Musical ESP: On A Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970)

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 DayIt 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.


March 3, 2015



Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse stroll through Central Park together without saying a word. Their silence continues past a bustling outdoor dance floor, but their steps begin to sync in rhythm. Then there is an orchestral swell on the soundtrack, and they twirl individually. It is test of compatibility, a flirtatious movement to see if their bodies can work in unison. Astaire scratches his lip, gauging their chances. Once the melody of “Dancing in the Dark” eases onto the score, though, they move as one organism in a dance of light, joyful communion. It is an expression of love by other means, and, as choreographed by Michael Kidd, is one of the glories of the Hollywood musical.  The Band Wagon (1953) is an overwhelming sensorium of movement and color, and one of the more convincing arguments in justifying Hollywood’s existence. It is finally out on Blu-ray today from Warner Brothers (bundled with KISS ME KATE 3D, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN and CALAMITY JANE in a desert island Blu-ray “Musicals Collection”) and the result is a near-flawless transfer of the three-strip Technicolor.


The Band Wagon was originally a 1931 stage show put on at the New Amsterdam Theater starring Fred Astaire and his sister Adele, with music by Arthur Schwartz and lyrics by Howard Dietz. In 1952 MGM was looking for a new project to assign Vincente Minnelli after he had put nearly a year of pre-production into a musical version of Huckleberry Finn that had just fallen apart (it was to star Dean Stockwell, Danny Kaye and Gene Kelly). So they tried to conjure that old Singin’ in the Rain magic by assigning Betty Comden and Adolph Green to whip together another screenplay around a revue. This time, instead of Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown, they were to create a narrative around the songs of Schwarz and Dietz. And just as Freed was a producer for MGM while Singin’ in the Rain was made, so Howard Dietz was the studio’s publicity manager when The Band Wagon went into production. They liked to keep things in house.


Comden recalled that the original Band Wagon, “was a revue in the real sense of the word. There was no plot. There were just some wonderful performers and charming numbers, but it was not a musical that had any kind of linear story that you could base anything on. It was just a revue. Needless to say, we had our work cut out for us.” What they did, in collaboration with Minnelli, was to incorporate the real-life personalities behind the scenes into a boilerplate backstage musical. As Minnelli writes in his autobiography, I Remember it Well, he thought “It would be delicious to base the characters on actual people. Why not base his [Astaire’s] part on the Astaire of a few years back, who’d been in voluntary retirement? Why not develop the situation further by suggesting that fame had passed him by?”


Astaire plays Tony Hunter, introduced with his trademark top hat and tails going for pennies on the dollar at an auction house. With his career permanently “between movies”, he takes a train back east to New York to hear a pitch from his old friends Lester and Lily Marton (Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray, respectively), who promise him the lead in a light musical comedy on Broadway. The idea is he would play a children’s writer who makes money cranking out Mickey Spillane-esque pulp on the side. Lester and Lily are thinly veiled stand ins for Comden and Green – the only difference being that Comden and Green were never married. But Lester and Lily are seduced by the theatrical wunderkind of the moment, Jeffrey Cordova (British music hall star Jack Buchanan), who instead tries to turn their comedy into a portentous, inflated version of the Faust legend. Minnelli name drops Orson Welles and George S. Kaufman as the model for Cordova, while Comden and Green place him as a Jose Ferrer clone. In any case, this exaggerated amalgam is a pompous whirling dervish with loads of talent but no common sense.  Hunter is an old-school entertainer put off by Cordova’s airs, and Hunter is equally intimidated by his co-star, the ballet-trained Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse). He’s scared by her pedigree as well as her height. As a hoofer on the silver screen, Hunter never had the time or interest to court highbrow respectability, but now he’s working for it. But when Cordova’s ambitious gambit goes bust, the whole production crew decides to put on Lester and Lily’s original toe-tappin’ revue, in which the performers don’t have to worry about meaning but can just entertain.


