Tag Archives: Vincente Minnelli

An American in Paris (1951, Vincente Minnelli)

For most of An American in Paris, Gene Kelly’s charm makes up for his lack of acting ability. Even after it turns out the story’s about him stalking Leslie Caron until she agrees to go out with him. It’s okay after that point because she falls immediately in love with Kelly once she does. He makes her laugh.

Funny thing about Caron’s part being so razor thin? She’s the only one with a backstory. She’s the orphan of French Resistance fighter parents. Georges Guétary took care of her. And now she’s legal age and so of course Guétary wants to marry her. So there’s a lot of potential character development.

The script–by Alan Jay Lerner–does none. Caron’s introduction is a series of dancing vignettes, as Guétary describes her. Her personality changes with each. Then later it turns out she doesn’t get a personality at all.

Anyway. Adding to Kelly’s creep factor is how he picks up Caron when he’s out on a date with Nina Foch. She’s a wealthy American who likes Kelly’s paintings and wants to be his patron. Kelly thinks she’s after his bod. But he still harasses Caron on a real date. There’s even a scene where Foch yells at him and Kelly blows her off.

Immediately after it’s forgotten–as in, the script has Foch and Kelly talking about how it’s forgotten; basically Foch is around for American to mock. Not really for comic relief, but in a vaguely mean-spirited way. Because the movie’s not actually about Kelly arriving as a painter.

Oh, right. Kelly’s an ex-G.I. who stayed behind in Paris to become a painter. He lives above a café. His neighbor and pal is Oscar Levant. Levant’s old friends with Guétary, leading not to a love triangle so much as some situation comedy regarding Guétary and Kelly being after the same girl. Both men are old enough to be her father (though in Guétary’s case, only because he’s French).

The film opens with Kelly, Levant, then Guétary narrating an introduction to themselves. The film almost breaks the fourth wall and just has the actors directly address the audience. Given how laggy the device gets–not to mention how the film completely abandons it–a direct address might have worked better.

So while Kelly starves and struggles–before Foch shows up to save him in the second scene–but he’s actually an amazing singer and dancer. Everybody on the block loves it when he and Levant (a concert pianist who’s never had a concert) does a big musical number. The traffic stops. The pedestrians stops. Everyone watches and applauds.

You’d think Kelly would just get a job singing and dancing then.

His numbers are all good. Guétary’s not so much. He only gets one, though he also drags at one of Kelly’s. Sure, he’s French, sure, it’s Paris, but the French-ness overwhelms the musical number value. The accent. It’s distracting. And Paris’s Paris is already a little too fake. It’s beautifully constructed, beautifully lighted (Alfred Gilks’s Technicolor is gorgeous), but there’s barely anyone but Americans around. Foch, Levant (Levant’s gutturally American), an uncredited Noel Neill. Except Guétary getting a number to himself (and a slight subplot) takes up time and An American in Paris is always looking for ways to kill time.

Like Levant’s daydream where he’s playing all the parts in a concert performance. Pianist, audience member, accompanying musician. It’s funny. It’s utterly pointless. But it’s funny. And it’s beautifully executed with the photography effects.

Caron might as well be American. She gets so few lines it barely matters her accent is authentic.

The movie moves along pretty well until the third act, which has a seventeen minute ballet. It’s sort of where Kelly’s heart is broken and he finds himself in the Paris of his paintings but not really because the film never spends enough time on the paintings. Though Kelly can’t make the painting thing work. He dances great. He acts not great.

Spectacular choreography, beautiful sets, great photography, awesome editing from Adrienne Fazan. Okay direction from Minnelli.

American is an expertly executed musical. Shame about the script and acting.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Vincente Minnelli; story and screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner; lyrics by Ira Gershwin; director of photography, Alfred Gilks; edited by Adrienne Fazan; music by George Gershwin; produced by Arthur Freed; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Gene Kelly (Jerry Mulligan), Leslie Caron (Lise Bouvier), Nina Foch (Milo Roberts), Georges Guétary (Henri Baurel), and Oscar Levant (Adam Cook).


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Undercurrent (1946, Vincente Minnelli)

Undercurrent is the story of newlyweds Katharine Hepburn and Robert Taylor. She’s recovering from being in danger of old maidhood–despite being raised by two scientists, she’s content just cleaning up after widower father Edmund Gwenn’s home laboratory. Taylor is a captain of industry; he created some invention to help win the war. It’s love at first sight, followed by a whirlwind courtship, with marriage then taking Hepburn (and the viewer) from undefined, but quaint and snowy small town life to Washington D.C.

