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October 24 - October 31

Minnelli's Melodramas

The series of powerful and often subversive melodramas produced in Hollywood after the second World War have often been read as a direct response to the radically changing landscape of the late 1940s and 1950s, offering a subtle critique that pointed to the deep problems festering beneath the glossy surface of the nation’s newfound prosperity and power. The postwar melodrama is celebrated and much discussed today for staging the discontents in American life cinematically, particularly through the expressive use of light and color, décor and framing. It is somehow fitting that one of the masters of this genre began his career designing department store windows.

Vincente Minnelli was born in Chicago and grew up in the Midwest, his parents traveling performers who worked in tent-show theater and vaudeville. An aspiring artist, Minnelli used his drawing skills to land a job designing window displays for Marshall Fields, which in turn led to work for the Balaban Theaters in Chicago, where he designed and eventually directed the live stage spectacles presented before films. After a stint at Radio City Music Hall, Minnelli became, by the mid-1930s, a successful director of musical revues on Broadway, with Hollywood beckoning as the logical next step. Minnelli landed happily at MGM’s famed Freed Unit, where he directed many of the most popular and respected Hollywood musicals: Meet Me in St. Louis, An American in Paris, The Band Wagon, Gigi. While continuing to turn out inspired musical masterpieces, Minnelli also directed a string of melodramas whose visual sophistication and biting edge endure to this day.

The key to Minnelli's melodramas is their deep compassion for the misfit: men who long to be sensitive and gentle, women who yearn for autonomy, artists who refuse to conform.  No doubt Minnelli experienced similar struggles himself as a young man interested in art and literature growing up in Delaware, Ohio during the first decades of the twentieth century.  Minnelli's genius lies in his ability to convey the struggles of these misfits visually. His work in the theater had given him a masterful command of décor, a visual flair that only expanded as he worked increasingly in color and widescreen in the 1950s.

Minnelli's melodramas rank with those of two other Hollywood directors now celebrated for their stinging critiques of American postwar society: Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray. Indeed, the films included in this series steer a middle course between the soapiness of Sirk's later films and Ray's tender toughness. A century after his birth, Minnelli's virtuosic ability to match aesthetic vision and emotional drama has earned him a place in the pantheon of American filmmakers.

Special thanks to Caroline Yeager and Leann Duggan, the George Eastman House.

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Friday October 24 at 7pm

kirk douglas and lana turnerThe Bad and the Beautiful

Directed by Vincente Minnelli. 
With Lana Turner, Kirk Douglas, Walter Pidgeon
1952, 35mm, b/w, 118 min.
Print from Warner Brothers

The melancholy that creeps into even Minnelli's brightest musicals takes center stage in this scabrous portrait of life in Hollywood. Kirk Douglas stars as an independent producer who does whatever it takes to make the pictures he wants. Seen in flashback (a touch of Citizen Kane by way of producer John Houseman), Douglas's rise and fall hinges on a series of cynical calculations that turn trusted friends—Dick Powell, Barry Sullivan and Lana Turner—into betrayed enemies. Often celebrated as one of the great Hollywood films about Hollywood, with its vision of the studio system as a place where artistic vision can be realized only at the cost of great personal sacrifice, The Bad and the Beautiful is also the apotheosis of one of Minnelli’s preoccupations: the loneliness of the artist. Robert Surtees’ evocative cinematography finds shadows lurking everywhere.

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Friday October 24 at 9:15pm

kirk douglas and cyd charisseTwo Weeks in Another Town

Directed by Vincente Minnelli.
With Kirk Douglas, Edward G. Robinson, Daliah Lavi
US 1962, 35mm, color, 107 min.
Print from Warner Brothers

On the advice of his psychiatrist, actor Jack Andrus (Douglas) leaves the sanitarium he's called home since a career-ending breakdown to accept a part in the troubled Italian production of the egoist director (Robinson) who once betrayed him. It's a journey from asylum to madhouse. Minnelli's final collaboration with producer John Houseman, the film proved controversial from first draft to final cut. Minnelli was pleased to be shooting in Rome and hoped that his vision of a group of starlets, neurotics and petulant celebrities in marital, psychological, financial and aesthetic crisis might be a fitting American counterpart to Fellini and Antonioni. The film climaxes with Minnelli's version of La Dolce Vita’s jet-setting orgy, although much of the sequence was cut by MGM. Regardless, the film is perhaps Minnelli’s most underappreciated, a searing portrait of the old Hollywood order in the throes of collapse.