Film theorist Jane Feuer, in her essay “The Self-Reflective Musical and the Myth of Entertainment”, calls this “the myth of spontaneity”. She writes that “the primary positive quality associated with musical performance is its spontaneous emergence out of a joyous and responsive attitude toward life.” In  The Band Wagon, the Cordova production is depicted as stiff and overdetermined. If fact, we never see a full number from that show – they are always cut short by mechanical malfunction or actor temper tantrums. High art is restrictive and stifling. It is only when Hunter is alone that he can dance naturally, whether coming off the train (“By Myself”), or exploring a Times Square arcade (“A Shine on Your Shoes”) . And it’s only after the “Faust” Band Wagon flops, and Hunter parties with the young cast and crew afterward in a joyous bacchanal of old popular songs, that the pretentious can be overthrown for what the people really want. Which in this case are the phantasmagoric collection of sets and tunes connected with “Triplets”, “New Sun in the Sky”, “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan”, “Louisiana Hayride” and  the angular, knifing Spillane parody “Girl Hunt Ballet.” I don’t know if the people want it, but it’s certainly what I desire. Feuer again:  “The myth of spontaneity operates to make musical performance, which is actually part of culture, appear to be part of nature.”

1953: Fred Astaire (1899 - 1987) and Cyd Charisse perform a dance number in 'Band Wagon', directed by Vincente Minnelli for MGM.

Though Feuer intends this as a critique of the conservatism of the Hollywood musical, this is exactly what I value from these extraordinary films. They make the magical look natural, prying open the possibilities of the visible. What is even more remarkable about The Band Wagon is how troubled the production was, in comparison to the ease and joy on-screen. Minnelli was in the process of divorcing Judy Garland. MGM fired director of photography George Folsey halfway through production because of his slow working speed. Oscar Levant had just been released from a mental hospital. Fred Astaire’s wife Phyllis was dying of cancer. Nanette Fabray remembered, “It was a very cold atmosphere.” Dancer James Mitchell recalled, “It wasn’t a pleasant experience, Minnelli kind of trod on Cyd.” Everyone seemed to be taking their annoyances out on everyone else, and yet the end product is near seamless, in which, as the closing number exclaims, “The world is a stage, the stage is a world of entertainment!” It is a lie, but a lie to aspire to.


June 5, 2012

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Later this summer Sight & Sound magazine will unveil the results of their once-a-decade poll of the greatest films of all time. In 2002 they queried 145 critics, writers and academics, who placed Citizen Kane #1, the same place it’s been since 1962.  Re-affirming the greatness of Citizen Kane, and ranking in general, tends to inflame Manichean arguments taking the form of “this over that”. Is Citizen Kane “better” than Tokyo Storyor Vertigo? This attitude treats movies like sporting events, where one film is the clear “winner”.  These lists are intended to start conversations, but instead they end them (I find it’s far more fun to look at individual lists, where personal idiosyncracies shine through, as with James Tobacks’s selection of Jimmy Hollywood in the Director’s Poll). Part of the issue is seeing the same titles every time, embalming them in a canon of good taste, historical artifacts rather than living works of art. This ends up reducing the films the poll set out to glorify. So I am presenting an Alternate All Time Top Ten,  composed of films and directors that have never been represented on the Sight and Sound poll before. These aren’t better or worse than the films that will land on the S&S poll, just different, and hopefully will spark new conversations. I encourage you to post your own alternate lists in the comments.

The list is presented in alphabetical order.

Beau Travail (1999), directed by Claire Denis

When I saw this at the Market Arcade theater in Buffalo, probably in 2000, I was introduced to a new world of movie-making, one of sensuous power that proceeded by a logic of images rather words. An erotic reverie that transposes Herman Melville’s Billy Budd to the French Foreign Legion in Africa, it builds tension through the arch of bodies and the glint of hard sun on sand. A transformative moment for me, although my Dad didn’t like it.


The Clock (1945)directed by Vincente Minnelli

Minnelli’s first non-musical is still impeccably choreographed, as Judy Garland and Robert Walker meet-cute in NYC and fall into a whirlwind romance. Walker plays an earnest midwesterner on a two-day leave from the army, who falls instantly in love with Garland’s sophisticated urbanite. Compressing the entire wooing process into two nights, Minnelli heightens the tension of together-separate with big boom shots which pick the lovers out of the crowd, and then lose them in it.


