Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Less Than They're Best: Vincente Minnelli's Second Tier

I’ve always wondered just what makes a great director great. What separates Vincente Minnelli from George Sidney? What made Alfred Hitchcock so much better than Nunnally Johnson? There is some degree of personality, that mythical and highly overestimated personal touch that the truly great directors are all supposed to have. However I think equally (if not more so) is the films themselves. Any director’s style can earn him a reputation, clearly people have plenty of associations with Edward D. Wood Jr, but how many would equate that personal vision with greatness? Sure he’s an extreme example, I for one happen to think Glenn or Glenda? is one of the greatest anomalies of the 50s, but he’s certainly not earning a spot next to Hitchcock on my list of favorite directors.

Which leads us to our next point, if a director earns his status as one of the greats then what about those less than stellar blips on the radar? Should a great director only be judged by their hits and not their misses? Sure you can get a personal bit of preference where you average out ratings of every film from a director but it still makes you question certain filmmakers. Nearly every director has a few of these. Frequently the director himself is the toughest critic, Akira Kurosawa refused to even acknowledge Those Who Make Tomorrow (a film long lost so there aren’t too many people alive who can vouch for its quality, or lack thereof). For some people their favorite director is picked based on the lack of these weak spots. I’ll admit that Stanley Kubrick (his feature films anyways) are about as solid a body of work as you’ll find, but I choose not to weigh films like Flying Padre, The Seafarers, or even Day of the Fight against him, interesting as some of these might be it doesn’t exactly have the same ring as Dr. Strangelove, 2001, or A Clockwork Orange.

Ingmar Bergman is another one of my extremely highly regarded favorites, but even I have to acknowledge a mess like The Serpents Egg. So you may think at this point in time that I’m looking at a half empty glass. Judging directors based on how many bad films they’ve made, or the proportion of bad films to good seems like a pessimistic way of looking at cinema. However I don’t think the proportion is terribly important. This reference might seem abstract in the world of cinema (and not in a Stan Brakhage sort of way), but think about someone like Nolan Ryan. A household name as a pitcher who holds the major league record for most strikeouts (5714) and no hitters (7), but has only a .526 winning percentage (324-292). So in simplified terms, this hall of fame pitcher lost 292 games, which would be quite an accomplishment to even make 292 starts let alone lose that many. The point is even one of the all time greats can have nearly as many misses as hits.

Now these second rate films are the ones that tend to be seen later. A director becomes a favorite when you see their highly touted masterpieces. I can’t imagine anyone saying the first Alfred Hitchcock film they’ve seen is The Farmer’s Daughter or Juno and the Paycock. Most likely someone would start with Psycho, North by Northwest, Rear Window, etc. Only after a near obsession with the director’s work and a slightly overzealous quest for knowledge will lead you to those sorely lacking earlier films. Perhaps those public domain sets of earlier Hitchcock films should come with a warning “for completists only”, sadly enough there are even more Hitchcock films from his earlier days I haven’t seen yet Waltzes from Vienna and a few others that I’m not even sure if they exist.

Lately there is one director whose second tier work I’ve had a mini-marathon of. That director is Vincente Minnelli. Minnelli directed 34 films almost entirely for his parent studio MGM. Of that bunch I’ve only seen 24 which puts me somewhere between knowledgeable and far below expert status. Over the last two days I’ve watched Undercurrent, The Cobweb, and Designing Woman. Now none of these three films are typically brought up when discussing Minnelli’s greatest work. In fact 9/10 people familiar with him would probably first associate him with musicals. This makes some degree of sense considering when he was brought to MGM and eventually given the chance to direct, his first three films were all musicals (the novelty Cabin in the Sky, the forgotten I Dood It, and the beloved Meet Me in St. Louis). Minnelli also won his only best director Oscar for a musical (Gigi), and directed another best picture winner that was also a musical (An American in Paris). When measuring MGM’s musicals, which was they prided themselves on immensely, Minnelli was clearly their top director.