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Saturday October 25 at 7pm

frank sinatra and shirley maclaineSome Came Running

Directed by Vincente Minnelli.
With Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Shirley MacLaine
US 1958, 35mm, color, 132 min.
Print from Warner Brothers

Based on James Jones' bitter critique of postwar America, Some Came Running stars Frank Sinatra as a cynical writer and WWII vet who returns unhappily to his small Midwestern hometown. Playing novelist Jones' alter ego, Sinatra is caught between bourgeois respectability—represented by his older brother (Arthur Kennedy)—and the low-life dissolution embodied by his drinking buddy Dean Martin and the feminine counterparts of these opposed forces, repressed schoolteacher Martha Hyer and naïve tramp Shirley MacLaine in one of her great early performances. Alternating between broad social statement and intimate character study, stylized melodrama and naturalistic local portrait (most of the exteriors were shot on location in Indiana), Some Came Running is a CinemaScope masterpiece. The film's climactic carnival sequence alone testifies conclusively to Minnelli's unerring command of the distinctive widescreen format.

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Saturday October 25 at 9:30pm

lauren bacall and richard widmarkThe Cobweb

Directed by Vincente Minnelli.
With Richard Widmark, Lauren Bacall, Charles Boyer
US 1955, 35mm, color, 124 min.
Print from Warner Brothers

Minnelli reunited with producer John Houseman for this star-packed ensemble piece based on William Gibson's popular novel about life inside a high-class psychiatric clinic. Featuring Charles Boyer and Richard Widmark as rival doctors battling for control over a posh private hospital, the film interweaves a surplus of subplots that explore the neuroses bubbling to the surface of prosperous postwar America, with loneliness, marital discontent and existential emptiness lurking beneath the surface. Minnelli's first film to combine color and CinemaScope is, typically, a triumph of mise-en-scène. In The Cobweb, visual style conveys—far better than verbose dialogue—the hothouse ambience of a cloistered little world rife with conflict. It is no exaggeration to say that these subplots come together in a crisis over the design of a pair of new drapes for the clinic, the perfect expression of one of the strengths of Minnelli’s filmmaking, the use of décor to express character and emotion.

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Sunday October 26 at 3pm

ingrid thulinThe Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Directed by Vincente Minnelli.
With Glenn Ford, Ingrid Thulin, Charles Boyer
US 1962, 35mm, color, 153 min.
Print from Warner Brothers

After years of melodramas, light comedies and musicals, Minnelli was eager to direct an epic at a time when the genre had found a new popularity within the Hollywood studios. He settled upon remaking an early Rudolph Valentino star vehicle, updating the story of a rakish Argentine playboy forced to face the catastrophe of World War I to Argentina and Paris on the cusp of World War II.  Minnelli’s casting choices reveal his awareness of contemporary European cinema, with Bergman actress Ingrid Thulin playing the female lead.  The director originally hoped to cast either Dirk Bogarde or Horst Buchholz as the protagonist, until Luchino Visconti introduced Minnelli to his then-protégé Alain Delon. However MGM vetoed the choice on the grounds that Delon was an untested commodity and the role instead went to Glenn Ford, even though he was by then scarcely credible as a young playboy. Like Glenn Ford, Yvette Mimieux, in an important supporting role, is miscast, and MGM also saw fit to have Angela Lansbury’s voice dubbed over Thulin’s. The film was a resounding failure, causing irreparable damage to Minnelli’s reputation and his self-confidence. Nevertheless, The Four Horsemen reveals Minnelli at the height of his expressive powers, and the film builds to a truly shattering—and aptly apocalyptic—climax.  In its juxtaposition of sumptuous mise-en-scène, overripe melodrama and historical crisis, the film prefigures Visconti’s The Damned and Fassbinder’s Lili Marleen.

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Sunday October 26 at 7pm

jennifer jones as madame bovaryMadame Bovary

Directed by Vincente Minnelli.
With Jennifer Jones, Van Heflin, Louis Jourdan
US 1949, 35mm, b/w, 114 min.
Print from Warner Brothers

Madame Bovary holds a special place in Minnelli's pantheon of dreamers.  In his version, Minnelli turns Gustave Flaubert’s novel into a period piece both glossy and compelling. Flaubert's archetypal title figure—the unhappy wife who turns to adultery to fulfill her romantic daydreams—could be seen as the prototype for Minnelli’s male characters, who find themselves as enmired in modern American masculinity as Emma Bovary does in provincial 19th century France. The narcissistic illusions of Flaubert's small-town schemer (played by Jennifer Jones) also find a parallel in many of Minnelli's artist figures, especially the filmmakers.  Substitute Hollywood for Emma’s Yonville, and it is possible to imagine Minnelli himself saying (as Flaubert famously did), “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” In an attempt to forestall censorship and controversy, the film includes its own critique and defense by framing the adaptation of the novel with a re-enactment of Flaubert’s obscenity trial, in an ironic jab at Hollywood’s own stuffy morality and romantic artifice.

