and HIS MOVIES
VINCENTE MINNELLI (left panel) took over direction of "The Clock" (above) from future Oscar winner Fred Zinnemann. Starring were Robert Walker and Judy Garland, who was then Minnelli's wife.
In June of 1979, Jim Bawden arranged and conducted a private one-on-one interview with film director Vincente Minnelli. Bawden was at that time the TV columnist for The Toronto Star. He now
revisits that interview in a three-part series for us, giving us rare
insight into the thinking of the great director who died in 1986.
By JIM BAWDEN
After the huge success of his "Meet Me in St. Louis" with Judy Garland, Vincente Minnelli was the hottest new director on the MGM lot. In 1945, he married the film's star, Judy Garland, becoming even more important to the studio since she was one of MGM's brightest stars.
He was hoping for some time off before his next production, the musical "Yolanda and the Thief," went into production.
But Judy kept coming home at night from the set of 'The Clock,' complaining (director) Fred Zinnemann wasnt giving her direction," Minnelli told me. "Fred is a taciturn gentleman and Judy was used to being inundated with praise; she asked the head office to dump him and bring me in. I wasnt sure, checked the footage which was passable but was told by Mr. Mayer either I did it or it would be cancelled. Im glad I finished it but I never regarded it as truly one of my pictures."
Minnelli said Zinnemann, who later would win Oscars for directing "From Here To Eternity" (1953) and "A Man For All Seasons" (1966), had filmed too much of the background footage by the time Minnelli took over.
"So, I couldnt shoot those scenes any other way than Fred had intended," said Minnelli. "The Lexington bus scene is an example; another is the park scene, although I added the bit about the little boy kicking Bobby Walker in the shins. It was really a collection of character studies. Judy was amazed Bobby was even more emotionally a wreck than she was. Nights she bar hopped trying to find him, get him back to his apartment; they truly bonded and they could make you believe. My favorite scenes include the dash to get a (marriage) license, the initial meeting at Grand Central Station, the stuff with Jimmy and Lucille Gleason.
"The Clock" cost $1.3 million and took in $2.8 million in its first North American release.
Minnelli managed to get genuine versatility into his MGM assignments after he'd been there a few years. At left, was his 1945 musical "Yolanda and the Thief" with Fred Astaire; at right, his 1946 suspense drama "Undercurrent" with Katharine Hepburn, Robert Taylor and Robert Mitchum.
When he next went to work on "Yolanda and the Thief," Minnelli decided it was over produced" and was "lacking in a story line that would interest a wide audience."
The film, in which Fred Astaire plays opposite newcomer Lucille Bremer, is not a favorite of Astaire fans and, with its lengthy ballet sequences, was not a popular film with audiences.
"I saw that at the first preview with patrons," Minnelli said. "They fidgeted and were talking to themselves, not good signs. When people tell me these days theyve seen it on TV, I sometimes wince. We all thought we were being so cleve, but even Astaire was let down."
Minnelli explained that Astaire functioned best "with a partner who can challenge him: Ginger Rogers, Cyd Charisse. Lucille Bremer was new to the game and accepted direction too quickly. The others would fight to stamp their own personalities on routines. She was one of the best technical partners Fred ever had, but hapless at creating a personality. It might have worked as a number in 'Ziegfeld Follies,' thats what I think today.
Filmed two years earlier, Minnelli's all-star musical "Ziegfeld Follies" finally was released in 1946. Composed of separate musical numbers featuring most of MGM's greatest stars, it was viewed as a tribute to the late Florenz Ziegfeld and his lavish Broadway shows.
Finally! Two years in the editing suites had helped," Minnelli said. "It was a huge roaring hit but (Producer) Arthur (Freed) couldnt let go of this one. He envisaged sequels every five years. Well, by 1951 MGM was so shrunken they couldnt get that much talent back there. Of course, I didnt direct all the scenes. There was George Sidney, who bowed out after doing many of the comedy scenes. And he also directed the wonderful 'Bring On the Girls' opener, which was the only true Ziegfeld number in the movie that I can see.
