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Omnibus films, made up of several unrelated stories tangentially linked by a common element, are a good excuse for an all-star cast. In American films, they come along about once a decade. And in the early 1950s, MGM, inspired by the success of several European omnibus films, tackled a couple of its own: an elegant drama, The Story of Three Loves (1953), and the flag-waving It's a Big County (1951).
The Story of Three Loves aspired to the European model, with its international casts, art-film pretensions, and the most sumptuous London, Rome, and Paris that could be created on the MGM back lot. That it manages to be so entertaining in spite of itself is due in large part to the charm and talent in front of and behind the camera.
The connection among the three stories is that characters from each of them are aboard a ship bound for the United States, looking back on what brought them there. In the first story, "The Jealous Lover," James Mason plays a choreographer who meets a talented dancer, played by Moira Shearer, and creates a ballet with her, unaware that she is forbidden to dance because of a heart condition. Shearer, a Scottish-born ballerina, had created a worldwide sensation with her first film, The Red Shoes (1948). Most critics felt that "The Jealous Lover" was a not-very-good rehash of The Red Shoes, with Mason as the demanding taskmaster. But they also were enchanted by Shearer's dancing, choreographed by the illustrious British choreographer Frederick Ashton, to Rachmaninoff's haunting "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini." This would be Shearer's only American film. Gottfried Reinhardt, who had worked primarily as a producer, directed this episode, as well as the third one, "Equilibrium."
Leslie Caron, who had made a spectacular film debut in Vincente Minnelli's An American in Paris (1951), is the eponymous "Mademoiselle" of the second story, directed by Minnelli. A governess for an American family in Rome, in charge of an 11-year old boy (played by Ricky Nelson) Mademoiselle is a yearning romantic, trying in vain to interest her irrepressible ward in poetry. The boy has an encounter with a whimsical fairy godmother, with surprising consequences for both him and his governess.
1953 was an important year for Caron. She had followed An American in Paris with a couple of lackluster films that did little to showcase her gamine appeal. In 1953, she had two films in release at the same time that showcased her very well - The Story of Three Loves, and Lili, which won her an Academy Award nomination as Best Actress, and is one of her most memorable performances.
Nelson, the younger son of TV's Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, was a charmer, who had emerged as the star of his family's television program. His scenes in The Story of Three Loves with the equally charming Ethel Barrymore as the elderly sorceress are a delight. Director Vincente Minnelli recalled in his memoirs that "working with Miss Barrymore was the joy I expected it to be. She had a personal charm which was complemented by her extreme professionalism....She knew the comparatively short part cold, and it took only a couple of days to put her performance on film. It took no great effort to show her the enormous respect to which she was entitled." This was Barrymore's final appearance in an MGM film.
The third episode, "Equilibrium," starred Kirk Douglas as a guilt-ridden trapeze artist whose partner has been killed, and Pier Angeli as a suicidal war widow who becomes his new partner. Most critics thought this was the best of the three episodes, because of the emotional complexity of the story, the exciting acrobatics, and excellent performances by the stars. Ricardo Montalban had been set to play the trapeze artist, but MGM replaced him with Douglas, who actually learned routines on the trapeze and did some of his own stunts. Douglas was intrigued by the fearlessness of Pier Angeli, who also learned some routines, and before long, he had fallen in love with her. "Our romance started thirty feet above the earth," he recalled in his memoirs. They became engaged, but were often separated by their careers and by Angeli's domineering mother, and the romance ended.
In spite of its all-star gloss, The Story of Three Loves may have been too arty for the general public, and it was not a success at the box office. But it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Color Art Direction. And it provides a fascinating look at a transitional period, during the last gasp of the old studio system, and the increasing influence of international filmmaking.
Director: Gottfried Reinhardt, Vincente Minnelli
Producer: Sidney Franklin
Screenplay: John Collier, Jan Lustig, George Froeschel, based on stories by Arnold Phillips, Ladislas Vajda, Jacques Maret
Cinematography: Charles Rosher, Harold Rosson
Editor: Ralph E. Winters
Costume Design: Helen Rose
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Preston Ames, Edward Carfagno, Gabriel Scognamillo
Music: Miklos Rozsa
Principal Cast: Moira Shearer (Paula Woodward), James Mason (Charles Coudray), Agnes Moorehead (Aunt Lydia), Leslie Caron (Mademoiselle), Ethel Barrymore (Mrs. Pennicott), Farley Granger (Thomas Campbell), Ricky Nelson (Tommy), Zsa Zsa Gabor (Flirt at Bar), Kirk Douglas (Pierre Narval), Pier Angeli (Nina), Richard Anderson (Marcel), Steven Geray (Legay).
C-122m. Closed captioning.
by Margarita Landazuri