Metro Retro Movie Love In Conversation

The Metrograph Guide to Vincente Minnelli

August 7 2019

Metrograph is about to present the first series ever to focus exclusively on Vincente Minnelli’s mid-career masterpieces, all of which were shot on Cinemascope in Metrocolor, and which we will be screening as they were intended to be seen: on 35mm prints, on our biggest screen. When he was active, he was as mainstream as filmmakers get, but now he’s firmly outside the canon. This is largely, we think, because these movies are so seldom seen wide.

Who is Vincente Minnelli? Is he related to…?

Yes, but more on her later.

Okay, go on.

Vincente MInnelli was a Hollywood director, and he was responsible for some of the best-loved musical films ever. At a time when MGM had unprecedented influence and cachet, he was one of their most prominent talents, and in his collaborations with producer Arthur Freed, Minnelli scored the company hit after hit after hit.

MGM Musicals, okay. Like Singin’ In The Rain?

Yes, but he didn’t direct that one. But that’s a great example of the house style of the Freed Unit, which Minnelli helped to develop in his musicals. Some of them are really famous: An American In Paris is one, and then there’s Gigi. You’ve probably seen Meet Me In St. Louis, right?

Oh, yeah, I saw that when I was a kid. Are you showing that one?

So, here’s the thing. Meet Me In St. Louis is a total masterpiece, and it has some of the loveliest color photography in the world, but here at Metrograph we’re sticking to Minnelli’s Cinemascope films. Widescreen wasn’t very widely used when Minnelli began to direct in Cinemascope, and more than anyone else, he was exploring the possibilities of the expanded screen. He was a total perfectionist – in charge of everything down to the flower arrangements – and so there is more to see per frame in Minnelli’s movies than just about any other director of the period.

Did he come from the theater?

Yeah, actually. He was “born in a trunk,” so to speak. He grew up on the vaudeville circuit, and didn’t inherit the performer genes from his parents, but he did have a good eye. In his twenties, he lived in Chicago, where he started out doing windows at one of the big department stores. He parlayed that into set and costume design, which took him to New York in the 1930’s. He worked his way up to director on Broadway revues, and that’s when MGM came calling. Arthur Freed invited him out to LA, and he got started staging musical numbers with Busby Berkeley, and after a few years, he got to direct his first film, Cabin in the Sky with Lena Horne and Ethel Waters. Two films later, he made Meet Me In St. Louis, which cemented his status. And he maintained that status for a quarter century.

And that’s when he met Judy Garland?

Oh, they’d already met at this point. They were both racking up credits on musicals at MGM, so of course they’d crossed paths. There’s a complicating factor here that’s very hard to talk about, but it’s all over his films. Throughout the Minnelli melodramas – and indeed in many of the musicals – you’ll find social outcasts trying to repress their emotions in search of love. You see, it is said that when Vincente lived in New York, he was gay, and then went back into the closet in Hollywood. But by all accounts, he certainly did fall in love with Judy Garland… and that’s clear in his movies, too. Their collaborations overflow with love: No director ever lavished Garland with close-ups like Minnelli did in Meet Me In St. Louis, and The Clock is one of the great underrated romances, and one of the best New York movies.

But their ultimate collaboration was…

Liza, yes. With a Z. Obviously.

So he just made musicals?

Wrong. He was best known for his musicals, for sure, but he did direct over thirty movies. Not even all of his films with Judy Garland were musicals. He made melodramas and comedies and one great biopic, Lust for Life. He did a little bit of everything. And even though Cinemascope was usually reserved for epics and big-budget musicals, he was one of the directors who thought it could be used everywhere, to shoot anything. In his melodramas, intimate scenes in small rooms surge with movement and color. In his comedies, jokes and gags are scattered around the screen, Tati-style.

Why don’t I know about these movies?

Well, here’s the thing. They don’t play great on TV. These are movies that were made to be seen BIG. Think the screen at the Grauman’s Chinese or something. When Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse are dancing across a grassy hilltop in Brigadoon, you should be able to see the vastness of the landscape as their exquisite forms gliding up and down the grass. You should be able to see every brushstroke in Lust For Life, the Van Gogh biopic which stars Kirk Douglas in one of the great Hollywood performances. In the long, ensemble takes in The Cobweb, there are ten different major movie stars working at the peak of their powers, all in the same shot.

These are the kind of details that play best on a big, big screen. It’s not the same on Blu-ray. There aren’t too many screens in New York as wide as ours. For some of us, seeing a Metrocolor Minnelli masterpiece in Cinemascope at Metrograph could practically be a religious experience.

Will Liza be there?

No, she’s living in LA these days. But she did write to us: “I’m so pleased that Metrograph is bringing back my father’s movies on the big screen so that new audiences will get to see why he is considered one of the finest directors of all time.”