Judy’s husband and Liza’s father. For quite some time, I only thought about Vincente Minnelli in terms of the famous women in his life. Now he’s one of my favorite directors. He was versatile, proving his skill in a variety of genres. Arguably he’s best known for musicals, but even dramatic films bore his distinctive mark.
His first directing assignment for MGM was Panama Hattie (1942), an insipid musical that should be better with its roster of names, which include Ann Sothern, Marsha Hunt, Virginia O’Brien, and Dan Dailey. Comic relief is provided by a trio of oafish sailors, played by Red Skelton, Rags Ragland, and Ben Blue. Panama Hattie was directed by Norman Z. McLeod with substantial retakes by Roy Del Ruth. The musical numbers were handled by Vincente Minnelli. These portions of the film represented a major effort by producer Arthur Freed to salvage the film.
It was Lena Horne’s first film for MGM as well. She appears in two musical sequences. These short scenes weren’t connected to the plot so they could easily be cut from theaters in the Jim Crow south. Although the Production Code also forbade Lena and other black actors from roles that were multi dimensional and non subservient, she refused to play servants and stereotypes. So MGM gave her one or two songs to sing. It’s ironic that her segments in Panama Hattie are the only ones worth watching. The credit belongs to her talent and charisma and Minnelli’s direction.
Minnelli was the first director at MGM to stage Lena’s scenes, and in my eyes, set a precedent for how she would appear. She always looked so glamorous, which would have made racists pause.
Lena’s second performance in the film was “The Sping,” also featuring the Berry Brothers, a dancing trio who should be better known and celebrated for their energetic routines and pure elastic movements.
One of Lena’s few starring roles was in Minnelli’s first feature length film, Cabin in the Sky (1943), an all black musical. They would reunite for I Dood It, also from the same year, another feature length film and a disappointing follow up to Cabin in the Sky. Lena’s number was conceived by Minnelli himself three months after the principal production was complete. Barring impressive footwork by Eleanor Powell, Lena’s number is the definitive reason to watch.
This time, Lena was joined by piano virtuoso Hazel Scott. In “Jericho”, Lena is flanked by men in black tuxedos. She pleads with the citizens of Jericho to abandon their decadent lifestyle because it’s abominable in the eyes of God. Hazel Scott and the citizens however, ignore her warnings. It’s such a lively retelling of the Bible story as well as a showcase for Scott’s undeniable talent. The camera captures her from every angle as her fingers pound away at the keys.
Lena first appears beneath a spotlight, stars bursting onto the canvas behind her. The camera pans slowly as she’s framed within the shots before it matches the vitality of the performers.
Minnelli wasn’t pleased with the overall film, but “Jericho” is the one redeeming element. It’s a perfect example of his vision on a smaller but no less masterful scale.
That same vision would reemerge three years later in Till the Clouds Roll By (1946), a musical biography of composer Jerome Kern. No doubt owing to the change in multiple directors, the film never quite reaches the heights it aspires to. The non musical portions of the film are tedious. Kern’s life isn’t ever as vibrant as his music in each of the production numbers. Minnelli’s direction however, is a major asset. He was responsible for Judy Garland’s segments, whom he was married to at the time.
Unlike the other members of the cast in each musical sequence, Judy Garland was portraying a real person. Marilyn Miller was a Broadway star, described by Kern (Robert Walker) as wistful, lovely, and unforgettable. Those are traits embodied by Judy herself.
I love how she’s surrounded by the stacks of dishes, but they’re never distracting. Judy is aglow, even if not particularly glamorous. The camera moves about slowly before it remains stationary. And Judy sings with such a wistful and earnest quality.
There’s also a brief scene just brimming with Minnelli’s visual flair. It’s a spectacle of bright colors, costumes and music in a circus. There are daring stunts, one of which involves Judy (or her stunt double) leaping onto a moving elephant. This interlude could honestly be its own movie.
Judy’s second number “Who” is staged in such an elegant way, as dreamy as the song itself. Judy is absolutely luminous in her yellow gown, first gliding down the grand staircase and then dancing with her bevy of male admirers.
Once I learned of Vincente Minnelli’s work on Broadway, I realized that each of these sequences are successful because of his prior experience. They easily stand apart from their respective films and contain a level of artistry and sophistication only he could achieve.
This post is for the Vincente Minnelli blogathon, hosted by the fabulous Michaela of Love Letters to Old Hollywood! Click on the banner for more posts celebrating this iconic filmmaker.