Family & Companions
Vincente Minnelli directed some of the most celebrated entertainments in cinema history, including "Meet Me in St. Louis" (1944), "Father of the Bride" (1950), "An American in Paris" (1951), "The Bad and the Beautiful" (1952), "The Band Wagon" (1953), "Lust for Life" (1956) and "Gigi" (1958). Nevertheless, serious commentary on his work has, until recently, been sparse, partly because of the "glossy" nature of his films. Minnelli's first jobs in show business were as costume and set designer; the sophistication he would bring to the American stage and film musical was always redolent of "Vogue" or "Vanity Fair," and it is no accident that he once directed a charming comedy entitled "Designing Woman" (1957). Even one of his dramatic films, "The Cobweb" (1955), involves neurotic tensions that begin to break out in a psychiatric clinic when new drapes are selected for the common room.
Minnelli was born into a theatrical family; his parents and his uncle operated a tent show that toured the Midwest. As a young man he became a costume and set designer for the Balaban and Katz theater chain in Chicago and in 1931 he moved to New York, where he worked for Radio City Music Hall, eventually graduating in 1935 to directing Broadway musicals. After a brief, abortive stay as a producer at Paramount in the late thirties, he was brought permanently to Hollywood in 1940 by producer Arthur Freed, who was assembling his own unit at MGM. Under Freed's sponsorship, he directed his first film, the underrated all-black musical "Cabin in the Sky" (1943). Minnelli remained at MGM for two decades, specializing in musicals, domestic comedies, and melodramas. Minnelli kept files on different styles of painting, and he liked to run through them for inspiration. He particularly admired the surrealists and was among the first Hollywood directors to appropriate their motifs. He was not, however, a painterly filmmaker. He loved flamboyant color, costume, and decor, but he never allowed those elements to freeze into static compositions. A master of changing patterns and complex movements, he filled his pictures with swooping crane shots, swirling patterns of fabric and light, with a skillful orchestration of background detail. A sensitive director of actors, he elicited some of the best performances from such diverse players as Judy Garland (his wife from 1945-51 and mother of his daughter, Liza Minnelli), Spencer Tracy and Kirk Douglas.
The imagination or one of its surrogates, such as show business or dreaming, was Minnelli's favorite subject. His central female characters live in fantasy worlds, finding happiness only when they exchange dreams for artifice; his leading men usually play writers, painters, or performers, and if they are not artistic types by profession they tend to be dandies or sensitive youths. By the same token, his films generally take place in studio-manufactured settings, where the boundaries between fantasy and everyday life are blurred. Even when his films are set in small-town America, they tend to burst into remarkable dream-like passages, such as the Halloween sequence in "Meet Me in St. Louis," the berserk carnival in "Some Came Running" (1958) and the mythic boar hunt in "Home From the Hill" (1960). The ultimate tribute to Minnelli is that few directors in the history of Hollywood have made so many consistently enjoyable, diverse films.