the first mainstream biography of a director who gave us so many top-notch films. Directors like John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock have their careers tended periodically like fine gardens. Because so many of Minnelli’s classic films are musicals, he’s been relegated to the second or third-string by the film community, which prefers that its icons be rooted in dramatic cinema.

That view seems to be changing, thanks to filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, whose essential documentary, A Personal Journey Through American Film, gives Minnelli full credit as a prime contributor to both musicals and dramas. Hopefully Vinecente Minelli: Hollywood’s Dark Dreamer, Emmanuel Levy’s voyage through the director’s life, will help further the critical reassessment of this man’s work. Such a reassessment is badly needed: even Minnelli’s New York Times obit spent more time on his marriage to Judy Garland than on his directing career.

Lester Anthony Minnelli remade himself as Vincente (a Latinized version of his father’s name, Vincent) while working as an art director at Radio City Music Hall in New York. After establishing himself as a stage director with a vast knowledge of set design and after staging many complicated productions, he was brought out to Hollywood – initially to consult for Paramount, but he didn’t start a real tinseltown career until he was brought out a second time by legendary producer Arthur Freed. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s Freed Unit produced musical comedies from the mid-thirties until the swan song of the studio in the late fifties. After a short apprenticeship, Freed fought to have the all- African-American musical Cabin in the Sky assigned to Minnelli, who managed to get ensemble performances out of a cast including Eddie “Rochester” Anderson (Jack Benny’s radio sidekick) and Broadway vet Ethel Waters. Minnelli’s real accomplishment was in finding the right wardrobe, songs, and presentation to make a star out of the ravishing Lena Horne (whose songs could not be made integral to the plot, because theaters in the American South would cut them out).

In delineating the assembly of this production, Levy makes the first of several curious lapses in narration. For example, contrasting Lena Horne’s Georgia Brown character with Ethel Waters’ Petunia, he writes:

On screen, the sensuality of the materialistic Georgia Brown, Petunia’s nemesis, is viewed as a threat. Minnelli embellishes Georgia’s portrait with brief, alluring touches, as when he snatches a magnolia from a tree and fashions it into a seductive hat.

Apparently that anecdote was particularly alluring for Levy, or his editor, for a scant page later, we learn that in choosing to shoot the whole film in a brownish sepia tone:

Minnelli showed his talent for imbuing objects with the symbolic and the fantastic. For example, oil lamps flare with the arrival of the emissaries, and when Georgia grabs a magnolia from a studio-made tree, she turns it into a sexually alluring hat.

In what is a generally carefully considered narrative, these little redundancies tap dance on each other’s heels. In another instance, Vincente accompanies Liza Minnelli to the Academy Awards but, in a loopy bit of construction, we learn that she lost for Best Actress (for Cabaret) before we read about her preparations to attend the ceremony.

Levy is far better tackling on-set issues that arose during the filming of Meet Me in St. Louis, Minnelli’s first classic musical and the film that saw Judy Garland leap from the girl in The Wizard of Oz and the Andy Hardy movies to the mature young woman Minnelli helped create for the camera. Another actress whose performance shaped that particular film was young Margaret O’Brien, whom Minnelli constantly had to talk down from stage levels of hysterics into being a natural, normal little girl. In one key scene, Margaret’s character learns the family is leaving St. Louis. The scene requires her to grab a shovel and smash a backyard full of snow figures. Typically Margaret’s mother and aunt whispered instructions to her for emotional scenes:

O’Brien’s mother came over to Minnelli and said: “Margaret’s angry with me tonight. She doesn’t want me to work her up before the scene. You’ll have to do it.”

“Okay, but how do I do it?” Minnelli asked.

The mother said, “She has a little dog. You’ll have to say someone is going to kill that dog.”

“I can’t do that, “Minnelli said.

Since in the story it was a cold night, O’Brien was sitting inside the Smiths’ house with a blanket over her shoulders. Minnelli braced himself before walking over to her.

“Margaret,” he said “there’s this little dog and somebody is going to take a gun and shoot it.”

O’Brien’s enormous brown eyes grew even larger.

“Is there going to be lots of blood?” she asked.

“Yes,” Minnelli said.

Margaret’s face registered a stunned expression, but there were no tears.

Out of the corner of his eye, Minnelli could see that her mother and her aunt were staring at them. Minnelli felt they expected him to go further, and be even more extreme in his instructions.

“The dog is going to suffer terribly,” he said in a sinister voice “It’s going to yelp and stumble around.”

