Tag Archives: Vincent Minnelli

LUST FOR LIFE

 

Lust For Life

In the days when movie biopics were romanticized versions of their subjects, usually straying far from the truth, out came Lust for Life, the 1956 film depicting the tortured life of Vincent Van Gogh, blazingly acted on screen by Kirk Douglas. This was a raw and honest portrait of the artist as non-conformist, alienating almost everyone he knew, a searcher for meaning in his life and for the calling that could bring out the only talent he believed he had, though few saw it in him. This might be considered a typical view of of an artist or musician today, but it was ground-breaking in 1956.

This entry in the Build Your Own Blogathon is sponsored by the Classic Film and TV Cafe. It follows The Lady Eve’s entry of The Good, the Bad and the Beautiful, and is connected by Kirk Douglas as actor. It also shares Vincente Minnelli as director and John Houseman as producer. The movie was based on the best-selling book by Irving Stone.

 

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Kirk Douglas and his Bryna production  company was eager to do this film, and his resemblance to the artist, magnified with a beard and dyed red hair, was uncanny. John Houseman had produced Moulin Rouge to great success, based on the life of Toulouse-Lautrec,  which was released in 1951. Vincente Minnelli was the best director, really the perfect director, for Lust for Life. He had been a costume designer and set designer in Chicago and on Broadway, and considered leaving to study art in Paris before he was hired by MGM.  He knew how to show the dynamic of  both the inner conflict of the artist/individualist and the problems caused by trying to fit into a society. He knew the soul of the artist, and how to involve art itself into the fabric of film and film’s methods of storytelling.

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Self portrait by Van Gogh, 1885

The movie begins when Van Gogh is 25, aspiring to be a minister as is his father. The church elders reject his application, since he can’t even deliver a sermon without reading it aloud. One of the elders takes pity on him, seeing his earnestness, and tells him to go to the Belgian Borinage coal mines and do services there (apparently no else wants to). Once there he realizes that the downtrodden people need little preaching, and more real help, which the church doesn’t provide. He gives away his clothes and the allowance he gets from the church. Upbraided by the elders for looking and living like one of the miners, he calls them all hypocrites and leaves his church calling.

Once back home with his family, he argues regularly with his father. His brother Theo understands him the most, but tells him he should overcome his idleness. Kirk Douglas passionately responds, there are two kinds of idleness, and he only wishes he was the first, but as he says, “I’m in a cage of shame and self-doubt.”

He finds expression through drawing, which he shows his sister in the photo below. The art he favors is the depiction of common people in their daily life and in drawing the countryside.  But his odd demeanor and unkempt looks prove an embarrassment to his family.  He goes to the Hague where his uncle is an art dealer that provides him with paints. He paints in monotones – such pieces as The Weaver  or The Potato Eaters. He suffers from unrequited love with his first cousin, then takes up with a prostitute for a while. Theo is now also an art dealer in Paris,  so Vincent joins him there and goes to the Impressionists art show and he meets Impressionist and other painters like Pissarro (trust your first impression he tells Van Gogh), Seurat (it’s all about the science of color he says), and Gauguin.

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And then Van Gogh heads to the South of France – to Arles, “everything there is gold, bronze, copper and yellow,” he says in his letter to Theo. He first rents a cheap room but then rents a big “Yellow House” that he wants to make the “Studio of the South,” or a commune for the artists he met in Paris – to live and paint and exchange ideas.  But Van Gogh is too much of the strident personality, without social skills, for them to come. In the meantime he paints every day, often speaking to no one. Theo is providing the rent money, and he urges Gauguin to join Vincent so as to encourage him. Gauguin has the forceful personality and thinks he can make it work. A sojourn in the South of France is better than the hard life of a merchant mariner, which Gauguin had been.

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So Van Gogh and Gauguin live together in the Yellow House, although it does not take long before their personalities clash, and when the weather turns bad or the Mistral winds blow the canvases of their easels, they are confined to painting indoors, which Van Gogh loaths. Gauguin can paint from memory. Van Gogh paints from observation and the feeling associated with it.