The three films I’ve most recently watched however are part of Minnelli’s other two subgenres, the melodrama and the comedy. He had his own triumphs in these other categories, mainly The Bad and the Beautiful in the former and Father of the Bride in the latter. However it isn’t always the first association. If Minnelli’s style can be associated with anything it would be his particularly obsessive eye for color, particularly red which seems to dominate a large portion of his color films. Yet this painterly eye can be seen in even his black and white films. Undercurrent is in many ways a requisite post war melodrama.

Made in 1946 and starring Katherine Hepburn who had found new life with MGM this was the heyday of the film noir. Nearly every film seemed to employ some of that deep focus photography, high contrast lighting, and even the most gregarious and warm hearted people were not to be trusted. Robert Taylor plays Alan Garroway, this would be man of the world who seems straight out of a Hitchcock film. He is rich, brilliant, and single and happens to take quite a liking to the enterprising Ann Hamilton, played by Hepburn. Their whirlwind long distance relationship is quick (as it always is in a Hollywood film) and soon they’re married. He takes a personal pride in picking Ann’s clothes, and making sure to parade her around so that his friends can see the “before” and recognize the transformation he’ll take full credit for. This remaking a woman in a divine image is unmistakably similar to a certain Hitchcock film, give you a hint it starts with “V”.

However of course all is not what it seems. There’s a mysterious younger brother named Michael who no one speaks about and no one seems to know where he’s at. That brother is played by Robert Mitchum whose mere presence makes you think “film noir”, especially because in his first couple scenes he is immensely shrouded in shadows. His performance is probably the most natural in the film and he is effortless and charismatic as the mysterious “other”. He does fall a bit short of selling the audience on a potential love affair with Ann. When Alan gets homicidal and jealous of the two you get a sense of a disturbed sibling rivalry that goes back far more than any of us will ever know. However his accusations seem so ludicrous that its hard not to laugh at the absurdity of it all, yet there’s Ann acting jealous and supposedly clueing us into the fact that Alan isn’t entirely unreasonable, and here’s one of the many reasons why the film is a bit of a mess.

The great Karl W. Freund was responsible for the cinematography here and he makes every intention of lighting this like a classic Expressionist film. In fact the style resembles a lot of a future Robert Mitchum film, Night of the Hunter. Not trying to make a case for Undercurrent being that influential, but there certainly are some similarities with future classics. There’s a host of clumsy foreshadowing (an errant horse that seems too wild to be tamed), the fact that Alan won’t admit that he DIDN’T kill his brother, and perhaps above all the thought that Katherine Hepburn would subjugate herself for any man in a movie. She’s always been independent (wearing her trademark slacks when we first see her), and the fact that she’d just bow and surrender to this man rings hard to believe. The film is worth it for Freund’s work alone, and seeing Minnelli take a crack at the style-du-jour with noir makes for a curious entry into his filmography.

The Cobweb

Speaking of melodrama, this one boils over with it. A troublesome production that still seems to polarize a lot of viewers. Some think it’s a complex and rare sensitive portrayal of mental illness and others just think it’s a mess. I might have to take the former stance, this film seems to fall apart almost from the start. Explaining the plot of this one is going to make you think this was misfiled as a comedy rather than melodrama. No this is the straight faced 125 minute account of a legendary battle for putting up drapes. Yes I’m not making that up, curtains, drapes what you will being hung up in a sitting room inside a mental hospital. Until I watched this film I had no idea that so much drama could arise out of this seemingly pointless endeavor.

Richard Widmark plays Dr. Stewart McIver whose the head psychiatrist at a rather swanky psychiatric hospital. He spends far more time with his patients than his bored housewife Karen (Gloria Grahame) who struggles to find anything to do to feel useful. Along the way she gets an idea of redoing the curtains in the library, which were being redone by the old badger Victoria Inch (played by Lillian Gish). She is controlling as ever and despite over 20 years employment still never seems to feel incredibly safe in her position. Her method of being belligerent to people makes you wonder if she shouldn’t be an inmate rather than an employee at the hospital. John Kerr plays Steven Holte who is the first character we see, after an ominous title announcing “The Trouble Begins”. He’s running as if he broke out of prison before being picked up by Karen who drives him back to the hospital. Turns out he’s about as sensitive as an artist as one could be and suddenly when exposed to Karen begins to get a few ideas.

