January 31, 2017
From the rubble of the studio system came On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970), a past-life regression musical that was somehow hoped to do Sound of Music-level box office. Vincente Minnelli’s penultimate film was severely recut by Paramount before its release, turning an idiosyncratic film into a nonsensical one, and it soon disappeared from consciousness. It is now one of Minnelli’s film maudits, a cursed film during which Minnelli learned that his wife was leaving him and that his first spouse, Judy Garland, had passed away. Watching it on FilmStruck now under the Icons: Yves Montand theme, I was wowed by Minnelli’s unerring eye for production design that illustrates the manias of his characters, while Barbra Streisand turns in a dynamic performance that ranges from her modern day neurotic to a psychic seductress in Regency-era England. So while there isn’t much music for a musical, and major subplots are ditched halfway through, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (streaming through May 12, 2017) is valuable viewing for admirers of the Streisand or Minnelli arts.
Minnelli was working on a stage version of the story of Mata Hari, which flopped and never made it beyond previews, when Paramount approached him with the idea of adapting On a Clear Day. It was a Broadway musical with book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner (My Fair Lady) and music by Burton Lane. It was nominated for three Tony awards in 1965, but according to Minnelli’s autobiography I Remember it Well, it “hadn’t been a huge success on Broadway.” Not surprising with such a loopy concept, about a college girl with ESP who, when hypnotized by her psychiatrist to help quit smoking, regresses back to her past lives. The doctor ends up falling in love with one of her older selves, while Daisy wishes he would keep his eyes on her in the present.
It would be Minnelli’s most expensive production to date, with a budget of $10 million, as he had to shift back and forth between period settings and the present. The key was finding the right actress to play the girl, named Daisy Gamble in the film. After Audrey Hepburn turned them down, they landed Streisand, a serendipitous bit of casting. Streisand, as quoted in Mark Griffin’s A Hundred or More Hidden Things: The Life and Films of Vincente Minnelli, thought she was perfect for the part: “I am a bit coarse, a bit low, a bit vulgar, and a bit ignorant. I am also part princess, sophisticate, elegant and controlled.” She had seen the show on Broadway and declared it to be “just heaven,” and that the “two parts are close to my schizophrenic personality. They appeal to the frightened girl and the strong woman in me.”
Though she clashed with William Wyler on the set of Funny Girl, she had no such problems with Minnelli, who had nothing but kind things to say about her in his autobiography: “I listened to what Barbra suggested, and implemented some of her suggestions. I found her creative and bright, and we got along beautifully.” This comfort translates to the screen. The modern day Daisy is bumptious and scatter-brained, honking away with a thick Brooklyn accent. When regressed to her past lives, she turns into the mellifluous and cultured Lady Melinda Winifred Waine Tentrees, a psychic from Regency-era England who is on trial for espionage and treason due to her unnatural psychic gifts. Streisand softens and lengthens her delivery, a performance of flexible chameleonic glee. Streisand is marveling in every second of it, getting to go high and low in the same film.
The role of skeptical psychiatrist Dr. Marc Chabot was given to Yves Montand, after flirtations with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Richard Harris. He is suitably professorial and befuddled, though he is merely a scratching post for Streisand to scratch. The film’s second assistant director John Poer recalls a harmonious set, “Streisand was then and is now a prickly person to deal with but not a foolish one. She’s a very intelligent person, and everybody quickly learned that even though she often had opinions about the way things should be done that conflicted with what was going on with the show, she was very often right.”
The movie as it exists today consists of a seres of past life regressions that the doctor performs in his study. He is still too embarrassed to admit that he is fascinated with the possibility of reincarnation, and that he might be falling in love with a centuries-dead past life of Daisy’s. His classroom is minimalist space-age, except for a teak-wood looking desk tucked up on stage – it’s something that could have been a re-purposed game show set. Chabot’s office is warm and seemingly endless, a cavern of books and shag carpeting. These two spaces show off Chabot’s thirst for fame and the academic legitimacy he seeks. Daisy enters the classroom as if she’s in a Laurel & Hardy bit. Chabot is hypnotizing a student on stage, but she passes out instead, and starts enacting the hypnotic suggestions unbeknownst to him. She is profusely apologetic for her hypnotic suggestiveness – she keeps passing out until class is adjourned and she has the whole room rolling with laughter. All she is there for, she tells the doctor, is a trick to quite smoking. She’s hoping hypnosis can set her free and please her fiancé.
But when she sits down for a session, Daisy begins to find hidden items for the doctor and predict when the phone will ring. Expecting that this was some sort of parlor trick, he invites her back, but instead she continues to show immense psychic abilities. It is then that he hypnotizes her and learns of her prolific past lives. The shift to Regency-era England is when the film gets gaudy and gauzy, and Streisand gets to show off her decolletage in Cecil Beaton gowns. These past life regression sequences were heavily edited, and Lady Melinda’s story gets horribly truncated – there is no resolution to her tale of seduction and accused treasonous behavior. Instead the movie abandons that for the concerns of the present day and Daisy’s growing awareness that Dr. Chabot is using her to get to Melinda. It all feels very unfinished, but like a room undergoing renovation, you can construct the final ideal product in your mind, and it is one of strange beauty.