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At the cafe in Arles, which they frequent and drink absenthe with regularity, Van Gogh painted the scene , “The Night Cafe.” Drinking the alcoholic absenthe was rumored to be addictive, and along with Van Gogh’s other mental issues, possibly bipolar disorder or Asperger Syndrome, fueled his strong reactions.

Cafe at Night in Arles Van Gogh

Van Gogh’s and Gaugin’s arguments led Gauguin to saying he was leaving Arles, which in turn caused Van Gogh to threaten him with a razor blade.  This led to the off-screen scene where Van Gogh actually cuts off part of his own ear – perhaps in an effort to cut his own throat, or as self mutillation, no one knows.  The preceding scenes are dramatically acted by Kirk Douglas, his physicality shows his distress, alternating between threatening and abject, in shame and in terror.

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The photo below shows Kirk Douglas in the set rendition of the famous Van Gogh bedroom in the Yellow House in Arles, at Place Lamartine.

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And as painted by the artist, the room was actually a trapezoid shape.

 

Van Gogh's bedroom in Arles

The ear episode ends up with more psychological trauma for Van Gogh – Gauguin leaves and Theo has his brother committed to an asylum, where Van Gogh sits days on end, saying or doing little. Eventually he returns to painting from his window, and then from the outdoors. A poignant scene has Kirk Douglas painting outside as a few of the inmates watch intently – a subliminal note by Minnelli on the power of art. But soon more psychological attacks follow, and Theo has him brought closer to Paris, to Auvers-sur-Oise, where he can be treated by Dr, Gachet. It is there that Van Gogh paints what is probably his last canvas. Wheatfield with Crows. It is indeed a foreboding work, dark skies, a road leading to nowhere, and the many crows, depicted in the movie as unintended subjects for the canvas, irritating Van Gogh to the point where he jabs black paint on his canvas in their shape, shortly before he shoots himself.

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The screenplay for Lust for Life was written by Norman Corwin, using an episodic approach to Van Gogh’s life. As pointed out by Professor Drew Casper of the USC School of Cinematic Arts in the film’s DVD commentary, it has a five-part narrative which breaks down Van Gogh’s life into five parts, each structured around the letters he writes to Theo, which are narrated. The objective world as seen by Van Gogh is depicted in each of the five parts by at least one of his major paintings, separately seen. Each segment also had a color theme: black and gray in the Borinage; dark green in Holland; reds and blues in Paris; yellows and greens in the South of France; and multi-colored in Auvers.

The film was also richly complemented by the excellent costume designs of Walter Plunkett. Plunkett was one of the few designers that was equally adept at designing for both men and women. He conveyed the careless but individualistic dress of Van Gogh as well as the equally individualistic but almost dandy-working man dress of Gauguin – with his flashy and decorated vests and jackets – a purposeful magnet for the ladies. Walter Plunket also conveyed the full panoply of late 19th century France – the farmers and peasants, the red and blue soldier uniforms of the Zouaves, the decorated uniform of the facteur Roulin, the uniforms of the band, the traditional folk costumes of the women of Arles. All of this was of course accomplished through careful on-location research. The filming itself was mostly on-location in Holland, Belgium, Auvers, Arles, and the South of France. The cinematography of Freddie Young adds depth and beauty to the film.

The musical score composed by Miklos Rozsa evokes the settings and the emotions of the painter in a masterly way. Themes and moods are heightened by Rozsa’s compositions, conveying inner feelings of romance, pain, inertia, seizures, and even brief periods of contentment at painting in the plein-air.

Kirk Douglas said in his autobiography, The Ragman’s Son, that in performing the role of Van Gogh in Lust for Life, “It was the most painful movie I ever made.” And it took him a while to get over the role and the psychological effect it had on him. Douglas was nominated for Best-Actor for his role as Van Gogh, his third nomiation. Anthony Quinn was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Everyone kept telling Douglas that he was a sure thing to get the Oscar. It was his third nomination after all, and there was little competition. He was in Munich Germany when the Academy Awards were held, making Paths of Glory. He said he had even practised looking surprised for all the photographers waiting in the lobby at his hotel. He was indeed surprised when  he learned that Yule Brynner won for his role in The King and I. Anthony Quinn, however, won for Best Supporting Actor, the only award winner in the film.