Coeur Fidele(Faithful Heart, 1925), directed by Jean Epstein

The current Jean Epstein retrospective at Anthology Film Archives in New York City has been my first exposure to this feverish stylist, and my goodness are they sensual viewing experiences (as much as Beau Travail, say). This one, available on UK DVD/Blu, is about a foundling girl (Gina Manes) whose cheap adoptive parents marry her off to an evil bastard named Little Paul (Edmond Von Daele). She’s in love with sensitive guy Jean (Leon Mathot), who seems to spend most of his time staring at the sea (as do most Epstein characters). Filled with looming close-ups, dreamy super-impositions and sequences of fast-cutting that would make Tony Scott blush, it’s an experimental melodrama that floored me with its earnest audacity.


Duck Amuck (1953), directed by Chuck Jones

Where Daffy Duck meets his maker. This modernist masterpiece finds the titular mallard go ballistic when the animator keeps changing the backgrounds to his scenes. A Three Musketeers pastiche all of a sudden becomes a folksy farm routine and then a mountain skiing escapade. Eventually Daffy goes ballistic, yelling at the screen, until the hand of Jones comes in with his eraser… One of the funniest films ever made, which also just happens to be a wittily self-reflexive essay on the author as sadist (or as Bugs Bunny, which amounts to the same thing).


Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971), directed by Robert Bresson

The funniest Bresson is also now my new favorite. Jacques (Guillaume des Forets) is an ascetic young painter enraptured by Marthe (Isabelle Weingarten), who attempts suicide after her boyfriend cuts off contact. Jacques promises to act as a go-between between Marthe and her man, as a way to get closer to her. They start strolling along the Seine most nights, zombies in unrequited love, hypnotized by a glass pleasure boat that sails down its waters, trailing its bossa nova tune.


The Green Ray (Le Rayon Vert,1986), directed by Eric Rohmer

The perfect summer movie! The wispy Marie Riviere plays Delphine, a neurotic young professional whose friend backs out of a trip to the Greek isles two weeks before departure. Already bummed out by her sometime (mostly never) boyfriend, she wanders from beaches to the mountains in a depressive state, forcing relaxation upon herself, but only ending up in tears. Riviere is a bewitchingly annoying presence, her sulkiness matched by her hectoring lectures on vegetarianism. She is an open wound, cringing at every touch. The healing process begins through another meet-cute in a train station (Rohmer must be a Clockfan!), and the intervention of a Jules Verne short story. There magic in books and sky, so Delphine finally chokes down her pain begins emerging into the world outside her head.


Make Way For Tomorrow (1937), directed by Leo McCarey

Bark (Victor Moore) and Lucy (Beulah Bondi) Cooper have lost their house, and depend on the kindness of their children to take them in. It doesn’t work out that way in McCarey’s devastating drama of aging and loss, which was the model for S&S poll mainstay Tokyo Story. Orson Welles famously said it could make a stone cry. It is so affecting because it is so clear-eyed and unsentimental, with no last act redemptions. It is simply a story of two people in love whose lives fall apart.


Me and My Gal (1931), directed by Raoul Walsh

The first movie I wrote about here at Movie Morlocks, and one of the most energetic every made. Each frame pops with invention, whether it’s Spencer Tracy’s slangy NYC argot, trick shots or parodies of popular movies of the day, there’s something happening every frame. The whole production seems drunk, from Walsh on down to the gaffer, tossing around ideas and shooting the bull until the shooting day ended. The result is chaotic, messy and joyful – filled with the most life per square inch of film stock in history.


Mysteries of Lisbon (2010), directed by Raul Ruiz

A summation of Ruiz’s work, with its nested stories, unstable identities and swirling camera movements, and one that is endlessly pleasurable. I’m rather anxious to see the 6-hour TV version. Adapted from the 19th Century novel by Camilo Castelo Branco, it tells the circuitous story of an orphan and his parentage, one which spans lifetimes and consumes hundreds of identities. It is a a ballet where every step both reveals and conceals, Ruiz’s camera unveiling truth at one edge and a lie at the other.


