In This Article Vincente Minnelli

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Biography
  • Critical Essays and Career
  • Queer Theory
  • Some Came Running

Cinema and Media Studies Vincente Minnelli
by
Daniel Callahan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0226

Introduction

Vincente Minnelli (b. 1903–d. 1986) was the great dreamer of the American cinema, a director who lavished his imaginative visual instincts on musicals, comedies, and dramas in the twenty or so years he spent as a house director at Metro-Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) Studios. Though he gave great enjoyment to audiences and won industry acclaim for his work (two of his films, An American in Paris [1951] and Gigi [1958], won Best Picture Oscars), for many years Minnelli was viewed suspiciously by film critics, as if he gave too much pleasure to be of any real significance. Chicago-born Minnelli grew up in a theatrical family and got his start as a window-dresser for Marshall Field and a stage director of revues and Broadway musicals. He was brought out to MGM in 1940 but hung back for a bit and waited and learned before directing his first film, the all-African American musical Cabin in the Sky (1943). Minnelli made his name and reputation by directing and helping to bring out a mature Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) and The Clock (1945) and presiding over her deterioration into hysteria in The Pirate (1948), a film which inaugurates Minnelli’s lifelong interest in hysterical acting out as a release from often unspecified pressures. After this period, during which he married and finally had to divorce the unstable Garland, Minnelli embarked on a string of successful musicals like An American in Paris, with its daring sixteen-minute ballet finale; hit comedies like Father of the Bride (1950); and flamboyant melodramas like The Bad and the Beautiful (1952). It has been difficult for most film scholars to reconcile Minnelli’s genre versatility with his stylistic signatures and preoccupations. Minnelli himself was a tight-lipped man who gave very little away in interviews, which did little to aid critical analysis, and he has proven an elusive butterfly of a subject for most film writers. Every time some new scholarly angle is tried on Minnelli, a dozen or more doors seem to open for further reflection and research. His films are a hall of mirrors, which have meant many things to many people, and they will no doubt continue to do so. What seems clear, finally, is that Minnelli left behind a body of work of such startling and deceptive richness that it will take many more years of study and debate before the secrets underlying his cinema can be even half uncovered.

General Overviews and Biography

Most mainstream criticism of Minnelli has viewed him as merely a maker of vivid scenes and surfaces, a kind of interior decorator accepting the disparate scripts his home studio gave to him. Minnelli and Arce 1974, Minnelli’s own cryptic memoir, I Remember It Well, did little to change this point of view. Two initial books, published a decade or so apart, attempted to grapple with Minnelli’s work: Casper 1977, which focused only on his musicals, and Harvey 1989, which was the first to attempt a full accounting of his films. Inching closer to the heart of Minnelli’s work was Naremore 1993, a detailed study of five of Minnelli’s movies. During the 2000’s, a groundswell of Minnelli criticism has come to the fore, spearheaded by the estimable Joe McElhaney, who has published many insightful articles on this director and edited a book, McElhaney 2009, which seeks to bring some order to scholarly Minnelli inquiries that can be as wild and exciting as any Minnelli film. Two lengthy biographies published almost concurrently, Levy 2009 and Griffin 2010, offer some extended biographical information but little sustained critical insight.

  • Casper, Joseph Andrew. Vincente Minnelli and The Film Musical. South Brunswick, NJ: A. S. Barnes, 1977.

    E-mail Citation »

    Casper focuses on Minnelli’s contribution to the musical genre in all of its components: drama, spectacle, music, and dance. He writes about Minnelli’s musicals in relation to the earlier musicals of Ernst Lubitsch, Rouben Mamoulian, and Busby Berkeley. There are also small sections on his use of pantomime, fantasy, and surrealistic imagery.

  • Griffin, Mark. A Hundred or More Hidden Things: The Life and Films of Vincente Minnelli. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 2010.

    E-mail Citation »

    Griffin offers biographical information on Minnelli’s upbringing, his personal life, and his films, which the author sees as coded autobiography. He also corrects a lot of mistakes in the public record, from Minnelli’s birth date (1903, not 1906, 1907, or 1910) on down. Very useful from a biographical standpoint and as a source of some new information.

  • Harvey, Stephen. Directed by Vincente Minnelli. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1989.

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    Harvey situates Minnelli as an artist who needed and thrived on the old Hollywood studio system, as typified by his long-time workplace, MGM. He groups the films, as many scholars have before and since, into “Musicals,” “Comedies,” and “Melodramas.” He traffics mainly in opinion rather than detailed analysis.

  • Knox, Donald. The Magic Factory: How MGM Made An American in Paris. New York: Praeger, 1973.

    E-mail Citation »

    A valuable oral history of the making of An American in Paris containing interviews of almost every surviving member of the cast and crew as of the publication date. Knox’s thesis is that the film was a studio creation and not the creation of Minnelli alone.

  • Levy, Emanuel. Vincente Minnelli: Hollywood’s Dark Dreamer. New York: St. Martin’s, 2009.

    E-mail Citation »

    This biography, commissioned by Minnelli’s fourth wife and widow, Lee, is a disappointingly uninsightful, evasive, and repetitive survey of names, dates, and plot points.

  • Luft, Lorna. Me and My Shadows: A Family Memoir. New York: Pocket Books, 1999.

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    In this memoir about life with her mother, Judy Garland, Luft makes a case for Minnelli as a heterosexual with a wandering eye.

  • McElhaney, Joe, ed. Vincente Minnelli: The Art of Entertainment. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2009.

    E-mail Citation »

    A collection of twenty-six essays on Minnelli. This book gives the broadest possible introduction to Minnelli criticism, from early championing by French critic Jean Douchet to work by scholars Robin Wood, Andrew Britton, Adrian Martin, and Bill Krohn. In his magisterial introduction, McElhaney sweeps up all the fluctuating currents of Minnelli scholarship.

  • Minnelli, Vincente, and Hector Arce. I Remember It Well. New York: Doubleday, 1974.

    E-mail Citation »

    A key text for Minnelli scholars, this memoir manages to be both candid and cryptic. There is a lot of useful material about the making of his films and his own opinions on them (his favorite was Lust for Life and his least favorite was Kismet). Though many scholars have found this book frustrating, it abounds in small asides and telling details about the creation of his work.

  • Naremore, James. The Films of Vincente Minnelli. Cambridge Film Classics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

    E-mail Citation »

    Naremore offers a close analysis of five Minnelli films—Cabin in the Sky, Meet Me in St. Louis, Father of the Bride, The Bad and the Beautiful, and Lust for Life—exploring the relationship between the director’s dandyism and the mass culture his movies were aimed at. His analysis comes to a head in his superb Father of the Bride essay, where he sees that film as primarily a comedy about consumerism.

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