There are few films in the cannon of American Hollywood classics quite as exquisitely detailed and elegantly directed as those of the late, great director Vincente Minnelli. Indeed, Minnelli had such an attention to subtle detail and found ways to unearth groundbreaking, nuanced performances that make his films some of the richest experiences in cinema history. One only needs to witness one of his masterpieces such as "Meet Me in St. Louis" or "The Band Wagon" to understand his uniquely understated style and his deft storytelling skills. Minnelli worked closely with his cinematographers to establish an intimacy that highlighted each performer's strengths and personality.
Vincente Minnelli was born "Lester Anthony Minnelli" in 1903 in Chicago, Illinois. His family was part of a touring tent theatre, resulting in a mostly nomadic childhood. Eventually the family settled in Delaware, Ohio, but the world of entertainment was in his family's blood, and his career was destined for the arts. Early on, he was employed as a window dresser, a photographer, a costume designer, a set designer and an artist. This honing of his visual aesthetic would prove to be an important part of his film creations to come, as every movie he touched was rich with visual splendor that was clearly the work of a practiced visual artist. He worked for Radio City Music Hall where he started out in the costume shop, but eventually proved himself as a director. Soon, Minnelli found himself directing musicals for Broadway, the first a revue called At Home Abroad (1935). A handful of shows later, MGM offered Minnelli work as a film director, his first credited job being the 1943 classic "Cabin in the Sky."
Romance Is Born in Sizzling New Pics From Broadway's An American in Paris
Minnelli's work in Hollywood would lead to a short-lived marriage to the film musical icon Judy Garland, resulting in one child: the stage and screen actress Liza Minnelli. In Hollywood, Minnelli prospered, ushering to the screen some of the great films of the period including "The Clock" (1945), "The Pirate" (1948), "Madame Bovary" (1949), "Father of the Bride" (1950), "Brigadoon" (1954), "Kismet" (1955), "Tea and Sympathy" (1956), "Designing Woman" (1957), "Bells Are Ringing" (1960) and "On A Clear Day You Can See Forever" (1970). His final film was the 1976 musical fantasy "A Matter of Time" which starred Ingrid Bergman and Minnelli's daughter Liza. He then retired and died in 1986 from a combination of emphysema and pneumonia. His films, however, live on in the pantheon of Hollywood greatness.
This spring, two Vincent Minnelli films have been adapted for the Broadway stage, both of them revered classics: "Gigi" and "An American in Paris." The former has already made the transition once in 1973, and has now returned in a much revised format that strives to maintain the Minnelli style while re-imagining the structure to make its themes more palatable to a contemporary audience. The latter is the first time that the film has been adapted for the Broadway stage, though much of its Gershwin brothers' music has been heard before. Incidentally, both films starred the young, vivacious Leslie Caron; it is also interesting to note that lyricist, librettist and screenwriter Alan Jay Lerner worked on both films. "An American in Paris," made in 1951, was an unusual musical film in that it elevated dance in cinema to new heights. Minnelli and choreographer/star Gene Kelly found a way to weave movement throughout the storytelling to great effect, revealing character and underscoring emotion in a way that had never before been achieved through dance. The film was inspired by a musical piece by George Gershwin written in 1928 and expanded to tell the story of an American World War II veteran turned aspiring artist who is living in Paris, finding success and romance with complications along the way.
A highlight of "An American in Paris" is the music by George and Ira Gershwin that peppers the film with melody and rhythm. It has been a popular approach to Broadway musicals to create musical comedies around the songs of this famous duo. My One and Only, Crazy for You and Nice Work If You Can Get It all subscribe to this format. The film "An American in Paris" led the way, populating the piece with standards such as "Embraceable You," "I Got Rhythm," "Nice Work If You Can Get It," " 'S Wonderful" and "Our Love Is Here to Stay" (among others), augmenting the titular ballet to provide a vibrant score throughout.
"An American in Paris" was immensely popular, drawing 3.75 million dollars in domestic box office receipts. It featured an Academy Award-winning screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner (who would also work on "Gigi"), and Minnelli was nominated for the Best Director prize. In all, it took home six Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Cinematography. Gene Kelly was presented with a special Academy Award for "his versatility as an actor, singer, director and dancer, and specifically for his brilliant achievements in the art of choreography on film." It was clear that "An American in Paris" was an artistic achievement that was both entertaining and visually stunning, thanks to Minnelli's contributions at the helm.
The 1958 film "Gigi" is based on the 1944 novella by the French author Colette. It tells the story of a young Parisian girl on the brink of womanhood who is groomed by her aunt and grandmother to be a courtesan when she catches the eye of the wealthy playboy Gaston Lachaille. Composing team Lerner and Loewe, fresh off of their success writing the score for the Broadway sensation My Fair Lady, were employed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to create a score for Gigi and what a score it would turn out to be. Memorable ditties such as "Thank Heaven for Little Girls," "The Night They Invented Champagne," "I Remember it Well" and the Oscar-winning title tune continue to resonate as great moments in musical film, but just as satisfying are the sublimely petulant "The Parisians," the dryly comical "It's a Bore," the lush but sarcastic "She's Not Thinking of Me/Waltz at Maxims" and the slightly saucy "I'm Glad I'm Not Young Anymore." The most underestimated song in the score is arguably "Say a Prayer for Me Tonight," originally intended for Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady and cut, but employed to heartbreaking effect for Gigi to sing as she relates her fears of her childhood being prostituted away for financial gain and stability.
What makes "Gigi" stand out from all other MGM musicals is Minnelli's choice to keep it intimate. He is never compelled to fill the piece with fluff, expanded chorus numbers or the other trappings of film musicals of the era. Despite the grandeur of its locales and design, Minnelli keeps the camera and the story focused on its young protagonist and the handful of people who directly shape and influence her life. The story may not be the nicest one, but it is a truthful, earnest telling of a tale that, within the confines of its time period, was an acceptable part of French society. Minnelli maintains focus on the girl Gigi and how she wrestles with being forced into womanhood.
"Gigi" experienced a plethora of filming problems, including the footage that had been shot at the world-famous Maxims resulting in low-quality prints. The director and writing team wanted the sequence to be filmed again, but MGM was reticent to spend more money on what was shaping up to be an expensive production. Lerner and Loewe offered to buy the film from the company so that they could find a new distributor, but in the end the studio relented and an exact replica of Maxims was built at the studio and the sequence was given a second chance. "Gigi" won the Oscar for Best Picture, picking up trophies for Lerner and Loews as well. In the end, the picture won nine Academy Awards, breaking the record set by "Gone with the Wind" in 1939. Surprisingly, none of its delightful cast, which also included Louis Jordan, Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold, was nominated. "Gigi" brought in 6.5 million dollars in domestic revenue and, in general, critics adored the film, calling it "charming escapism" and "exquisitely designed."
A Vincente Minnelli film is in a class of its own. The director establishes what one might call an impressionist world where color, movement, character and magic come together in a shimmering display of artistry. As Gigi and An American in Paris ready themselves for Broadway, they are both building on the foundations of Minnelli's craftsmanship, imagination and good taste. The potential for these two productions is boundless and it will be exciting to see how they shape their own interpretation of their respective stories, picking up where the master left off.
Mark Robinson in a theatre, television, and film historian who writes the blog "The Music That Makes Me Dance" found at markrobinsonwrites.com. Mark is the author of three books: "The Disney Song Encyclopedia," "The Encyclopedia of Television Theme Songs" and the two-volume "The World of Musicals."