When A Woman Ascends the Stairs(1960), directed by Mikio Naruse

Hideko Takamine’s face is one of the great monuments of cinema, and here she gives a performance of shuddering uncertainty. She plays Keiko, a fiercely independent bar hostess in Ginza forced intent on opening her own place. But the world of men keeps throwing up obstacles to her self-actualization, her impassive expressions intimating only hints of the roiling uncertainty inside.


September 20, 2011

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Vincente Minnelli had been interested in making a surrealist musical since his days as a Broadway set designer and director. After he saw successful stagings of “Four Saints in Three Acts” (with libretto by Gertrude Stein) and “Pins and Needles” (starring members of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union), he was convinced he could make it work. In 1938, he tried to woo musical comedy star Bea Lillie to take the lead role in a “surrealist revue” he titled “The Light Fantastic”. In a letter to Lillie, quoted in Minnelli’s autobiography, he wrote, “It sets out to prove that the world today is completely screwy. A surrealist fantasy set in jig time.” The project was shelved, and he moved on to direct “Very Warm For May”, the first Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein collaboration in eight years.

Once in Hollywood, and flush with studio goodwill off the hits Meet Me In St. Louis (1944) and The Clock (1945) (he had also directed the majority of the revue-style Ziegfeld Follies, which the studio tinkered with until ’46), he finally put his “Light Fantastic” inspiration into action, resulting in Yolanda and the Thief (1945), one of the strangest and most enchanting films ever released by a Hollywood studio. Released earlier this year on DVD by the Warner Archive, Yolanda and the Thief  is also screening at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in October, as part of a complete retrospective of the director’s work (presented along with the Locarno Film Festival).

The genesis of Yolanda did not begin with Minnelli, but with children’s author Ludwig Bemelmans, the creator of the Madeleine series. In July, 1943, he co-wrote a fanciful short story called “Yolanda and the Thief” for Town & Country magazine with Jacques Thery. Producer and songwriter Arthur Freed purchased the rights the same year, and installed Bemelmans in an office at MGM to hash out a script from the material. He produced a treatment, but it went through three more rewrites before a fourth draft by Irving Brecher was accepted.

In the fantastical South American Ruritanian country called Patria, a beautiful heiress named Yolanda Aquaviva (Lucille Bremer) will inherit the family fortune and the defacto throne on her 18th birthday. Raised in a Catholic orphanage, she is naive in  the dirty ways of the world, and Johnny Riggs (Fred Astaire) takes full advantage. He overhears Yolanda praying to her guardian angel, and so Johnny pretends to be the embodiment of this protective spirit. Yolanda immediately believes his schtick, and is soon convinced to sign over power of attorney to this sweet-faced con artist. Johnny’s heart may be as soft as his shoes, and he’s not sure if he can go through with the theft…

Lucille Ball was originally slated for Yolanda, but after Minnelli was hired, Lucille Bremer took the role, since she had worked well with the director as the older sister in Meet Me In St. Louis. While he had little involvement in the scripting process, Minnelli immediately went to work on the visual design, which pulls from a dizzying array of influences and styles, from children’s picture books to Salvador Dali. Minnelli wrote that “I tried to get the quality of Bemelman’s books and illustrations, a curious mixture of worldliness in high places and a primitive naiveté, using his sometimes crude prism colors right out of a child’s paint box and combining them with beautifully subtle monotones.”

No concession is made to realism, with the waking sequences as garish and artificial as the centerpiece dream ballet. The opening sequence includes plastic ferns, papier-mache rock formations, a llama, and children sitting in green, yellow and red robes with a pinkish-orange sunset matte-painting beckoning them to greater flamboyance. This transitions to the orphanage, in which a parade of red-dressed, black hatted girls add skipping accents to a regal castle edifice. The nuns, in contrast, are in a dull blue-gray, building blocks of the building itself.