Lauren Bacall plays Meg Rinehart who suggests that the patients should design the new drapes. This gives Steven a sense of purpose and sweeps nearly everyone into a frenzy about how great and amazing these drapes will be for these patients. I know you are probably thinking “nice idea” and figure that the situation would drop or at the very least become a subplot, but oh no. This pointless idea becomes the cause of all sorts of trouble and jealousy driving people to think about suicide, run away, cheat on their spouses, and raise all kinds of hell. I’ll save you the details over who sleeps with who, or rather who tries to sleep with who, or who wants to sleep with whom, but lets just say its more sordid than a Douglas Sirk melodrama.

Minnelli seems to do the best with the laughable material. Since this is relatively early in the widescreen craze, the extremely wide frame is crammed with as many trinkets and nick knacks as you can find, which I’m sure delighted it’s director to no end. The cast is all great and they thoroughly sink their teeth into the drama. The inpatients seem like occasionally normal people just a little ill adjusted. Oscar Levant is particularly memorable as an emotional vulnerable man who hides behind a shell of extreme cynicism. The patients here aren’t prisoners and are free to leave whenever they’d like. Some people have described the film as a musical minus the music, with emotional outbursts substituting the requisite song and dance numbers. Minnelli does well with his design sense, and knowing his eye for set decoration, he just might think that drape selection is a serious matter. The details are great, the artwork has a unique flair, and the color scheme is noticeably vibrant. As for technical problems the only main objection I have is the omnipresent score. It is typical of mid-50s films like this to have overly dramatic music from start to finish, and just when you think its safe to follow the story a few dissonant violin scrapes are heard to remind you that this should be dramatic. Modern cinema adheres to this wall-to-wall score approach, but it doesn’t always draw as much attention to itself as the music here courtesy of Leonard Rosenman. However there’s a reason this isn’t one of the first Minnelli films to come up in conversation.

Designing Woman

A lot more fun but not necessarily better than the two melodramas is Designing Woman. For Minnelli this was something of a relief after the incredibly time consuming production of Lust for Life. After trying to recapture the glory of classic screwball comedies MGM went to re-channel Woman of the Year with a fresh spin, namely color and a wide screen. This isn’t a remake in the way that High Society was a remake of The Philadelphia Story, just borrows a few things. Namely a macho sports writer who meets a beautiful woman who might just be a little better than him at everything.

The Long, Long Trailer was Minnelli’s first comedy in color which essentially comes off as “I Love Lucy on the road”. Here it seemed like he had a fresher approach rather than simply filming a couple of already defined personas. He gets a fairly solid performance from Lauren Bacall whose husband Humphrey Bogart was suffering from cancer during the film’s production. You’d never know it to watch the film, her Marilla does her best Katherine Hepburn and delivers one of her best performances, certainly a step up from her somewhat bland performance in The Cobweb.

Gregory Peck seemed cast perfectly because Mike Hagen is right up his alley. You instantly see him as the “I can handle anything” guy who is typically out of his element. It’s an interesting change physically from the Tracy-Hepburn pair. Whereas Tracy’s short stocky height made him seem like he was literally beneath Hepburn at times, Gregory Peck’s tall frame put him in a fictitious position of control. Early in the film Minnelli has a few little touches that work. After his whirlwind night he wakes up with an awful hangover. The sound design over emphasizes every single sound effect and we all feel we’ve been there. When he looks up at the sunny southern California sky it’s purple. He doesn’t recall Marilla whose being awfully nice the morning after. Once he realizes that she helped him write his story the night before, his hangover seems to disappear and he goes to “get rid of that ugly woman”. It’s a nice laugh for us and he sees her with sober eyes and realizes he may have lucked out in his drunken state last night. In typical Hollywood fashion they have a vacation courtship at the end of which has them returning to New York as man and wife.