There she meets Taylor’s powerful friends, gets a new wardrobe, and starts hearing about Taylor’s former business partner and now missing brother. Taylor can’t talk about him without flying into a rage. Everyone else seems to think he was a miracle over for sainthood. Hepburn finds herself with an invisible third in the marriage and decides to save her new marriage, she has to help Taylor resolve the internal conflict.

Only it just keeps getting more and more mysterious and Hepburn finds herself overwhelmed.

Director Minnelli handles the film without sensationalism. It’s good direction, with a lot of attention paid to composition for Hepburn and Taylor’s relationship as it progresses through the film, but it’s not sensational. Hepburn’s not obsessed with her investigation; obsession would give her too much personality. After the setup with Gwenn and Marjorie Mann (in a fun little part), Hepburn’s character is about her reactions to Taylor. And the film is all about the viewer’s reactions to Taylor (as Hepburn observes his behavior).

Edward Chodorov’s script could be a lot better. Long portions of the film skate by just on Hepburn and the supporting cast. Chodorov wants to tease, Minnelli wants to interest. It’s like Minnelli’s too patient, too confident in being earnest; Undercurrent needs a little zest to it. Hepburn’s obsession is never an obsession, for example. A lot of big reveals just come off too thin, like if Minnelli had done straight melodrama, it could be a big moment, except the script is thriller–and shallow thriller. It’s not like Taylor’s got a better part than Hepburn. Sure, he gets more dramatic moments, but they’re dramatically and narratively acceptable, not outstanding.

After a lackluster finish to the second act, the third one starts out like it’s going to bring Undercurrent up higher than one might think it could get. Then the finale fumbles; the film can’t deliver on its promises. Chodorov’s script just gives the actors nothing. It seems like Jayne Meadows is going to have a good scene, but then it fizzles out quickly, Hepburn literally rushing from the room. Because Chodorov.

Same goes for Robert Mitchum, who plays a caretaker who reluctantly gets involved. He’s got three scenes, with the film building him up more and more, then kind of fizzling out on him too.

Taylor gets through the film mostly clean. He’s mostly either being charming, suspicious, or charming and suspicious. And he and Hepburn are quite good together.

Hepburn makes it through the film, carrying it on her shoulders. She doesn’t even stumble when Chodorov’s script throws her a third act curve and no time to recover; she, Taylor, and Minnelli get Undercurrent done.

Oh, and Johannes Brahms. Brahms is essential in getting Undercurrent to the finish. The film uses a Brahms symphony as a plot point and Herbert Stothart uses it as a theme in his score to wonderful effect.

Karl Freund’s photography is fine. Though not foreboding at all. His best moments are actually the exterior sets; he shoots those beautifully. The interiors are fine, but kind of dull. And Ferris Webster’s editing is fine too. Though he chokes a bit on the action editing. He can cut the conversations, the romance, the suspecting, but he’s lost in the action scenes.

Solid support from Leigh Whipper and Clinton Sundberg in sort of too small parts. Undercurrent is overlong, but it has too small parts for its cast. Chodorov’s plotting is goofy.

Thank goodness for Hepburn, Taylor, and Minnelli.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Vincente Minnelli; screenplay by Edward Chodorov, based on a story by Thelma Strabel; director of photography, Karl Freund; edited by Ferris Webster; music by Herbert Stothart; produced by Pandro S. Berman; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Katharine Hepburn (Ann Hamilton), Robert Taylor (Alan Garroway), Edmund Gwenn (Prof. ‘Dink’ Hamilton), Jayne Meadows (Sylvia Lea Burton), Leigh Whipper (George), Marjorie Main (Lucy), Clinton Sundberg (Mr. Warmsley), Dan Tobin (Prof. Joseph Bangs), and Robert Mitchum (Gordon).



Father of the Bride (1950, Vincente Minnelli)

Father of the Bride is such a constant delight, it’s practically over before its problems become clear. First off, it’s definitely about the titular Father–a wonderful Spencer Tracy–who not only narrates but is in almost every scene. The wedding reception, when he’s chasing around daughter Elizabeth Taylor to say goodbye, is about the only time he’s not running a scene.

The reception is also where the problems show. Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett write a great script, no question, but their situational comedy is so strong… things get lost. Joan Bennett, as Tracy’s wife and Taylor’s mother, gets shortchanged in the second half. She’s around, she has some good scenes, but nothing compared to her first half ones.

There are also a number of plot threads left unresolved or forgotten or just plain dismissed. Goodrich, Hackett and director Minnelli go for the best laugh they can get out of a scene. Some of these laughs do have narrative consequences and no one seems to have much interest in acknowledging them. It’s too bad.

But Bride’s problems don’t hurt the film’s ability to entertain. Tracy and Bennett are great–he’s so energetic, it’s very impressive she can hold her own. Goodrich and Hackett’s masterful script actively works his narration into scenes.