Perhaps voters thought he over-acted. It is certainly a style of acting not much seen today. Lust for Life leaves an indelible image of the actor and of Van Gogh, a raw, powerful image as powerful as the canvases Van Gogh painted himself.

 

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS: ART ON FILM

An American in Paris title card 1   An American in Paris was made in 1951 at the very peak of the Hollywood studio system and the pinnacle of Gene Kelly’s artistic career. It was the perfect blend of art and technique in classic American movie-making. MGM had among its employees all the veteran craftspeople and artists that could produce such a film. And as with many great movies, the back-story is as fascinating as the movie itself. In 1950 as the first plans were being made for the film, MGM, and indeed the entire Hollywood film industry, was in  transition. Television was siphoning off viewers and a court-imposed consent decree required studios to sell off their movie theaters. Cost-cutting was now the mantra, and MGM’s expensive musicals were not viewed favorably by its new production head Dore Schary nor by the corporate offices at Loew’s in New York. The old lion Louis B. Mayer, still in charge of studio operations, supported musicals and the planned An American in Parisbut it took a lot of pleading and persuasive pitches to gain the approval of Schary, and then even more to Loew’s corporate head Nick Schenck and his board. And still the threat of budget cuts loomed over the entire production.

This post is part of Silver Scenes’ MGM Bologathon. My post on An American in Paris was previously published in 2012 as part of the Gene Kelly Centennial Blogathon. An American in Paris title card 2

The famed Arthur Freed was the producer of An American in Paris,and he wanted Vincente Minnelli to direct and Gene Kelly to star and choreograph the film.  Minnelli and Kelly worked very well together and respected each other’s artistic talents. One of the big challenges for the film was the proposed 17 minute-long, wordless ballet and dance sequence  (called the “ballet” in the film’s production).  At the outset, I should say that the ballet sequence was heavily influenced by The Red ShoesPowell and Pressberger’s marvelous film with its own 15 minute-long ballet scene. And it was not just that The Red Shoes’  filmed ballet scenes influenced the ballet sequence in An American in Paris, but also that both film’s ballet sequence has as its purpose the visual depiction of the principal dancer’s interior conflicts and subjective emotions. To his credit, Vincente Minnelli’s  An American in Paris used this influence to produce a complex and deeply artistic film sequence of his own. And Gene Kelly brought to life the character that was an American in Paris – through his acting, choreography, and his unique dancing skills.
Kelly as Jerry Mulligan, in a very early scene, shows his unhappiness with his own image or in his ability to produce a self-portrait, which he will soon to deface

Kelly as Jerry Mulligan, in a very early scene, shows his unhappiness with
his own image or in his ability to produce a self-portrait, which he will soon to deface

The decision by Freed, Minnelli, and Gene Kelly to include a 17 minute long dance sequence was bold and risky. Regardless of the success of The Red Shoes, nothing of that scope had been done in an American film. Further, the ballet was to be a realization on film of the artistic works of Impressionist and Post-Impressionistic painters. This feature would not only guide the nature of the choreography, but also of the set designs, cinematography, action sequences, and costumes. The ballet scene would be the heart and soul of the film. The music, of course, would be based on the haunting score of George Gershwin’s An American in Paris symphony, with the story for the film by Alan Jay Lerner. An American In Paris 6

Other than Gene Kelly, the question of who should be cast for An American in Paris was not apparent. While MGM had several great female dancers, Kelly was convinced that a fresh faced and a native Frenchwoman should be cast as Lise Bouvier. And for that role he had seen a 19 year old French ballerina named Leslie Caron that he wanted for the part. This too was a risky move – a major role for a young woman who had never acted. In continuing with the relatively unknown  cast members, Georges Guetary, a French Music Hall singer, was cast as Henri Baurel. For the fellow American expat and starving musician-neighbor, the inspired choice was the concert pianist and wit Oscar Levant, playing the role of Adam Cook. Another fortuitous decision was bringing in costume designer Irene Sharaff. Sharaff was a Broadway designer but had worked for a spell in Hollywood. Minnelli convinced her to come back from New York to design some 300 costumes for the ballet. While working on the costumes, Sharaff also started designing sketches for what the sets might look like for the various artist-inspired scenes. These sketches in fact were adapted by art director Preston Ames for the sets, which Ames, a former architecture student in Paris, could quickly envision. The sets would be based on the styles of Raoul Dufy; Henri Rousseau; Piere Auguste Renoir; Maurice Utrillo; Vincent Van Gogh; and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Not a bad set of artists from which to draw inspiration. But how would the ballet transition from one artist-styled set to the next?