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Sunday October 26 at 9:15pm

a scene from tea and sympathyTea and Sympathy

Directed by Vincente Minnelli.
With Deborah Kerr, John Kerr, Leif Erickson
US 1956, 35mm, color, 121 min.
Print from Warner Brothers

Tea and Sympathy was first a successful 1953 Broadway play (directed by Elia Kazan), significant for indicting homophobia as a force used to impose a rigid version of masculinity. The protagonist is a sensitive young man at boarding school who, suspected of being gay, turns to the neglected wife of the school’s coach for the comforts of the title. If the play pulled its punches by making the student not so much gay as at best a bit confused, Minnelli’s film goes even further by adding a framing device that insists the young man is not gay but simply misunderstood and unfairly stigmatized. Minnelli nevertheless fashions a moving portrayal of the painful adolescence of a misfit, with vibrant color and beautifully realized mise-en-scène conveying wells of emotion beneath the surface of the lonely protagonists, played by Deborah Kerr and John Kerr (no relation), both recreating the roles they played in the original Broadway production.

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Monday October 27 at 7pm

George Hamilton in Home From the HillHome From the Hill

Directed by Vincente Minnelli.
With Robert Mitchum, Eleanor Parker, George Peppard
US 1960, 35mm, color, 160 min.
Print courtesy of George Eastman House

Minnelli followed Some Came Running with another outsize
widescreen epic of sexuality in small-town America, in this case William Humphrey's Faulknerian saga about an overbearing Texas rancher's efforts to induct his introverted son into "the company of men."  Robert Mitchum stars as the macho, philandering patriarch who battles frigid wife Eleanor Parker for the loyalty of their soft-spoken offspring Theron (George Hamilton). Another of Minnelli’s sensitive young men—after John Kerr’s characters in The Cobweb and Tea and Sympathy—Theron is an adolescent torn between a bullying father and a disappointed, smothering mother. His character naturally looks for help from Rafe (Peppard) a friendly ranch hand of his own age. Ultimately, Theron’s dilemma proves a dead end, and the narrative shifts to Rafe—the only one able to negotiate the impasse within the family, an impasse freighted with all the weight of the war between the sexes and within the genders. The height of hyperbolic male melodrama, Home from the Hill supports its critique of masculinity through daringly baroque mise-en-scène, with Minnelli using camera movement, costume and décor incisively to illuminate and critique.

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Friday October 31 at 7pm

steve mcqueen and ali macgraw in the getawayThe Clock

Directed by Vincente Minnelli.
With Judy Garland, Robert Walker, James Gleason
US 1945, 35mm, b/w, 90 min.
Print from Warner Brothers

The Clock marks Judy Garland's first non-musical star vehicle. Production got off to a rocky start, with the temperamental Garland unhappy with the film’s first director, Fred Zinnemann. On the strength of his great success with Garland on Meet Me in St. Louis, MGM put Minnelli in charge of the picture; he responded immediately to the urgency and vitality of The Clock’s time and place: New York City during World War II. On a two-day pass, Robert Walker's gangly soldier clings to Garland's sympathetic secretary for a whirlwind courtship in the hours before he ships overseas, only to lose her in the city’s rush. The sounds of the city itself serenade the lovers—tug boat horns and subway rails set the mood in Riverside Park—while Minnelli never flinches from the wartime backdrop that underscores the romance with desperate uncertainty. The Clock demonstrates Minnelli’s early ability to give the affective lives of his protagonists vivid urgency onscreen.

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Friday October 31 at 9pm

the wild bunchThe Courtship of Eddie's Father

Directed by Vincente Minnelli.
With Glenn Ford, Ron Howard, Shirley Jones
US 1962, 35mm, color, 118 min.
Print from Warner Brothers

When widower Tom Corbett (Ford) finds himself thrust anew into the dating game, his precocious son Eddie (a very young Ron Howard) works to rig the outcome. Eddie has his heart set on Shirley Jones' nurturing girl-next-door, but father goes for the chic liberation of Dina Merrill's career-minded fashion consultant. Although the candy-colored modern décor of Ford's Manhattan apartment insists on MGM's frothy intentions, Minnelli nevertheless manages to inject a sense of loss and loneliness. Howard in particular gives a wrenching performance—reminiscent of Margaret O'Brien's in Meet Me in St. Louis—as a child facing the stark realities of death and abandonment. The film shows the Hollywood melodrama reaching a crisis as the notion of the career woman shifts from being an oddity or rarity to a common identity.

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