When Yolanda first appears in her family’s palace, out of the orphanage’s garb for the first time, she wears a simple cream-colored dress, which brightens the grays of the marble and fading murals. Her dotty Aunt Amarilla (a sublime Mildred Natwick, “Do my fingernails and immediately bring them to my room”) greets her wearing a blue-gray shade similar to that of the sisters, again blending into the background, part of the institution.

Yolanda’s next outfit is worn to visit Johnny for the first time, whom she believes to be an angel. Appropriate to such a worshipful occasion, she wears a black lace number, with a veil-like mantilla . A white rose adds a pop of contrast. In order to convince her of his otherworldliness, Minnelli shows Johnny arranging his own lighting, angling a lampshade so the rays seem to emit from his forehead. Positioned in front of heavenly mural behind him, he is a picture of vain celebrity, but Yolanda falls for the ruse, and also, Minnelli winks, he hopes we fall for his technical tricks.

The dream ballet is where Minnelli is fully allowed to display his Surrealist influences, with a Dali-esque landscape the setting for irruptions of unconscious illogic. The sequence begins in what looks like the film-world’s reality, as Astaire walks down the town’s main thoroughfare. The first puncture of this reality occurs when Astaire is asked for a cigarette. It’s the same rumpled man who had asked earlier in the film, but Astaire obliges anyway. After he lights one, a third hand appears from the blackness, cig in hand. He lights it, but more hands appear, until there are six arms sharing puffs from one mouth. The coins he had flipped to some street urchins start falling from the sky in rhythmic patterns, as the street set disappears for one streaked with lines of gold. Washerwomen in flame red skirts (recalling the orphanage outfits) ensnare him in reams of white laundry, as the rhythm set by the coins continues.

Echoing the reams of white fabric, a figure emerges from a pond, fabric flowing up and around her, as if in her own personal hurricane (this is a reversed image of Bremer walking backward into the water). She leads him into a desiccated Dali landscape of mutated white clumps and bare trees looming over an empty space, leading nowhere. Minnelli: “I wanted to suggest South American baroque without actual architectural forms, and used a series of rock formations in fantastic shapes.” Astaire removes the drapery of Bremer’s body, revealing her face. She is again wearing a cream-colored dress, as in her first, welcoming, arrival. The fabric that entangled him, he is able to free her from. It is a dramatization of Johnny’s fears of entrapment and attraction, visualized in spare, haunting landscapes.

This wildly imaginative sequence is a logical extension of the fantastic real world, and, as Jane Feuer wrote in The Hollywood Musical: “The transition to the dream in Yolanda is one instance of a play on the boundaries between fantasy and ‘reality’ which  informs the entire film. It is through cinematic technique that the boundaries between worlds are able to be blurred, placed en abime.”

Audiences were not receptive, and according to the AFI Catalog, Yolanda and the Thief  lost $1.5 million on its initial release. Minnelli muses that “much of the public couldn’t accept a simple story in an avant-garde setting.” Likely so, but it should be appreciated now in its oneiric Technicolor glory. Minnelli, a humble sort, should have the last word: “Film buffs say the picture was ahead of its time. I like to think so.”


March 8, 2011

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Despondent cineaste Jack Andrus should buck up. First, he’s seated in an eye-blazingly Technicolor red chair, which one assumes is also of sensuously high-grain leather. Second, he’s being played by Kirk Douglas at his most flamboyantly masculine, a dream come true for characters of dissolutely manic personalities like Jack. Third, the Warner Archive has released a fine remastered DVD of the film that houses him, Vincente Minnelli’s convulsively beautiful Two Weeks in Another Town. For the rest of us, they also recently put out a remastered version of Minnelli’s The Cobweb (1955) and an un-restored but handsome-looking edition of Blake Edwards’ Wild Rovers (1971). We’ll start with the last first just to get Jack’s goat, but also because the Minnelli greats have already been covered by more seasoned minds, although I’ll still get my thoughts in.