Taylor’s very likable as the daughter, though she doesn’t have a lot to do. Leo G. Carroll has a great part too.

Minnelli does well too. The settings are confined, but he never lets Bride get claustrophobic.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Vincente Minnelli; screenplay by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, based on the novel by Edward Streeter; director of photography, John Alton; edited by Ferris Wheeler; music by Adolph Deutsch; produced by Pandro S. Berman; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Spencer Tracy (Stanley T. Banks), Joan Bennett (Ellie Banks), Elizabeth Taylor (Kay Banks), Don Taylor (Buckley Dunstan), Billie Burke (Doris Dunstan), Leo G. Carroll (Mr. Massoula), Moroni Olsen (Herbert Dunstan), Melville Cooper (Mr. Tringle), Taylor Holmes (Warner), Paul Harvey (Rev. A.I. Galsworthy), Frank Orth (Joe), Russ Tamblyn (Tommy Banks), Tom Irish (Ben Banks) and Marietta Canty (Delilah).


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The Cobweb (1955, Vincente Minnelli)

A more appropriate title might be The Trouble with the Drapes, but even with the misleading moniker, The Cobweb is a good Cinemascope drama. Cinemascope dramas went out some time in the mid-1960s. Vincente Minnelli is great at them. In The Cobweb, he turns a little story (I can’t believe it’s from a novel–it must have had a lot more on the characters, since the present action is incredibly limited) into a big movie. Richard Widmark doesn’t hurt. Even as a caring psychiatrist, Widmark amplifies the film. Nothing he does–except for one scene, his performance is understated–but something about his presence. His and Lauren Bacall’s. They signal big Cinemascope drama. So does Leonard Rosenman’s score. Rosenman brings the music up for all the characters’ emotions and, since some of the characters do a lot solo, there’s quite a bit of the music. Only once does it get a little too much, when Gloria Grahame (as Widmark’s wife; Bacall’s the nurse he likes too much) is freaking out. Oddly, the dialogue plays against the omnipresent music. The Cobweb has very delicate–and very good–dialogue. It’s one of the reasons the film succeeds: good dialogue performed by good actors makes even the most banal story involving. Of course, it doesn’t hurt The Cobweb pulls itself out from its third act spiral.

There’s not much going on in the film–it really is all about the fallout of buying new drapes for a psychiatric clinic–and it’s the characters keeping it moving. At the end, there needs to be a resolution and so–I assume it’s from the book, but it’s funny enough it might be a filmic innovation–things get resolved. Cinemascope dramas always resolve nicely at the end, part of the genre requirements. But The Cobweb‘s resolution is too easy. It’s too abbreviated. But at the last moment, in a very nicely timed scene, it pulls off a great close.

John Houseman produced the film, which might account for Mercury Theatre member Paul Stewart’s too small role, and maybe Houseman’s involvement accounts for some of the gentleness in the picture. The scenes with Widmark and his son playing chess or talking are some of the film’s most effective, because they’re–for the majority of the running time–the only real insight we get in to Widmark’s feelings. The rest of the time, until he and Bacall get inappropriate, he’s too busy worrying about his patients. Grahame’s really good in a difficult, unlikable role, and managing to keep the character sympathetic by the end of the film is a real achievement on Grahame’s part. Bacall’s good tog, but her character gets reduced into an “other woman” role (but she has a great exit). Other exceptional performances (they’re all good) are Charles Boyer and Lillian Gish. Boyer has a slightly more difficult role, but Gish is more impressive, maybe just because I’m unfamiliar with her work.

There’s a little bit too much going on in The Cobweb. There’s easily material for three films in here–Widmark and Grahame, Bacall’s character needs a whole picture, and John Kerr and Susan Strasberg’s mental patient romance deserves one too (Kerr’s real impressive and it’s he and Grahame who get the film off to its good start). It’s an imperfect Cinemascope drama, though a great example of one, but still a satisfying experience.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Vincente Minnelli; screenplay by John Paxton, from a novel by William Gibson; director of photography, George J. Fosley; edited by Harold F. Kress; music by Leonard Rosenman; produced by John Houseman; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Richard Widmark (Dr. McIver), Lauren Bacall (Meg Rinehart), Gloria Grahame (Karen McIver), Charles Boyer (Dr. Devanal), Lillian Gish (Victoria Inch), John Kerr (Steven Holte), Susan Strasberg (Sue Brett), Oscar Levant (Mr. Capp), Tommy Rettig (Mark), Paul Stewart (Dr. Wolff), Jarma Lewis (Lois Demuth), Adele Jergens (Miss Cobb), Edgar Stehli (Mr. Holcomb), Bert Freed (Ave Irwin) and Fay Wray (Edna Devanal).


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