Working himself up to a fever pitch, Minnelli finally said, against his better judgment, “The dog is going to die!”

“Oh no,” Margaret screamed , tears rolling down her face.

Minnelli turned to his assistant, and said, “Turn the cameras!”

Mercifully, Margaret did the scene in one take, after which she went skipping happily off the set.

This technique was not something Minnelli ever indulged in again. In fact, his inarticulate ways with actors, choreographers, and camera operators followed him from picture to picture. One of the positive aspects of the whole studio system, as in the case of MGM’s twenty-plus year association with Minnelli, was that it gave its contract directors a steady coterie of designers, cinematographers, and players who learned, in this case, how to turn mumbled half-sentences into completed sets, scenes, and characters.

“Merry Little Christmas” from Meet Me in St. Louis

The results of this collaborative effort are easiest to see in the classic musicals. Meet Me in St. Louis tailors its songs to both advance the plot and inform us about the characters doing the singing, a dramatic departure from the usual songs that served as distractions from plot and characters. This film also featured a very dark Halloween sequence, one of Levy’s first examples of the “Dark Dreamer” of his subtitle.

In An American in Paris, Gene Kelly is turned loose, and the picture ends with a seventeen minute ballet that contains not a word of dialogue, a move that had the MGM brass concerned — until Academy voters surprisingly selected the movie as Best Picture.

Gigi won Minnelli his Best Direction Oscar for his colorful, splashy use of Parisian sights, his restless, constantly-tracking camera, and his seamless blending of the disparate talents of Leslie Caron, Louis Jourdan, and Maurice Chevalier.

The Band Wagon took the edgy step of casting Fred Astaire as the washed-up movie musical star Tony Hunter, a role uncomfortably close to Astaire’s own standing in the business at that time. The ultimate show-about–putting–on–a-show, this film is full of Dark Dreamer moments, starting with having the courage to open the whole thing with Astaire’s melancholy theme, “By Myself.”

Levy does a fine job of describing each production, from casting choices to location squabbles. For all Minnelli’s desire to shoot in Paris, only 1958’s Gigi managed to get made there, at least until the money ran out and the whole production got reeled back to California. 1951’s An American in Paris was mainly shot on soundstages in Culver City, California. By this point, as a top MGM talent, Minnelli had his pick of studio projects to direct. It wasn’t until 1964’s My Fair Lady went to George Cukor that Minnelli was denied a project he really wanted. The collapse of the studio system hurt Minnelli’s career as much as his advancing years. Without MGM to hand him coveted projects, Minnelli lacked the schmoozing skills to put together productions of his own.

Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron from An American in Paris

Levy ‘s other major task is sift through four marriages in search of Minnelli’s sexuality. From the forties onward, like other gay professionals in Hollywood, Minnelli used marriage as a shield, acquiring wives and producing offspring as proof of American ‘normality’. We hear very little, mainly in his early New York years, about male partners in Minnelli’s life. The only one of these Levy mentions by name is Lester Gaba, also a designer, who is described as looking so much like Minnelli that they might have been mistaken for twins. Levy doesn’t go into much detail (perhaps he had no forthcoming sources); at another point he mentions Garland finding Minnelli en flagrante with a gardener, but again, either Levy has no further salacious details or he has none he wants to share. We do hear more than one would expect about his hetero inclinations, and the marriage with the extremely talented and volatile Garland reads like a man trapped in a perpetual Lifetime movie.

It’s perhaps inevitable that Garland’s presence would threaten to outshine even the book’s nominal subject; certainly Levy gives us plenty of Judy, including revealing glimpses of the making of a megastar, in the Garland/Gene Kelly musical The Pirate (1948):

Minnelli was looking forward to another lovely collaboration, hoping Judy would not have to rely on amphetamines, or consult her psychiatrists. He was confident that Judy would not only “deliver” but would also show her mettle and discipline to those Metro execs who always complained about how difficult and unreliable she was.

Minelli’s worst fears materialized during rehearsals, when he witnessed Judy’s anxiety about Kelly “stealing” the show away from her. Having liked the stage production, Kelly was glad to assist Robert Alton’s choreography however he could. Kelly saw The Pirate as a chance to take dancing closer to ballet. Judy admired Kelly as a performer and liked him as a person, but his excessive enthusiasm increased her insecurities. At first flattered by being offered the role, she now blamed her husband for encouraging her to accept it …

In her notorious squabbles with Metro, Judy’s indomitable spirit always came through. But now she resorted to counting the exact number of days that the studio could shoot around her, reporting to work at the last possible moment that would allow her picture to finish within the allotted schedule and budget. Quite shockingly, Judy was gone for 99 out of the 135 days it took to make The Pirate. For the first time, she had failed the studio, big time.