In 1969, MGM hired James Aubrey as president to cut costs and bring the studio back to profitability (John Houseman nicknamed him “The Smiling Cobra”). Blake Edwards had the unfortunate task of directing Wild Rovers under his reign, and this after the box office failure of his Paramount musical Darling Lili (1970), which was hounded by reports of spiraling costs and studio meddling (Edwards would use this experience as the basis for S.O.B. (1981)).  For Wild Rovers, Edwards envisioned a three hour Western epic, in which it would be important to “show the vastness, the loneliness, the boredom and natural beauty of the West of that period.” (quoted in Sam Wasson’s book-length study of Edwards, A Splurch in the Kisser).

It tells the story of two down-at-heel cattle ranch hands, Ross Bodine (William Holden) and Frank Post (Ryan O’Neal), who decide to rob a bank and end up on the run from the ranch owner’s sons, John and Paul Buckman (Tom Skerritt and Joe Don Baker). The tone is detached, almost bemused tragedy, as Ross and Frank ride toward their annihilation in landscape shots where they are advancing dots, or in widely spaced medium shots within the Panavision frame, in which intimacy is impossible.

Edwards did not have a chance of getting his vision on the screen. While available production histories don’t state how much he was allowed to shoot, the film was taken away from him by Aubrey in post-production, and released in 1971 at around 106 minutes (this according Vincent Canby’s NY Times review. The Variety review lists it at 110, and Wasson at 113). In American Cinematographer, Herb Lightman bemoaned and identified the cuts (quoted in Wasson):

Gone is the opening montage…Gone is the gutsy man-to-man breakfast sequence. The dramatic confrontation between Karl Malden and his sheepherder arch enemy…has been telescoped into a quick montage with voice-over narration. One complete sequence which… provided motivation for the entire last half of the picture, has been deleted. The downbeat…ending has been trimmed and tied off with a reprise of the horse-breaking montage that numbs the tragedy….”

A so-called “director’s cut” was put out on VHS in 1993, which extended the run time to 137 minutes, although I don’t know how much input Edwards actually had into this re-release. Wasson reports that Aubrey cut  “twenty minutes from the finished film”, so it could be close to complete. The Warner Archive has released the 137 minute version in a decent anamorphic transfer, and it seems to contain all the footage Lightman mentions, although there is audio from the horse-breaking montage still in the final scene, which may be a remnant of Aubrey’s scissorhands.

Opening with an Overture, and broken up with an intermission, Edwards clearly had an epic in mind. He told the NY Times that, “it was my best film, and he [Aubrey] butchered it.” Perhaps the film in his head was, but the reconstructed version still seems an ambitious misfire, a fascinating relic that exposes the seams between classical and New Hollywood. The visual style seems firmly implanted in the widescreen aesthetic of the classical era, with limited camera movement but intricate blocking inside the frame. Cinematographer Philip Lathrop told American Cinematographer that “One thing I want to do is avoid the slick mechanical gadgetry that we use so much in making pictures today-things like helicopters and obvious dolly shots and zoom lenses. I think that these would be very false in relation to a period Western.” For the most part this holds true, but in the horse-breaking sequence, and in the sheepherder shootout, there are overlapping montages of extreme slow-motion, seemingly lifted from The Wild Bunch of a few years before. It’s impossible to know whether these were Aubrey-implemented to modernize the film

Then there is the discordant lead pairing of William Holden and Ryan O’ Neal, a clash in acting styles and eras. Holden plays his mischievous ne’er do well as gruff and straightforward where O’Neal is arch and playful, and they seemingly talk past each other, killing any Butch Cassidy-type camaraderie. Edwards was clearly aiming for something more operatic than a straight buddy-comedy,  but the emotional colorations he reaches for, “how uncertain life really is”, as Holden says, feels forced and sterile coming out of this duo. In a final adieu to a classical past, he films the alienated finale in the moon-scape of John Ford’s Monument Valley.


