Mission Impossible

The melodramas of Vincente Minnelli, master of illusion and disillusionment
by Chris Fujiwara  posted October 30, 2008
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Looking at the films Vincente Minnelli made that are now called melodramas, it's unclear how there could be any such thing as a genre to hold them all. No doubt The Cobweb (1955), Some Came Running (1958), and Home From the Hill (1960) are recognizable examples of the kind of Hollywood melodrama that Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray brought to its apex: films depicting anxiety, passion, violence, and despair among middle-class or wealthy Americans. On the other hand, four other Minnelli films that are classed as melodrama (a convenient checklist can be found in the program of the Harvard Film Archive's recent retrospective)—Madame Bovary (1949), Lust for Life (1956), The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962), and Two Weeks in Another Town (1962)—take place, anomalously for the American variant of this genre, in Europe; and the first two of these draw from high-culture sources that would seem to outclass the typical American melodrama by far.

The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) has, no doubt, its "melodramatic" aspects, but it lingers in the mind more as a celebration of the energy of its unregenerate producer-hero (Kirk Douglas), and that of Hollywood, than as a condemnation of them. The remaining "Minnelli melodramas" are diverse in tone and concerns: Tea and Sympathy (1956) is a delicate coming-of-age story, The Courtship of Eddie's Father (1963) an often boisterous comedy-drama; and one could add the unclassifiable A Matter of Time (1976), another European excursion for Minnelli and his last film. Furthermore, Minnelli's musicals and comedies have so many links to his melodramas that it is hard to separate them.

Diverse as they are, the Minnelli melodramas share this common ground: their mise en scène of excess and release happens inside what looks like a blandly normal and conventional framework. Minnelli specializes in plots that revolve around institutions (hospitals, movie studios, schools) and deal with conformity. The young heroes of Tea and Sympathy and Home From the Hill must learn, not necessarily how to be men, but how to act like men. Fear of community opinion paralyzes Frank (Arthur Kennedy) in Some Came Running. The viewer of these films becomes sensitive to the film frame itself as a measure that determines the value of its contents (the characters and the objects in their environment) and limits their circulation.

CinemaScope enables Minnelli to expand on the Shakespearean assertion (which Jack Buchanan memorably rephrases in 1953's The Band Wagon) that "all the world's a stage." As Minnelli designs and composes for it, the 'Scope screen makes what lies inside the frame—including ugliness and banality (Some Came Running, Madame Bovary, Lust for Life)—appear to have been set down on a vast proscenium around which the camera spins in all directions. Not to confer a false grandeur on the figures, but to set off their true shabbiness.

Certainly, the Minnellian frame has the power to make the world beautiful, like the mirror in which the enraptured Emma (Jennifer Jones) catches sight of herself, surrounded by admirers, in the great Madame Bovary ball sequence. Minnelli acts in sympathy with this power, which also belongs to his prestigious home studio, MGM. He doesn't criticize it or seek to undermine it. This might seem like the policy of an expensive hack, if he weren't determined to take as his main theme in all his films not beauty itself, but the need for it and the inevitable frustrations of that need. High culture (Madame Bovary, Lust for Life) and mid-culture (Tea and Sympathy) get leveled together by something in Minnelli that pushes against his own good taste and decorum. If his melodramas provide an image of American society, it's that of a cool chunk of expensive visual real estate that suddenly subdivides along jagged fracture-lines and gets drenched in lurid colors.

The critique of society in The Cobweb, or in Tea and Sympathy, may appear tentative, disguised, or timid, but these words don't describe what the films are doing. If their social criticism gets redirected to a relatively safe area, defined by plots that hinge on renunciation and retrenchment, the very obviousness of this displacement—the fact that it was felt to be needed at all—acts as a form of criticism. The dilution and mutilation of several Minnelli films left critics and audiences of their era puzzled and unsatisfied but have become essential to how that era now speaks to us. Mutilated as it is, Two Weeks in Another Town is a great masterpiece, an extreme film in which personal disintegration and recovery play out against and amid the shattering of a culture of cinema. The opulent Four Horsemen is a stunning, if almost unheralded, success in which, commandeering Paris as his set, Minnelli obsessively pursues a heightened, hallucinatory realism, a personal artist on an MGM budget and expense account.

The manic-depressive swing so characteristic of Minnelli's films is fully apparent in Some Came Running with its division of the characters and their hang-outs into high and low—though the high, represented by Kennedy's Frank, is tawdry, while the low radiates all the bourbon-washed mystique of Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. For a while in every film, it's enough for Minnelli just to show things—this is the bland, normal surface quality of the Minnellian frame—but stronger is the need to come to a crisis marked not only in the plot but in an explosion of lights, colors, and abstract forms. These danger signs signal the departure from the ordinary plane of the characters' existence and the entry into a dazzling and unpredictable realm (the yellow fog in Home From the Hill, the blinking red light over the river in The Cobweb, the balls of colored light of the night-time fair in Some Came Running, the swimming headlights in the car-interior scenes in The Bad and the Beautiful and Two Weeks in Another Town).

What gives Minnelli's films their melancholy, ghostly sadness is that the yearning of his characters is thwarted in advance, weak in its own force or weakly tied to the person who feels it. In The Cobweb, the adultery of Meg (Lauren Bacall) and Stewart (Richard Widmark) and the fleeting, cross-purposes flirtation of Karen (Gloria Grahame) and Dev (Charles Boyer) seem to emerge out of the lack of anything better to do; yet this very lack, by implying a failure to connect with one's own feelings, expresses the sense of loss that the whole film is built on. Perhaps the main flaw of Two Weeks in Another Town is the weak motivation of the Kirk Douglas character's psychological problems—evidently the film suffered studio cutting exactly over this crucial point — but we can speculate that the cutting only made more obvious a structural frailty that, after all, Minnelli may not have been at great pains to conceal (or may have even courted) because it matches up with his perennial convictions about people's motives and desires.

The Cobweb (also studio-mangled) is a quintessential Minnelli work because it reveals that the preoccupation of this great master of MGM illusion is disillusionment. The frayed network of impulses that make up The Cobweb is a vivid, sprawling expansion on the insight (which seems to come as an inevitable acquisition of what's called maturity) that in a society preoccupied with signs of success, the people who look most normal are the most fucked up. The difference between doctors and patients, Karen wryly observes, is that the patients get better. Thus, as the neglected young daughter of Stewart, a psychiatrist, perceives, it's better to be a patient because patients can still hope for attention and love.

The key point about Minnellian melodrama is not that it evokes emotions, passions, feelings, or aspirations that are impossible to express. It's that what needs to be expressed is impossibility itself: the impossibility of satisfaction, of happiness, of transcendence. In expressing this, Minnelli's films seem more and more eloquent every year. 


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Courtesy Harvard Film Archive
Vincente Minnelli's The Cobweb
Photo Gallery: Mission Impossible


October 24-31, 2008 Minnelli's Melodramas


Chris Fujiwara's latest book, Jerry Lewis, is published by University of Illinois Press.

More articles by Chris Fujiwara
Author's Website: insanemute.com