Vincente Minnelli: A Little Magic

If he’d made only movie musicals, Vincente Minnelli would have earned a place in the pantheon of great American directors.

An American in Paris. The Band Wagon. Meet Me in St. Louis. The Pirate. Brigadoon. Kismet. Gigi. Bells Are Ringing.

These are among the classics of song-and-dance cinema.

Yet while musicals became his signature style, Minnelli couldn’t be held to just one genre.

He excelled at comedy: Father of the Bride. Designing Woman. The Courtship of Eddie’s Father. The Long, Long Trailer.

And when it came to melodrama he was no slouch, either: Madame Bovary. The Story of Three Loves. Lust for Life. Tea and Sympathy. Some Came Running. And especially The Bad and the Beautiful, perhaps the greatest movie ever made about Hollywood.

Minnelli was born to show biz. He came into this world in 1903 as the son of the operators of the Minnelli Brothers Tent Theater, a traveling stock company that worked the Midwest. His father was half owner, his mother was the company’s leading lady.

By Minnelli’s teenage years movies had killed the market for cheap live theater. As a young man he moved to Chicago and began designing costumes for the often elaborate live presentations that preceded feature films.

He then moved into legitimate theaters as a set and costume designer and in 1933 became chief costume designer for the just-opened Radio City Music Hall. Within two years he was directing the Music Hall’s weekly live extravaganza.

From that it was a short step to helming entire Broadway productions: At Home and Abroad, Ziegfeld Follies, The Show is On, Hooray for What! and Very Warm for May.

Hollywood noticed. Minnelli signed a contract with Paramount but so disliked his eight months with studio that he bought back his own contract just to get away. But then his luck changed. He met Arthur Freed, legendary head of musical productions for MGM.

The two hit it off and Minnelli was allowed to cut his teeth on the low-budget, all-black musical Cabin in the Sky. He proved so comfortable behind the camera that when famed director George Cukor dropped out of the MGM musical Meet Me In St. Louis (he was drafted into the army), Minnelli lobbied to replace him.

Not only was Meet Me In St. Louis a terrific commercial and critical success, but it allowed Minnelli to spend much time with the film’s leading lady, Judy Garland, whom he would marry a few years later. Together they would produce yet another star, Liza Minnelli.

Minnelli and Garland’s acquaintances were perplexed by their relationship, since it was widely accepted that the director was gay...or at the very least bisexual. But for several years, at least, they gave each other what they needed: romantic stability for Garland, a life of “normalcy” for Minnelli, who would marry four times before his death in 1986.

Minnelli’s critical reputation has gone up and down over the years. Those who believe the cinema should reflect “real life” in all its grittiness tend to find Minnelli too obsessed with idealized beauty.

But they miss the point.

The job of cinema, Minnelli said, is to provide us with “a little magic.”

Minnelli was notoriously incapable of expressing himself through language – his descriptions of his art invariably returned to the same two words: “magic” and “beauty.”

Minnelli was a born aesthete whose cinema contains many moments designed to enchant the viewer. This is most obvious in the musicals, but also in dramas like The Bad and the Beautiful with its tour-de-force look at the world of a movie set or Lust for Life, in which the Technicolor camera creates a physical world that blends effortlessly with Van Gogh’s hallucinogenic paintings.

The library’s May film series, Vincent Minnelli: A Little Magic, taps into all aspects of Minnelli’s cinematic output. The free screenings are presented in the Durwood Film Vault at the Central Library, 14 W. 10th St.

The schedule:

1:30 p.m. Saturdays

May 5: Meet Me in St. Louis (1944 : NR) Judy Garland and Margaret O’Brien star in a tuneful musical set at the turn of the century. Features “The Trolly Song” and “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.”

May 12: The Band Wagon (1953 : NR) Fred Astaire is a washed up movie star who signs on for a half-baked Broadway musical version of Faust. Features the song “That’s Entertainment.”

May 19: Lust for Life (1956 : NR) Kirk Douglas gave his greatest performance as Vincent Van Gogh in this visually splendid screen biography.

May 26: An American in Paris (1951 : NR) Gene Kelly is the titular character, singing and dancing to a Gershwin score. One of the greatest screen musicals of all time.

6:30 p.m. Mondays

May 7: The Father of the Bride (1950 : NR) Suburban dad Spencer Tracy slowly loses his grip during planning for the marriage of his only daughter (Elizabeth Taylor).

May 14: The Bad and the Beautiful (1952 : NR) In this brilliant behind-the-scenes look at the film industry, a scheming producer (Kirk Douglas) is recalled by a director (Barry Sullivan), a starlet (Lana Turner), and a writer (Dick Powell) whom he has alienated.

May 21: The Clock (1945 : NR) In this wartime romance a GI (Robert Walker) on a two-day leave in NYC meets and falls for a girl (Judy Garland.)

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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