Those transitions indeed became a high-point in Hollywood film arts and crafst.Some 30 painters worked six weeks to paint the backgrounds and sets. Irene Sharaff also came up with the idea of using certain dancers, characters she called Furies for the women and Pompiers for the men. The Furies were dressed all in red ballet outfits and the Pompiers were dressed as traditional French firemen, with their brass helmets but also adorned in a military-inspired costume. Together they served as the “bridge” from one scene to the next, luring Kelly as Jerry Mulligan to pursue the ever-escaping Caron as Lise Bouvier. These transitions were also accomplished by using a “match-cutting” filming technique whereby the action of the dancer is exactly matched from the end of one scene to the beginning of the next.

From left to right Georges Guetary, Gene Kelly, and Oscar Levant

From left to right Georges Guetary, Gene Kelly, and Oscar Levant

As the film opens, each character as played by Gene Kelly, Oscar Levant and Georges Guetary narrates that the happy characters depicted on screen, “are not me.” Gene Kelly as Jerry Mulligan is a struggling artist that stayed in Paris after WWII. He sells his paintings (sometimes) on a street in Montmartre, where a rich widow discovers him and decides to support him (with strings attached). Oscar Levant as Adam Cook is a struggling pianist, the “oldest former child prodigy.” In a very clever later scene Levant as Cook fantasizes about playing in a symphony, which he is also shown conducting while simultaneously playing several instruments. This take-off of an old Buster Keaton film is still funny, especially since Levant being the only one that truly appreciates himself, also fills the audience with himselves. Georges Guetary as Henri Baurel is the successful singer and entertainer, now worrying about getting older, but  providing the yet unknown rival for the love of Lise. His singing performance of “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise”, in classic Hollywood show-girls-down-the-stairs style, is a highlight of the movie. an american in paris guetary A  later dual number of Kelly and Guetary in “S’Wonderful,” where they are still ignorant of their rivalry, is pure joy. But Kelly as Jerry Mulligan is deeply in love with Caron as Lise Bouvier, made beautifully obvious in the “Our Love is Here to Stay” number, their song and dance on the banks of the Seine, here amazingly duplicated on a painted set built around one of the those old MGM “cycloramas” is pure joy. Another scene provides laughs as Levant, sitting between Jerry and Henri while they each describe Lise and how much they love her, oblivious of each other’s common object of affection, all the while nervously smokes two cigarettes and chugs several coffees and whiskies.

A later scene is the wild Beaux Arts “Black & White” Ball, here providing a stark contrast to the disintegrating relationships of the two couples: Jerry Mulligan with patroness Milo (Nina Foch), and Henri with Lise. Henri even overhears Jerry and Lise’s tender, heart-breaking exchanges.

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Jerry spots the rose, which earlier he and Lise had shared and which now symbolizes their love

Forlorn, Jerry realizes he is just a failed artist, a stranger in a strange land. The ballet scene begins with Jerry sketching the scene of the Cheveaux de Marly, the sculpted horses flanking the Champs Elysees. He enters that sketched scene which is his ballet dream, the love of Lise symbolized by a fallen red rose. The ballet sequence will put to music and art all his hopes and fears, as he continually pursues Lise through various sets.

Forlorn, Jerry realizes he is just a failed artist, a stranger in a strange land. The ballet scene begins with Jerry sketching the scene of the Cheveaux de Marly, the sculpted horses flanking the Champs Elysees. He enters that sketched scene which is his ballet dream, the love of Lise symbolized by a fallen red rose. The ballet sequence will put to music and art all his hopes and fears, as he continually pursues Lise through various sets.

