Music and Melodrama: A Mini Minelliathon

In preparation for our screening of The Cobweb, I took the opportunity to work my way through some of Vincente Minnelli’s extensive filmography. I didn’t see them all – Minnelli made some 34 feature films and a fair few remain unavailable in the UK – but it was a spectacular ride all the same. Here’s a round-up of the ones I did see:

Cabin in the Sky (1943)

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Minnelli’s first credit as a director was this adaptation of the 1940 Broadway musical, Cabin in the Sky. Produced by Arthur Freed at MGM (where Minnelli spent his entire career as a director), it features an entirely African American cast led by Ethel Waters, Eddie Anderson,  and a scene-stealing Lena Horne. The film’s depiction of race is hotly debated – does it cleverly subvert racist stereotypes or just reinforce them? – but Waters’ performance is lastingly lovely. Watch it for her rendition of ‘Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe.’

Meet Me in St Louis (1944)

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Melodrama lurks just beneath the sugary surface of Meet Me in St Louis. It was years since I’d seen the Christmas classic about a year in the life of the Smith family. This time around I was struck by its incredible strangeness. A largely sentimental and cosy family drama, it has some truly startling moments, not least Tootie’s bleak, pale-faced sobbing and subsequent snowman massacre.

The Pirate (1948)

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The Pirate is an MGM musical set in the early nineteenth century. Sheltered Manuela (Judy Garland) dreams of romance with ‘Mack the Black’, a notorious pirate. Travelling actor Serafin (Gene Kelly), dreams of romance with Manuela. Hilarity ensues. Yes, The Pirate is totally ridiculous, but it’s also glorious, goofy fun. Highlights include a spectacular appearance from the Nicholas Brothers and Manuela’s fantasy about a cut-off clad Serafin.

Father of the Bride (1950)

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The Banks family are thrown into turmoil when eldest child Kay (a luminous Elizabeth Taylor) announces her engagement. Minnelli’s cosy comedy-drama is pure aspiration: it presents both economic security (a large, comfortable home and a wedding with all the trimmings) and emotional security (no matter what happens, we never believe the family unit is at risk of falling apart).

Father’s Little Dividend (1951)

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It can’t match the crisp perfection of Father of the Bride, but Father’s Little Dividend is still good fun. Stanley (Spencer Tracy) has just about adjusted to the idea of his daughter being married when she announces that she is expecting  a baby and he must reluctantly navigate his new role: grandfather. Worth it for Spencer Tracy cooing over a baby.

An American in Paris (1951)

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Minnelli’s magisterial confection based on the music of George Gershwin won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Kelly charms as the American artist living in Paris and Leslie Caron is delightful as his love interest, Lise. The stand out scene is the famous ballet finale, in which Kelly and Caron share a sexy, sultry pas-de-deux.

The Band Wagon (1953)

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Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire in a rather meta role) is an aging movie star, a song-and-dance man past his prime and looking to resuscitate his career. He agrees to appear in a Broadway show alongside Gabrielle (Cyd Charisse). The inevitable romance between the two leads doesn’t ring quite true, but that doesn’t stop The Band Wagon from being an infectiously optimistic film. Astaire is as elegant as ever and the Mickey Spillane-esque ‘Girl Hunt’ ballet is a witty delight.

Kismet (1955)

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Perhaps the less said about Kismet the better. But it does feature Dolores Gray in a fabulous pair of gold leggings.

Lust for Life (1956)

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Just one year after he explored life in a mental institution in The Cobweb, Minnelli premiered another film about art and illness. Lust for Life is a biopic of Vincent Van Gogh starring Kirk Douglas (giving a barnstorming performance), which follows the painter as he struggles to create art and battles with psychological distress. As in The Cobweb, Minnelli handles mental illness with a degree of sensitivity you might not expect in a film of this time.

Designing Woman (1957)

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Minnelli teams up once more with Lauren Bacall for this sparky romantic comedy. Bacall is a fashion designer (the eponymous ‘designing woman’) who meets and falls in love with a journalist (Gregory Peck). After a whirlwind romance, they marry but soon find their lives may not be entirely compatible. Refreshingly, the film sees that Bacall can have her man without compromising her career or independence (and she looks glorious doing it, in Helen Rose costumes).

Bells are Ringing (1960)

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This 1960 adaptation of the Broadway show didn’t do very well at the box office, but it’s a sweet musical that deserves to be seen. Judy Holliday stars as Ella Peterson, a New York girl working for ‘Susanswerphone’, a telephone answering service. She develops a crush on customer Dean Martin, a playwright suffering from writer’s block. Martin is a solid romantic lead and it’s poignant to watch Holliday, who was already ill when the film was being made but nonetheless delivers a typically snappy comic performance. Much comedy arises from the answering service system and, in this way, Bells are Ringing sits alongside Walter Lang’s Desk Set (1957), another romantic comedy driven by new technology.

The Sandpiper (1965)

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Elizabeth Taylor is a bohemian artist and single mother; Richard Burton is the priest and schoolmaster who wants to give her son an education. Forbidden romance blossoms between the pair as they grapple with their very different worldviews. Taylor is all oodles of flesh and lashings of eyeliner, lounging around her beach house in paisley and lavender. Remembered largely for Johnny Mandel and Paul Webster’s original song ‘The Shadow of Your Smile’, The Sandpiper is a delicious slice of Taylor-Burton excess.

On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970)

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A bizarre vehicle for Barbra Streisand, On a Clear Day tells the story of Daisy (Streisand), who visits a hypnotist (Yves Montand) for help to kick her chain-smoking habit. While under hypnosis, she reveals her past life as a Regency seductress. On a Clear Day is full of extravagant costumes and sets (including Brighton’s orientalist Royal Pavilion) but Montand and Streisand are an odd-pairing and the plot occasionally lags.

Iris Veysey

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