The Cobweb and Two Weeks in Another Town are delirious Freudian melodramas with wildly expressive mise-en-scene. You could watch these Technicolor marvels on mute and perfectly understand the emotions billowing through them. The Cobweb (1955) is set in a stately mental hospital, where the line between patient and doctor is distressingly blurry. It’s all a matter of curtains. Office and personal relationships break down when the HR director/dictator Miss Inch (Lillian Gish), the bored, breathy housewife Karen (Gloria Grahame) (married to hospital head Stewart McIver (Richard Widmark)), and the sensitive counselor Meg Rinehart (Lauren Bacall) propose different curtain designs for the library.

The breakdown in their society was heralded by the opening scene, of a neurotic patient (John Kerr, in a role originally offered to James Dean), hitching a ride back to the grounds by Karen. Their conversation breaks down the professional walls between the sane and insane, while also explicating the cathartic virtues of art. Kerr asks Grahame if the burstingly red flowers in her backseat are for a funeral, and she replies, in what could be a statement of purpose for all of Minnelli’s cinema (except, maybe, for the last phrase): “Why do flowers have to be for anything? Isn’t it enough that they have color and form and that they make you feel good?”

James Naremore, in his Films of Vincente Minnelli, asserts that all four of the “art melodramas” that Minnelli made with producer John Houseman (The Bad and the Beautiful, The Cobweb, Lust for Life and Two Weeks in Another Town), “employ a simplified version of an argument Edmund Wilson helped to popularize in his infulential 1941 volume of literary criticism, The Wound and the Bow. In each film, a character who suffers from a repressed psychic ‘wound’ uses art as a release for thwarted libidinal energy.” In this case Miss Inch and Karen plow their sexual and psychological insecurities into the curtains, while Kerr’s paintings seem to release the tensions and inhibitions of the entire patient population.

Karen and Kerr split from their car ride, only to have their relationships relentlessly paralleled. Minnelli crosscuts between Karen and her husband Stewart, and Kerr and his budding flirtation with the agoraphobic Sue (Susan Strasberg). Ruptures in one affair ripple into the other, everything sewn together into one cinematic cloth, or I should say, curtain. Stocked with stunning widescreen compositions and offhand grace notes (I was particularly moved by Gish’s trembling upper lip when her boss and nemesis gracefully retires), it’s what my former academic self would call a “rich text.” French critic Serge Daney wrote a  short, packed essay on The Cobweb, “Minnelli Caught in his Web” (translated by Bill Krohn in Joe McElhaney’s Vincente Minnelli: The Art of Entertainment, and viewable in Google Books), and two statements reverberate. One: “Today no one would know how to democratically house so many characters in one film”. Two, to bring it back to Wild Rovers, “Just from the way Minnelli confines his actors in extremis to a common space, one can tell that the crisis in the studio system will not be long in coming.”

And then there’s Two Weeks in Another Town (1963), in which that crisis is giving everyone in the movie business a nervous breakdown. Edward G. Robinson’s aging Kruger is a director on his last legs, churning out an international co-production to keep his wife in furs. His former star Jack Andrus has already had his psychotic break, living out his days in a mental hospital not unlike the one in The Cobweb. Kruger invites Andrus to Cinecitta studios in Rome to play a bit part in his bloated spectacle. The events that led to Andrus’ original violent freak out are coming back to haunt him, and they’re all wearing red (and a green scarf). His ex-wife Carlotta (Cyd Charisse) is also in Rome, a gold-digging enchantress who walks with a belly-dancer’s circular sway. Andrus’ fears and paranoia grow more monstrous as the film progresses,  with Minnelli matching his character’s madness with incredible feats of set and costume design, as the color red slowly tightens a vise around Andrus’ granite head. Even monks walking past him in the street wear blood-red robes. He ends up in Carlotta’s grasp at a narcotized party, surrounded by blase models, as if he was, like Odysseus, made sluggish by these slinky sirens’ song (note their red hair, and Carlotta’s stroking of an Ancient sculpture). It ends in a gorgeous bit of back-projected madness as Andrus purges the harpies of his unconscious, emerging Phoenix-like from his debauch with a perfectly-pressed white trenchcoat slung over his arm.