The Place de la Concorde by Raoul Dufy

The opening scene in the style of Raoul Dufy’s Place de la Concorde becomes Jerry’s  dream world.

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The Furies, dressed in white and then red, beckon Jerry to pursue Lise. Gene Kelly as Jerry is dressed simply in form-fitting clothes, the better to appreciate his dancing and his physique.

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The white furies turn to more intense red furies

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The fountain at the Place de la Concorde serves as the dream dance floor to a united Jerry and Lise, dancing to George Gershwin’s exhilarating and romantic An American in Paris symphonic poem.

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A garden painted by Renoir

A garden painted by Renoir

Jerry pursues Lise to the floral backdrop inspired by Pierre Auguste Renoir, and as they dance, they hold the red rose of love. An American_in_Paris_5 Alas, even in dreams our dreams escape us. Lise has been transformed into flowers, soon to fall from his grasp. Gene-Kelly-in-An-American-in-Paris-gene-kelly-flowers The background has now turned into the melancholy monochromatic artwork of Maurice Utrillo. Gershwin’s music is also changing to American jazz-inspired melodies. An American in Paris Utrillo sacre-coeur Jerry becomes homesick, as had Gershwin in Paris, which inspired him to add the sounds of American blues and jazz into his musical composition. Gene-Kelly-in-An-American-in-Paris-gene-kelly-Utrillo Jerry’s homesickness is symbolized by his former side-kicks, the U.S. military service-men shown in the scene. They are not quite tangible, the artist’s paint still fresh on their uniforms.

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A Bastille Day celebration painted by Henri Rousseau

The scene turns to the artwork of Henri Rousseau: primitive; wild; and exuberant. Jerry’s service-men are now in dressed in cheerful suits, as is he, with the Pompiers now leading them forward in dance. And now Lise will reappear. An-American-in-Paris Kelly-suits-pompiers     An American in Paris 7 pompiers Here now we enter the more turbulent world of Vincent Van Gogh, the skies of the backdrops painted in swirled colors.

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A Cafe painted by Vincent Van Gogh

The Place de la Concorde again provides the setting for the romantic and sexy dance of Jerry and Lise. The dance transforms into the climax, one of the most beautiful scenes in movie history – a perfect blend of music, dance, romance and art.
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But still the Furies beckon, transforming from red to many shades of yellow and orange.
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The setting now changes to the nocturnal and hallucinatory world of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
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A painting of the Moulin Rouge by Toulouse-Lautrec

An American in Paris Chocolat dancing in the 'irish_american_bar', 1896 by Toulouse Lautrec
And now Jerry himself is transformed into one of Lautrec’s characters, a black stage dancer named Chocolat.
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This final ballet scene is the most exuberant yet, and Gene Kelly provides one of his best dance numbers, a masterpiece of choreography, dance, and art. In this cheerful dance he is joined by his dream Lise, taking on the historical dance-hall character of Jane Avril, another Lautrec favorite.
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Deep from his dream he begins to wake, only to realize that Lise is once again just a rose, and his colorful dream-setting turns black and white.
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Only this dream turns into his real dream, and Lise returns, running up the stairs of the real (set) stairs of Montmartre. The final kiss says it all, our love is here to stay.

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The film ends with a title card stating: Made in Hollywood, California. And so it was, where it also received 8 Academy Award nominations and won 6, though none for Minnelli. It won for Best Costume Design for Irene Sharaff, Orry-Kelly and Walter Plunkett. Yet Walter Plunkett, who designed the costumes for the Black & White Ball scene, must have found it ironic, he who had designed Gone With the Wind, the two Little Women ( and the subsequent Singing in the Rain, Diane, Raintree Countee), among scores of others.  This would be his only Oscar, given for a relatively minor designing job.

Today it’s Singing in the Rain that is the crowd favorite and receives the “best musical ever made” accolades. No doubt that Singing in the Rain is the most cheerful and fun movie there is to watch, and the dancing is also outstanding. An American in Paris seems to be considered somehow less worthy because it strove to be art. But there is no more beautiful film ever made, and its integrated combination of music, dance, art, costume, and cinematography is the pinnacle of classic Hollywood film, and a proud achievement of the MGM Studio.