Of course that’s when the trouble starts. We get a wonderful contrast of sets. First we enter Mike’s “bachelor pad” with all sorts of artifacts strewn about, including a picture of his former girlfriend in a bathing suit, played by Dolores Gray. She accepts it begrudgingly knowing that she’ll just have to slowly smooth over Mike’s rough edges. While he goes to tie up some loose ends, mainly break it off with his girlfriend, Marilla takes it upon herself to move all of his things to her Park Avenue apartment. While breaking the news to his ex, she happens to drop some ravioli in his lap (very intentionally) and leaves him having to borrow a much shorter bus boys’ green pants. It is while wearing these pants that he first sees Marilla’s huge apartment and before he gets a chance to change a host of her friends show up to hold an impromptu and belated wedding reception. It is clear from the start that he’s not too comfortable with her more “artistic” friends.

He has his regular turn to host poker night and brings over his fellow sports writers and friends which include punch happy former prize fighter Maxie (Mickey Shaughnessy) whose nose “goes in”. It is more his face than his manner that disturbs the somewhat cultured Marilla. While poker night is going on, Marilla’s friends are reading a new play that she has been hired to design the costumes for, which is being produced by her former beau Zachary Wilde (whose name will ring some bells for guitarists), played by Tom Helmore whose mere presence as a former lover makes Mike unreasonably jealous. Their somewhat flamboyant choreographer Randy (played by real choreographer Jack Cole in his only acting performance) particularly draws Mike’s criticism only to be physically threatened after he shows Mike pictures of his wife and kids. The homophobic subtext is barely disguised and makes the film still a curious entry in GBLT studies today.

Along the way Mike has to hide out from the mob, Marilla discovers that the same woman in the bathing suit is the star of the play she’s designing and well Mike can’t seem to catch a break, given Maxie as a bodyguard who sleeps with his eyes open complete with his trademark line “I’m making a comeback.” The rest of the plot is simply an excuse for madcap laughs which often fall flat. The final confrontation with mobsters has Randy come to the rescue laying waste to everyone with high kicking dance moves, and jazz hands. It is easily the films’ high point and where else but in a Vincent Minnelli film would a choreographer beat up a dozen gangsters?

Despite it’s likeable qualities (it is indeed likeable) it isn’t terribly funny. It doesn’t come close to reaching the laughs of the 30s and 40s films it so closely tries to emulate, which might lend more evidence to the fact that screwball comedy was as much of its era as it was about its material. Still there is enough curious directorial touches to make the film worth watching, but in the end it’s another one of those slight misses that seems a little too long for its own good.

Home From the Hill

Well there’s a light at the end of the tunnel here. Some people may argue that it’s the failures that are more fun to discuss than the triumphs. Perhaps I’m not cruel enough to delight in bashing the mediocre. Sure I’ll take every chance to attack a truly awful film (don’t get me started on Rob Zombie’s Halloween 2), but those casual and forgettable misses are hard to explain mediocrity. You can judge for yourself whether or not my case for forgettable-ness was conveyed with the previous three mini-capsules provided for Undercurrent, Cobweb, and Designing Woman. However after I started writing this I took a break (or three, this post took awhile not going to lie), and watched Home From the Hill.

I first heard of this film reading Jack C. Ellis’ Film History: An Introduction 4th ed. One of my favorite features of his book (which I wish he’d update) is an inclusion of films of the period for each chapter. In the chapter on Hollywood in Transition 1952-1962, he lists Minnelli’s Home From the Hill. From then on this was on my radar but for reasons that I can’t quite figure I wasn’t able to cross it off my list. I’ll admit that I typically bypassed the American chapters to focus on the harder to find foreign films, considering how easy most of these films were to find. A few years ago Warner Bros. released a Robert Mitchum collection that included this as well as the long sought after Angel Face among others. I rented the Preminger film and thought I’d pick up the Minnelli one soon, and had an aborted Minnelli-fest which I think consisted of three films before moving on to something else in my ADD fueled independent studies.

