Vincente Minnelli’s bright vision illuminates every frame of his elegant and civilized musicals. But his career was by no means restricted to the genre with which he was so closely identified. MOMA’s series celebrating the centennial of the director’s birth comprises melodramas, literary adaptations, and domestic comedies, together with four bracing musicals. While there may be nothing new or even rare here, Minnelli will never be out of season. The painstaking detail and great visual style of this Broadway set and costume designer turned movie director is evident in all his films. A fan of the surrealists, he was one of the first Hollywood directors to play with their motifs. No one used color with more dexterity. His work has influenced directors as diverse as Godard and Scorsese. He elicited some of the best performances of their careers from Kirk Douglas, Jennifer Jones, Spencer Tracy, and Judy Garland. Garland appears in two high points of the MOMA show: The Clock (1945) and Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). In The Clock, the director’s future wife stars opposite Robert Walker in an engaging wartime soldier-and-girl story. St. Louis, one of his most enduringly popular musicals, aglow with nostalgia, kicked off a new kind of lyric cinema, the numbers completely woven into the story in a way they had never been before.
The exuberant The Band Wagon (1953), about the travails of a show headed for a New York opening, is a glittering revue of socko production numbers, but it’s also the most romantic of Minnelli’s musicals, sparked by the memories of his own Broadway past that the film seems to have summoned. The series is rounded out by two of the director’s most underrated melodramas: Two Weeks in Another Town (1962) and Madame Bovary (1949). Two Weeks is a semi-sequel to Minnelli’s masterpiece on moviemaking, The Bad and the Beautiful (1952, also in the retro). The later film concerns the private war of a has-been actor (Kirk Douglas) and a megalomaniacal director on the skids (Edward G. Robinson), played out against the background of Rome’s Cinecitta studios during the jet set Dolce Vita era. MGM made major cuts in the picture without consulting Minnelli, and this mutilated release version was dismally received. Yet even in truncated form, it’s hypnotizing—no other picture has captured so well the everyday madness of putting together a movie.
Bovary stars Jennifer Jones as the fatally romantic Emma, a dreamer like so many of Minnelli’s heroines. Jones beautifully underplays her and makes an extremely moving figure of this faithless wife and negligent mother. The audacious Ophülsian ballroom sequence, set to the tune of Miklós Rózsa’s “neurotic waltz,” is one of the great moments of Minnellian mise-en-scène. It may be heresy to say so, but this lovely made-in-Hollywood adaptation seems more successful than the standard French screen versions by Jean Renoir (1933) and Claude Chabrol (1991) of Flaubert’s work.