"My favorites? Well, one has always been 'The Babbitt and The Bromide' because it was the only complicated routine Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly ever didthey were not reunited until 'Thats Entertainment, Part II,' remember. Gene was so very nervous. What he didnt know was Fred was equally perspiring. But it was an easy shoot.
"But my favorite has to be 'Limehouse Blues'the set was remade from 'The Picture ff Dorian Gray' rejects and we had a Gertrude Lawrence-type singer singing from afar, through frosted glass windows actually. Fred loved the fact it was all ballet, not tap and I used the silent (film) 'Broken Blossoms' as my reference point. It was atmospheric with the London fog, rainswept streets, then in the dream the color explodes in red, yellow. Irene Sharaffs costumes caused the audience to gasp.
"But I almost like as much 'The Great Lady Has An Interview.' Did you know it was originally offered to Greer Garson, who was quite put out when it was presented to her at (Arthur) Freeds home. Then Judy stepped in and she became quite mischevious. Remember when the reporters sing 'Now we dont mean Greta, And we dont mean Betta or Loretta or 'The Song Of Bernadetta'? Well, Judy was one ferocious mimic; she understood what the piece was all about and she just came in and did it perfectly.
Minnelli laughed when telling the story of how the bubble machine got the best of MGM during the climactic number "Theres Beauty Everywhere."
We shot that one for seven days, you know, and the bubble machine was turned off when I shot but there was gas in those bubbles and as they burst around cameraman Charles Rosher, well, he fainted. We were on the boom 40 feet in the air and I struggled to hold him up as the bubbles burst about me."
Minnelli added the film did indeed make money: on a budget of $3.2 million it grossed in North American rentals $5.3 million.
Ever since "The Clock," Minnelli had been trying to get an assignment on an MGM drama. It finally happened when Katharine Hepburn okayed him as director of "Undercurrent" (1946).
Producer Pandro Berman warned shed be a handful and she was. Daily shed toss ideas at me and some were very bad. She needed a hit, she warned me,. Her last few pictures had turned sour at the box office and she felt Bob Taylor in his first postwar picture was a lightweight. Well, he out-acted her and stole the picture as the demanding and sadistic husband. It was Kate who was miscast, she had to play the mousey daughter of a college professor who comes under the demanding control of a slightly crazy husband. He reinvents her, gives her a makeover, orders all new clothes as she cowers to please him. The real Kate would have smacked him back into line.
"An added tension came with her hatred of Bob Mitchum. She thought he was a young stud who had made it on good looks alone. In one complicated set up he asked timidly enough if she could still see him. Not for mud, Mr. Mitchum, she snapped, Not for mud."
into the title role
in Minnelli's 1949 "Madame Bovary,"
but her husband,
producer David O.
always looking over
even though he had
no formal connection to the film. Pictured here with her is Christopher Kent.
Minnelli considered "Madame Bovary" (1949) almost a (Producer David O.) Selznick picture. After all we started with his wife, Jennifer Jones. Then we added Louis Jourdan and Christopher Kent also under Selznicks control. And I daily got memos from this great producer. How Pandro (Berman) sold it to MGM I never quite understood. After all, Emma Bovarys doomed ideas of love destroy her, which is exactly the opposite of what most MGM love stories were about. It was initially peddled as a Lana Turner vehicle but Lana loathed the story (I cant see her actually reading that book, can you?). But that was before the censors got their hands on the novel and demanded all sorts of revisions. The framing device of actually seeing Flaubert go on trial? I hated that scene because it told audiences this was fiction, it never happened. But it was absolutely necessary to pacify the Production Code.
As I say, David (Selznick) bombarded me with memos about Jennifers makeup, hair, costumes. I felt she really got into the part. I would have loved to shoot in France but the postwar country was reeling under strikes. I just think I did as well as I could. People remember the smashing of the mirrors in the ball scene, but mirrors are used throughout as Emma contemplates her increasing degradation.
(NEXT WEEK: Minnelli talks about making the original "Father of the Bride" with Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor and one of his most acclaimed films, the inside Hollywood drama "The Bad and the Beautiful.")
©2009 by Jim Bawden. The photos are courtesy of MGM. This column first posted April 6, 2009.
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