So today was the day I finally watched this film and didn’t know what to expect. My expectations originally were quite high, but since the ratings and praise were far from unanimous on this film and I had just sat through three rather forgettable films from this filmmaker I had to reassess my expectations. Which is a way to say I had no expectations, just wanted to watch the film, and was just happy it was in the proper aspect ratio. So with it’s opening quotation I thought this could get pretentious, just as The Cobweb quickly did. When Mitchum’s Wade Hunnicutt is shot by a jealous husband during a hunt I thought “oh no here we go”. The credits are barely over and already our star has been shot and we realize this isn’t the first time a jilted husband has come gunning for him. Certainly a slightly salacious opening at the time, but by 1960 Hollywood seemed to be getting more salacious by the film.

We learn quickly that Capt. Wade Hunnicutt is the town’s richest man and had pretty much slept with every woman in town. His own wife Hannah (Eleanor Parker) has stayed married to him out of respectability and on condition that he has little to nothing to do with the raising of their son Theron (George Hamilton). They sleep in separate beds, and sometimes we wonder if they even sleep in the same house. Hannah has a supreme bit of contempt for her husband and is completely removed from him emotionally. She’s certainly an interesting contradiction to the typical Hollywood housewife, she may be suffering in silence, but there is not even a slight hint that she loves her husband. When her son was born she decided not to have anything to do with her husband, and simply looks at him more as a room mate than a husband. Eleanor Parker’s detachment is one of the more compelling features of this film, and although we can get glimpses of Wade’s charm he is constantly rebuffed. In fact in one scene when Wade is trying to make peace at a family party held in honor of Theron killing a wild boar, he talks sweetly to her about their courtship and she coldly tells him, he’ll never have her, and quite literally turns him away. Far from the victim/wife who just patiently waits for her errant husband to do right. In fact I almost wish she had a little more screen time, because you can’t help but feel for her even when she’s cold.

Filling out the rest of the cast is George Peppard, who plays Rafe Copley who at first seems like Wade’s right hand man, but we later find out might be a little more closely related. In fact it is his existence that led in many ways to Hannah rejecting her husband. Peppard, whose career consisted of largely mediocre film roles (perhaps best remembered for Breakfast at Tiffany’s), is given a great chance to shine here. Even at 150 minutes and with a relatively small group of characters, no one really seems to dominate the film. For quite awhile it seems like its more Theron’s story, but there are so many other subplots going on that towards the end he feels like a supporting player in his own life, which makes sense for the character who was struggling to find his voice throughout the film. Theron starts as a naïve and highly pampered favorite son, who is “made into a man” by his father and takes an incredible liking to hunting just like his father. When he discovers the truth about his father’s affairs which he’s certainly the last person in town to figure out, he ventures out on his own, rejects his family and tries to establish a living of his own, but of course in that town it’s impossible to escape his father’s grasp. He gets a nameless job at a cotton factory, which his father happens to own a majority of. Slowly defeated and disillusioned he returns home working and keeping to himself, much like he was to start. It’s a strange coming of age story where a character actually regresses. Of course he eventually realizes where he needs to go to escape his father’s image, but that isn’t until much later.

Perhaps this story seems slightly dated, maybe MGM was trying to make their own version of Giant. Although this film avoids a lot of the pleasant scenery and instead focuses much more on character. Minnelli employs a lot of his characteristic long takes, and seems to take a personal delight in the hunting sequences which are still exciting and don’t result to lousy trick shots and bad rear projection. I’m not sure how scandalous this tale of infidelity and illegitimate children appeared to audiences, especially the same year as Psycho. That said this seems like an adult film with some grown up sensibilities however filtered through the eyes of a troubled 17 year old boy trying to become a man. For my money this is the one last masterpiece for Minnelli, who had a few near masterpieces with previous melodramas The Bad and the Beautiful and Some Came Running. This time he seems to have hit all the right notes and the film feels very fresh still today.

No comments:

Post a Comment