Garland’s spiraling out of Minnelli’s career is a pivotal moment. From this point on, Minnelli will have to choose projects without his wife as a casting choice, and though the marriage ended in 1951, Garland’s appearances in Minelli’s films had ended for good.

In spite of this, Vincente Minnelli’s slate of films is impressive, even without the musicals. Madame Bovary, a 1949 effort to feature David Selznick’s obsession of the time, Jennifer Jones, manages to work some of Minnelli’s trademark mirrors and a surprising amount of Flaubert’s actual novel into what should have been just another bit of high-toned MGM prestige fluff. The first version of Father of the Bride, with Spencer Tracy and a glowing Elizabeth Taylor, became the template for a rash of TV family sitcoms. There is even a collaboration with TV’s reigning sitcom queen and king: Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz made The Long Long Trailer one of Minnelli’s biggest money–making successes

There is also evidence of Hollywood’s ability to crush the life out of a story. Toys in the Attic was a long-running Elia Kazan-directed drama about a young man trying to negate his homosexuality by having an affair with a professor’s wife. After the Production Code had its say about homosexuality and adultery, the totally rewritten film wound up being about very little.

But Minnelli fared better with drama. The Bad and the Beautiful, with Kirk Douglas as a producer whose boorish behavior is trumped by his sheer creativity, is one of the very best Hollywood films about the Hollywood process. 1960’s Home From the Hill, usually cited as Minnelli’s last great film, casts the underrated Robert Mitchum as the boozie patriarch of a Mississippi household trying to reconcile his gentle legitimate son with his rough-hewn bastard child in a film that has been ransacked innumerable times to create that cinematic staple, the “Southern Melodrama.”

One of Levy’s best set-pieces (and some of his best analysis) is the assembly of mosaic patterns that eventually became the movie version of James Jones’ mammoth novel, Some Came Running. Here, Levy’s ability to pull all the strands of Minnelli’s career together is most effective:

Minnelli found Jones’ hero, Dave Hirsh, a conflicted writer, utterly compelling. Indeed, Dave fits perfectly into Minnelli’s gallery of tormented male artists, just as brutal as Kirk Douglas’ producer in The Bad and the Beautiful, and just as sensitive as Gene Kelly’s painter in An American in Paris. All three, like other Minnelli heroes, were ultimately dreamers dissatisfied with their bourgeois surroundings and hypocritical middle–class morality.

Moreover, at least half of Minnelli’s protagonists are creative professionals who undergo some kind of moral or existential crisis before embarking on a journey of self discovery. Most of the artists in his movies, younger or older, experience doubts about their identity or occupational worth (at least as far as mainstream society is concerned ) , even in musicals, such as Fed Astaire’s Tony Hunter in The Band Wagon, or Dean Martin’s blocked writer in Bells Are Ringing. They are all troubled men, some motivated by religious convictions, such as Douglas’ Van Gogh in Lust For Life or Richard Burton in The Sandpiper, some neurotic types on the verge of a nervous breakdown, such as all the inhabitants in The Cobweb and Douglas’s character in Two Weeks in Another Town.

Those other films Levy mentions in that description give some idea of the breadth of Minnelli’s tastes (and yes, The Sandpiper is given its proper focus as the hilarious camp classic it became almost as soon as it was completed). Levy’s description of his subject’s long decline is sad, as it should be, and the tale of A Matter of Time, greenlighted solely to allow Minnelli at long last to direct daughter Liza, is a forlorn bit of punctuation to a career that deserved a more glorious ending. In signing away his right to a final cut, Minnelli allowed American International’s exploitation king, Samuel Z. Arkoff, to butcher the film to his own liking, to such a hopeless extent that even Martin Scorsese’s campaign to restore the picture has not been successful.

Hopefully Levy’s painstaking work here will be more successful in restoring Vincente Minnelli’s reputation as one of the most distinctive American directors to put his work on celluloid.

___

Brad Jones uses his retail job to fund his career as an obscure jazz saxophonist. He’s performed over 1,000 improv shows as a member of the Proposition Theatre in Inman Square and was a founding member of Boston’s Next Move Theatre.

Return to the Main Page